Student-led course on African development trends exemplifies potential of ad hoc seminars

June 30, 2017Duke Law News

Last spring, Liz Wangu ’16 and nine other Duke Law students undertook a self-directed examination of the legal, political, economic, and social landscape of sub-Saharan Africa.

Recognizing the pivotal role that legal professionals can play in the development of sub-Saharan Africa, Wangu, then a third-year law student, designed the framework for the one-credit ad hoc seminar titled "Africa Rising," which assessed the validity of the "Africa Rising" narrative with a focus on development trends and issues in the areas of: access and inclusivity, governance, economic transformation, and innovation. Her classmates lead and facilitated class discussions, as required by curricular rules for ad hoc courses through which students can explore specialized legal topics that are not offered in the upper-level curriculum. Professor Trina Jones served as faculty supervisor.

Each of the seminar’s two-hour sessions included skype or videoconference conversations with professionals with expertise in the region. Prior to each class, students read news reports, scholarly articles, political speeches, and reports from research institutes and think-tanks such as the McKinsey Global Institute and the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. Afterwards they wrote reaction papers to offer reflections on each topic.

For Wangu, who is now a first-year clerk in the Project Finance group at Clifford Chance in Washington, D.C., and part of the firm's Africa Group, class discussions related to matters of governance and the complexities involved in working in emerging markets were both illuminating and particularly relevant to her career interests.

Cameron Hammel, who was then pursuing an LLM in international and comparative law along with her JD, said the seminar pointed her to new opportunities within the legal sphere. “Many of the individuals we spoke with were using their legal knowledge to promote and support Africa’s rise,” she said. “Learning about their engagement with the continent will inform my legal career going forward, shaping my future pro bono work and, potentially, my longer-term career, as I now know much more about the options available to young lawyers to assist in economic growth on the continent.”

Wangu said she was gratified by students’ enthusiasm for the seminar, which attracted a waiting list of 25 students, and for the ad hoc program generally. “I've had many students ask me about this course and in learning about how they could participate in the ad hoc program and design their own course.” 

Faculty supervisor Jones, said the seminar offered a good example of student initiative and creativity leading to a valuable learning experience. In particular, she praised Wangu for leading the students’ employment of a diverse array of teaching materials, from traditional academic texts to Ted Talks.

“What I found particularly masterful was the use of Skype to bring the material alive in ways that I had not witnessed in a classroom setting,” said Jones. “For example, in addition to reading about youth unemployment in Sub-Saharan Africa, they Skyped in the creator of a leadership academy in South Africa to discuss his efforts to intervene in the crisis. In addition to reading about the development of Africa Practice Groups in U.S. law firms, they skyped in lawyers from Covington and Burling to discuss the challenges and opportunities presented by their work. In addition to reading about the tension between aid and trade, they skyped in a high-level official from the UN to discuss the changing approach to African development of countries like the U.S. On every topic the seminar addressed, they managed to create an opportunity for active engagement with real players on the ground.”

The Africa Rising ad-hoc seminar was so successful that Jones and Wangu approached John Simpkins '99, former General Counsel of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), to join them in writing a proposal approved by the Duke Law curriculum committee in October. The proposal was for a more substantive similar course to be offered in the upper-level curriculum.  Simpkins returned to Duke Law to teach the new course, Economic Development and Growth in Africa, in the Spring 2017 semester. Simpkins worked with students to explore the legal issues implicated in sub-Saharan Africa’s economic and political development from the perspective of host-country and foreign governments, businesses, and legal practitioners.  

Ad-hoc seminars have influenced the official curriculum in the past. Student-organized courses such as one on indigenous land rights in Brazil and another on improving Haiti’s legal infrastructure after the devastating 2010 earthquake demonstrated the high demand for an expanded human rights curriculum and helped spur the establishment, in 2013, of Duke’s International Human Rights Clinic. Specific offerings, such as Spanish for Legal Studies and Latin American Business Law also had their origins in ad hoc seminars. In other cases, ad hocs on such diverse subjects as hate crimes and wines and spirits allowed students to synthesize multiple areas of law by taking a deep dive into an area of topical or subjective interest.

“The ad hoc seminar is an important part of the Duke Law curriculum as it is impossible, despite our best efforts, for the law school to anticipate in advance all areas of potential curricular interest to students,” Jones said. “In addition, although the Duke Law faculty is sizable, we do not have experts in every subject area of interest to students. Thus, the ad hoc seminar allows an enterprising and committed group of students to marshal their collective intellectual resources and to engage in self-directed learning.”

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