A pedagogical philosophy?

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Some of my current and former students have nominated me for a teaching award. It goes without saying that I am flattered by the gesture. Recognition of the effort we put into our craft is a beautiful reward in its own right, particularly so for educators who are rarely celebrated in our mammon-centric society.

Admittedly, I am also a little troubled by the injection of celebrity / awards culture into academia. Anyone who has visited a university’s website in the past couple of years will have noticed the proliferation of titles associated with most tertiary institutions: ‘best university’, ‘friendliest staff’, ‘award-winning campus’, ‘award-winning facilities’, ‘award-winning research’, etc. I worry that lazy marketing tactics will ultimately corrupt genuine effort as we chase the accolades above the improvements that yield progress.

Despite my reservations, I remain flattered by my students’s initiative and was pleased when OUP contacted me for a statement. They asked me to describe, in less than 300 words, my approach to teaching. I admit that the exercise was a challenge. Articulating what a person does, often intuitively, is difficult enough. Doing so in the space of two sneezes is a grueling, albeit edifying, task.

I include my statement below. I do so not because I regard it as particularly insightful but because it provides a discussion point that I hope to engage with others and a point of departure for my future reflection / scholarship on tertiary education.

As always, comments, whether public or private, are of course welcome.

‘Dear members of the judging panel:

My approach to teaching is inspired by Harry Kroto’s enquiring mind-set. I presume that, like myself, students study law in a spirit of curiosity. We have questions about society and seek answers in law. Our curiosity is supplemented with observation, doubt, and exploration, all of which combine to drive our understanding of the world to new heights.

Just as enquiry is a means to understanding, understanding is a pathway to progress. Greater understanding begets new possibilities, both for the individual and the collective. It is here that self-interest coincides with solidarity: personal edification as a precursor to social evolution. Deeper knowledge about the world enables us to distinguish between the society we have and the society we want.

To stimulate students’s enquiring mind-set, I adopt a sociolegal approach to teaching that rests upon three trinities:

1) Text, subtext, and context

2) Nature, logic, and language

3) Lecturing, problem-solving, and inter-teaching

First, I build my lessons around a sociolegal frame providing students with grounding in text (law), subtext (purpose), and context (circumstance). A layered method enhances student awareness of the many factors that envelop law-making, inferring interdependence between rationale, culture, and epoch.

Next, I require that students grapple with law’s ontology. Our examinations traverse the nature of rights-duties, the logic underpinning them, and the language in which they are articulated. We test our understanding by imagining alternatives and measuring these against the desired outcomes. ‘What is’ is corralled by ‘what is not’ and ‘what could be’.

I deploy three teaching methods to realise both trinities. While I value my own knowledge, I recognise the contribution that students can make to their and their peers’s learning. Lecturing is thus flanked by group problem-solving exercises. By nurturing collaboration, students become proactive in their learning, an attitude that may flow into their lives beyond university.

Yours,

Mohsen al Attar’

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