Symposium on Early Career International Law Academia: That Other Half of the Job – Getting Started on Teaching (International) Law

Symposium on Early Career International Law Academia: That Other Half of the Job – Getting Started on Teaching (International) Law

[Lucas Lixinski (@IntHeritageLaw) is Professor at the Faculty of Law & Justice, UNSW Sydney.]

One of the key reasons people in law do PhDs is because we are at least contemplating a life in academia. Otherwise, we would just go into legal practice, where a PhD gives no discernible advantage. While research is what we are taught to do during a PhD, there is another very big component of the job we are far less trained to do: teaching.

An international law researcher should bear in mind that an international/comparative/global perspective is useful as a pedagogical tool in legal education. After all, there is no better way for us to query the “why” of legal structures than to understand that elsewhere people do things very differently. Therefore, despite some resistance across law schools towards making international law on its own part of the mandatory curriculum, there is a lot to be said about what an international lawyer brings to the table in terms of teaching, whether teaching within or beyond international law subjects.

There is a growing body of literature on the teaching of international law. Much of this literature focuses on the specific experiences of teachers, with some bringing valuable critical insights from within the field itself, and others calling for more awareness of pedagogical theory in our teaching practice. While that literature is incredibly valuable, rather than rehashing it here (something I have undertaken elsewhere), I would rather focus on some of the issues attendant to getting a teaching practice started as an early career researcher.

Some advice could be useful regardless of our field of research. Here are some tips in that vein:

  • You must teach at least once during your PhD: even if you are fairly certain you do not want to have a career in academia afterwards, do it, just to be sure you do not like this part of the job. And, if you are potentially interested, you need to be able to establish a track record for when you do start applying for all those jobs.
  • Take pedagogical theory seriously: in most disciplines, we train as academics without any training on how to teach at the higher education level. If you want to be a teacher anywhere else, there are entire degrees for you. If you want to teach in higher education, suddenly you can just show up and do it (even if a growing number of universities do offer courses on higher education learning and teaching). It is frustrating, yes, but that does not mean you cannot think about your own teaching practice and educate yourself. And a great way to do that is to pick up on basic pedagogical texts (like Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed). Was it written for higher education teachers? No. Does it contain a tremendous wealth of insight on why one teaches, and how to relate to students and the power structures with which legal education should be grappling? Yes. Even if you choose some other text to educate yourself, the point is, your substantive knowledge will not get you far enough unless you think about how you are going to teach it. Much like writing a paper, teaching a class is a specific and distinctive way of framing and conveying knowledge. The pedagogical theory will help you work out some of those kinks, and make you a more conscientious human in the classroom.
  • You might get crushed in the beginning, and that is okay: the first time I taught a class at my first post-PhD academic job, I thought I was going to do well. I had taught English as a foreign language before, had done guest lectures at many law schools during my PhD, knew the subject matter, though I was ready. And it was low-stakes, too, because I was only filling in for a senior colleague for a few weeks. I thought the classes went well until student feedback came back at the end of the term. Most comparisons to the more senior colleague (a total legend) were unfavorable to me, but I expected as much. What crushed me was one student who went further and said something along the lines of how I “should never be allowed in a classroom again”. Did it feel good? No, not at all. But I wear it as a mark of pride now, because, after my senior colleague consoled me (she had also seen said feedback), she taught me that I would come on my own as a teacher and that not everyone would like me, and that was ok. So, be prepared to fail. Especially because we are not trained to do it, it is ok that we do not do it well the first time around. You will get better if you are conscientious and work at it.
  • Teaching is not a popularity contest: another reason to be ok with teaching not going well at the beginning (and even later) is that it should never be a popularity contest with the students. Yes, of course, you want them to minimally enjoy being there (since the enjoyment of classroom time enhances learning), but you cannot work to please everyone. I still occasionally get a “should never be allowed in the classroom” item of feedback, usually from the same group in which a different student says something like “one of the best instructors I have ever had”. Are both students wrong? Irrelevant. The point is that I cannot please everyone, and should not. My role is not to please (because pleasing creates an incentive to take it easy on students), it is to challenge my students. Or, as I often say in first classes, “If I do not make you feel inadequate at least once during this course, I have cheated you out of your money.” So, find your style and voice, and stick to it. Make sure you are challenging students in ways to which they respond, but try not to care about whether you are liked.
  • Do not let prep time swallow you whole: that is a tough one. When we first teach a course, we feel we need to be ahead of students at all times and know everything in case anyone asks a question. For some, that works. For me, when I am over-prepared I come across as stiff in the classroom, and, 98% of the time, no one asks that question I spent two hours researching. So, I figured that what suited my style best, to make me conversational and engaging in the classroom, was to come to class fresh. And that meant finishing my prep five minutes before I entered the classroom. Relatedly, there is the question of when to start prepping. Honestly? If the session ahead is two hours, I will give myself four hours to prepare (five if I am feeling insecure). Otherwise, I will spend 20+ hours preparing that one session, and it will end up worse for it because I will speak too much, not listen to students because I am trying to showcase all the minutiae I crammed in my skull to prepare for the session, and we will all be worse off at the end. So, do not over-prepare, and try to be conversational in the classroom.

