Academic Resistance to Wellness Initiatives Within Australian Law Schools

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A survey of Australian law students and lawyers conducted by the Brain and Mind Research Institute (BMRI) in 2008 found that over 35% of the law students studied suffered from high to very high levels of psychological distress, and that almost 40% reported distress severe enough to warrant clinical or medical intervention (Kelk 2009). The report suggested that the high levels of distress experienced by law students were at least partly attributable to the competitive and adversarial nature of legal education and legal culture. Since the publication of the BMRI report, further Australian research has been conducted to affirm the report’s findings, to identify the factors that contribute to law student distress (including low levels of engagement, lack of autonomy and lack of intrinsic motivation) and to identify measures that successfully promote student wellness (see e.g. Tani and Vines 2009; Hall 2009; Hall et al 2010; Field and Kift 2010; Duffy, Field and Shirley 2011; Galloway et al 2011; Huggins et al 2011; Lester et al 2011; O’Brien et al 2011; Watson and Field 2011; Field and Duffy 2012).

In March 2013, the Council of Australian Law Deans (CALD) issued a set of good practice guidelines for law schools, Promoting Law Student Wellbeing (Council of Australian Law Dean 2013). Many of these suggestions require law schools to rethink the traditional approaches to the teaching of law. At least three of the guidelines – 4, 5 and 6 – relate directly to the teaching practices of law academics. Guideline 4 refers explicitly to the integration of ‘strategies for the promotion of law student well-being into … teaching and learning practices’. The notes accompanying the guideline cite literature suggesting that the use of grading curves, 100% examinations and 24 hour take-home examinations appear to contribute to student distress and should therefore be minimized or abolished, and that engaged and active learning, greater student autonomy, and team-based learning may contribute to student well-being (Council of Australian Law Dean 2013, 5). These and other positive teaching practices (such as providing students with clear information about subject objectives and assessment, providing students with fair and diverse forms of assessment, and providing students with prompt and useful feedback) do more than promote student wellness by reducing student anxiety around their studies. They are consistent with the basic principles of good teaching as espoused in much of the education literature.

However, when those seeking to introduce wellness initiatives endeavour to persuade their colleagues within the law school to adopt these practices, the responses are not always positive. Some legal academics appear to understand and be sympathetic to the need to modify their teaching to promote student wellness, and where they aren’t themselves actively participating in efforts to motivate their colleagues to comply (for example by assuming administrative roles or joining teaching and learning committees) they at least welcome efforts to reflect upon and reform their own teaching practices. Some legal academics aren’t quite as enthusiastic, but nevertheless accept that reflection upon and development of their teaching is an unavoidable element of contemporary academic life. And some academics explicitly object to any and all attempts to regulate their teaching, insist that they know how best to teach their particular subjects, and seem to take it as a personal insult whenever another academic, an administrator or a university policy suggests that they might need to make changes to how they teach. These are the academics who, when encouraged to reconsider their teaching practices in order to better promote student wellbeing, respond with statements such as ‘if they can’t stand the heat they should get out of the kitchen’ or with arguments to the effect that since the practice of law is so challenging a law school would be doing its students a disservice were it to support them in law school and thereby fail to ‘toughen them up’.

This paper examines the nature of this academic resistance to wellness initiatives. It argues that efforts to reform the teaching of law in order to promote student wellness can be understood as part of a wider effort to reform the teaching of law generally by embracing ‘educationalism’. Very simply, educationalism is the belief that teaching practices within any discipline, including law, must be informed by academic theory and scholarship, and that the principal focus should be upon the student rather than the teacher or the content of the subject being taught. Similarly, academic resistance to wellness initiatives can be understood as part of a wider phenomenon of resistance to educationalism within the law school, seen by some academics as an unwelcome infringement upon academic freedom and professional independence.

The ideas presented in this paper are informed and supplemented by a series of interviews with Associate Deans Teaching and Learning (ADTLs) and Directors of Teaching and Learning from six Australian law schools. The interviews sought to identify the ADTLs views on the various forms of and justifications for resistance by law school academics to efforts to regulate and reform the teaching of law within their school or faculty. The observations of the various ADTLs are referred to in the paper to support and illustrate various points. The paper begins with a brief examination of the nature of educationalism and describes the various ways in which educationalism is propagated within the legal academy. It then describes the various ways in which educationalism is resisted by legal academics, and analyses that resistance by identifying its various causes and justifications. Finally the paper presents some of the ways in which resistance to educationalism generally and to wellness initiatives in particular can be minimised. Advocates for reform can endeavor to introduce changes in ways that recognize the importance of academic freedom and the professional status of legal educators. They can take the time to explain the reasons for the reforms and emphasise the potential benefits of the reforms for students, for individual academics and for the institution. And they can strive to ensure that any debate about teaching reform is a debate informed by research and scholarship rather than a mere argument driven by ignorance of the available evidence, insecurity about teaching quality, or an unjustified bias in favour of the status quo.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 3 Jun 2016
EventLaw and Society Association Annual Meeting: AT THE DELTA: Belonging, Place and Visions of Law and Social Change - New Orleans Marriott, New Orleans, United States
Duration: 2 Jun 20165 Jun 2016


ConferenceLaw and Society Association Annual Meeting
Country/TerritoryUnited States
CityNew Orleans
The site of the 2016 meeting, New Orleans, embodies as a place the experiences and processes of constant change that lie at the heart of law and society. Legally, socially, politically and geographically, the city has been a site of constant change, from flowing water and shifting silt as well as from political mobilization over equality, inclusion and exclusion, the blending of different legal traditions, and the boundaries of legal responsibility. In the 19th century, Plessy v. Ferguson and other key cases that provided the legal framework for segregation originated in New Orleans. Today, in the aftermath of both Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, the city is a symbol of contested rebirth in which the diversity of its culture is confronted by forces of economic rationalization and state regulation, forces it faces not only with its legacies of discrimination but also with pride in its unique traditions and powers of assimilation and innovation.

What visions of law and social change can we appreciate, imagine, and/or sustain, in the face of such constant change? The 2016 Law and Society Meeting will initiate our consideration of these themes of place and change through four plenary sessions that will focus on: (1) Jim Crow, New and Old -- race and the constitution of society; (2) Who Belongs, Who Doesn’t – law, citizenship and political economy in the 21st century; (3) Histories of Empire and Legal Pluralism – mixed legal systems around the globe; and, (4) Natural and Unnatural Disasters – human crises and law’s response.
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