Friday, October 21, 2005

Law Postgrad Students and the Task of "Getting It"

While law is a respected discipline in the academy that imposes rigour on its adherents and acolytes, it has a bizarre way of inculcating research ideas and techniques. For law students, research is finding the one case that will tilt the argument in your favour. Contrary to social science where one views phenomena in terms of averages and so forth and is therefore searching for the preponderance of evidence, law likes single cases that can be expressed as being "on all fours": the killer moment. One only has to think of Donoghue v Stevenson and the snail in the ginger beer bottle--did it ever happen?

With the exception of one or two most of my graduate research methods class is law trained. Some from the UK and others from civil code countries. Today I was talking about different modes of research, eg, historical, comparative, evaluative, observational and so on. I could see that they were a little perplexed. Why did all this complexity have to be introduced to do a little research? Hadn't they dealt with research when learning what the ratio decidendi of a case was? No.

Most law students have written essays as undergraduates that were descriptive or occasionally analytical. The idea of an extended dissertation (approximately 12,000 to 15,000 words in the UK) is alien to them. Their preference would be to capture a topic and tell me everything they can find out about it. The deficits would be critique, analysis and theory. My task is to imbue them with the thought that, first, these are deficits, and, secondly, they should be aware of them. This is hard. My classes are full of examples from my own research and that of others, and as much as I ask for questions and queries, I don't get many, if any. I then say that must mean they understand what I am saying and what I mean to say. However, when assignment hand-in time comes--January 4, 2006--I will see the results of their lack of understanding, at least for some of them. Some will write thoughtful and interesting assignments, but they will be the minority.

How then does one know if one has got through to them? I don't think the answer lies in aims and objectives (assuming anyone knows what those terms mean: I can't distinguish them) being specified, learning outcomes being articulated. That leads to tick box audit control of classes. If one has done this, students will then be deemed to have acquired these particular competencies. It's drivel.

Maybe we have to assume that only a few will get it and that the others will remain in the mists. I have a research student, for example, who must get to grips with the concept of globalisation because he is examining the role of law in foreign direct investment in developing countries. He doesn't think it has anything to do with his particular country. But when I have talked about the role of the World Bank and IMF, he agrees they are significant. Then he forgets about them when he refocuses on his country. He is one who I am convinced doesn't get it, nor will he. I don't know how to tackle this type of situation. I can say read this and that, but what else?

A continuing conumdrum.

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