Illustration of classroom

Experimenting with new ways of teaching is fueling innovative courses and creative delivery—beyond books and lectures. Here’s what four professors are working on

By Karen Gross / Illustration by Kotryna Zukauskaite

From the Fall/Winter 2017 issue of Nexus

When Joe McGrade, JD 2016, looks back on his years at law school, the class he remembers as one of his favourites was also one of the least traditional. Co-taught by Prof. Benjamin Alarie, JD 2002, and serial entrepreneur Daniel Debow, JD/MBA 2000, Looking Ahead: The Blurred Lines of Technology, Body and Mind, did exactly that. “It gave us a window into the world of technology that I haven’t had since or before, so it was very cool,” McGrade says. “And I got to write a paper on how you would regulate autonomous killer robots which was by far the coolest paper I wrote in law school. How often do you get to think about these issues?”

It may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but the technologies Debow and Alarie address—including gene editing, self-driving cars and, yes, warfare with autonomous weapons—are emerging at an at exponential rate. “Our systems for creating law, policy, and regulation evolved over a period of time when technology did not change anywhere near as fast,” Debow says. Which means many lawyers and policymakers are scrambling to keep up with the onslaught of emerging technologies and to prepare for the inevitable consequences.“The class in many ways is like ‘ripped from the headlines’,” Debow says. “Since we started it three years ago, things we talked about as experiments are now rolling out.”

The class itself is something of an experiment, spun from a course Debow says changed his own life when he was an LLM student at Stanford in 2004. Not only is the teaching model unusual, pairing an academic with a practitioner who was never called to the bar, but so are the participants. Enrollment is open to graduate students in any field at the university, which brings a range of experience and perspective rarely seen in most other law courses. “The openness of our course is something that, if not unique, is extremely unusual,” Alarie says. “So it’s not just on the teaching side where we have experts. It’s also the people in the seats, who come from all across campus and a whole range of disciplines.”  Add to that a roster of top tier academics, policy-makers and guest speakers from industries at the cutting edge, and the long wait list is hardly surprising. “For students it’s really quite memorable because it’s quite an engaging experience,” Alarie says. “We’ve had fantastically good course evaluations. Students feel really involved and invested.”    

Red line

Looking Ahead is just one example of a widening range of innovations in teaching at the law school, often spearheaded by professors who want to engage students on a more interactive and imaginative level than the traditional lecture model tends to encourage. As manager of experiential education, lawyer Kim Snell occupies a newly created staff position at the Faculty of Law dedicated to supporting and facilitating those efforts. “One of the things I do is help professors innovate experiences in a particular course,” she says. “That might look like a field trip, or it might look like a different experiential teaching technique they want to try in the classroom.” 

Experiential learning @UTLaw: Prof. Emon’s legal ethics course visited the specialized courts at Old City Hall, and artist Tanya Murdoch captured the day in this sketch.

When Prof. Emon’s legal ethics course visited the
specialized courts at Old City Hall, artist Tanya
Murdoch captured the day in this sketch. Click the
image for full sized version.

Professor Anver Emon enlisted Snell’s expertise when he wanted to take his Legal Ethics class beyond the theoretical boundaries of campus thought, to the places where real issues are considered and practically addressed. “The idea was to use the city of Toronto as part of our classroom experience,” Emon says. Students rode the subway to the Law Society of Ontario, where they met with the people who actually regulate the legal profession to talk about what they do, what leadership means in law, and what motivates their decisions. “A lot of what happens in legal ethics is really around what lawyers are supposed to do as lawyers, what they are not supposed to do,” Emon says. “I thought we should first study why professions regulate themselves. And let’s go to the very heart and soul of the body to whom you’re going to owe a certain type of allegiance.” As part of the exercise, Emon assigned readings for all the participantsand asked the regulators to do the same. Both groups commented on each other’s materials when they met. “The idea is no one gets to be the expert. We’re seeing ourselves through another person’s institutional eyes.”

They followed that with a trip to Old City Hall, where the class met with judges from three specialized courts—Mental Health, Drug Treatment and Gladue—and observed hearings in each. “The court visits forced us to think about ways in which the law can and cannot think systemically,” Emon says. “On the one hand, we got a sense of the varied nature of legal practise. But we also got a sense that ethics cannot simply be about client management, or lawyer-client relations, or about lawyer to lawyer engagement. It has to be about thinking more broadly about improvements in our society and challenging traditional responses to failures of the justice system.” Emon is using his extensive notes from the two trips as a kind of text for the rest of the year’s discussions. “As a trial run I want to see what’s possible,” he says. “The question will be how do we interpret the text, not just in the particular moment we’re there, but in every class we have after that.”

