Teaching law in China

Glennon and Adam with the class in Qindao, China

Last spring St. George residents Karen Adam and her husband Robert Glennon were offered the opportunity to spend three months teaching law at Ocean University in Qindao, China. It was an opportunity they embraced because at the very least they thought the assignment could be a fun—and enlightening—adventure.

“Part of why we wanted to do this was to be part of [an unfamiliar] community and figure out how to live there,” says Adam, who in November 2015 retired after 34 years as a Tucson City Court magistrate, Superior Court commissioner and Superior Court judge. “We knew no Chinese, but we rode the subway, Robert found a gym and a cleaners, we shopped in the local stores. We often were the only Westerners around.”

The chance to go to China arose because the University of Arizona’s Roger’s College of Law, where Glennon is a professor, has in recent years been moving toward being more international and global in its orientation. “We’ve always had an international law curriculum,” Glennon explains, “but now we are bringing international students into our JD program here in the U.S. and we are pursuing joint programs with universities in other countries.”

The University of Arizona’s partnership with Ocean University is one such new joint program. The way it works is that for four years Ocean’s undergraduate law students study both Chinese and American law, earning both an undergraduate degree from Ocean University and an undergraduate degree from the University of Arizona.

“The first two years the students are studying English, studying some Chinese law and taking some basic introductory classes in common law subjects and legal writing,” Glennon says. “They’ve had instructors during those years, but we were the first real American law school professor and the first real American judge to be there in person to teach. We were there from the end of April to the end of July, teaching 63 undergraduate juniors. Karen taught procedure and I taught public law.”

The reason for creating this kind of joint program, Glennon says, is the increasingly global nature of legal practice. “China and the U.S. are the two biggest economies in the world and there’s an awareness in China that even if the students don’t ever practice law—and most Chinese law students don’t end up practicing law—they feel that knowing how the legal system works in the U.S. can help them in whatever they do. Mostly they are interested in intellectual property, business, trade.”

For Glennon, teaching public law meant he could use the curriculum he has developed for his constitutional law classes at the University of Arizona (these days, however, his primary focus is water law, a specialty he’s been developing since 1988).

For Adam, the preparation for teaching American procedures, which is basically about due process—a citizen’s right to fair treatment under the law—was more involved.

“I’ve never been a law school professor, so it was lucky that I had access to the curriculum used by the law professor who is teaching the procedure class for Arizona’s new undergraduate major in law. So I had a PowerPoint presentation and I had the cases, but I still had to learn the material. I hadn’t thought about any of those cases since law school, which was 42 years ago. And I’d been busy since then being a judge. It was incredibly hard work—Robert is delighted that I figured that out, that being a law professor is hard! He thought I thought it was easy,” Adam says with a laugh. “So I spent last winter working on it, reading all the cases, reading interpretations of the cases and getting prepared to teach these students.”

But much of that preparation went by the wayside after the couple’s first class with the students, a four-hour session that Glennon and Adam taught together.

“Even though these students had been studying English at the college level for two years and some had very good English, others did not,” Adam says. “And we realized that the way they learn is very different. It is based on code, which is Chinese civil law, and in which there are clear answers to every question. In the U.S. we have a constitution and a judge rules on a case in light of that and interprets it and then other people disagree with the interpretation and it’s all about that, about the analysis of what a case says and how it applies.”

In addition, Adam points out, in China the students never talk in class. “There’s no give and take. A Chinese professor comes to class, stands at the podium and delivers information. And then the students regurgitate it on a multiple-choice final exam. That’s how it is done.”

So taking these factors into consideration, Glennon and Adam made some decisions during that first class. In many ways it was Adam’s judicial experience with self-represented and non-native English-speaking litigants that suggested the direction those decisions took.

First, Adam says, she knew that reducing stress in the courtroom, particularly when litigants are unfamiliar with the law and/or unconfident about their English, led to a better performance for all involved. So to reduce stress for their Chinese students who were not used to answering questions in class, let alone in uncertain English, she and Glennon told the students that neither of them would call on the students during class. “We said that if they wanted to volunteer that would be fine and if not, that would also be fine.” With a wry smile she adds, “And it turned out, of course, nobody would volunteer, so that meant we had to be prepared to lecture for two solid hours each time we went to class since we couldn’t count on a lot of engagement as we might in the U.S.”

Second, because when Adam was on the bench she had found it very important to get everyone’s names right, to be respectful as a matter of fairness, she and Glennon told the students they would call them by whatever name they wrote down on the seating chart. “Ninety percent of them wrote down their Chinese names, not the English names they had been assigned in English class to make it easier for Western teachers like us,” Adam says. Pronouncing those names was not easy, however, since in Mandarin there are four different ways to pronounce every word. So Adam made phonetic notes below each name as an aid, hoping this would give herself and Glennon a chance of getting the names right.

Finally, for her procedure class, which required that Adam be able to assess each student’s ability “to research a legal issue, employ legal reasoning and then argue a position effectively”—in a climate where students were not engaged in dialogue with the professor—she staged a moot court exercise for which they could prepare in advance and work with a teammate. This also gave her the chance to call each student by name (as best she could) at least once during the term.

Not surprisingly, both Glennon and Adam say that over the course of their time at Ocean University there were many situations which highlighted for them that they were teaching American law to students who live in a country with a completely different legal framework. In an essay Adam wrote after coming home she gives this anecdote by way of illustration: “One of the sharpest students in class … challenged her grade on the midterm. She got an A but was upset that her answer to a multiple-choice question about the balancing of private vs. government interests was wrong. ‘I’m Chinese,’ she said, ‘the government’s interest is always more important.’ I respectfully reminded her that this was a class in American legal procedure and that, though she might think us silly, her answer was still wrong.”

Reflecting on this aspect of their experience Glennon adds, “We were in an awkward position because it is a communist country. The rulers exercise total power. Yet at the same time it is a full-blown capitalist country with people making tons of money—it was not unusual to see cars that cost six figures parked on the street. But it’s an oppressive place. Everything is censored. There are cameras everywhere, including in our classroom. There’s no accountability, no transparency. So by the end of three months we were ready to leave.”

That said, Adam also is clear that her Chinese experience “was one of the best things I’ve done in my life. Yes, the government is oppressive, but the people everywhere were so amazing to us. We considered ourselves so lucky to be living there for three months and not to be blowing through. And our students—we just loved our students!” —JW

(The article Karen Adam wrote about her experience at Ocean University, “Teaching Law in China: What works in the courtroom works in the classroom,” can be found at the website of the National Judicial College, judges.org­­

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