The latest additions to the ESIL Teaching Corner include a syllabus of ESIL member Prof. Mando Rachovitsa (University of Groningen) on ‘Dissidence in Leadership’. She agreed to tell us more about her innovative class.

ESIL: The title of your module attracted our attention, and probably the students’. Could you tell us a bit more?

Mando Rachovitsa (MR): Dissidence in Leadership: “What Would Bert Röling Do?” is an interdisciplinary masterclass offered at the University of Groningen (the syllabus is available at ESIL’s teaching corner). The main aim of the masterclass is to test our ideas on leadership in connection to dissidence and innovative thinking. The design of the course has a concrete compass: getting inspired by Judge and Professor Bert Röling whose work and life attest to a distinctive  spirit of dissidence (or principled pragmatism, according to Klabbers), innovative (legal) thinking, inter-cultural understanding of law and interdisciplinary research. Subsequently, the sessions expand into other real-life case studies spanning across academia, research, public and private sectors.

ESIL: That sounds interesting! Are there some features in terms of teaching and assessment which seem to be working well and might be transferable to other contexts?”

(MR): Yes, indeed, I think there are at least three aspects:

  1. Bringing to the foreground the individuals who create, support or oppose ideas, concepts and theories

Turning the focus of our study to people reveals new aspects of the inner workings of international law, other disciplines as well as real-life choices. This direction makes teaching more engaging, nurtures self-awareness and critical thinking and highlights a certain measure of personal responsibility, if you will. Interestingly, the discussions in class have also shown to encourage and accommodate the expression of students’ own lived experiences.

In the context of a regular course in the curriculum, which may not afford lots of space for experimentation, one may devote a small part of a lecture addressing “people behind concepts”.

  1. Pursuing a dialectic format: make space for students and set the example

The masterclass sets the intention to not have one-way lectures. This means that, first, space is given to students to propel the direction of the conversations and decide the issues/case-studies to focus on. Second, the guest lecturers know beforehand that we will initiate an informal conversation among ourselves (questions and answers) which proves very inviting for students to “jump in” and engage. In January 2021, Professors John Dugard, Jan Klabbers and Ramses Wessel joined us and they seemed to enjoy the format and being challenged by students!

  1. Assessing with group video essays

Students are assessed based on collaborative (groups of 3), project-based work. They choose a real-life case study within the theme of the masterclass and present it in a five-minute video essay. The output and the ensuing discussion in class were of outstanding quality and creativity bringing to the fore decolonisation, human rights, indigenous peoples, misuse of science, the right to science and the limits, if any, to peaceful protest. The students’ case studies included the Zapatista movement; Yoani Sanchez (activist blogger in Cuba); Coco Chanel; Gamal Abdel Nasser; Vladimir Bukovski (psychiatrist and activist exposing the political abuse of psychiatry in the former Soviet Union); and Alexandra Elbakyan (creator of Sci-Hub).


ESIL: Is there anything you would do differently?

(MR): While the masterclass was ongoing I came to realise that the case studies, which I included in the syllabus or I mentioned in class, were not overall representative of race, gender, geographical regions, Global South-Global North. I shared my thoughts with students. They appreciated that I discussed this openly and it was also an incentive for them to reflect on how they choose their own material. So, the representativeness of the case studies is work-in-progress.


ESIL: Very many thanks for your willingness to share!