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Keynote Speech by Prof. Shauna Van Praagh, Third Annual Graduate Law Students Conference

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Published: 2 Jun 2010

Keynote Speech by Prof. Shauna Van Praagh, Third Annual Graduate Law Students Conference

It is a real honour to be invited to speak to all of you upon the occasion of the third Annual Graduate Law Students Conference at McGill.  Two years ago when I spoke to the participants in the First annual conference, the city and the university were covered in snow, caught in the middle of the biggest snowstorm of that year.  Of course, that was March and this is May - and there is no risk of a snowstorm for this conference - but the dynamism, hard work and academic integrity are the same.  It has been a great source of pride for me as Associate Dean, Graduate Studies in Law, to watch students organize this conference each year and to devote the necessary time and energy to creating a forum for bringing students together to discuss their ideas, projects, and plans.  Congratulations to all of you!

You are half way through a conference for which you have read, written, reflected, and even agonized.  Similarly, and more significantly, you are part of the way along a path dedicated to working through some of the ways in which law speaks to you, and through you.  By presenting and participating in a forum like this one, you have an opportunity to test your own interpretation of law's principles, priorities, and possibilities.  You have not only considered law as bridge, but have ventured onto that bridge and are still only part way across.  Sometimes you feel like you see the other side; sometimes, you make the mistake of looking down and feeling dizzy; sometimes, you need to reach out to others to help you across the places where the bridge seems to be worn out or too risky or indeed invisible.  You look for the familiar signposts of legislation, human rights documents, regulatory frameworks, international treaties, scholarly doctrine...but the harder you look, the more you discover that they don't actually create the bridge on which you walk.  Instead, you probably have to build your own bridge as you go, and you have to design your own arches.  The familiar signposts just aren't sturdy enough to sustain the bridge under your own weight.

This evening, I want to take the opportunity to reflect on the journey upon which all of you have embarked.  Usually, around this time of year, when professors stand up to address a group of students, it is in the context of graduation.  The students are celebrating the end of their studies in a university, and they are congratulated and sent off with words of wisdom from the Dean or President.  I find myself in the inverse situation as I speak to you today.  It is me who is finishing one stage of my learning, and it is you who are continuing.

As of tomorrow, I will have finished a challenging and important three year term as your Associate Dean, and - although I won't receive a diploma, I feel like I will have indeed come to the end of a stage in my ongoing education.  But all of you, as of tomorrow, will simply go back to your research, enriched by this conference and - at best - provoked into making constructive changes to your thinking and writing.  You are all truly still travelers and I will be looking forward to the postcards from your ongoing adventures!  Another way of putting this is perhaps even more resonant for graduate students.  As the clock ticks, I find myself on time limitation with a very real deadline ahead...and I wish for all of you that you complete your projects and theses and dissertations well before you too are told officially that you are on time limitation and that, indeed, the clock is relentlessly heading towards that final deadline.

Well - now that I have slipped in a reminder to all of you to make sure that you stay on-track with your studies - I would like to take the remaining few minutes to talk about method, substance, and the bridge that links them.  That is, how is it that you should approach the rest of your journey as a graduate students - this is the methodology part; and what is it that you are trying to achieve and create and call your own - this is the substance part.  And, in between, I will return to your theme of this conference - the metaphor of the bridge.

To talk about method and approach, I turn to a spring souvenir of my last sabbatical in southwest France...

At the top of Limeuil, a medieval village in the Perigord, there is a "Parc panoramique" overlooking the coming together of the Dordogne and Vézere rivers.  In  2004, the park opened a contemporary garden entitled "Le jardin à l'envers".  Open its opening, it was still clearly a work in progress, but still strikingly provocative and inspiring in a way that I have never found to be the case with more typical collections of flowers and bushes and trees.  On either side of a wide gradual ramp made of wooden slats, there are raised boxes, each containing a different plant.  On the ground extending diagonally from the central ramp are small rows of flowers and bushes.  At the upper end of the ramp is a huge mirror: in it, visitors see themselves, the path they have just traveled with its fragrant and colourful borders and, behind or beyond, the trees and walls of the larger park.

