This week, a new publication from members of the Smart Casual team has been published in the Griffith Law Review. A limited number of free downloads of the paper are available here.
Contemporary higher education, including legal education, incorporates complexities that were not identified even a decade ago. Law programs first moved from traditional content-focussed programs toward incorporating critique and legal skills. Many are now working toward recognising inclusion and student wellbeing as integral to law graduates’ professional identities and skillsets. Yet the professional dispositions law teachers require to teach in these environments are ostensibly at odds with traditional lawyering identities founded upon an ideal of rationality that actively disengaged from affect.
This article draws on our teaching experience and data drawn from the Smart Casual project, which designed self-directed professional development modules for sessional law teachers, to identify the limits of a traditional teaching skillset in the contemporary Australian tertiary law teaching context. We argue that contemporary legal education demands considerable emotional labour and we present sample contexts which highlight the challenges law teachers face in doing what is expected of them. The article makes explicit the emotional labour that has often been implicit or unrecognised in the role of legal academics in general, and in particular, in the role of sessional legal academics.
What is Smart Casual all about?
For a short and sweet introduction, check out this overview of the Smart Casual project. It covers the needs that we set out to address, our approach to working with the diversity of Australian law schools, and the suite of Smart Casual professional development modules – all on a single page! You can download the Smart Casual overview here (2MB PDF).
On 26 September, Nat Skead and Mary Heath went to the LEAD meeting hosted by Flinders University in Adelaide. It is a pleasure to share the Smart Casual resources with people in roles with responsibility for sessional teachers and professional development in law. They are designed to address an unmet need for discipline specific professional development on teaching legal skills. The Associate Deans were welcoming and enthusiastic.
Some schools are already using the modules with sessional and permanent staff, or have plans to use them in the near future. At one school, for example, staff will undertake the modules over 12 months like a book club, getting together regularly to discuss and reflect.
There were questions about where to find support for managing sessional staff and ensuring best practice from the school and university. One good place to go is the BLASST project, which has established benchmarking standards and best practice guides for employing and supporting sessional staff.
There were also queries about whether the modules would be of use to permanent law staff, staff teaching law to business students, or teachers in other disciplines. We already have reports of the modules being appreciated by staff outside of law (despite the law examples), as well as by staff in law, no matter their employment status. Many of the modules (for example, Feedback, Communication and collaboration, Wellbeing, Engagement, and Problem solving) will be immediately relevant to staff teaching law to non-law students.
We were also asked about strategies to overcome staff resistance to professional development on the part of people who clearly are experts in their fields of research or practice. We have no magic wand embedded in the modules. Sorry! However, it is important for all content experts to remember that teaching requires a set of skills that is only partly about content knowledge; and that the skills most experts have internalised and now take for grated must be broken down into logically organised component parts in order for them to be communicated to novices. The modules are designed to assist in this process.
One suggestion for the time-pressed teacher offered by the LEADrs themselves was to use a single module as a ‘gateway’; letting sessional staff know that they don’t need to do an entire module all at once but can dip in and out. The online navigational aids embedded in the modules make viewing a module bit by bit very simple. Time-pressed permanent staff have certainly been known to do exactly this. There are entire books devoted to tips for higher education teachers, and having one sitting on the desk so that you can read a page or two and try out new ideas or be reminded of good intentions that have not been carried out lately can be of value to everyone.
We took the Smart Casual modules for a viewing by other disciplines at the HERGA conference: From Research and Policy into Practice on 23 September 2016. Our hope was to share the model we have developed in Smart Casual with people from other disciplines who also want to be able to provide discipline specific professional development for sessional staff.
The HERGA conference arises from collaboartion between all three South Australian public universities and TAFE SA as well as several other education providers from around the state. It is a great opportunity to meet passionate teachers and scholars of learning and teaching. This year the keynote speaker was Simon Barrie from UWS, whose focus on how we should respond to disruption was timely, bracing and extremely interesting.
The Smart Casual session was well attended by people from a large number of disciplines. This is the panel chair introducing the presentation. It was clear from the audience reaction that many disciplines recognise the steep rise in casualisation as well as the precarity of sessional teachers’ employment and the need to ensure sessional staff get access to resources, support and professional development. Questions afterward canvassed access to the resources we have created, the level of web development that has been involved in them, opportunities for people using the modules to be involved in interactive environments, and so much more. Some people present at the session have already been in touch seeking further information and wishing to stay in touch.
Alysia Blackham from Melbourne University is currently mid-way through a project funded by the UK Legal Education Research Network looking at casualised law teaching. As part of the project, she has developed a survey for law school staff (both sessional and permanent) and administrators to look at conditions of employment, and how they might be linked to teaching and learning outcomes. She is extremely keen to find more participants who are themselves sessional/casual academics. Should you wish to participate in the research study, you can find details listed below.
A survey is being conducted of law academics in Australia and the UK, to consider individual experiences of working in legal academia, and the institutional impact of how academic work is structured. This survey is part of a collaborative international study, which will survey both legal academics (including permanent, sessional and contract staff) and law faculty administrators (such as heads of school or executive administrative officers). It is being conducted as part of a project funded by the UK Legal Education Research Network, and led by Dr Alysia Blackham of Melbourne Law School and the Faculty of Law at the University of Cambridge, and Dr Shelda Debowski, a Senior Consultant in Higher Education Development. This survey will offer important insights into how legal academics are operating in a contemporary higher education environment, and how they can best be supported in their role.
We have been asked to invite you to participate in the survey, which should take no more than 20 minutes to complete. The survey can be accessed online:
If you have any questions or comments about this survey, please contact Alysia Blackham at firstname.lastname@example.org or Shelda Debowski at email@example.com. This research project has been approved by the Human Research Ethics Committee of The University of Melbourne (ID number 1646355.1). If you have any concerns or complaints about the conduct of this research project, which you do not wish to discuss with the research team, you should contact the Manager, Human Research Ethics, Office for Research Ethics and Integrity, University of Melbourne, VIC 3010. Tel: +61 3 8344 2073 or Fax: +61 3 9347 6739 or Email: HumanEthicsfirstname.lastname@example.org. All complaints will be treated confidentially. In any correspondence please provide the name of the research team or the name or ethics ID number of the research project.