Demonstrating to students how the ideas, people and contexts which they study might function in reality is a powerful way to engage students in their discipline, especially if the themes or institutions involved seem, at first, intangible, abstract or remote. The role of international institutions and, in particular, international courts, is a major theme in International Relations and the Politics of International Law course (IR464, a half unit offered to Masters level students in the Department of International Relations). Dr Kirsten Ainley, the convener of IR464, had initially thought about visiting the various international courts and tribunals in The Hague as a way of extending and developing her own knowledge and research in the politics of international law. As she noted, ‘I was aware that I was teaching and doing research about institutions that weren’t far very away, but I was teaching from books and the news media instead of going to see them.’ The possibility of a field trip for discussion and information sessions in The Hague presented an opportune way of ‘bringing alive some of the complexities of the issues’ and of ‘making real’ some of the key questions that emerge from the course themes. The Hague field trip has now been running for the past four years at the end of each Lent Term.
The field trip builds on the course themes by offering a first-hand engagement with the debates and politics that are central to the course curriculum. The students are asked to do some preparatory research and reading, timed to dovetail with their preparation for summative assessment and building again on themes explored in their earlier formative coursework. The students then tour the various international courts located in The Hague and discuss the practical realities of international law first hand. In past years, trips have included discussions, meetings and presentations from judges at the International Court of Justice, prosecutors from the Special Court for Sierra Leone, staff and legal advisors at the International Criminal Court, and staff from relevant non-governmental organisations such as the Coalition for the International Criminal Court.
Student feedback on the experience has been extremely positive and Dr Ainley points to the way the trip offers a form of applied learning that can generate energy and enthusiasm among the students toward the course topics and themes. As one student put it: ‘The trip definitely enhanced my understanding of the IR464 course material. It was great to get the information in person and through people actually working with the issues, rather than cram information from academic articles. It is easier to remember this way and it makes it much clearer and accessible. I now know much more than I did when I left for The Hague.’
Practical and first hand engagement with the various court staff and interns has paid dividends in helping the students think about future career paths too, in both law and with non-governmental organisations. ‘It allowed me to grasp the challenges facing these international courts,’ said another student, ‘but meeting the people who dedicate their lives to upholding international law also inspired me to pursue further career options in this field … I feel like I gained better insight into the realities of international courts. I believe these kinds of trips are invaluable for Masters students who wish to pursue work in international organisation or international law after graduating.’
The initial IR464 visit to the The Hague was supported by the Teaching and Learning Development Fund.
With thanks to Peter Manning, on whose original text this post is based.