Critical Pedagogy Symposium: Is Attempting to Teach Critical Legal Scholarship Virtually the Real Pandemic?

Critical Pedagogy Symposium: Is Attempting to Teach Critical Legal Scholarship Virtually the Real Pandemic?

[Florence Shako is a Lecturer at Riara Law School, LLM (LSE), LLB (UoN), Advocate, MCIArb, CS, CPA.]

Formal education was introduced in Kenya by Western missionaries, as an instrument for advancing the civilising mission. However, in the years of colonial rule, no facility for legal education was established. This is curious given that the period witnessed significant expansion of public as well as private institutions, and the lawyer’s role in instrumentalisation as well as in the processing of claims was an inescapable reality. Professor Twining identifies the “official reason” for the colonial policy: “it was more important to train engineers, doctors and agriculturalists than lawyers.” Self-professed benevolence is often deceptive and Twinning also remarked that allowing “Africans to read law as a preparation for a career in politics…would be self-destructive for a colonial government.” The University of Nairobi, established in 1970, was thus the first University to offer a degree in Bachelor of Law in postcolonial Kenya.

Offered as part of the degree, public international law was designed to enable students to appreciate traditional approaches to regulating relations between states as well as modern aspects such as globalization and their relevance in today’s world. To date, however, international law is mainly taught from a European perspective with the bulk of the textbooks written by European scholars. Both the literature and the pedagogy remain rife with exclusions and distortions of indigenous knowledge, voices, critiques and scholars. For a rising number of scholars from the African continent including myself, the need to introduce critical legal scholarship such as TWAIL into the teaching of international law is essential if scholars are to reverse the erasure colonized people were subjected to in the past (and the present).

In my earlier work, I elaborated on strategies for decolonizing the classroom. I argued that this act has a double-purpose: to dismantle the legacies of empire and to keep Eurocentric predilections in check. In my classroom, I endeavor to introduce literature written by African scholars to make room for African voices. This is vital in unpacking international law discourses and giving relevant context to its history. I understand these to be critical steps towards countering Eurocentrism, particularly in African institutions. In this post, I would like to take myself and the conversation a little further.

Challenges of Teaching Critically in a Virtual Classroom

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the use of virtual platforms as a means of teaching legal courses. In Kenya, the restrictions include physical closure of universities until 2021 and a ban on in-person learning. While most of us are adapting, virtual teaching introduces unique challenges when teaching international law critically. During in-person interactions, the Socratic method proves effective in sparking curiosity and ideation among students. This is useful for critical pedagogy because it allows the students to engage with the literature and each other in meaningful ways. The teacher is also able to make important interventions and provocations. 

In contrast, when teaching virtually, the medium lends itself to traditional lecturing modes such as the banking method, which curtails the scope of critique and engagement. The lecturer deposits knowledge into passive students before they log out and off. Even when learning activities are introduced, the students are less motivated to apply the knowledge outside the virtual classroom. This is attributable to many factors, including being isolated at home, far from the teacher and other students. Online teaching and learning can easily erode the gains achieved through in-person teaching: namely, discursive pedagogy and critical engagement.

Another challenge is the disconnect students feel from teachers and peers. Without in-person interactions, it is difficult for the teacher to gauge the comprehension and interest of the students. Communication without visual cues is challenging at the best of times and often leads to misunderstanding. Think of the proverbial telephone call or, worse, text exchange. How often do we misunderstand the content or tone of the conversation using these methods? The absence of visual cues also makes it difficult for students to cooperate in group work or to deliberate the lessons. The lack of physical presence stifles the natural evolution of discussions that would otherwise have happened, especially when exposed to critical scholarship that thrives on disrupting accepted knowledge.

In all of this, keeping students motivated week after week and sufficiently to submit their assessments is an uphill task. This is not just a question of boredom but also of the inevitable hiccoughs that occur on virtual platforms. Some students will fall behind, through no fault of their own (e.g. slow connections). And playing catch-up can be demoralising, especially in a course that frequently interrogates the Eurocentric moorings of a discipline through their lived experiences.

Thinking Through These Challenges

We must rethink teaching and learning strategies if we are to engage effectively with students when teaching international law. New pedagogical approaches, learning and technological tools are necessary. The same is true for course design and  assessment in the online environment.  Unlike a campus course that meets once or twice a week, an online course is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and learning is continuous and asymmetric. I do not purport to have all the answers or even the right ones in these unprecedented times. Instead, I reflect on some salient ideas that all of us can ideate on together.

One of the strategies I am experimenting with is problem-based learning. Problem-based learning (PBL) is a student-centered pedagogy in which students learn about a concept through engagement with open-ended problems. PBL is focused, experiential learning organized around the investigation, explanation, and resolution of meaningful problems where students work in small collaborative groups and learn what they need to know in order to solve a problem. The teacher acts as a facilitator to guide student learning. The students are presented with a problem scenario. They formulate and analyze the problem by identifying the relevant facts from the scenario. This fact-identification step helps students represent the problem. As students understand the problem better, they generate hypotheses about possible solutions.

Another strategy is to introduce what I term ‘feedback loops’. At predetermined points in the course, I provide a critical piece of scholarship and juxtapose this against its doctrinal counterpart. I then ask students to draft short, stream-of-consciousness reflection pieces. After reading them, I offer specific feedback on their thinking – rather than their writing – and encourage further engagement. Short pieces and feedback loops strengthen rapport between students and lecturer while enabling my tracking of their comprehension. It also helps me identify students who are falling behind. Feedback loops can improve student learning.

Interestingly, and perhaps in opposition to what others have suggested, the pivot to online teaching presents a real opportunity to incorporate critical approaches to international law teaching. To return to my earlier point, Kenyan law schools rely heavily on European texts that dominate library shelves. One is hard pressed to find works by critical legal scholars, and they are not first picks in the library procurement process. With more students adapting to online material, more critical legal scholarship becomes available through institutional subscriptions to e-resources or open access platforms. We can use this to our advantage and encourage students to interrogate the mainstream narrative by introducing scholarship from Global South scholars. It is a promising approach to decolonizing the classroom, at least at the level of reading lists.

My final suggestion is general: to bolster the amount of student interaction and collaboration. One way of doing this is by organising debates involving students as interlocutors for contrasting pieces and authors. This demands that students appreciate the viewpoints that undergird the material. Technology is helpful for stimulating student engagement. Tools such as response systems (e.g. polling, breakout rooms, etc.) can help create an active learning environment and enable students to engage with material critically. While students tend to ‘rebel’ against constant assignments, regular activities are essential in the virtual environment to retain a certain momentum of interest.  To placate their frustration, I favor short reflection essays on a range of topics. A word of caution: where assessments are given, flexible timelines and feedback loops will counter the tendency toward inertia. 

An Introspective Conclusion

After nine years in academia, I am aware of my biases and methodological preferences. It is normal to become comfortable with our existing pedagogy when we use the same methods for a decade. However, the world has changed and it will not change back.

Teachers of international law, especially of critical international law, must also become learners. A teacher who learns about new technology, learns about pedagogy. We develop new learning activities and hopefully, greater empathy toward our students. In embracing the challenge to learn ourselves, we inadvertently help students to appreciate critical international law and engage in critical arguments and draw their own analysis and conclusions. Through new pedagogies, we move towards inclusive African narratives and prevent the silences and distortions of Eurocentric learning, even in virtual spaces.

As Chinua Achebe said, until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.

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Featured, General, Public International Law, Symposia, Technology, Themes
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