Tuesday, April 3, 2012

ASIL Cable: Teaching International Law: Balancing Past and Present

The topic of last Friday’s session sponsored by the American Society of International Law Teaching International Law Interest Group (TILIG) was “Teaching International Law while Confronting Current Events.” That focus should be no surprise to ASIL members who teach. Most of us have thought about how or whether to“Confront Current Events.” “Hot topics” like Syria, statehood, decisions on state accountability for violence against women, and cyber security create buzz in the annual meeting hallways; they are also on the minds of Public International Law (PIL) students. IntLawGrrl Karen E. Bravo (below right), Professor of Law at Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis and TILIG Co-chair, posed questions that sparked a lively discussion:
1) How do PIL teachers react to current events that illustrate, refute, or elaborate on previously planned course coverage?
2) How is the nature and scope of PIL to be defined for classroom purposes when news coverage emphasizes gaps,ambiguities, ineffectiveness, or irrelevancies in international law?
3) How do professors address student concerns about apparent failures in the domestic application of international law?
Roundtable panelists represented a wide range of approaches to teaching, years of teaching experience, and types of academic institutions:
Dennis Mandsager, U.S. Naval War College
Deborah Pearlstein, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law,Yeshiva University
Mathias Reimann, University of Michigan Law School
Sonia E. Rolland, Northeastern University School of Law(and Vice Co-chair of the interest group)
Thomas Schoenbaum, George Washington University Law School
The audience was invited to participate, and did so actively and enthusiastically.Several key approaches, strategies, and controversies are highlighted here.

Using Current Events
Participants discussed the benefits and drawbacks of including current events in course materials or discussing them immediately in class. Among the concerns expressed were the potentially short shelf-life of any particular current event as useful for illustrating doctrinal or theoretical framework issues. Others noted the practical issues associated with constantly updating and staying well-informed about detailed aspects of current events. One panelist suggested using the ASIL publication 100 Ways International Law Improves Our Lives in course materials to illustrate relevance.Another suggested using hypotheticals with immediate relevance to students such as loss or damage to an expensive laptop under the Montreal Convention.

Most speakers and audience members,however, noted that they do try to use one or more contemporary events in their courses. Strategies ranged from using a select few such events (in a subfield familiar to the teacher) for case studies or problems. A political science teacher noted that she also found it helpful to post on-line articles from UN Wire and other sources by category on a classroom website.

Addressing Ambiguities, Gaps, and Controversies
Several participants remarked that the complexities of PIL can be overemphasized, given significant areas of progressive development and compliance. Others noted that analogous difficulties occur in rapidly developing domestic law fields such as Constitutional Law. Yet few challenge the “existence” of domestic constitutional law.

Classroom strategies suggested included using one or more case studies from doctrinally well-developed subfields early in the course to introduce foundational doctrines and frameworks. Others suggested assigning group projects later in the course that would allow students to apply rules and concepts learned early in the course.

Role of the PIL Teacher
There was quite an interesting discussion on how speakers see the role of PIL professors.
Should they be relatively neutral on the importance and efficacy of PIL? Should they, instead, see themselves as defenders of PIL as the primary mechanism to promote peaceful dispute resolution. Most agreed that PIL should be treated as one among several“tools in a toolbox.”

Power Politics, Scofflaws, and Judicial Resistance
Finally,there were divergent views on how, if at all, to respond to actual or perceived flagrant violations of agreed-upon international legal standards, failures to implement obligations on subnational levels, and impunity or long delayed enforcement. Participants suggested highlighting examples of “successful”enforcement and comparing instances of enforceability problems on the international levels with instances involving domestic law.

Broadening the Meaning of Enforcement
As a final matter, some panelists suggested the need to expand students’ perceptions about the meaning of “enforcement” and implementation” beyond the appellate court decisions they are used to reading in some domestic courses.They should be made aware of the full range of implementation and accountability mechanisms available under various categories of PIL.

TILIG Co-chair Bravo closed this very useful session by encouraging attendees to take advantage of upcoming projects and events, including a database on innovative approaches to teaching international law and a meeting in 2013 focused on the needs and insights of professors teaching international law and related subjects in non-law school settings. See the TILIG webpage for more.

(My heartfelt thanks to Deena Sharuk and Nicholas Turner for their assistance in posting this cable. This post is cross-posted here at ASIL Cables.)

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