Learning & teaching seminars, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Faculty of Law

by Paul Maharg on 06/10/2016

I’m a Visiting Professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law, and I spent last week giving seminars and discussing projects with staff — seminars given to first year LLB students, doctoral students, and JD/LLM students; and to staff, on webcasts, podcasts, multimedia and other digital resources. On the last subject, see this article, and my book chapter.  Slides are on the Slides tab above, and at Slideshare.

It was a fascinating five days, talking with a variety of students, staff and others, advising on projects, giving assistance where I could; working on links between CUHK Faculty of Law and PEARL.  And above all learning enormously about the detail of university study in law, professional education & training, and the conditions under which university staff & students and lawyers work in Hong Kong.  And other experiences: travelling on the MTR from the CUHK Graduate School in the Bank of America Tower in Central, 中環, out to the Hyatt in Sha Tin where I stayed, at rush hour on a Friday, was an unforgettable urban travel experience.  I’ve travelled on underground systems in many cities but the MTR beats them all for the massive numbers that are shifted so efficiently, with such ease, and yet in the colour-coded lines a bewildered red/green colour-blind (West of Scotland trait…) newbie like me can still find a helpful member of staff to guide him.

The staff seminar on digital resources was absorbing because it turned out to be more an extended conversation than anything else.  I had a curious dream feeling during it, probably just jet lag, where part of my brain was reminding me to remember what Castells and many others have said of technology: viewed soberly, it will change your life, and it will do it whether or not you want it, and in ways unbidden, unforeseeable.  The question is, do you want in some degree to control your technological life or let technology (or others with the control of technology) control your life.  Such an either/or is often presented as a future-orient choice.  But perhaps we must learn and re-learn that technology is actually not the future we often associate with it, but is inextricably history, constantly becoming, ever unwinding; and if like Benjamin’s angel we turn our backs on the future, to the past, we can see the patterns of the waves of the far-past and the just-past breaking upon our present, the Jetztzeit.  But in my version, even if there is a storm blowing from the future that maroons us on the beach where we live out our days, even in a tiny surge of it like our webcast initiative at GGSL, the learning experiences of staff and students were enormously complex: liberating, exhilarating, frustrating, clarifying and positive learning experiences in many ways.  That was clear in the 100 pages or  so of our research on student use of webcast environments.  Those experiences were what mattered, not the technology that gave rise to them; and sometimes the technology is unreliable, uncertain in producing such experiences.  Or another metaphor: technology is like the treasure map in RLS’s Treasure Island: all the characters in the novel are obsessed with possessing it because it so clearly, tantalisingly, set out the position of the treasure; yet the treasure had been removed by the maroon, Ben Gunn, long before the start of the novel.  But if the map turns out to be an unreliable guide to a material fortune in the novel, it is an inexorably reliable guide to character.[1]And so it is with digital technology: how we use it is surely a reflection of ourselves on the screen.

Some of the discussions in the seminar on digital resources and webcasts revolved around structural design issues – how to design digital for both online distance and online f2f learning, and how to do that within regulatory constraints.  On the plane down to ANU, where I am now, I thought more about the issues, and how I’d encountered them in other institutions, other places.  My answer, as is often the case, would be to go beyond tweaking the status quo, for short-term measures can have the effect of upsetting the balance of a programme of study.  Often what we need are carefully-planned, substantial interventions, ideally on a pilot basis before full implementation, that will tell us what we need to know about the intervention, but which will also give us valuable information on what we didn’t know about the current state of learning and teaching.  The new, in other words, recasts our understanding of the present and the past.

Part of that pilot should always be a literature analysis.  I’m not saying that research-based evidence is everything — it is itself an emergent property in a complex system, after all — but it can be critical in helping us to be more thoughtful about how we plan and understand the consequences of our work as educators.  For instance there is disciplinary research that shows us how to help students read legal texts effectively[2]; and research that argues that the general processes of learning by writing about a discipline are often misunderstood or not given sufficient profile. Legal reasoning, too, is problematic, and not just in the first stages of legal learning.  One study from the USA concluded, on testing case reading and legal reasoning skills in first and then in third year in the same cohort of students, that ‘students’ case reading and reasoning skills do not improve as a result of law school instruction’.  Only one study of course, and in another jurisdiction; but it should give us pause for thought about our own practices.  Are reading, writing and legal reasoning (particularly in multi-disciplinary settings, possibly in Honours dissertations) activities that cause problems for our students?  Could we improve and make more effective our practices as educators? What part might technology play in that?

And of course, in the change process it’s essential that we bring students with us.   We might want to give our students a higher profile in what we plan for them by planning with them — at the very least it would give them more agency, greater responsibility and a sense of democratic participation in the design of their law school education — and that surely can’t be a bad thing for the future.

