Tuesday, March 27, 2007

My Classes

I haven’t posted anything about my classes lately, so I wanted to catch everyone up. I’m really pleased with how everything is going.

I was warned before coming here that it is very difficult to get Chinese students to talk in class. They are shy about their English ability, they are taught from a very early age not to argue with or challenge the teacher, the tradition in law schools here is for professors to just lecture, and they have to be worried about whether the things they say in class will be reported (by other students) to the powers that be. But it's important for me to get them to talk, since it is frankly boring just to lecture! It’s also about the only way I can figure out if they are understanding the material.

So I decided we’d do moot court arguments in class. [Moot court is basically pretend oral argument before the United States Supreme Court]. That way, they would have to talk, and they would be making the arguments that the lawyer representing their side of the case would make, not their own arguments, which was a form of plausible deniability.

We’ve been talking about Congressional power – Article I of the U.S. Constitution. So last Thursday I assigned them the famous 1819 case of M'Culloch v. Maryland -- does Congress have the power to incorporate a bank, which is really about how broad or narrow the power of Congress to legislate should be, not really about banks at all . I told half the class to represent M'Culloch and half to represent Maryland. And I was THRILLED by the quantity and quality of the presentations. I actually got everyone representing M'Culloch to speak! We ran out of time before the other side could argue, but they'll have a shot this week.

I think it helped in getting them talking that my class is small, and we did the whole formulaic "may it please the court" and introduce yourself thing, [traditionally, moot court arguments all start, "May it please the court, my name is So-and-So, and together with my partner, Thus-and-Such, I represent M'Culloch in this case. Our three main points are . . . "] so everyone at least had something to say right off. But they all made at least one substantive argument, and I even asked questions of those who had higher English skills, and they managed to give answers, admittedly simple, but definitely on point. And they were definitely willing to challenge me (in the role of judge) in their roles as attorneys.

And it helps that they were motivated -- I'm making them all do a moot court argument as 20% of their grade, and this was an opportunity for no-penalty practice.

One funny thing, I had a lot of complaints from the students representing the state of Maryland that it was hard to argue Maryland's points, because everyone knows Maryland lost, and so they were arguing wrong law! And the one student who was able to make an argument on behalf of Maryland before we ran out of time came up after class to assure me that she knew that she was "saying things that were not true." I guess they can’t quite grasp the concept that the U.S. Supreme Court is right because it is final, it isn’t final because it’s right!

I had to lay a lot of groundwork about the differences between trial and appellate courts, and even what judicial opinions were, but they seemed to have grasped it and ran with it!

All in all, I enjoyed it (and that's the important thing, isn't it?!), and I think they got something out of it, too.

In Women in American Law, I had three faculty members sitting in on my class – can’t imagine why! We talked about the legal status of women in Anglo-American tradition prior to reforms in the 1800s, the fact that women essentially ceased to have a legal existence after marriage, and therefore could not own property, sue or be sued, enter into contracts, etc. This was all quite foreign to them – in some ways having a “rule of law” come late to your country allows you to skip that stage in the LEGAL treatment of women, no matter how badly you treat women in FACT.

As we discussed the first wave of feminism in the U.S. in the 1800s, leading to the Married Women’s Property Acts and ultimately the right of women to vote, and the second wave of feminism in the U.S. in the 1960s, I mentioned that at one time help wanted ads in the newspapers were segregated into “Help Wanted—Men” and “Help Wanted—Women” sections. One of the faculty members said that that was pretty much how it worked currently in China, that employers were very open about saying they only wanted men for a certain position or only wanted women for a certain position. She said that it was against the law to do so – that the law in China mandated equality for men and women – but that there was a great difference between the law and actual practice. I’ve heard that theme from other faculty members, both here and at the conference in Guangzhou, that looking at the law books in China gives you the picture of an ideal society, with very progressive laws. But the laws rarely translate to operation on the ground. To differing degrees, you could probably say that about all countries. Here, however, it is a pretty serious problem.

I'm handing out their first essay assignment this week -- I'm asking them to discuss Chinese retirement law, which mandates age 50 as the retirement age for women and age 55 for men, in light of our classroom discussions and readings about feminist legal theories. I'm really looking forward to what they have to say.

The hardest part of preparing for classes is that I'm basically putting together my own materials as we go along. The students really can't read very many pages in English and still get something out of it. So I'm having to edit cases down to the bare bones -- even more editing than you'd find in most casebooks in American law schools. And I'm having to do it all at least a week in advance, so I can hand out the reading in class for the next week's class. This isn't how I'm used to operating -- I've usually got the whole semester mapped out, with a pretty detailed syllabus as a roadmap. But I've got a lot more flexibility this way, and can tailor the classes to the students' interests and abilities. Still, it is a LOT of work! But I'm loving it!


Anonymous said...

Hey Malinda! I love your blog and love reading about your experiences! Zoe and Maya seem to have really settled in and seem to be having a good time. I hadn't seen you guys in so long and couldn't believe how long their hair had gotten! TOO CUTE! Ya'll (there's some Texas talk for ya!) keep having fun and keep sending the posts...we love reading them!
Linda Winfield

Anonymous said...

It does sound like you're having a good time, and yes, that is what it is primarily about! But the bonus is that as long as you're having a good time, the students probably will, too, and may actually learn something as well.

Anonymous said...

Prof Seymour,

thank you so much for sharing your adventures in China. When you are back in Texas, I will have to audit your women and the law class. The China experience will add such a great dimension to the discussion.

Heidi Whitaker
(friend of the Milners and TWU alum)

Yes, Minister... said...

Wow, what an interesting blog you have. I am a working on my Masters in Morality Policy Making and my husband is an attorney. We have a two year old daughter, LiLi from Guiping and she was at Mother's Love.

How interesting to have the Chinese students do Mcculloch v. Maryland. I find it very interesting the Chinese prospective of federalism. We have had a co-hort of 40 Chinese student in our program last year and the federal structure was mind-boggling to some of them. Good thing was that they were from Nanning :-) and we got to visit with several of them while we were there getting LiLi.

Sorry, rambling :-) I will link to your blog and I look forward to following your adventures! BTW - your girls are beautiful!

Anonymous said...

Hewy Malinda, Zoe and Maya,
We missed you! It is nice to herad from you. I will continue reading your blog.
Hugs and take care

Mei-Ling Izquierdo