Thoughts on my first course: Intro to Energy Law – Energy Security and the Energy Charter Treaty

Thoughts on my first course: Intro to Energy Law – Energy Security and the Energy Charter Treaty

Recently I had the opportunity to hold a visiting course in Hungary, at the University of Szeged. The course was an introduction to energy law, focusing on the concept of energy security, mainly from an European perspective, and on the content, application and case law of the Energy Charter Treaty. It consisted of 8 lectures of 45 min each. 6 lectures were scheduled in a single day, while the remaining 2 were held during the following one. The class was addressed to senior law students (Hungary does not have master programs, but seniority – 4th and 5th year of studying law) and PhD students. Despite being a Hungarian state university the course was delivered entirely in English language. Overall it was a very interesting and enriching experience, from which I have derived several conclusions.

Preparation. Materials. Expectations

The course was designed initially for 6 sessions. However, close to the beginning date the university informed me that two extra sessions were added. Suddenly I faced the challenge of adapting on short term to the new challenge. However, I have decided that the extra two sessions should not be used for additional topics and concepts, but for emphasizing some of the initially planed ones, in order to ensure a better understanding and grasping of the topic. Since from the very beginning I aimed to make the class more relevant to my Hungarian students by focusing on cases involving Hungary, I took the opportunity of having extra sessions and dedicated one entirely to the famous ECT case – Electrabel vs Hungary. The plan was to have a very open and extensive discussion with students. Looking back on the outcome of the class, it proved to be a sound decision.

I have prepared the course materials for each session and ended up with about 550 pages for 8 sessions, which seemed like a lot even to me. However, half of the materials was represented by the arbitral award in Electrabel v Hungary while a third from the remaining materials was the text of the ECT which was more an instrument of work than an actual reading. Hence, I have decided to divide the materials into “mandatory” readings and “optional” readings and passed this information to the students. This allowed them to have a reasonable amount of readings to prepare for the sessions. In addition, I asked the students to read the media during the morning of the class and bring with them one piece of news related to energy if they would find any.

My expectation was to have an interactive class, where I could combine small periods of lecturing (10 min) with open discussions with the students, where to employ their knowledge, experience, or at least their grasping of the readings. These expectations were minimized by the university’s liaison who informed me that the student’s knowledge of English might be limited, which means I should be ready to deliver solely lectures. I prepared for this possibility but I went ready to do all in my power to engage students in the discussions and do not allow them to sit idle while I talk, and I talk, and I talk. Luckily the students’ English knowledge proved to be good which allowed us to engage and exchange information throughout the course.

Class attendance and participation

The opening class had a very large attendance (basically the room was full), with a number of 40-50 students. However, due to some courses overlap, the attendance reduced to a half during the next 2 classes. To my pleasant surprise new faces appeared during the next hours and they also returned later that day and for the final class, which meant that I was able to capture their interest. The ending session also enjoyed a large attendance, around 35-40 students.

As I have said I was determined to not allow students to sit idly while I give lectures. Therefore, we started slow and with the basics, generally explaining concepts of security, energy resources, and building from there. Before going into further details or developing the topic, I always took the time to ask them what they think, listened to them, tried to lead them towards the right track with targeted questions and allowed them to realize on their own where they erred or where I was leading them. However, although I have noticed that the audience was paying attention to the discussions, only 4-5 students expressed their willingness to actively engage in it. Since I wanted to get them started, I decided to work with those who volunteered, hoping the others will be tamed and join us later. I admit that after a while, although happy to have a dialogue, I became a bit unsatisfied with having the dialogue with the same persons. However, it was hard to ignore them, since they were making fair points and allowed me to show the others how their previous and current knowledge can help them with this new topic. The first 2 sessions passed in this manner. I am happy to say that I have noticed them to actually listen with curiosity instead of buttoning phones or chatting to each other.

For the second class, I took a slighter different approach. Since I was not sure how many of them have read the materials, I brought to class a documentary based on one of the provided readings and played 12 min of film for them. The movie was about the oil price crisis in the 80’s and the resemblance with the current one was striking. While students were watching the film, I watched the students, and noticed again their curiosity in the video, and, after the viewing ended, in what I had to say. However, I was most interested in what they thought about what they just saw. And this time, the remaining students were happy to oblige.

The third class of the day was tiring. Especially for me. I was discovering how demanding long teaching days are. Especially when there is no appropriate break. However, this was the class where policy issues were replaced by purely legal issues, which got the students even more involved in the talks. And not only this, but students started asking questions, taking the thought and the discussion further. They were not just re-acting to my questions, they were acting. The classroom became a forum where ideas emerged and were exchanged, opinions were issued and discussed, challenged or supported. And the students left the class still talking about the topics just covered..

The most fulfilling moment was the last class, held the next day. Beside the large audience, I was happy to notice their constant attention and involvement. The class was dedicated entirely to arbitration cases and it had a very practical approach. Based on the theoretical background provided in the previous sessions, the students were asked to act like arbitrators and decide the cases. And they did get into the game. But the actual satisfaction  – mine and theirs – came from another aspect. Some of the cases had repetitive legal aspects. The students got these aspects really fast and started answering my questions with confidence and entirely accurate. They were happy to hear my praising of their understanding and (newly acquired) knowledge. I was happy to see that they paid attention and learned the lesson from the classroom. Their increased confidence led to an increased and more diverse participation in the class discussion. And when the class ended, I was glad to receive their applause and their satisfaction with the overall course. I do admit I felt a bit like a star, but for me, the stars were they, for they had courage to come to a new class, with a teacher they did not know, who challenged them continuously with questions and demand for reasoning and explanations of their answers. They were the real stars for taking an interest and making the most of those 8 sessions.

Overall (self-)assessment

No class was perfect, but given all the unknown factors I have faced, as well as the uncertainty concerning students’ knowledge of English and their interest in such a topic, I think I was able to exceed my own expectations. The greatest satisfaction came from the fact that the topic I proposed and presented, as well as the fashion in which I have done it, kept them interested and made them return. The class was mandatory for PhD students, but the large majority of the audience was made of senior students. This is a big accomplishment.

Although I was concerned with not being able to involve them, I have surpassed the fear with the help of those students who got into the course from the outset. Most of the teaching environments have these “talkers”. They are useful, because the get things going. They are also problematic: sometimes their contributions are not valuable. Or they tend to monopolize the discussions. For the first issue, two possible solutions come up: either one builds on their mistakes in order to get to the right answer by involving the rest of the class (questions such as: do you agree with your colleague? can I hear a different opinion? prove extremely valuable), or try to ignore them politely by saying: let’s hear other opinions or let’s talk to someone else. For the second issue, the solution is not to marginalize them, but to encourage others to join .

I would have wanted a larger class participation from the beginning. However, I had to settle with their attention and interest. If the class delivers, I have noticed that with time, as they become more familiarized with the style, with the professor and with the topic, the students can be tamed. It requires passion and patience. If the class is not yet involved, but they are present, my advice would be to act friendly. Friendly and passionate. Reach out to them, but don’t be pushy. Give them time. Time to think, to process, to get involved. If they don’t, show no dissatisfaction and move on. They will come around. My students in Szeged did.

And always remember that you are there for them, and not the other way around.





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