volume 38, number 4
Temple UniversityFaculty Herald

Foreign Teaching and the Research Agenda: Beijing

William J. Woodward, Jr., Beasley School of Law

William J. Woodward, Jr., Professor of Law, Beasley School of Law

One of the things that drew me to Temple’s law school in 1984 was the richness of its foreign programs and the opportunities that might develop to teach in a foreign country.  Having since seized many of those opportunities, I have learned that teaching in one of Temple’s foreign programs is an inevitable interruption in one’s research. 


Law professors are perhaps lucky, however:  in law and perhaps in other disciplines that vary with and depend on culture, one’s work as a scholar can also be richer and more interesting for the experience. 


No matter what the assignment, the teaching will be labor-intensive.  At the law school, the offerings in foreign locations are, appropriately, comparative law or international law courses, subjects that most faculty do not teach on a regular basis.  That means either new course preparation or a serious updating of a course taught long ago.  The inevitable retooling becomes yet more fundamental when the students are foreign students, particularly from a culture very unlike our own.


Temple’s Master of Laws Program for Chinese lawyers in Beijing is one of those assignments that presents a very different set of challenges for the teacher.  My second tour in this program ended in November 2007 (the first ended in November 2003).  This program is taught at one of China’s premier law schools, at Tsinghua University, to lawyers who have good command of English and are otherwise amazingly talented. 


Dinner with students

In a typical group of about 40, one will find a half-dozen judges from various levels of the Chinese judicial system, six or eight “prosecutors,” lawyers whose job includes what our prosecutors do but is considerably broader, three or four lawyers working in the National Peoples’ Congress, perhaps four academics at various levels, six to twelve private practitioners, and a scattering of recent law school graduates. 


Simply offering a fulfilling educational experience to a group with this range of experience is a very substantial challenge.


Law class at Tsinghua University

Our Program promises students “an American law school experience.”   While Professor Kingsfield and “Paper Chase” are no longer norms at most law schools, this at least means getting the normally-passive students to talk, challenging their beliefs and assumptions, and making them work very hard. 


We offer American law courses—in my case, I taught Contracts and Business Bankruptcy last fall, courses I teach on the Main Campus on a regular basis. 


But, of course, the delivery cannot be the same because the content of most law school teaching depends as much on the demographics of the student group as it does on the materials the professor is using. 


A graduating class

What is worse, the courses in Beijing are reduced to two credit hours.  This meant slicing the Contracts course in half and cutting the Bankruptcy course by one third.  In that Program, like the other foreign programs, nearly all of one’s work energy, of necessity, goes into teaching.


The opportunity for immersion in a foreign culture is what draws many to foreign program teaching.  Tsinghua University is located in the northwest quadrant of Beijing, in the high-tech part of the city.  My colleague Amy Sinden, a retired State Department official, Sam Bleacher, and I stayed at the Friendship Hotel.  This is a large 1950’s complex perhaps 8 miles from the University, in an intensely busy neighborhood with scores of local restaurants within “walking distance.” 


I use that last term guardedly because “distance” in Beijing is something very hard to get used to.  Simply crossing the street from our hotel to the market area to its immediate northeast became a major excursion at nearly all hours.   Bicycles became necessities, even to make that journey.  


It turns out that bicycling is a joy not to be missed in Beijing.  The huge city (at least 15 million people) is flat and has excellent bicycle lanes even on main highways.  But like almost everything else in China’s cities, bicycling is not a solitary activity but, rather, deep immersion in a pack of riders of all ages that seem to exhibit “schooling” behavior.  The daily ride to work took on a Zen quality; commuting that 8 miles day and evening became a regular pleasure, a unique one that may well not be available anywhere else.


Beijing is a little like the Grand Canyon:  you have to see its vastness to believe it.  The city is circled with concentric “ring roads” and one can ride on a ring road for miles in one direction with a near constant succession of 40-plus story buildings going by.  One might think of it as a Los Angeles with Manhattan’s buildings. 


Biking to the center of the city (“center” is a very big concept in Beijing) would take well over 90 minutes (but be very interesting); at the best of times, such a trip would take at least 40 minutes by fast taxi.  An extensive new subway system, under construction for the Olympics when we were there, will add immensely to one’s ability to get around Beijing. 


Pingyao, China

Our program has a class schedule that permits one to travel on weekends.  There are far more places to go than can possibly be visited in one teaching assignment. These range from intact, sixteenth-century cities (Pingyao and, to some extent, Lijiang) to countryside bicycling venues (Yangshuo) to other big cities (Shanghai, Chengdu, and others). 


One unexpected pleasure of air travel to these places was the air transportation system itself:  its efficiency and speed truly made the air travel experience in the United States seem primitive.  And this same efficiency is the norm for the airports in Hanoi and Taipei as well.  Inexpensive (usually), very easy check-in, fast baggage claim, quickly moving security, and—the best—no shoe removal. 


Yangshuo, China

The teaching demand is onerous; recreational and business travel are very hard to resist.  That truly leaves almost no time (nor library resources) to pursue one’s scholarship.  But, in law at least, one’s cultural and subject matter immersion may be a kind of fertilizer that produces a later bounty of scholarly output. 


On return from a foreign program, there is probably an inescapable desire to put the new cultural learning “to work.”   For law teachers, the most obvious place for new insights to show up is in one’s classes.  Globalization has made it important to have some sense of the ways different legal systems work, as well as the ways that they either do or do not work together when confronting cross-border problems.  Future lawyers need sensitizing to these issues so they can see them when they are deeply embedded within a larger legal problem.  In business law, at least, it will not be too long before almost all legal problems will have some foreign facets to them.


A moment’s break during a cycle trip in Yangshuo

Because law and culture are so closely intertwined, living in another culture can give one deeper insights into the substance of one’s own legal system and, with even a superficial overview of the foreign system, that system as well.  Perhaps as important, it also gives one a sense of the interrelationship between a culture and its law, a connection that is often invisible to those who have not traveled.  These insights often beg for an audience beyond the classroom.


In my own case, which may or may not be common, a question a Chinese law student gave me following a lecture I gave at a Beijing University grew into a modest research project.  The question was something like “why does United States bankruptcy law treat business debtors so much less harshly than does the new Chinese bankruptcy law?” 


It turns out that this is an amazingly profound puzzle because answering it may require probing the deep question about how law and culture influence one another.  Having given something of an answer to the student on the fly, the question pushed me into many dark recesses of U.S. bankruptcy history and policy once I returned home.  That, in turn resulted in a more elaborate exposition of an answer to be translated and published in China and, after much more digging, a very expanded version, more suitable for a domestic audience, to be published here.


Perhaps law is peculiar in wearing its cultural influences close to the surface where they can be observed, however incompletely, and therefore serve as research stimulus.  But I doubt this is the case.  Rather, my guess is that culture has an influence on most academic disciplines but that (as with law) the influence may not be evident to an observer until she enters and lives with her discipline in another culture. 


The possibility of awakening an appreciation of such a connection may well be academic reason enough to work in a foreign program.  It will surely show up one way or another in the sophistication and depth of one’s thinking about one’s subject.  Almost inevitably, such an awakening will enrich one’s domestic teaching and add insight to one’s research.  If it does more, like inducing specific new directions in research such as comparative analysis, well, that’s just gravy.