International Law’s Invisible Frames Symposium: Teaching Against the Textbook – A Comment on ‘Going by the Book: What International Law Textbooks Teach Us Not to Know’ by Ana Luísa Bernardino

International Law’s Invisible Frames Symposium: Teaching Against the Textbook – A Comment on ‘Going by the Book: What International Law Textbooks Teach Us Not to Know’ by Ana Luísa Bernardino

[Sofia Stolk is a researcher at the Asser Institute (The Hague) and the University of Amsterdam.]

Note: In the spirit of the edited volume, we decided to make the main comments of symposium coordinator, Alexandra Hofer, and the responses of the author partly visible in the text in order to uncover, at least partly, the invisible frame of the editing process. Important in light of discussing textbooks: an author never writes alone. I want to thank Alexandra for this fun exercise and great comments. 

Teaching an introductory level course in public international law alongside reading Ana Luísa Bernardino’s incisive, thoughtful, confronting, and at times ruthlessly funny analysis of the suppressive frame offered by international law textbooks is something I would highly recommend. In fact, I recommend this chapter to be read by anyone who uses an international law textbook in any class, either as a teacher or as a student. 

Bernardino’s chapter turned one of the most boring questions I get asked every year by at least one of my students upside down. The question: do we really need to buy the textbook? The initial response is perhaps to roll one’s eyes, sigh, and ask: ‘Well, what do you think?’ After that, you may start to be concerned about the students’ motivation, their financial situation or the reputation of your course. But with Bernardino’s chapter in mind, the questioned gained new meaning for me. Do we actually need the textbook, and what do we need it for? Why do we ask students to buy and read a book that is, following Bernardino’s observations, potentially inherently unoriginal, Eurocentric, and repressive? Especially for someone who considers herself to be a fairly critical—admittedly in her own way unoriginally biased—international law scholar, it sounds a bit absurd to base one’s course on something that might be the very embodiment of what we criticize the discipline for.

Alexandra: At times your post reads as a rather harsh condemnation of textbooks – I wonder if this is how you really feel about them? Certainly they have some benefit?
Don’t feel the need to change the language if you don’t want to.

Sofia: Good point, when re-reading I see the same thing. End-of-the-year lack of filter I suppose. I removed some of the harsher terms… On the other hand, I read Bernardino’s text as a similar condemnation and I largely endorse her observations, argument and concern. Although it crossed my mind while reading her chapter that indeed not all textbooks are like that. Nevertheless, the main point, that the most ‘important’ ones are, remains valid (exception confirms the rule?) This also relates to the circularity of authority (discussed below). A methodological point on Bernardino’s chapter would be appropriate her, indicating it would be useful to expose her dataset and method of analysis (which textbooks did she analyze, how?)  

To the other question, do textbooks have benefits? Yes, even from the perspective of a critical scholar, the traditional textbooks have value, if only as objects of critique, I’ll return to that below as well. 

As Bernardino shows, textbooks demarcate what international lawyers should think about, and consequently also what is not worth of their attention. In her chapter, textbooks are uncovered as ‘engines of sociomental control’ that quietly but forcefully direct the gaze of its readers, thereby delimiting what is deemed relevant in international law. 

Alexandra: I also wonder it fit causes to limit students’ “frames”. Often students looking for a research project say “I don’t know if it is legal enough”. For example a student who wanted to study the role of trauma in peacekeeping operations had that concern. To use the term in the edited volume, it may all be about how the research project is framed. In other words, the frame will determine whether it is of interest to international lawyers.

Sofia: Absolutely, in a way every de-framing is re-framing. I’m usually inclined of pushing the boundaries of ‘legal enough’ when such questions come up… A limited frame is comforting when writing a thesis (as are properly delimited research questions and all those other formal requirements) and it can be scary to let it go for—students and teachers alike. But exactly there where uncertainty about the frame starts is where the interesting research begins, no? Ok, perhaps not entirely answering your question but I’ll come back to the comfort of certainty later on. 

