Love lectures?

A recent New York Times opinion piece goes slightly against the learning and teaching orthodoxy but arguing in FAVOUR of lectures – http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/10/18/opinion/sunday/lecture-me-really.html. It looks at some of the advantages of a lecture format, particularly in the humanities, including teaching students how to listen critically, take notes that summarise ideas and arguments, and learn to understand before commenting/opining.

In law, there is some information that is best communicated through lecture elements, but my classes run in a more “Socratic” or questioning style (having been partially trained in the US), with problem-solving, group discussions and class debate. So I don’t do a lot of pure “lecture” although there is some content that I do present in this way.

But it got me thinking. I would probably be frustrated if I wanted to learn something in an area with which I wasn’t familiar (say at a conference or seminar) and the speaker adopted an “active learning” approach. Sometimes all you want to do is hear someone knowledgeable about something deliver an engaging, interesting and informative “lecture”. And when listening to such, I am rarely “passive” but usually constantly questioning them (initially in my head and eventually by raising my hand in question time). Of course, one difference is that I already know how to “do” legal reasoning, so that is not what I am learning. But the same could be said of later year students too.

So, my question is this: When are lectures the best way to teach?

 

Lyria Bennett Moses

NEXUS BETWEEN TEACHING AND RESEARCH

As an academic, I have always assumed that a positive nexus exists between teaching and research. Sadly, this assumption is flawed and the existence of such a nexus has been contested over the last two decades with a number of quantitative studies concluding that there is a negative or a zero nexus between these two activities. This is despite the fact that the implementation of a positive nexus between teaching and research is beneficial to learners.

For example, such a nexus may mean that efficient teachers are active researchers who use their research to enliven the classroom. This in turn may help in deepening the knowledge and understanding of students of complex legal issues as students may perceive the class to be more stimulating and challenging. The learners are also motivated by the enthusiasm and the interests that the academics have toward their research and teaching subject. Teaching after all both educates and entices future scholars.

Further, the staff’s research interest may provide students with the perception that the subject taught is up to date. This is especially important in law where students need to be aware of the latest development in the legal issues they are studying. The specialisation of academics also provides them with credibility in the eye of the students as they are being taught by an expert in the field and not a passive spectator. This is important as students may expect the academics to share with them their experiences of research conducted in the field.

Additionally, the research interest of the academics may give students ‘the opportunity to see teachers as real people and to be able to see what they do, how and why’. This, in turn, allows the learners to build relationships with the lecturers as the academics are viewed as people and learners. The implementation of a positive nexus consequently may help the academics to create a genuine student-centred education which ultimately benefits the learner.

Accordingly, a positive nexus between teaching and learning should not only be promoted by academics but by the universities to ensure our students have the best possible experience in their degree. Let the scholarship of learning and teaching flourish!

Marina Nehme

Decolonising Contract Law

A robust legal education requires an understanding not only of the law as it currently is, but also of the political, economic, social and cultural context in which laws are constructed. This includes analysis of social justice and legal issues relating to Australia’s First Peoples. Australia’s colonial project is ongoing and all law graduates should be aware of the multiple ways in which the Australian legal system impacts upon Indigenous peoples. This is an important aspect of decolonising the law curriculum.

 

Contract Law has not traditionally been considered a subject in which to introduce and explore legal issues confronting Australia’s First Peoples. However, the issue of freedom of contract provides an interesting site for analysis of injustice experienced by Indigenous peoples. The doctrine of freedom of contract maintains that people are to have freedom to enter into contracts of their own choice with other people or businesses of their own choice, rather than being coerced into contractual arrangements. As Carter explains, the doctrine of freedom of contract holds that:

 

(1) contracting parties should be free to agree to whatever agreement they wish; and (2) people should be free to decide to enter into contracts with whoever they please and should not be compelled to enter contractual relationships. (J W Carter, Cases and Materials on Contract Law in Australia (LexisNexis Butterworths, 6th ed, 2012) 6-7)

Contract law teachers can highlight that this significant legal doctrine has formed the foundation of much historical and contemporary contract law. It is the key concept underpinning classical contract theory, yet it is not a reality historically or currently experienced by all Australian citizens. It is interesting to consider whose contractual freedom has been facilitated and whose contractual freedom has been curtailed through government laws.

