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!