The brief description of the garden - provided in Braille as well as in written French - explains that its design is based on a concept of accessibility to all.  Guided by this explanation, visitors explore the way in which the plants in the boxes can be touched (soft "bear's ears", spiky rosemary) and smelled (peppermint, thyme, sage) as well as seen (light and dark greens, bright purple, clean white).  There are no steps or confrontational walls to stop wheelchairs or baby carriages...and we stare at our images - their size, their colours, their closeness, their differences - in the very polished and bright mirror.

The garden and its many-layered shades, shapes, and lessons are particularly resonant at this time of year.  Spring in the Dordogne is the time for lilac blossoms and rain and clean green leaves and the reawakening of parks, chateaux, boats on the river that have all been locked away for winter.  Spring in graduate programs at the university is the time for consolidation and fitting together; placing detail in larger context and filling out big ideas with concrete examples; rereading, discussing, summarizing and watching the past year's worth of work take on new shapes.

Again, the "jardin à l'envers" seems to hold key lessons.  Students who have taken the time to stop at each plant box and to try out every possible way of experiencing the plant or flower or herb in question, are equipped to stand back, consider, and articulate to themselves the complex rapport among the various smells, colours, and textures.  If they can reach beyond ground and chest level to tie in the sounds of birds as they fly over and near the garden, then they have truly figured out what there is to learn and how to glean the most from that learning.

The mirror thus conveys the image of the graduate student - someone invited, through coursework, reading, interaction with colleagues, to consider how she fits with what she has learned, to connect his experience to the concepts, principles, and stories that constitute his legal education and his contribution to scholarship.

The challenge in writing a research project or a Master's thesis or a doctoral dissertation is perhaps analogous to that of designing a garden that fits with its surroundings, inspires new action, and translates the dreams and ideas of some into tangible space and beauty for all.  Accessible to everyone, the garden's meaning is shaped by the individuality of the visit and the particularity of each interaction with its multilayered and interconnected elements.  The striking and central mirror in the garden is meant to reflect all of us and our backgrounds at the same time that it situates us within a tightly compact space characterized by a sensual diversity of entrance points.

Nourished by the light, water and gardening care provided by peers, professors, research centres and institutes, you have all embarked on complementary and yet distinctive forms of inquiry, learning and impact.  Reflected in the mirror, we are all in graduate programs in law asked to look closely at ourselves, our place on the path, and the possibilities for reaching beyond and through the here and now.   The multiple senses provoked by the "jardin à l'envers" are sight, hearing, touch, smell and even taste.  The sensibilities engaged by successful but continually self-reflecting graduate programs in law, particularly those in a  Faculty soaked in the cross-pollination, co-existence, and critical correspondence of legal traditions, systems and language, are those associated with regulation, enterprise, responsibility, co-existence, creativity and the interactions between human beings and their own abilities, accountabilities and environment.

If the garden is a good metaphor for graduate inquiry in law, the bridge is another.  Perhaps law itself often feels like a bridge, anchored by the insights and questions and approaches developed in other parts of the university.  Rather than being stuck in any given location in the river over which the bridge arches, instead we jurists can walk across stopping to take in the view at various spots.  But a bridge can also be flooded, has to be planned carefully by engineers so as to ensure that it doesn't move too much in high wind, and is precisely the target of resistance fighters to make sure that transport as usual can't continue.  In that sense, it is a precarious structure - full of risk and danger.

Thinking of ourselves as jurists on the bridge or constructing the bridge means that we have to anticipate the potential problems...and perhaps be ready to blow up the whole thing and find another way to cross!  It occurs to me that the notion of building bridges is perhaps the most fruitful picture to keep in mind...That is, the bridge isn't a given visible structure that graduate students cross.  Rather, it is a challenge of creation...a way to make each encounter into a stone or brick or steel rod or length of rope, and to share the task with those around us.  This seems to be the most promising way to think about how to connect method to substance, how to link your approach to what you want to say and do.