 

Australia has a long history of constraining Indigenous peoples’ contractual freedom. For example, throughout Australia’s earlier colonial period, many Indigenous workers were forced into employment contracts with exploitative working conditions. Legislation stipulated that Indigenous people could be paid under award wages for their labour, and they were subject to paternalistic control by ‘protectors’ who intensively governed every aspect of Indigenous lives. Such control extended to how social security payments were spent, and when and where Indigenous people could travel. In all of these ways, freedom of contract was denied to Indigenous people who were portrayed as unworthy of liberalism’s promises regarding individual autonomy.

 

The government’s contemporary development of income management laws for some welfare recipients also provides a fruitful site for analysis of curtailed contractual freedom. Originally introduced as part of the Northern Territory Emergency Response in 2007 and applicable only to Aboriginal welfare recipients, income management has since been expanded and now operates in multiple Australian jurisdictions. However, Indigenous welfare recipients are disproportionately represented amongst those subject to income management, and Aboriginal communities are grossly over-represented in terms of the geographical locations the government has selected for income management trials.

 

The government’s rhetoric about income management is that it is to promote socially responsible behaviour and to ensure that social security payments are not spent on drugs, alcohol, gambling or pornography. Yet many of those subject to the scheme do not have problematic spending in these areas, as evaluation of income management in the Northern Territory has shown. People can be subject to income management regardless of how responsibly they spend their social security payments, and the vast majority of welfare recipients currently experiencing income management are subject to compulsory income management rather than voluntary income management. Many of those subject to income management think the scheme is unfair and discriminatory.

 

Those targeted by income management laws have 50 per cent or more of their welfare payments quarantined (depending on which income management category they are in). These quarantined sums can only be spent at government approved retailers on government approved priority needs, and are usually spent using a government issued BasicsCard. This system excludes a wide range of consumer outlets for everyday goods and services. There are numerous businesses, real estate agents and landlords who do not want to participate in the income management system, which has the effect of shrinking the market of goods and rental housing available for those on low incomes. This can exacerbate disadvantage experienced by welfare recipients. Evaluation of income management also reveals that the scheme has led to an increase in the cost of goods and services for numerous welfare recipients who are poorly positioned to bear this burden.

 

Engaging with a curtailed freedom of contract case study, as outlined above, can enrich the Contract Law curriculum and highlight historical and contemporary legal injustice experienced by Australia’s First Peoples.

 

Dr Shelley Bielefeld

Motivating Your Sullen Students

A piece published in this week’s Times Higher Education Supplement (here) discusses the challenge of facing jaded, sullen, or otherwise not particularly interested students. A number of themes are discussed in this collection of views by a number of educators in the UK. Anything from the materials that are taught, to external matters outside the control of that lecturer in that course, to our own attitudes (and even manner of dress, apparently) on the very first class.

A couple of things stand out: one is the idea that, if something can frustrate the student, it also has the potential to satisfy the student in some way. It may just be a manner of probing hard enough, asking questions like “what made you so frustrated with this particular material?”, and turning the answer into a teachable moment by unpacking the assumptions behind the frustration and connecting them to the ideas at stake.

Another stand out idea in those views (the reading of which I highly recommend) is that first impressions do matter. Not necessarily impressions of you (even if I do concede that such impressions may have an impact), but impressions of the course. One thing I do to set a conversational and engaged tone early on is to open each course I teach with a simple activity. In 20-30 minutes, students have to write on a piece of paper their answers to the following four questions (or a variation thereof):

–              What do you think is the purpose of [insert area of law]?

–              Who do you think is benefitted by [insert area of law]?

–              Are there any blind spots to what you consider to be the current approach to [insert area of law]?

–              (And, if it is an elective course) How did you get interested in [insert area of law]?

After having students do that, I collect their answers, and engage in a discussion where students have to tell me what they have answered. I respond to these views many times by just listening until there are a number of ideas on the table for each question, often opposing or complementary. I then draw the tensions between the many ideas. I like this exercise because (a) it sets a tone of conversation in the room early on; (b) shy students can engage early on, too, and break the ice, since they had the time to prepare their answers beforehand; and (c) it allows me to know early on where students are coming from, and what their expectations, interests and preconceptions are (and I can often adjust my teaching throughout the course around those expectations and interests).

Oftentimes, too, I repeat the exact same exercise in the class before last in the semester. And in the last class I return to students the sheet they prepared on the first class, and the one they prepared on the last class, so they can compare and contrast for themselves whether, and to what extent, their views on the subject may have changed.

Does this exercise help with sullenness? It’s not a magical cure, by any means, but it does help address some of the factors that are in my control, and help set the tone early on for engagement and conversation that caters to what students are interested in, as opposed to a curriculum I desperately need to get through.

By Lucas Lixinski