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Time for Stark Changes? Examining Pop Culture in Legal Education

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About The Author

Ben McGuckin (Former EU and International Law Editor)

Ben is set to begin his LPC in September, having previously graduated with an LLM in International Law and Governance from Durham University and a First Class LLB from Northumbria University. nd securing an award for best performing student in final year in the process. He hopes to work in the areas of mental health and family law, with a view to eventually joining the Army Legal Services. Outside of law, Ben enjoys playing darts with his local pub team. He also has a keen interest in video games and rock music.

A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone if it is to keep its edge

Tyrion Lannister

Education is a fluid discipline. Educators are constantly working to find new methods of delivering content, and legal education is no different. Indeed, whether it be regarding complex constitutional theories and principles or the confusion that surrounds the creation of an easement, law students will inevitably come across something they find they cannot learn through books, cases and articles.

Therefore, it is necessary for legal educators to explore new ways of teaching, but that task should not be one purely for educators. There is an onus on the students to work in conjunction with the lecturers to find new ways of teaching that works well for all to ensure legal education develop in a manner that works well for all those involved in the process.

Positive developments have already been made in terms of practical legal education. Law schools have adopted the American clinical method of ‘learning by doing,’ adapting what medicine, dentistry, social work, and many other disciplines already use, and have established law clinics within universities where students can interact with real clients and solve real legal problems. This gives students experience of real-life practice and helps develop many other skills in the process

But there are further developments in education with which legal education has failed to keep pace: popular culture references and other unconventional teaching methods have been gradually making their mark in other education sectors. However, the world of legal education, in particular, seems to be lagging behind and failing to advance into the modern age. Indeed, it is with this in mind that this article argues that using innovative teaching methods at law schools will help students contextualise legal concepts and create engaging learning environments, which in turn should prepare them more effectively for future employment, be it in practice or in academia.

Using Game of Thrones for Educational Cle-Ganes 

A fine example of using to popular culture in legal education has been the approach of Dr Catherine Turner at Durham University, who has used the multi-award winning TV Show Game of Thrones as a means of contextualising and engaging students in discussions on relevant legal principles of International Humanitarian Law (“IHL”).

Many of the concepts of IHL can be difficult to apply to real-world scenarios due to the sheer complexity of the relevant situations. For example, Protocol II Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 lays down certain requirements which must be met before it can become applicable to non-international armed conflicts. And the evidential difficulties that arise in relation to contemporary rebel groups, such as the Free Syrian Army, can leave its application towards them a complex task.

However, this is where Game of Thrones can become useful. With many students avid fans of the show and possessing (often in-depth) knowledge and understanding of the different groups involved in the story, the application of the fundamental rules contained in the Protocol can be facilitated.

There are further fascinating examples of Game of Thrones' relevance to IHL. Take the law relating to weapons, targeting and distinction: the scene documenting the Battle of the Blackwater and Tyrion Lannister’s scheme of levelling Stannis Baratheon’s fleet with wildfire raises issues surrounding the use of weapons in armed conflicts, such as the ban on weapons which are indiscriminate, as well as discussion about superfluous injury and unnecessary suffering.

Furthermore, this particular scene raises questions about the balance between military necessity and the principle of humanity. If Tyrion had not used the wildfire, Stannis’ army would have won the battle: thus, the element of military necessity is brought into question. However, this necessity must be balanced with the principle of humanity: the need not to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering, something which some could argue the wildfire does cause.

With the potential for diverging opinions here sizeable, this demonstrates how using one scene from a popular TV show can lead to a thriving discussion of legal principles in a way which may be more accessible than using contemporary examples.

The Use of Popular Culture: Braavos!

What benefit does using these materials have? For one thing, it establishes a rapport with the lecturer, immediately creating a relaxed atmosphere in which to learn and in which students can discuss the concepts they have learned without worrying about ‘getting it wrong'. Indeed, it is even arguable that using popular culture to help put abstract legal rules into practice can make the whole learning experience enjoyable.

