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Tina Piper

Faculty of Law

What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?

I think the geography of the classroom is very important in engaging students. I really notice that when I teach in the Active Learning Classroom (EDUC 627) where it is all about engaging students. When you can face the person you’re speaking to, it makes such a difference. The quality of discussion improves immensely.

Meaningful assignments can also work well, such as the one where I ask students to choose an artefact from the Faculty and connect it to its historical context. These artefacts include all sorts of pictures, old minutes of Faculty councils, copies of student counselling papers and records of the Law students association. Students come across items like these every day and don’t notice them, so I created an assignment to help them understand how these artefacts contribute to the footprint of the Faculty.

How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?

I like strategies that connect students to experiences outside the university setting. For example, most of the work that I do as a professional in Intellectual Property is talking to the public about what copyright, patent and trademark law are. There is a huge need for this kind of translation. So, I came up with a group project that would require students to educate the public. There was both a process and a substance aspect to the assignment. There had to be some sort of legal education of the public but also an artefact of that education. Students came up with artefacts such as a series of comic strips that were disseminated on campus, a video of a workshop they held in a CEGEP, and a draft curriculum. Another strategy I used with the final project presentation was to take it into the community. These presentations took place at Sala Rossa, a community space and concert venue. Each student had to invite one or two members from the community to the presentation.

What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?

I taught an interdisciplinary course with Music, Law, Management, and Engineering, and one of the things that ended up becoming a theme in that course is that the discipline didn’t necessarily limit what the student had to offer. Often, the law students were very good at group work or facilitation or project management, and often the music students were really good at lateral thinking and making connections. One of the music students from that course ended up applying to a master’s program in Law because he realized that he actually liked thinking like a lawyer! It showed that professional identity isn’t fixed.

That’s something I hope that students learn learn—that if they pursue their interests, the result might be surprising. It’s about finding your own skills and aptitudes or passions and interests, and connecting to that through an education. I feel like I’m an example of that. I don’t seem like a traditional lawyer. It’s important that students see that they don’t have to adopt an identity to be successful in Law. When they can make that connection between their professional role and who they are as people, they’re like, “Oh, that’s where I can fit in! This is how it can happen.” I try to provide a whole bunch of different moments where students can make these connections.

How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?

As a researcher, I find a premise that really engages me, and then I just burrow into it and start creating connections. In the Legal History course, I ask my students to model this research process and they do that on the backbone of scholarship. Each class, we analyze readings not just for their content but also for their methodology and approach, so that the way the researcher frames the encounter is as important as what the researcher says. One of the fascinating things about history is how two people writing on the same primary source will come to totally different interpretations. It’s essentially about storytelling and it ties really nicely to Law because Law is a kind of storytelling. It teaches something about the arbitrariness of truth, of the contingency of facts. I encourage them to publish their papers, to develop them further, to participate in broader conversations and student conferences, and I will direct students to funding if they want to do that. I organize the final presentations for that course as a conference where students present their work, respond to questions, and review each other’s work.

What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?

Get involved in teaching networks! With the help of Teaching and Learning Services, I’ve been involved with the Law Teaching Network, which has been creating mechanisms, structures, and moments where people can learn how to develop in their teaching role.

Another recommendation is to take some risks: calculated, measured, well-thought-out risks. I’ve been amazed by how encouraging my Dean and other Faculty members have been as I try out new ways of doing things, many of which I learned in the Course Design and Teaching Workshop or at workshops that we’ve held in the Faculty as part of the teaching network.

Finally, if there’s something that you don’t like, try to change it or make it work. Chances are there are other people around you who might be interested in something different happening. Part of our project in the Faculty has been to tap into what people would like to see happen in the future. In the Law Teaching Network, we are developing program outcomes and thinking very intentionally about what kinds of attributes we want students graduating from our program to have. In this way, we can also identify which faculty members can address which outcomes in their courses. It’s about people developing into the spaces that they feel comfortable in, and in the ways that they feel reflect their abilities and interests.

What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?

I see learning as a social experience. You can learn the facts at home but a lot of what you’re learning here is about how to learn with other people, and that’s so important. 

Read the syllabus: What are the connections I’m trying to make? Read the learning outcomes and think about how they fit with your own priorities as a student. Think about what you want to get out of the course, not just what the course is going to deliver. See yourself as an active participant. So spend some time thinking about those places where you personally feel like you could grow and try to make these connections within the course. I’ll try to point out places where that can happen and where students can create their own paths through the course or connect to the parts of the course that work for them.

Why do you teach?

Honestly, I really enjoy it. I love learning. I just loved school. When I was a student, I loved watching how my professors were teaching and thinking about what was working and what wasn’t. I loved the process. I love working in groups. I love working on projects, and I see teaching as a really collaborative venture. Essentially, teaching a course is like running a big project where the groups of people are always different. There’s a very improvisational kind of feel to the whole thing, particularly in thinking about how to move from the first day to the last day and in creating a structure that allows freedom of movement but provides a framework at the same time.

Email Address: 
tina.piper@mcgill.ca
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