Teaching FCIL Research Series: A New FCIL Librarian’s Very First FCIL Research Course

By Meredith Capps

Following in the footsteps of past newbie FCIL librarians, I write to share my experience teaching my first for-credit FCIL research course.  At my institution, Transnational Legal Research is a one-credit, pass/fail class, offered once in an academic year in either the fall or spring.  Though it made for a busy fall semester, it seemed worthwhile to offer the course then, so as to benefit the 2L students on our transnational legal research journal at their point of need as they tackle initial cite-checking assignments and select note topics.

teachingfirstcourse.jpeg

Topic selection:

The FCIL course materials page, teaching materials from prior iterations of the course, and two texts: International and Foreign Legal Research: A Coursebook and International Legal Research in a Global Community, proved invaluable resources as I planned my course.  I identified treaties, international courts/tribunals, the UN, the EU, and foreign law as major topics covered in most FCIL research courses, and determined that I could cover custom, NGOs, and IGOs more generally in the conjunction with these.  Since many of our graduates initially accept positions at large law firms, I also felt that it would be worthwhile to spend a week on private international law and international commercial arbitration.

Reading:

Based on feedback from other FCIL librarians, I chose not to assign a textbook, and instead assigned chapters from International Legal Research In a Nutshell, which students could access online via their West Academic subscription, and a handful of articles and chapters from treatises and study aids in West.  I assumed that most students would not do the reading—a highly accurate assumption—requiring me to cover the most critical points in lecture; I posted lecture slides in the course page immediately after each class.

Assignments:

I designed in-class exercises to introduce key resources and skills, with more advanced or open-ended questions included in weekly, graded post-class assignments.  Here prior course materials again proved valuable, as for about half of my questions, I modified a research question used by a colleague.  Post-class assignments consisted of two research questions along with a reflection question, in keeping with the ABA’s focus on self-assessment for skills-based courses.

As a final project, I asked students to devise a fairly simply, practice-oriented hypothetical of their choosing involving transnational elements, and draft a research report detailing their process, along with a reference list of at least twelve sources, all of which should be evaluated within their research report.  Students described their projects in brief, five-minute presentations during our last class.

So, what did I learn?

  • My in-class assignments were always too lengthy and complex. Reduce and simplify!
  • My students seemed more engaged in class when divided into small groups to work on assignments. (I gave up, however, on asking students to demonstrate their work at the podium by class 4.)
  • I was a tad anxious that in assigning weekly, substantive assignments, I’d have too little time for grading during a busy time of year. Grading these assignments was a far lesser burden than I feared, and proved a valuable component of the course for several reasons:
    • they provided students an opportunity to practice skills discussed in class without time constraints,
    • they provided me a benchmark for student progress and comprehension, and
    • they provided me timely examples to review at the start of the next class and discuss common difficulties.
  • Allowing students to select their final project topics ensured that they researched a subject that was of interest to them, and often of use in other course or journal projects. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of topics selected, though several were initially far too broad.
  • My greatest disappointment in the final projects was sloppy writing, which I perhaps should have anticipated in a pass/fail course! Alas, I will be adding spelling and grammar to my already detailed grading rubric.
  • In most instances, materials from colleagues provided me great ideas, but that I could not shortcut the effort of creating lectures and assignments that were current and suited to my own teaching style.

Overall, I was very pleased with the course, and took extensive notes on each assignment regarding students’ unexpected findings, difficulties, and ambiguities.  I also left this year’s IALL course with a host of ideas for future assignments!

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