While I was at CU I attended a public lecture by Dame Elish Angiolini, now Principal of St Hugh’s College, Oxford.  She is already an Honorary Professor at CU, and was giving the inaugural Mok Hing Yiu Visiting Professor Public Lecture, entitled ‘Justice and the Misunderstood‘ — an ‘exploration of the extent to which knowledge of human behaviour influences the responses of systems of justice.’  It was a powerful call to justice systems globally to take account of those in society who for whatever mental or physical circumstances fall victim to systemic prejudicial bias.  I had met Elish before, at Strathclyde University, when I was co-Director of Professional Legal Courses in the Glasgow Graduate School of Law.  It struck me then that much of what she had to say about justice systems was genuinely transformative in its call for change.  To maintain that difficult line as Elish has done through the great legal offices in Scotland – Solicitor General, then Lord Advocate and the first woman to hold these posts, as well as the first procurator fiscal, and first solicitor rather than an advocate to hold them – is a remarkable achievement.  She is a wonderful role model for women in the law, but in her emphasis on the most vulnerable in the judicial system she is also a model for all young and aspiring lawyers, in any jurisdiction.

My thanks to all staff at CUHK Faculty of Law for their kindness in welcoming me there; and particularly to Elsa Kelly for helping to plan the visit, and taking care I was where I was supposed to be and at the right times; and to Serena So for her superb administrative assistance.

  1. [1]RLS’s fictions are fascinating because of his rhetoric of narrative contrast, which exists at macro- as well as micro-level.  Consider the detailed description of the death of Israel Hands, shot by Jim as Hands pursued him up the mast-yards:

    OWING to the cant of the vessel, the masts hung far out over the water, and from my perch on the cross-trees I had nothing below me but the surface of the bay.  Hands […] fell between me and the bulwarks. He rose once to the surface in a lather of foam and blood and then sank again for good. As the water settled, I could see him lying huddled together on the clean, bright sand in the shadow of the vessel’s sides. A fish or two whipped past his body. Sometimes, by the quivering of the water, he appeared to move a little, as if he were trying to rise.

    The lather of foam and blood, the clean, bright sand, itself in shadow, the quick fish, the huddled body – the detail is extraordinarily sharp and contrasting.  Even the way that his body seems to rise from the dead contrasts with the discussion Jim and Israel have had about the material and spirit world, scarce a page earlier.

    Similarly, and on a macro-level throughout the novel, the map in Treasure Island comes to absorb the characters right from the start of the novel, when Jim finds it in Blind Pew’s chest and passes it on to Squire Trelawny and the Doctor; and the pirates are similarly obsessed.  It is even more what it always was, a symbolic representation of material greed and what that inspires: treachery, violence, murder. And the map reveals all the novel’s characters: ubi enim est thesaurus tuus, ibi est et cor tuum.

  2. [2]See the work of Laurel Oates, Dorothy Deegan, Lundeberg, James Stratman, Leah Christensen.  In one study Christensen examined how 24 law students in the top and bottom 50 per cent of their class read a judicial opinion. Students read by think-aloud protocols; she then interviewed students at the end of their readings to determine the strategies they were aware of using. Her findings were significant: the more successful law students read differently from the students who were less successful in their classes. Unsuccessful readings were more rambling, less purposeful. Unsuccessful readers started with little contextual understanding gained from their reading (for example, where the case was litigated, its procedural history and so on) and their confusion clouded their subsequent readings because they did not resolve their confusions before they moved on into further matters in the case. Successful readers were highly purposeful. They took time at the start to understand the context of case and, if they were confused, they could engage a sense of auto-monitoring in which they prioritised whether the confusion was minor or major and required analysis and clarification before they proceeded. Finally, poor readers used ‘default strategies’ much more and relied on them unthinkingly to reproduce meaning from the texts.  Christensen, L. M. (2006). Legal reading and success in law school: an empirical study.  Seattle University Law Review, 30, 603-49.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tammy Hervey October 10, 2016 at 00:39

This was a timely reminder of the work on how law students learn to read (or don’t). At the very moment it pinged into my inbox, I was putting together a document with the Learning Objectives for an exercise we are trying out in Sheffield to help our UG first year law students to begin to develop these skills. So thanks for that!


2 Paul Maharg October 10, 2016 at 22:12

No problem, Tammy. I can give full references for the lines of research that are just names in the posting — fascinating research into the rhetoric of reading undertaken by lawyers and academics. And, from another angle, it bears out what Beth Mertz’s research concludes in her excellent book The Language of Law School: Learning to ‘Think Like a Lawyer’


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