The label ‘textbook’ elegantly disguises its politics by appealing to the neutral, information-oriented, factual status of such books. With an eye for detail, Bernardino exposes the micropolitics at the very core of international legal knowledge production and circulation. She shows how international law’s silences, hierarchies, and cognitive defaults are (re)produced in traditional textbooks and convincingly argues why this requires our attention. Ultimately, the textbook is a claim on what international law is. A claim that is never uncontested (as for example Anne Orford has explained so well in her new book). Therefore, a textbook can never be a neutral evaluation of facts but always is a set of normative choices, a political intervention, an authority claim (on the latter see also e.g. the recent work by Lianne Boer). Most international lawyers are probably aware that a textbook can never be comprehensive and can never do justice to the manyfold of approaches to the question of what international is. But what Bernardino urges us to do is to face this awareness and take it seriously. In line with the Foucauldian sensibility invoked by the editors of the Invisible Frames volume: the chapter makes visible what we already see. 

Alexandra: What we are aware of but do not pay attention to? What we ‘passively’ know?

Sofia: In the back of our minds, we (?) know that textbooks never neutrally display what international law ‘is’, no matter how they present themselves. Do we think about that when reading/teaching from a textbook? Bernardino’s chapter makes us ask that question aloud. 

Alexandra: this also brings up the matter of the “lecturer’s role” in all of this…

Let me return to the question ‘do we really need the textbook?’ raised in my class. Importantly, this question and the context in which it is asked reminds us that textbooks hardly ever act on their own. Textbooks are used in a social learning context, and the gaze of the students is never solely guided by the textbook itself. Teachers, syllabi, peers, and additional googling direct our attention to and away from the direction offered by the textbook. Bianchi and Hirsch ask us in their introduction: ‘whose task it is to make unseen frames visible?’ In the case of a textbook, the natural space to uncover its invisible frames arguably is the classroom. The urge to offer such a space of contemplation in class is very much alive amongst international law teachers. When the phenomenal bell hooks passed away in December, one of her most loved statements widely commemorated by university teachers all over the (social) media is worth echoing here: ‘the classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy’ (from Teaching to Transgress). 

Bernardino notes that textbooks ‘that explicitly acknowledge the theoretical underpinnings that underlie their pages remain the exception’. But as teachers we are free to offer such theoretical underpinnings in class. If we want to give students insight into the limitation of the textbook, we could prescribe readings with a different approach to be studied next to it. Or we can expose and discuss the frame of the textbook and re-frame the book from other perspectives in class, even in the context of the most basic introductory course.

Alexandra: I think it would be helpful if you could be more explicit and elaborate more on what you think the role of the lecturer in IL is. Then the critic of textbooks makes more sense as well. This is also one of the themes of the edited volume, to ‘unlearn’ what we think we know, or at least pay more attention to what we know.

Sofia: Ok here we go…

I believe this is a crucial role of a teacher in academia: to teach how to read critically, how to never take for granted, to keep questioning, always. This is, in return, is what students teach me. With their questions, they make me rethink the stuff I stopped questioning myself. Rather than the students who understand and accept the reading materials, the students who do not understand it, and dare asking questions about it, fuel my own critical teaching. This is the power of not knowing (but wanting to know), of not understanding (but wanting to understand). The ideal form of teaching—and research for that matter—driven by curiosity and doubt. In that way, learning is always also about unlearning. 

Alexandra: In my case students read other material, and sometimes gain insight from other courses. Could this be your case?

Sofia: Yes indeed, not only the teacher modifies the frame of the textbook by teaching, students modify the textbook by reading and discussing it, from their own perspectives, with their own background knowledge gathered from different sources. As mentioned, a text(book) never stands on its own. The death of the author has been declared by Barthes now quite some time ago and perhaps research in education studies and developments in interactive/blended/participatory/digital learning brought us the figurative death of the teacher. Does that reinforce Bernardino’s critique and render the textbook not only unoriginal and repressive but also archaic? Not necessarily. 