Furthermore, popular culture is constantly raising the issues that students will be faced with in learning legal rules. Moving away from Game of Thrones and humanitarian law, The Walking Dead raises various issues relevant to jurisprudence, particularly the Hobbesian theory of the state of nature. Using a post-apocalyptic example such as The Walking Dead can help students discuss these theories of law, justice, and political theory in a context with which they are familiar.

There are many other examples of popular culture which can be used to demonstrate legal concepts including, as cringeworthy as it may be, the comparing of constitutional law principles with superheroes. In this context, the doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty can be likened to Superman: it appears that with nothing can constrain its prima facie unlimited power, until suggestions about the extent to which the European Union is (or was, as the case will be) Parliament’s Kryptonite.

Using such methods is not new. Using popular culture to teach law has been alive in America for quite some time. For example, Joseph has documented his experiences of using science fiction literature, TV shows and movies at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, describing how these techniques resulted in his students thinking about typical legal questions in a way they had never encountered before. This is illustrative of the positive effect that can occur in relation to students’ lateral thinking skills. Indeed, applying legal rules and concepts to popular culture is a way of developing abilities – whether they be lateral or critical thinking skills – vital for excelling as a lawyer. 

Examining Varys-ks

Using these methods is not without its disadvantages, particularly in cases where many students simply may not be interested in, or knowledgeable about, the example being used. Using popular culture like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones work well because it can be assumed many of the students are fans of the show. Nonetheless, such an approach would soon become unworkable if the majority of students did not watch the show.

Indeed, it is self-evident that caution must be exercised when addressing groups that include international students: it would not be fair to assume that all members of the group have sufficient knowledge of the show to understand the example. That said, this could be averted by a lecturer to sending a 'viewing list' of shows or other media they feel could be useful in the teaching.

Another risk in using this method is that the students focus too much on the example being used and do not fully understand why it is being used. Students may focus too heavily on the popular culture and fail to properly comprehend the concept that the example is trying to demonstrate. Therefore, using such methods should be used sparingly and not throughout an entire seminar or lecture. Indeed, it must be stressed that these examples are not designed to replace traditional learning methods but to merely supplement them.

VR is Coming, Jon Snow

Having stated what can be done in the present, attention must be turned to how legal education can be changed in the future. A few years ago, Virtual Reality ("VR") was in the embryonic stage of its development; now, however, it is now taking hold of many areas of education. There is discussion around the use of VR in the classroom for many different subjects, such as science and history, but what place is there for VR in legal education?

VR technology could be used in numerous areas of law. For example, in relation to IHL, there is potential for VR to be used to show students how pressurised making a targeting decision actually is. When students are in the comfort of a seminar room, discussing the abstract concepts of targeting, distinction, and proportionality is an intense intellectual exercise, but there is an absence of reality. Introducing the ‘war room,’ to the classroom can enable students to experience how difficult these decisions actually are. This can put the legal concepts the students have learned into context like never before.

Finally, it cannot be ignored that children are now subjected to technology from the moment they are born. As VR becomes more accessible, and young people become more adept at using technology, it would be incongruous not to utilise this technology when teaching law, if the topic suits it. While technology is still years, possibly decades away from harnessing the full potential of VR in the legal classroom, it is certainly something that legal educators must consider and explore.

Arya Understanding the Argument?

It is clear that injecting new approaches to legal education can enhance the learning experience of students and increase the critical thinking skills required in order to be successful as, not just a lawyer, but as a member of society.

Legal education must adapt and evolve to suit the needs of the next generation of practitioners and academics and more lecturers should adopt this method of teaching, if not just to explore how it works for them and their students. Whether it be using popular TV shows such as Game of Thrones, or using VR to bring the law to life in the classroom, this method of teaching has the capacity to assist students in understanding the complex concepts that they are learning and make the learning process more enjoyable for both students and lecturers.

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Tagged: Armed Conflict, Human Rights, International Law, Legal Education, Technology

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