Legal Education Digest
Teaching Criminal Law in a Visually and Technology Oriented Culture: A Visual Pedagogy Approach
 LegEdDig 17; (2007) 15(1) Legal Education Digest 47
16 Legal Educ Rev 1 & 2, 2006, pp 153–163
The revolution in media and global communications in the last few decades has transformed the very basic foundations of knowledge and education. Pedagogical authors have been advocating for the development of media literacy across the curriculum. However, in Canada the Law School classroom, with its teaching philosophy built during an exclusively print-centred era, has not yet opened its doors to audiovisual teaching methodologies or to media literacy.
Since the 1980s, Canadian Law Schools have been gradually shifting the conception of the law from a unitary, doctrine-focused, and homogeneous system to a more diversified, open, and plural process, where there is a relatively higher degree of tolerance for alternative perspectives and for the contribution of other disciplines. Although this change in the legal paradigm implied a devaluation of the importance of Langdell’s case method, and despite the efforts of many faculty members and authors in Canada, law teaching methodologies have not yet completely shifted towards a truly active and student-centred pedagogy that fully acknowledges the influence of audiovisual media in students’ lives.
The rapid expansion of global communications media and visual culture in this digital era has shaken the structure of societies globally and has radically altered the dissemination and production of information and knowledge.
Unlike other active teaching pedagogies that consider audiovisual technologies as mere supplements to traditional classroom and print-based education, visual pedagogy places audiovisual languages at the forefront of classroom teaching. Visual pedagogy recognises the unique advantages that audiovisual media have as powerful transforming tools. Visual pedagogy advocates the teaching of media literacy across the curriculum, and as part of a plan that is sensitive to the diverse concerns, knowledge, and experiences of students. Media literacy has been conceptualised as the ‘the process of critically analysing and learning to create one’s own messages — in print, audio, video, and multimedia, with emphasis on the learning and teaching of these skills through using mass media texts’. It includes the cognitive and affective processes involved in viewing and producing audiovisual materials.
In Canada, legal education consists of a three year curriculum, which is fairly similar across the relatively few existing common law schools. While law schools are free to adopt their own legal curriculum, they generally include all those subjects recommended by the provincial law societies for the admission to the practice of law. In Canada, students need to have at least three years of undergraduate education, and generally a bachelor’s degree, in order to be admitted to Law School. However, the nature of legal education is typically undergraduate. Students do not write a thesis, they do not research beyond case searches, and their production of texts is limited to marginal clinical classes taught by part-time faculty.
The criminal law course where the experience recounted below takes place is conceived as an interdisciplinary course. It focuses on the study of crime simultaneously from three main disciplines: criminal law, criminology, and criminal justice. It has been conceived as an experimental one year course to offer students a different approach to the study of law. In this course we analyse a long list of different criminal problems, such as homicides, sexual assault, property crimes, corporate crimes, international crimes, crime participation, and the elements of the crime, among many others. The focus is not the appellate court decisions dealing with these criminal matters, but the criminal problems themselves. Although there is a lot of variation in the approach, when we examine any given criminal phenomenon we try to delve into three main layers of analysis: (1) the root causes of the criminal problem, for which purpose we resort to a wide array of criminology theories, both traditional and alternative; (2) the legal solutions adopted to deal with the problem, including an analysis of the elements of the criminal offence and its judicial interpretation both in Canada and other jurisdictions; and (3) the way the criminal justice institutions handle the problem and its perceived offenders. We seek connections among society’s legal, political, economic, sociological, and cultural elements and we look at criminal problems and justice institutions from international and transnational perspectives. This interdisciplinary approach not only enriches the examination of legal issues but also actively fosters students’ interest to engage in criminal problems from a comprehensive focus.
Since we now live in a visually-oriented and technology-driven society, our classroom teaching should adapt to the new realities of this fast-paced audiovisual culture rather than clinging to teaching methodologies that belong to other paradigms.
I implemented a teaching method that makes extensive use of students’ preferred learning styles without compromising the objectives of achieving excellence in the discipline. Although I try not to repeat the structure of my classes by constantly changing the rhythm of the class and by varying all classroom activities, my classes usually have a general common pattern. I always start by posting on the blackboard — in a way that resembles interactive menus on cable and satellite TV — the objectives of the class, how the class fits with what we have done and what we will do, the topic of my talk, the class activities we will carry out, and what we will cover in the next class. My talk is usually short and straight to the main points I want them to discuss later. We then all embark on the class activities.
