Beyond Text Conference, 21-22 June, day two

by Paul Maharg on 23/06/2009

I missed the first panel session.  Later in the morning Gillian Calder from the University of Victoria, BC facilitated an excellent session where she showed us aspects of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed techniques, and his Tree of Theatre.  And she did so by getting us to do it – experiential learning.  

Eg using our bodies, we represented what we thought legal education meant for us.  Then we looked around for body sculptures that represented the same sort of thing, and joined that group.  The group then did a joint sculpture.  Then one person in the group in turn got to be art director, and ‘sculpted’ a multi-figure sculpture consisting of the other members of the group.  Finally the group decided which of the four or five sculptures would be shown to the plenary group.  Fascinating discussion – especially when someone from the floor was allowed to re-sculpt the sculpture to make it different in some way. 

Tom Mayo’s session on Law, Literature & Medicine.  Class focused on empathy, listening skills, groupwork, with groups of law and medical students.  There are law readings and medical readings, class discussion leaders, and consultation, planning, development of goals, agreement on strategy.  Students go on walkabout in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, in the Children’s Medical Centre, Dallas.  There’s then a debrief, and reading of Raymond Carver’s short story A Small Good Thing.  The two groups learn huge amounts from each other, the law students and medical students. Eg how to talk to clients and patients; breaking bad news; dealing with administration and real life; learning the discipline, and so on. Tom’s paper is interesting for me just now not merely because it dealt with literature but because it raises so many opportunities for electives on the Law Society’s new PEAT 1 programme.  Why not bring medical and legal students together to discuss issues?  How about doing that in PEAT 2? 

He also gave us some of the activities students are asked to do.  Eg in poetry, ‘write a poem about a pair of shoes in a way that the reader will think of a doctor or a lawyer.  Do not mention doctors or lawyers in the poem.’  He quoted Ed Pellegrino: ‘the first kindness is competence’. Final piece of work is an art project.  No term papers.  Instead, poems, songs, short stories, plays, novellas, sculpture, painting, quilts, dance (eg tap, on the fives stages of grief), food (Mexican meal from the Day of Death), gardens.  This work is presented at the final dinner, between main & dessert courses.  I loved that idea. 

‘Didactic texts’ (his phrase) include Rita Charon, ‘Narrative and Medicine’, Boyd White, ‘Legal Knowledge’, Benjamin DeMott, ‘English and the Promise of Happiness’; Billy Collins, ‘Introduction to Poetry’, John Stone, ‘The Truck’, Carl Sandberg, ‘The Lawyers Know Too Much’.  Rest of the semester: poetry (50%), stories, (legal, medical), plays (‘Wit’ + film version, ‘Whose Life is it Anyway’.  John Irving, ‘The Cider House Rules’ – (questions & issues for the students: name the scene you’d most like to see in the film version, rules and our relationship with them, did Homer have a duty to disobey the Maine Penal Code, etc.  Updating that moral dilemma, we now have physician-assisted suicide).  Closing arguments:  Ernest Gaines, ‘A Lesson before dying’, Harper Lee, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.  Very good paper. 

Next up was Elaine Webster from Strathclyde Law School, on ‘threshold concepts’.  She has taken Meyer & Land’s work on this, and applied it to legal education, and looked briefly at its implications for teaching.  She defined a threshold concept as a bottleneck, a form of reasoning, a concept that causes students difficulty.  The knowledge is often troublesome (David Perkins).  Crossing the threshold is essential for students – from not understanding to understanding.  If that doesn’t take place, mimcry takes place, not real understanding.  My comment afterwards, I’ll deal with in another blog posting.  Fascinating topic. 