Method, then, is all about how you experience your immersion in graduate level work in law; and how you plan to communicate that experience.  Substance, I believe, is how and where you find yourself in your work, your research and your writing.  It is all about how you define right and wrong, positive and problematic in the particular set of issues that you choose to spend time reflecting on.  It is the way in which you identify for yourself and those who will read or listen to you, what you stand for and why.

I begin with a quote from one of my most reliable sources in law: Harry Potter.  In Book Seven, Hermione - in her indomitable way - insists on the reasons for a Ministry of Magic law and on the applicable rules of evidence.  "Are you planning a career in Magical Law, Miss Granger?", asks the annoyed Minister of Magic.  "No, I'm not," retorts Hermione.  "I'm hoping to do some good in the world!"

Hermione differentiates doing good from doing law.  For her, it seems, jurists do something other than working to make our world a better place.  But she seems to mix up being and doing, practice of law and the practice of contributing to understanding and knowledge.   I would answer Hermione by saying that doing good is what people can decide to do, at the micro or macro level, in their families or in their offices, in their theses or in their classes, in leadership roles and in community participation.  Working with law, acting as jurist, filling out critical analysis, accepting one's heavy responsibility to explain, communicate, argue and persuade...these simply represent one particular way of making that decision to do good, one particular mode of going about implementing that decision.

In addressing a class of graduating law students in 1925, Justice Benjamin Cardozo of the NY Court of Appeals and then US Supreme Court characterized the processes of law as "fascinating, baffling, elusive, infinite in their variety of aspects, and yet infinite also in appeal to the heart and mind and spirit of generous and ambitious youth."  And he spoke of the importance of looking back in order to move forward.  According to Cardozo, "one must be historian and prophet all in one - the qualities of each united in a perfect blend".  Indeed, the endeavour of prophesying and shaping justice for the future can be taken on with confidence only if we know from whence we came.  Studying law is all about the fragile equilibrium of our roles as historian and prophet.  Writing a graduate level project or thesis or dissertation is all about accepting one's grounding in a first level of formal legal education and then pushing oneself out of that comfort zone into the development of new ideas and questions and possibilities.

The constant backwards and forwards of learning law, of looking to the past at the same time that you are expected to imagine the future, is a crucial part of the identity and experience of graduate law students.  It is not only the substance of law that develops with constant reference to its sources; it is the very process of learning the language of law that equips us as future participants by ensuring that we play first with the building blocks.

So, let me turn to a final reference: a poem.  This is a 40 year old poem by Canadian poet, Alden Nowlan, entitled "The Masks of Love".

I come in from a walk
With you
And they ask me
If it is raining.

I didn't notice
But I'll have to give them
the right answer
Or they'll think I'm crazy.

Entirely absorbed in love, the "I" in the poem has gone for a walk and has no idea whether it is raining or not.  Usually, of course, we notice if the rain is coming down.  We feel damp, and then wet, we say we are soaked, and we may even feel like we are drowning.  But sometimes we can ignore the rain, because of love.  We can put our engagement in law in perspective, because of life.  We can find renewed energy and creativity as we continually recreate our interactions with law, because of our interactions with other people.

We can choose whether to feel submerged as the rain comes down; or we can enjoy the taste and feel of the raindrops, and look forward to the sights, smells and sounds of spring.  As you go through what sometimes feels like a true flood of ideas and challenges, remember some of the moments in which you don't even notice you are getting wet, and look forward to the long walk ahead.

It has been an honour to teach you, to learn from you, to share a path with you, and to speak with you on the occasion of the third annual McGill Graduate Law Students Conference to congratulate you all, and to wish you all the best as you continue your voyage.

Prof. Shauna Van Praagh, outgoing Associate Dean of Graduate Studies.

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