As a way of illustration, when we analyse the crime of stalking I usually show some scenes from the Friends episode titled ‘The One After the Super Bowl’. In this episode, Erica Ford (Brooke Shields) has got into Joey’s building to deliver a love letter to Joey thinking he actually is Dr. Remore — the surgeon he plays on Days of Our Lives. When Erica unexpectedly knocks at Joey’s door, Joey and Chandler get scared and think she is going to kill them. We analyse whether Erica committed the crime of stalking (criminal harassment) as conceived in Canada. We analyse the actus reus (harassment), and the prohibited conduct (following, communicating, watching or threatening), the appropriate mens rea, and the existence of fear. We compare this crime with the stalking offence in California, which differs slightly from the Canadian version, as it has been conceived as a specific intent crime. This leads to a debate about specific intent crimes and the possibility of raising the voluntary intoxication defence. We also analyse the criminological categories of stalkers.
Participation in crimes also lends itself to this kind of activity. For example, in Seinfeld’s episode ‘The Revenge’, George plots revenge against his former boss. With Elaine’s help he tries to slip his boss ‘a Mickey’. Also, Jerry suspects that his launderer is a larcenist after he discovers that $1500 he had stashed in his laundry bag is missing. Kramer convinces Jerry to get revenge. So, they both go back to the laundry. Jerry distracts the launderer while Kramer puts a bag of concrete into one of the washing machines. Students engage in a very lively discussion about the requirements for being an aider and abettor, the doctrine of probable and natural consequences, the dual mens rea concept, and the differences between the requirements for being a counsellor to an offence and an accessory after the fact.
In order to achieve a high level of media literacy, students also create their own media productions dealing with criminal matters.
Teaching the conventions of film language and the actual analysis of these conventions, alongside the analysis of substantive disciplinary contents, gives students the necessary tools to make their own film productions. The results have been very stimulating. As an example, a group of students made a documentary based on criminal events that took place in the neighbourhood surrounding the school campus. The students showed the video to the whole class and we analysed its substantive criminal content as well as the film language and structure that students used.
Another group of students produced a video about recent assaults — in a bullying context — that took place in a High School near the school campus. They approached their production as a documentary. They interviewed the victims of the assaults. They also interviewed students that witnessed the assaults. They described what happened and described the perpetrators of this series of crimes. They also interviewed school counsellors who gave their opinion about the causes that led to the crimes. When they edited these interviews, students inserted several scenes of a courtroom to convey the idea that these testimonies took place in a criminal trial.
Another group produced a video about marital rape in the early 1980s prior to Canada’s amendment to sexual offences and sexual assault today. Students resorted to black and white to show the 1980s scenes where the husband forced his wife into sexual intercourse. The wife made a complaint and students recreated the criminal trial in an actual courtroom in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The judge ends up discharging the prosecutor’s case on the grounds that common law rape excluded the possibility of a husband’s rape of his own wife. Then a similar scene takes place nowadays. Students change to the use of colour to show the new time. Now the case ends up with the husband’s conviction for sexual assault as the marital exception has been abolished in Canada. The use of music and fast paced editing conveyed the emotions and feelings of the victim as experienced in both situations.
These practices serve several purposes — pedagogical, criminological and philosophical. From a pedagogical point of view, as held by visual pedagogy theory, these activities relate to the way students are used to looking at the world without diluting the quality of learning. It caters to learners who are immersed in a visually and technologically oriented culture. These activities also motivate students to read the articles, cases, and books which are necessary for the analysis of the video segments and integrate these readings into a comprehensive analysis of all (visual and print) texts dealing with criminal matters. At the same time, these activities help students develop media literacy. They help students to critically analyse media texts and to create their own media messages on criminal matters.
From a criminological viewpoint, these activities help students demystify the traditional image of crime as occurring between strangers on the streets and where the perpetrator is generally a marginalised member of society. This helps them see that crimes take place in all social classes and milieus and that most of the time victims and offenders know each other very well.
Finally, it ruptures with a unitary, doctrine-focused and homogeneous conception of the law, which is invariably concerned with the print-centred mission of dissecting published appellate court decisions. It proposes a more diversified, open, cooperative and plural teaching and learning process, which coincides with the current paradigm of audiovisual culture in a digital era.
It is necessary to redefine the prevailing conception of legal pedagogy and teaching methodologies along the lines of the changes in the evolution of society. Television, film materials, and other media texts offer unique teaching possibilities which motivate students’ learning process and at the same time contribute to a more open and diversified conception of the law attuned to the current audiovisual paradigm. Furthermore, as advocated by visual pedagogy, it is also necessary to help Law School students develop media literacy, as this enables a level of interactivity and critical thinking not achieved with traditional teaching methods.