For international law researchers, early-career or otherwise, there is also a lot to be gained from developing conscious, self-aware teaching practice. Again, do not pander to students, but be mindful of them. And remember to make teaching substantively challenging and useful for yourself, and even something that can help your research.

  • Pitching to different audiences in real-time can be good for research: a big part of being a researcher is to be able to cater to an audience in your writing. But we (almost) never get immediate feedback about how well the pitch goes, and, by that time, things are committed to paper. With teaching, you get to try out pitching ideas all the time (far more often than presenting at conferences, anyway), and seeing how the audience responds. Yes, it is a different audience, but, if you cannot make sense of your sophisticated idea to a non-expert audience, surely there is something in the idea that will also not sit well with the very sophisticated audience. Teaching always helps me get back to basics, and to have my ideas hold on their own. Whether I am rehearsing an actual research paper to a student audience as a small part of a class, or just talking about something else, the ability to explain why things matter at a fundamental level is transferable, and something I believe best practice in teaching when the audience is right there all the time, and you need to check with them whether they are following the idea.
  • You can find the research angle for any class: yes, not every subject you teach will be directly related to what you are researching at the moment, or interested in researching in the foreseeable future. But you can still find ways to incorporate your research interests, in some fashion, in your teaching of any subject. To give a random personal example, I once caught myself teaching property law, and one of the classes was on property over the human body (a great way to discuss the limits of the field). As someone interested in cultural heritage law, I made said class partly about the case of a looted Buddha statue that, as it turns out, contained a mummy within. It was a case study or example in my own field of research, that got me thinking about the limits of the law in my own specialized field, and years later became a chapter in a monograph. Examples and case studies are your friends because they allow you to discuss something in which you are interested in your research, and, in having to frame it in the context of the broader law subject, you are forced to articulate the stakes of that specific example, why it matters, and what that case study says about the law more broadly. All of which are valuable skills for a researcher.
  • Be open to a two-way effect: sometimes you get to try out your research in teaching. Sometimes, your teaching ends up informing what new research you do. It has happened to me: I ended up writing an article challenging a number of assumptions in my field based on how a subject I taught made me think of many different dimensions of my specialized subfield to which no one was really paying attention holistically. So, be open to your teaching also informing your research agenda, which is another way for you to feel like the different parts of the job are connected in productive ways.

Teaching is so much fun, and rewarding, and makes us better researchers and humans. So, by all means, do it. Do not become one of those scholars for whom teaching is a chore best avoided. What you should avoid is the trap of making teaching separate from what you are passionate about in research, and you should instead embrace opportunities via teaching to chase your curiosity. And, remember, academia is first and foremost about training others, so put your students first, and rewards will flow to yourself as well.

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