Book Review: A Must Read and a Fun Read — Mediation and Popular Culture by Professor Jennifer L. Schulz

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to review a very recent publication, Mediation and Popular Culture, by Professor Jennifer L. Schulz (Routledge 2020), available at:–Popular-Culture-1st-Edition/Schulz/p/book/9780367181055. As a dispute resolution professor who teaches students fascinated by popular culture, I am always on the lookout for opportunities to connect my world with the world my students inhabit. I’m thrilled to find films and television shows that tie what I teach in classroom to the fictional worlds that capture my students’ imaginations. Based on my reading of our dispute resolution listservs, I am not alone in my desire to find connections between real-world mediation and fictional portrayals of the process. Jennifer Schulz’s new book, Mediation and Popular Culture, provides valuable assistance to instructors in identifying the films and television shows that, for good and bad, portray mediation and its role within the justice system. But, Professor Schulz’s readable volume does much more than direct its reader to the various media portrayals of mediation. It reviews essential mediation concepts, explores mediation literature, and provides the reader with an excellent analysis of the way key mediation concepts are portrayed in the media. Then, she digs deeper, and provides a thorough analysis of how the entertainment media often misses the mark but, at the same time, provides useful starting points for class discussions about important issues in mediation.
The book is organized in six chapters. Following an overview chapter outlining the goals and purpose of the book, Professor Schulz, in each of the ensuing chapters, identifies popular culture references and relevant research to discuss policy issues within mediation. In Chapter 2, for example, Professor Schulz explores impartiality, self-determination, and fair outcomes using an American television show, Fairly Legal, and a French film, Amélie. After introducing the policy concepts, like neutrality, and the ways in which the mediation field values them (or doesn’t), Professor Schulz uses an example, often incorrectly (from an academic or practitioner perspective) from popular culture to illustrate how the concept plays out in the television show or movie. Then she discusses, weaving in existing literature on the issue, the benefits and drawbacks of the mediator’s actions in the show (in the case of Fairly Legal, a show that features a “mediator” as its central character) in light of our expectations about the policy issue. One could imagine showing clips of the show (and the movie, Amélie), and then leading a discussion about the topic with a cohort of mediation trainees.
Another chapter brought home for me the limited ways in which I have drawn on popular culture as a means for teaching mediation to new mediators. Like other professors, I have used the opening scene of Wedding Crashers as a demonstration of how mediators might generate movement during a mediation. The movie is a comedy, starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, so it is not surprising that this scene is focused on getting the most laughs, rather than getting the mediation process exactly right. I’ve shown it in mediation at the beginning of training to inspire (and, let’s admit it, entertain), as well as engage my students. We laugh, and then focus on the things the two divorce mediators did well and the many mistakes they made. Professor Schulz takes this analysis much farther in her chapter on conflicts of interest and repeat business. After reviewing the various ethical approaches taken to this problem, Professor Schulz describes the Wedding Crashers scene, and then discusses how it runs afoul of existing conflict of interest rules (as well as the ways in which it demonstrates in real time the appearance of impropriety).
The potential for Mediation and Popular Culture as a teaching and learning tool is not limited to the law school classroom. American mediation trainers and undergraduate peace studies or conflict resolution programs would also benefit from utilizing Professor Schulz’s insightful analysis. In addition, her focus on international mediation research and portrayals of mediation in international entertainment media would provide students and teachers throughout the world an opportunity to consider entertainment media influences in their own countries on their mediation processes.
Finally, Professor Schulz’s insights can be extended to as yet unexplored uses of mediation in the entertainment media. I could imagine an assignment in which I asked students to find a portrayal of mediation in a film or television show not discussed in Mediation and Popular Culture and then asking students to consider concepts from the book as a starting point for analysis. For example, in the well-regarded movie Marriage Story, the parties attempt to end their marriage amicably, using the mediation process. During the mediation, the mediator says, “It’s going to get very dark and difficult and I want you to have a piece of light and happiness to remember during those dark times in this awful and difficult process.” Almost immediately after this statement, it becomes clear that one party does not view the mediator as neutral and feels pressure to participate in an exercise she doesn’t want to do. I could imagine using material Professor Schulz identified to explore the concept of neutrality and the importance of mediator selection. A discussion of what the mediator might have done differently when a party showed signs of extreme discomfort with the mediator would also have been useful. Professor Schulz’s examples, tying discussion of entertainment portrayals of mediation to mediation concepts, could certainly be utilized to extend learning and understanding of the mediation process.
As a mediation professor and practitioner, I’ve always been fascinated by the many ways in which mediation, and the principles that underlie the process, are portrayed in the media. But more than just examples I can use in the classroom, I appreciate the ways in which Professor Schulz took the integral principles of mediation, considered the ways the entertainment media portrays them, and then analyzed how those principles could, should, and did play out in the film or television scenes. The book provides an excellent analysis of mediation as a process, using illustrations that would entertain even the most generation Z or millennial students among us.

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