Teaching legal blogging and a student blog symposium on AGIL

About the author(s):

Katharine Fortin is an Associate Professor at Utrecht University where she teaches IHL and IHRL. Before joining Utrecht University, she worked at the ICTY, ICC and Norton Rose Fulbright. She is the author of The Accountability of Armed Groups under Human Rights Law (Oxford University Press, 2017) which won the 2018 Lieber Prize. She has written widely about the framework of law that applies to armed groups in non-international armed conflicts and is one of the editors of the Armed Groups and International Law blog.

Between 14th March – 1st April, I taught a short four-session (1 hr 45 mins each) course entitled Armed Groups and International Law in which the assessment type was legal blogging. The course fitted into our capita selecta period of teaching on the public international law LLM at Utrecht. During this period, students are able to choose five short courses focusing on niche areas of international law that help them build an individualised research profile. Usually teachers design courses around their specific research interests, to give students an insight into the world of their research. The idea is also that the capita selecta period will be skills-based.

The purpose of this short post is to share how I designed this course Armed Groups and International Law which combined a focus on knowledge and skills (i.e. legal blogging). I hope it is useful for others seeking to integrate blogging into their teaching and I attach my course manual for others to see. Many of the seminars were accompanied by seminar materials.

Aims of the course

When I designed this course, I was clear about two things. First, I wanted to design a course where students who already had a focus on IHL could zoom in on some emerging issues in the field relating to non-international armed conflicts. I was interested in covering issues that were too specific to have been covered in the main course and which would only appeal to students with a real interest in the subject area e.g. legal personality, rebel governance, fragmentation of armed groups and counter-terrorism/ IHL. Second, I wanted to introduce students to various aspects of the world of legal blogging. I wanted to show students what legal blogs are ‘out there’ in my field e.g. Opinio Juris, EJILTalk!, Articles of War, Just Security, Armed Groups and International Law. I wanted students to see how legal blog posts often highlight or tap into key or emerging legal contemporary events, meaning that they are often great sources of inspiration for thesis topics. Finally, I wanted to teach students how to write a good legal blog post because I think that the blog post form is a very effective medium to help clarify thoughts on a particular issue. Synthesizing an argument into 1500-2000 words written in an informal form is not easy. A good blog post should be easy to read, but will probably have been hard to write.

How to combine skills with content?

One of the challenges in building an explicit skills component into a course is how to get a good balance between content and skills. When I used to be one of the Project Directors at Utrecht University’s Legal Skills Academy (LSA), we noticed that teachers passionate about skills-teaching often get themselves into difficulties. Imagine they had been teaching a course on the European Court of Human Rights. After deciding to inject skills into the course, they found themselves teaching a course on European Court of Human Rights, moot courting, memorial writing and team work. How to do it all? You can’t. Something’s got to give and choices have to be made. So if you were teaching 8 weeks on European Court of Human Rights case law, you’re probably going to have to drop about 3 of those weeks to concentrate on the skills element. Alternatively, you can weave the skills into every class but cover less substantive materials. In the years I worked at the LSA designing and evaluating skills teaching teaching, the most important lesson I learnt is not to try and overload a course. Secondly, I learnt how important it is to be clear in your own head about the learning objectives and to communicate them really clearly to the students. It is helpful if these objectives are fed into clear rubrics for the assessment. Are students expected to master the content and the skills? Are both components equally important? Is the assessment model constructed in such a manner that it is possible to score highly on one and not the other? It is important that students know what is expected of them.

How to teach blogging?

To focus the students’ minds on what makes a good blog post, I made sure that the reading materials for each week included at least one (preferably two) blog posts. I wanted the students to learn about blogging by reading and comparing blog posts, and not only studying their content but also their form.

Each class started with a 45 minute lecture on the topic of the week, and then was followed by discussions on the reading. During these exercises, the students discussed not only the issues covered in the class but were also repeatedly asked to identify the most important features of a good blog post. During the discussions, we talked about the role of the following:

  • title
  • clear introduction providing details of the purpose of the blog and what it will cover
  • some link with contemporary or legal development
  • sub-headings
  • clear argumentation
  • conclusions

How to assess legal blogging?

The students were told that they could write a blog post on a subject of their choice. It had to be written in reaction to either another blog post or a legal article. I had the impression that some students found this freedom a bit difficult. What should they write on? I think many of them would have preferred it if I had given them a topic, but I stand by my decision to make them find their own topics. It forced them to look around at the literature, think about what they were interested in, exert academic independence and make decisions. I made sure that I was available at the end of every class to give them informal feedback on developing ideas. Students were also given time at the end of one of the sessions to informally exchange emerging ideas for their blog posts.

As an experiment – and with the permission of the rest of the blog team – I announced in the course manual and course description that the best posts would be posted on the Armed Groups and International Law blog. I was surprised at how enthusiastic students would be about this, but it seemed to really inspire them! It gave them an opportunity to get their name out there on a blog.

I developed a detailed marking rubric that made clear that the assessment was graded not only on content but also on form. A blog post might demonstrate a high degree of legal research, but if it wasn’t written in the format of a blog it would not score highly. I also indicated that each submitted post should be accompanied by a photo with a creative commons licence.

Lessons learnt?

At the end of every course that I teach, I look back and think about what I will do different next time. Looking back on this course, I think it was broadly a success. The submitted blog posts were of a high quality and we are going to post three of the best posts on the blog over the following days, by Alexander Grimmig, Anandi Sweere and Yiokasti Mouratidi. Congratulations to all three of them!

If I teach the course again next year, I might ask the students to share an outline with a fellow student half way through the course to receive and give feedback. This will force the students to choose a topic early and start writing, and not leave the assignment until the last minute. I will also ask them to fill in the assessment form for themselves when they submit their assignment, so that they can engage with the assessment rubric and reflect on their own work.

I am still not entirely sure that I got the balance between content and skills right. I may revisit the class structure, getting rid of the lecture at the beginning of the class so that the whole 1hr 45 mins class has more of a workshop feel. Another idea that I have been playing with is to provide students with a poor blog post in one of the early classes and ask them to edit it.

If you have taught legal blogging and have any ‘best practices’ to share, please do get in touch!

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