Red line

After teaching Wrongful Convictions for more than a decade, Professor Kent Roach, LLB 1987, was also considering ways to improve and update his course. A longtime advocate and expert in the rights of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system, Roach had published groundbreaking research exposing the effects of wrongful convictions on Indigenous people in Canada and Australia. He wanted to recalibrate. “I felt that looking at it with critical race theory in mindprovided fresh insights to a field that’s been around for 15 years or so,” Roach says. “Also, having worked on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I thought it was important for us to look at some of these racial issues related to Indigenous overrepresentation in the criminal justice system.”

Roach invited his former student Amanda Carling, JD 2012, to teach with him. The two had kept in touch after she’d gone on to article at what is now Innocence Canada, and then continued working there leading outreach and education mainly with First Nations communities. Currently manager of the Indigenous Initiatives Officeat the law school, Carling is also a descendant of the Red River Métis. “Whenever you have two teachers before a class, students can see there is a diversity of approaches and perspectives in a way that’s really powerful,” Roach says.

Kent Roach has so much under his belt and a lot to say on this topic. But Amanda, as an Indigenous woman who had also worked at Innocence Canada, brought a really different and very necessary perspective to the course

Roach and Carling set the tone by inviting Maria Shepherd and her son, Jordan, to speak at their first class. Maria Shepherd was one of several people who’d been wrongfully convicted on evidence presented by the disgraced pathologist Charles Smith. In 1992, she’d pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the death of her three-year-old daughter, Kasandra. Her conviction was overturned in 2016. “We started on a note of making sure that women and people of colour are heard in the class,” Carling says. “Most wrongful conviction cases that we study in Canada are white men, and those are not the people who are most vulnerable. What made our class different was really focusing on the fact that white men are the tip of the iceberg. We started to dive under the ocean.”

That fresh approach brought a new guest speaker to the third hour of almost every class, including a visit by former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iaccobucci. Carling’s input and impact drew raves from students like SuJung Lee, Class of 2019. “The class was amazing,” she says. “Kent Roach has so much under his belt and a lot to say on this topic. But Amanda, as an Indigenous woman who had also worked at Innocence Canada, brought a really different and very necessary perspective to the course.” Her relative youth and enthusiasm brought added value too, according to Lee. “Because she was relatively new to teaching and to the legal profession, I appreciated the time she took to explain everything. Sometimes if you’re really immersed in a subject, you can lose sight of what people who are not as immersed don’t know.”

The semester ended with the class of 30 forming a sharing circle, a common ceremony in Indigenous communities,which was Carling’s idea. Roach thought it was perfect. “I think at times academics, including myself, can lose sight of the real people who are behind these cases. Amanda brought an appreciation of both the practical and human sides of the questions we were looking at.”

Red line

Professor Lisa Austin is literally reaching across the world to bring a truly global perspective to her Privacy Problems class, which considers the fundamentals of data protection law. After teaching last summer at the University of Tel Aviv’s Buchmann Faculty of Law, Austin invited her host and colleague there, Professor Michael Birnhack, to partner with her in an exciting experiment. Together, the two devised a curriculum spanning two countries, two time zones, two school schedules, and a variety of cultures and languages. “We wanted to have a conversation looking at how data protection works in these two different jurisdictions around shared problems,” Austin says. “Because our terms are different and our times are different, we have a shared set of materials that we’re teaching our home group independently.”

But the home groups come together through five team projects, each matching students from Toronto with students from Tel Aviv. All will be focused around problems involving the “smart city” theme and the teams will have to figure out how they want tocollaborate. Two weeks are set aside for shared classrooms, connected via video conference and featuring teaching and presentations by the students. Projects are due at the end of the term. “It’s a lot of new stuff,” Austin says, referring not just to the class, but to the subject matter as well. “Particularly in privacy law there are a lot of emerging issues and the smart city context would be one of them. It’s not as if there’s this body of case law to apply.”

While adding the international component could complicate things logistically, Austin is banking on a windfall in terms of educational benefits. “Privacy and especially data protection law is increasingly a global conversation,” she says. “We have regimes that operate in very different legal jurisdictions and there are cultural differences too. But there are also very strong similarities and to really explore the extent of both as well as emerging global norms, is an interesting conversation.”

Back at her office in the Jackman Law Building, Kim Snell contrasts the law school’s traditional teaching methodwith the creative future she imagines. “It would probably surprise our alumni, the types of innovations that we have going on in the classroom,” she says. “I think of it very broadly as looking for ways to bring in different lenses, expose our students to different experiences, different approaches, different disciplines. I really applaud the professors who are innovating. It can be risky. But I think these are risks worth taking.”

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