U.Va. Law Faculty Teach - And Learn - at Schools Abroad

August 18, 2010
August 18, 2010 — From China to Australia, several University of Virginia School of Law professors taught abroad over the summer, continuing an annual tradition in which faculty learn and grow from instructing students less familiar with U.S. law.

Among those who journeyed overseas was Kenneth S. Abraham, who taught a five-week international and comparative tort law course in Paris to students from the United States, Italy, Quebec and Israel through the University of San Diego School of Law.

"It was a new course for me – I had never taught that material before," said Abraham, a U.S. tort law expert. "I had to learn French and German tort law. With the mix of students, I had to teach foreign students U.S. tort law and teach everybody French and German tort law, so it was a teaching challenge."

Leading a class five days a week for several hours each day made for an intensive experience, Abraham said, but aside from learning to teach a new course, he gained perspective on the U.S. legal system.

"I gained an appreciation for how contingent the way our tort law system and tort law rules are," he said. "It turned out that the ways the U.S. deals with certain issues didn't seem as clearly the only way to do things as I might once have thought."

“Professor Kevin Kordana had the unique experience of teaching nonprofit organization law in China for five weeks at Peking University’s School of Transnational Law, a new law school in Shenzhen led by the former president of Cornell University and dedicated to providing American-style legal training. Most students outside the United States study law as undergraduates, but Peking offers a traditional J.D. in four years to Chinese graduate students.

Although the school is only two years old, U.Va. visiting lecturer Michael Ross has already taught there, and Paul Stephan (who also taught abroad in Australia this summer) will teach there in the spring. All the courses offered by the school are presented in intensive, five-week modules to facilitate the ability of American professors to visit.

Kordana said that despite the cultural differences, the classroom experience was comparable to that in America. 

"It was amazing – I would close the door and start teaching for two hours, and it was exactly the same as it is in the United States. The students were really smart, really eager, really engaged – it was just like U.Va. That's what's funny, just how un-different it was."

Although Chinese undergraduate law students usually are not taught through the Socratic method, where professors actively question and challenge students, the 45 students he taught were in their second year at the school and had already acclimated to U.S.-style legal training.

"They were really at home with everything," Kordana said. "It's kind of remarkable to experience that you can get on a plane, fly halfway around the world and meet people who are interested in the exact same legal and institutional issues that we're interested in in Charlottesville."

Vice Dean Elizabeth Magill taught food and drug law to students in Melbourne Law School's master's degree program, most of whom were already practicing lawyers.
Because the United States is one of the dominant markets for food and drug-related products, the approach of U.S. regulators has a large influence on other countries' systems, Magill said. 

"I have learned a great deal from the students who have grown up in, and been educated in, a different legal system," said Magill, who has taught constitutional law in Germany as well. "Some things about the U.S. system that we all take for granted, such as the role of the Supreme Court and lower federal courts, are unfamiliar to these students and it forces the teacher to explain why our system is the way it is."

Magill said those differences also made her think through issues that are easy to overlook when teaching U.S. students.

"Matters that are of great concern here – for instance, the delegation of policymaking authority to administrative agencies – are not concerns elsewhere," she said. "This forces me to think about why that is. I have found the experience of teaching abroad invigorating because it gives me new perspectives on fundamental aspects of the U.S. legal system."

Associate professor Josh Bowers taught undergraduate law students at the University of Münster for a week that packed in four- or five-hour classes each day covering the highlights of U.S. constitutional law.

While the German constitution spells out in detail the rights of citizens and the powers of government, Bowers' students were surprised at how vague the U.S. Constitution is, and how it "has done quite a bit with much less text."

Bowers also recognized how much history had shaped German law. For example, the U.S. Constitution offers a high level of protection through the First Amendment, while in Germany, even displaying a swastika is against the law.

"I tried to convey to them that the reason we respect the freedom of even neo-Nazis is because it's very easy to protect the right of someone to express ideas we all find agreeable, but a robust marketplace of ideas requires us to also protect ideas and the expression of beliefs that almost everyone disagrees with."

— By Mary Wood