Any inquiry into the way in which textbooks frame international law urges us to question how teachers and students constantly frame and reframe the textbook. If we look at it from this point of view, the disciplining power of the textbook might be tempered, altered, or amplified by the social context in which it is used. This reminds me of a symposium hosted by Opinio Juris on Critical Pedagogy. In that wonderful series, Antony Anghie argued that teaching an introductory international law course in a traditional, positivist way is almost a prerequisite for teaching critical international law. For many international law teachers, the standard textbook is the necessary point of departure when moving into critical theory. Because, in the words of Anghie, it is the dissonance between the two approaches that “arouses and hopefully develops the critical instincts of the student.” In that sense, a classical, positivist textbook may prove to be the ideal object to demonstrate how to dissect power structures and to perforate biases. In their introduction, Bianchi and Hirsh describe how the process of interaction between social cognition and knowledge production is not linear but marked by discontinuity and rupture. This may very well be true for textbooks: the way in which they (re)produce dominant frames reveal a certain circularity of knowledge production in international law but the social lives of textbooks open up possibilities for disruption. And indeed, the examples of teachers who challenge traditional international law structures and authorities are ample and inspiring. To name just some examples: the earlier mentioned symposium on Critical Pedagogy, the many cool critical/feminist/TWAIL oriented international law syllabi shared on Twitter (for example the Open Syllabus on Public International Law created by the International Law and the Global South blog), Christine Schwöbel’s work on teaching international law (see for example this thread on her work on decolonializing the curriculum), and the experimental Moot Court project initiated by her and Wouter Werner. 

Thus, there are many ways in which the (in)visible frames of traditional hegemonic international law textbooks can be broken—or rebuild. Nevertheless, Bernardino’s chapter pushes us to think whether it is possible to start the fight at the heart of the issue: to write textbooks differently. Can a textbook be successful when it is not written by someone outside of the, in the words of Bernardino, ‘small group of white, male, middle-aged scholars’ who usually write them? It is not uncommon to refer to a textbook by the name of its author, rather than its usually uninspiring title. Which is a bit contradictory to the textbooks’ unique selling point: an unoriginal, factual account of what international law is, not what the author thinks it is. Being a successful textbook writer makes and remakes the reputation of the author as an ‘almost god-like’ authority; very absent and very present at the same time. Ironically, writing a textbook is at the same time the least sexy thing you can do as an academic—not remotely as glamourous as the description of the profession in the textbook itself. Being a textbook author is akin to the anti-thesis of being subversive, young, and cool. Which, of course, underscores Bernardino’s point: the boringness of the textbook should not fool us into thinking that it is uncontestable, on the contrary. But this leaves us with questions such as: Are the hegemonic characteristics of a textbook inherent to the format? And would that mean that, as soon as a textbook becomes subversive and original, it would no longer function as a textbook? 

Alexandra: Seems like it would be a fun challenge…

These questions bring me back to my own class, where I noticed a bit of a strange move in light of what I discussed earlier. Although the book we use in our course is uncharacteristically thin, critical, and funny, our course set-up is rather classical. As teachers, I think we are half proud and half ashamed to admit that, to help the students navigate this less straightforward textbook, we managed to reduce international law to five checklists that they can follow when encountering certain core questions of international law—obviously reproducing the problematic selection of ‘core’ themes criticized by Bernardino. A reductive approach to international law seems to enhance the confidence of students (and teachers). A checklist empowers us to feel able to give the ‘right’ answer on the exam—despite any efforts to emphasize that there is not just one right answer. The classical textbook offers a similar comfort. The unspoken claim that there is a ‘right’ and effective international law, as Bernardino unveils, animates the phenomenon textbook and is probably one of its most appealing and self-sustaining qualities. Here again, one of the most precious tasks of a university teacher is not to offer (more) certainty but to bring back the doubt. To start the fire of always asking questions, to be critical but above all, curious. If a textbook presents authority and certainty, it is not necessarily unfit for critical teaching. And on the other hand, a critical textbook may very well lead teachers back to doctrine and checklists. This does not equal embracing the textbook but forces us to take a step back and to recall what was challenged in the first place. That is at least the ideal scenario. 

All the more reason to foster the discomfort offered by Bernardino, to at least remind ourselves of our wish to remain curious and to allow ourselves to question what we prescribe our students again and again. Because students are also capable of so much more than reproducing a ‘right’ international law. I have seen them transforming from staunch realists to human rights activists to TWAIL fanatics over the course of six weeks, despite (or due to?) the textbook. Bernardino’s chapter encourages us to start looking for hidden curricula in all of our teaching materials, using the classroom as a radical space in which the textbook is not the endpoint but the beginning of a conversation. Her chapter works so well in this regard perhaps not because her analysis is utterly surprising but exactly because it helps us to make visible what is right in front of us. It enables us to interrogate our own pedagogical strategies. And to ask ourselves questions like: do we actually need the textbook? And what do we need it for?

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