First Time Teaching FCIL Research: Weather Woes & Student Conferences

by Alexis Fetzer

After a strong beginning of the semester, the middle of the semester got off to a rough start. Susan Gualtier, FCIL Librarian at LSU Law, was scheduled to guest lecture via Skype on the topic of Customary International Law on a day our University cancelled classes. While you can plan out every detail of your course, you can never control the weather. The month of February brought new record low temperatures for Virginia and with that class cancellations related to snow fall. While Susan has graciously agreed to reschedule her guest lecture, the shuffling around of schedules and assigning days to make up classes missed has been a challenge.

snow in richmond

On a more positive note, I recently held individual conferences with students to discuss progress towards their final paper and presentation. Students were asked to choose a topic they would like to research involving international and foreign law, including any seminar paper topic they may be currently writing, and then compose a 6-8 page narrative of their research process. During the final two weeks of class, students will present on their research strategies and any problems they came across along the way. I modeled this final assessment after an assignment Susan Gualtier had previously shared with me.

The leeway in topic choice has been great in playing off of student interests but I believe it may eventually pose some problems in terms of assessment. I love the idea of having students researching topics they are currently writing about for a seminar course or have been employed to research as an assistant to a professor. At the very least simply being motivated by a personal interest gives the student more of a stake in the end product. The problem arises when topics range to such a degree that the types of relevant sources and strategies employed are very inconsistent. Granted the subject matter of this class ranges a great degree. Unless I were to force students to pick from a narrowly defined list of topics, I have to expect such variation.

Because this is the first time I have ever given this assignment, I put no restrictions on topic choice so long as it required substantial research in the sources covered in class. I indicated I prefer they address a fairly specific inquiry, but I did not place a scholarly survey of a topic off limits. In the future, I will give more guidance in choosing topics based on how I intend to assess these papers and presentations. I may also reassess my order of topics covered in class. Because we focus on researching foreign law during the last three weeks of class, students who chose topics centered heavily around finding foreign law are at a slight disadvantage.

Like topics chosen, preparation and discussion that took place in individual conferences varied widely. Some students came with a clear vision of the types of sources they need and examples of problems that had already encountered. Others had more of a theoretical idea of what they would be looking for and expected to find. This was another good lesson in the value of giving clear instruction.

One thing I had not expected were the questions I would come away with from student conferences. During each session I made suggestions of sources students should consult, but students also had questions about sources I did not immediately know how to find. For example, one of my students would benefit in finding Irish legislative history for her project. Not being an expert on Irish legal research outside what is readily made available through Justis and BAILII, I was challenged to find an answer to my student’s question.

I am looking forward to seeing my student’s final presentations a month from now. I anticipate learning just as much from them as they will from each other. In the meantime we still have several important topics to cover in class including researching the law of the European Union, customary international law, and foreign law focusing primarily on a select few common and civil law jurisdictions.

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