‘Just Encounters’: The Minutes of Evidence Project

I spent a fascinating day at the State Library of Victoria on friday hearing about the ARC-funded ‘Minutes of Evidence’ (MoE) Project.The MoE website describes the project in these terms:

It is a unique collaboration between researchers, education experts, performance artists and community and government agencies that seeks to promote greater awareness of the effects of settler colonialism and a more open consideration of how to live together justly in the future. Through a bold, multi-disciplinary approach that brings together research, education and performance, the Minutes of Evidence project highlights the local and broader significance of the 1881 Parliamentary Coranderrk Inquiry by examining how notions of justice have been formulated, invoked and confronted over time and space, and how the enduring legacies of past injustices continue into the present – despite official responses designed to redress them – so as to foster new ways of thinking about structural justice in the present and future. 

I’d heard about the project whilst still in the UK, but this was my first opportunity to properly engage with it. The event was a day conference called ‘Just Encounters: Bringing Together Education, Arts and Research’ which showcased the work the project has been doing over the last four years to reconstruct the formal record of the Coranderrk Inquiry – the Minutes of Evidence of the project title – into a work of “verbatim theatre”, to develop a set of teaching resources on Coranderrk for teachers of history and civics in schools, and to use it as a vehicle to reflect on and engage with issues of ‘structural justice’. Structural justice, it should be said, can be seen as a sub-set of social justice, focussed in this context on redressing the historical and structural harms caused by settler colonialism.

The Coranderrk Inquiry itself was an extraordinary event for its time. Coranderrk was the name given in the 1860s to one of the most liberal and successful of the Aboriginal reserves established in the colony to receive surviving members of the Aboriginal clans that had been displaced by colonial expansion and settlement. In 1874 the sympathetic (European) manager of Coranderrk, John Green, was removed for his opposition to a plan by the so-called Board for the Protection of Aborigines to remove the Aboriginal population and release the 4000+ acres of the station for use by white settler farmers. Under the leadership of their headmen, William Barak and Thomas Bamfield (Birdarak), the Coranderrk residents mobilised into a powerful political protest movement over a period of several years. By adopting the techniques of white political (written) discourse to bring attention to their campaign for self-determination, they forced the state to take notice and set-up a Parliamentary Commission to inquire into their complaints and determine the future of the station. Before the Commissioners, the Coranderrk families succeeded in having the new manager dismissed and, ultimately, in getting Coranderrk formally recognised as a permanent reserve. Their victory was, however, shortlived, as the Victorian government responded by passing the apartheid ‘Half-Caste Act’ of 1886, which forced younger mixed-race men and women off of the reserves and (nominally) into the white population, breaking up families and forcing Coranderrk into a process of slow decline, finally closing in 1924.

The event on Friday included a staged reading of extracts from the verbatim play Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country, written by Giordano Nanni (of Melbourne Uni) and Yorta Yorta/Kurnai playwright, Andrea James, and produced by La Mama Theatre. It was extraordinarly powerful. If anything the device of verbatim theatre, and the knowledge that you were hearing the testimony of witnesses in the words spoken 130 odd years ago added to the poigniancy, and reminded me powerfully of some of the ideas and effects explored in Edinburgh as part of the Beyond Text in Legal Education project (see my earlier post here; though verbatim theatre was not an approach we considered in that context, it can clearly be used, like techniques such as theatre of the oppressed, to foster engagement with, not just awareness of, enduring injustice). Moreover, having coincidentally spent part of last week exploring the Mabo case with my legal theory students, I was doubly confronted after Coranderrk with the historical and contemporary reality of structural injustices on which a one-time colonial state like Australia was and continues to be built. The script has been published as a book by the Aboriginal studies Press (Canberra, 2013). Get it if you can.      

Beyond Text Conference – Edinburgh

I was up in Edinburgh this weekend, having been invited by Zenon Bankowski to be a commentator (along with Tony Bradney) on papers that he and Maks Del Mar had written for the opening of their conference, Beyond Text in Legal Education. The conference was the final event in a series of activities that have formed a project funded by the AHRC as part of its Beyond Text programme. Day 1, Saturday, focused on ‘theory’. Sunday focused on ‘practice’. It was a really excellent and engaging event. Most of those attending have been participants in earlier stages, and it was a really good, international, mix of people – academics (not all law), legal practitioners and practitioners in the arts, and these are by no means mutually exclusive categories – like I said, it’s a really interesting group.  Paul Maharg has written an excellent general review of the whole event at Zeugma, but there are three particular elements of the first day that I’d like to focus on here.