After coffee, Valerie Fitch, Director of Professional Development at Pillsbury in their NY office, presented on ‘Is “Beyond Text” Simply Beyond Them? Making the Case for Infusing the Arts into Law Firm Professional Development’.  Valerie incorporates visual work in her teaching with the firm.  'Pillsbury University' is the over-arching organization for in-house development of 850 attorneys in 14 offices, as well as client development.  She showed three videos of the Pillsbury Players – lawyers and others in the firm, who appear in the videos.  Valerie noted that the economic recession was an opportune time for embedding Beyond Text concepts and educational ideas in firms.  Eg the apprenticeship model was enjoying a resurgence in US firms – young attorneys, not part of the client fee’d model, but sitting in on the work that was taking place, learning from it, maybe doing some of it, unfee’d.  Valerie concluded with ways in which the video work was presented to other law firms in New York, their responses, and other forms of inventive collaborative training.  Eg during an editing workshop – a brief that is edited individually, then they edit in small groups, with one person in each group presenting the group edit. 

Final presentation was Anne Pirrie, ‘And Finally, Beyond Text…’ She talked about Richard Sennett, especially The Craftsman (making is thinking, etc) and Csikszentmihalyi and flow moments.  Anne then turned to a difficulty she had in social science research, which may be problematic to reveal on the blog, but the application of the literature was surprisingly apt to what she was talking about.  She put together utterly different things that didn’t quite hold together, but certainly resonated for me.  Cs’s work on flow is of course staple stuff in the videogame literature.  But in a strange way it is one focus on the disturbing way that, from early twentieth century modernism onwards, space and time constantly shift and warp for us, as technology and our understanding of our world seems to change in unforeseen ways. Flow reminded me of another time-based notion, Stephen Hepple’s idea of the ‘nearly now’ that exists between now and not now and which is an interesting description of this unique space.  He cites Twitter as a classic example where a user can step outside the momentary activity to record, reflect upon it.  The concept is an ancient one, of course.  It is one more version of the reflective moment, the debrief, or just simply the zoning out that can take place at any place and any time.  It’s not really visible when we are relaxed.  It’s at its most visible when the now really matters, and it can change the moment profoundly. Hepple’s notion is interesting because it can be seen as one more example of the attempt to categorise time-shifting that takes place almost as a matter of course in our daily lives.  Technology allows us to split time, genres, expectations, more in so many ways, and the result is bewildering, enriching.  The effect has been analysed for some time – Benjamin’s classic essay on photography is one early example of it.  We can see it in the novel techniques of Proust, who uses syntax and paragraph structure, as Leo Bersani has observed, to abolish the conventions of novelistic time narratives. Think of the new media genres, video & textual, that accrued around the ditching of the Airbus 320 in the Hudson.  

Other commentators on technology and media have observed similar processes.  Walter Ong’s attempt to create a diachronic phenomenology of the process of distanciation that, according to him, writing brought about in our society, is another example.  His fourteen theses are worth re-thinking in terms of Hepple’s ‘nearly now’.  The first, for instance, states that ‘between knower and known writing interposes a visible and tangible object, the text’, while the seventh observes that writing separates past from present. 

If Anne reads this, apologies for reducing her talk to fragments, and for overlaying it heavily with my ideas; and of course there was a glass of wine at the end of a very interesting day; but in another ways it’s a tribute to her bold attempt to bring together entirely disparate ideas that they sparked off many others in me and others; and in that sense the last paper was a microcosm of the conference. We ended with a brief discussion about what to do re dissemination of papers – I suggested entirely online integration with the artwork that was already on the site, with links and much else, the integration into already-existing networks of practice, and the formation of a community of practice, the nucleus of which the project had already in the room. 

Finally – well done to Zenon and Maks for an interesting, courageous and intellectually stimulating project.  It demonstrated just how magical (no other word) legal education becomes when there are people not just thinking deeply but practising thoughtfully the discipline.  And the project, as befits an AHRC project, showed the sense of release and positive gain that other disciplinary practices can bring to learning the law.  Above all, the major strength of the project lies in its integration of concept and practice.  Whatever is beyond Beyond Text in terms of project afterlife, it mustn’t be yet another intellectual, theoretical product alone, eg yet another theoretical text.  It must rise powerfully, intellectually, practically from the grounded fusion of intellect and praxis, if we are to transform legal education.  

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