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!


Goodbye to Berlin

As I mentioned in my last blog, I’ve not long been back from a few days in Berlin, combining the Law & Society Association/Research Committee for Sociology of Law conference with a weekend away with the divine Ms B.

The conference itself was massive, held at the Humboldt University (pictured). Running over five days there were easily over 2000 delegates and (someone told me) nearly 40 parallel streams. I managed to attend about eight: a mixture of legal ethics, legal profession and social theory streams. One of the reasons I went was that there was a lot of systems theory happening, with a number of well-established names performing – Gunther Teubner, Michael King, Jean Clam, and my former colleague and continuing friend John Paterson to name but a few, and systems theory is relevant to my slowly progressing book project on Law, Complexity and Globalization. There was relatively little legal education, or at least not in a coordinated fashion. It was mostly odd papers scattered across streams, which made it more difficult to follow it as a theme. Unfortunately one legal education session that had been coordinated by my Brit colleagues Fiona Cownie and Tony Bradney clashed with my own paper (‘Socio-Legal Studies, Transdisciplinarity and the Challenge of Complexity’) which partly rehashed and partly developed ideas I’d previous published in Michael Freeman’s Current Legal Issues volume on Law and Sociology (Oxford UP, 2006).

Still, legal education wasn’t the primary purpose of my going this time, and it was an interesting event. One of the things that I found interesting was the very clear sense I got of the growing split between European and US approaches to socio-legal scholarship. This may not have been everyone’s experience of the conference of course; I did attend a number of sessions that focussed on quite distinctively European theories or themes, at which US attendance – and certainly participation – was significantly less, and that may have skewed my view. But I was certainly struck by the degree to which in a couple of theory sessions the Europeans (including the Brits) were operating in a very different theoretical space from the US Americans. A lot of the US law and society project still seems very much caught up with a strongly positivist social science or liberal political philosophy.

IP and communities of practice

I spent a long but interesting day yesterday in Birmingham with a group of Intellectual Property teachers (OK, that may not be your notion of interesting, but, please, suspend your disbelief for a moment, not least because they were a nice group of people….)

The event was the inaugural workshop of the European Intellectual Property Teachers’ Network, an informal grouping that has grown out of an equally informal UK-based group that has met fairly regularly over the last six or seven years. The event itself was pretty packed, with two keynotes (from Steve Rowan, Director of Intellectual Property Policy at the UK Intellectual Property Office, and Marielle Piana from the European Patent Academy of the EPO) and four panel sessions. The spread of subject matter was also quite broad, with much discussion of appropriate content, design and delivery: the place of history, generalist vs specialist modules, problem-based learning, virtual delivery, and so on. Interdisciplinarity was a strong theme (music to my socio-legal ears!), recognising the extent to which an understanding of IP policy and practice benefits from, perhaps even necessitates, a strongly interdisciplinary approach. The need to teach IP management skills and issues also emerged from a couple of presentations, including an impressive example from the Technical University of Munich of the way in which student motivation and learning could be stimulated by a deep, problem-based, approach to learning using case studies based on real high-tech companies.

In a way what was most exciting for me was not so much the content (I’m not an IP lawyer) but that the event happened at all, and that it brought together people teaching aspects of IP from different countries, different disciplinary backgrounds, and for different purposes. In my experience its quite unusual to find a group of HE people from across a field of study like this meeting to talk about teaching and learning. There was certainly a sense of interest and engagement in the debates and a willingness to sharing ideas, and I have little doubt that the shared IP context enhanced the feeling of participation in a common enterprise. Full credit to Claire Howell (Aston Business School) and Duncan Matthews (Queen Mary, University of London) for pulling it all together.

The event has got me thinking rather more concretely about something that I’ve come across increasingly frequently lately – the idea of communities of practice (CoP). The term itself seems to have been coined by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger and used extensively in their book Situated Learning (Cambridge University Press, 1991). (In a later book -Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning and Identity, Cambridge University Press, 1998 – Wenger goes on to explore the notion of a CoP in much greater depth.)

Lave and Wenger’s work starts from the supposition that all learning is social and comes primarily from our experience of participating in daily life as a series of engagements with others in joint enterprises. From this perspective, at its simplest, a community of practice is a group of individuals participating in shared activity which is characterised by collective or collaborative learning. This process of “mutual engagement” in fact comes to define both the practice and the community itself. Communities thus develop over time around things that matter to the people involved. They develop a ‘shared repertoire’ of communal resources and symbols that carry the accumulated knowledge and experience of the group. Rather instrumentally, they interest me because they sound like potentially powerful mechanisms for sharing knowledge, solving problems and innovating.

I’m not sure that I know enough about CoPs yet to differentiate this concept from a lot of other work on organisational learning, but Wenger’s sensitivity to social complexity and what seems to be a strongly constructionist view of the world are, for me, intuitively appealing and I think the label itself is quite powerful. At UKCLE we are very much focussed on supporting the needs of our subject community. While I think that’s an important focus and a useful shorthand for us, not least to remind us where our primary responsibility lies, it is descriptively and developmentally rather a blunt notion. Even within law as a single discipline there is a multiplicity of more or less well defined ‘communities’ and interests which overlay what I suspect may still be a pretty individualistic sense of what it is to be a ‘law teacher’. Could CoPs be a useful way of not just thinking (‘sociologically’) about how sub-disciplinary cultures evolve, but a means of actually constructing and developing sub-disciplinary interests and activities? (The Society of Legal Scholars’ Subject Sections in the UK – broadly akin to AALS Sections in the US – perhaps perform some of that function already, but probably not all of it). Indeed, can you construct a CoP or is it more an emergent property of a field or organisation? What features appear to sustain and grow a CoP? One of the questions at the end of yesterday’s event, not surprisingly was, “what next”, and the CoP literature might generate some interesting ideas. I’ll try and write some more about this when I have more time, and have been able to do some more spadework!