Zen and Maks’s opening papers made a distinction between the education of attention and the education of encounter. I like that distinction; it seems to ‘work’ as a phenomenological account and has practical (and ethical) resonance, and application. Attention (drawing on thinkers such as Iris Murdoch, Simone Weil, Martin Buber, and Roland Raymond Gaita) emerged as an encounter of close attentiveness to objects and contexts (Murdoch) – of objects (including persons) as things in themselves and in their settings, and an openness to experience that is both detached and loving (Weil). Attention is I understand it from their presentations seems, almost paradoxically, to be both passive in its openness, its ability to wait (attendre) and “receive in its naked truth the object which is to penetrate [our thought]” (Weil), and active, in a sense of both active contemplation, and as a responsiveness, a readiness to receive and care for (again attendre) another. This links to the importance of encounter. The encounter with another is understood as more than just an idealized encounter. It is the (actual and embodied) context in which attention happens. Without encounter we have no call to attend, but attention also enables us to come, openly, patiently, and trustingly, to encounter. The question then is how do we build the practices of attention and encounter within the law school?

A number of suggestions emerged out of the later sessions. I’ll focus on just a couple of the sessions here, the two that were the most interactive (and I appreciate this is no coincidence, it not just reflects my bias towards active learning, but I think these also worked well in demonstrating the potential for taking attention and encounter beyond text. Alan Lerner (U. Pennsylvania) took us through an exercise in which he gave us a fact scenario and then asked us quickly to rate the culpability of the five actors on a scale of 1-5 indicating least to most culpable (with no split votes or shared scores). I won’t entirely spoil the story, but the point was, when we compared results, that there was no single actor who didn’t have both ones and fives, and pretty much everything in between. Alan made the point that neuroscience demonstrates that our responses are based primarily on emotion – the emotional response ‘kicks-in’ before the rational brain can take charge – and also that such emotional factors are hard to dislodge. Indeed Alan seemed to be suggesting that on the whole the rational brain serves to offer post-hoc justification for the original emotional response. The implications of this for understanding the dynamics of encounter, and the role that emotion plays in encounter are fairly evident, but no less significant for that.

The other session I’d like to focus on was one introduced by Jim Moser of Dundas & Wilson, and led by Antony Psaila and Tor Clark from Steps Drama. Steps use improvisation and interactive drama (based on a model we later learned was called ‘forum theatre’) to explore conflict in organizations. Starting from a basic brief they improvised two interactions – one between a lecturer and a student upset by a mark she had obtained in a group assignment, and the other between a law firm partner and senior associate over the latter’s exclusion from a project team. In both scenarios our role was to observe, discuss, and provide the actors with advice on what to do next, and then watch the consequences of our advice unfold. There were some definite ‘there but for the grace of god…’ moments! What differentiated it from more conventional role play was that the actors stayed in role pretty much throughout, which was more engaging and I think gave us a much greater sense of being in the moment with the characters. The level of debate and discussion these exercises generated in our group was clear testament to the power of the technique. It also showed what could be done by skilled actor-facilitators who had really honed their skills of attention and had created scenarios that avoided easy, two dimensional (good/bad) categorization of their character’s motivations. Great stuff!

Amsterdam or anywhere, Leicester not Rome… from ALT to SLSA

I’m in the midst of busy bout of conferencing having flown back on Monday evening from two days at the Association of Law Teachers’ Annual Conference in Amsterdam, to drive up to Leicester yesterday morning for the Socio-Legal Studies Association bash, which runs till Thursday at de Montfort University – so four nights away from home broken up by a night at home to empty and re-fill the suitcase… can’t say I find that quite as much fun as I used to!

I’m not doing a paper at SLSA this year, ‘just’ representing UKCLE and managing our display stand, but it will be nice to have an opportunity to sit back and engage with other people’s papers, rather than having to think about my own, especially as there are three legal education panels today and tomorrow, to add to the two legal profession panels I attended yesterday – more about that in a later post.

There were some interesting papers at ALT too, but I was particularly pleased to be part of an innovation: a plenary poster session! The session, which opened the conference on Sunday afternoon was organised by Paul Maharg and Caroline Maughan as part of an ongoing project on legal education and the affective domain. The plan is ultimately to produce a book of essays on this theme, and nine out of about a dozen or so contributors attended. Paul talks about the process and design of the session over at Zeugma. The session seemed to generate a lot of interest – to be honest probably more than I’d expected, which is, of course, very heartening, and would seem to confirm that we are picking up on a significant issue for law teaching. The posters and the discussion which followed also made it even more clear what a potentially massive project (can of worms??) affect is! There are multiple theoretical dimensions, drawing on combinations of psychology, neuro-biology, cognitive science, philosophy, sociology and social theory, and equally a vast array of applications and implications – for specific law subjects, for different stages or aspects of the both the student and the academic experience, plus quite a lot of underlying uncertainty about the scope of affect and the affective domain, and its relationship with emotion, the body, etc. Pulling this collection together will be an interesting challenge. To add to that (and I think if we can do it, it will enhance the quality of the product) Paul and Caroline are keen that draft chapters are shared via a wiki so that all authors can comment on the work in progress, and there might even be scope for collaborative editing/re-writing. As book projects go it is thus developing a very distinctive methodology, as well as some highly original content.