Insights on Teaching From an Exchange With Germany
When Professor Margaret Foster Riley traveled 4,000 miles away to Germany this summer to teach health law, she walked away with fresh ideas to apply at home.
“In the end we’re all wrestling with the same issues: how to deal with cost, technology and aging populations,” said Riley, who teaches health law and animal law courses at the University of Virginia School of Law.
Riley's trip was part of a longstanding exchange program with the University of Münster that offers insights to the teachers who participate. More than 30 Law School faculty members have taught at Münster since the program, which also sends Münster professors here for scholarship and team teaching, began in the late 1990s.
For Professor Molly Bishop Shadel, the trip was an occasion to hone her teaching skills in a new environment and experience other perspectives in law.
“I enjoy teaching, and getting to teach in an environment that is different from what I’ve grown accustomed to was exhilarating,” said Shadel, who co-taught the two-week Current Issues in American Law with Riley.
Riley, whose part of the course focused on American health care, said the experience helped her look at U.S. health care laws from a new angle. Germany has federal health care alongside a private marketplace.
The teaching of law also varies abroad. In Germany, students study law at the undergraduate level, and the professors’ classes included students as young as 18. Students there are also not typically exposed to the Socratic Method, where teachers actively question and challenge students. So students were exposed to a slightly different approach to law instruction.
According to Professor Heinz-Dietrich Steinmeyer, who was the first professor from Münster to teach at UVA Law when the program began in 1997, the summer courses taught by UVA Law faculty always have high enrollment.
Steinmeyer has returned to UVA Law to assist in teaching the course European Union Law seven times in the last 20 years.
"It is interesting and challenging to teach European Law to American students, who have a different legal background and a different approach and thinking," Steinmeyer said. He cited the benefits of collaborative research, scholarship and discussion among faculty from both countries.
Despite the difference in backgrounds, legal ideas always seem to translate, the faculty said.
“The most gratifying part to me was that ideas we covered in class can be generalized,” said Professor Michael Gilbert, who participated in the program in 2015. “Students in Germany found them interesting and helpful to the legal problems that they studied just as well as students in the United States do. It’s nice to know the ideas have a broader reach.”
Shadel agreed. While there are fundamental differences between U.S. law and German law, many of the themes were still applicable in both countries, she said.
“It was interesting to me to see what was the same, and to hear students ask questions that were the same as what I would get at UVA,” she said. “I really love our legal system. I think that it’s not perfect, but there is so much in it that we can be proud of. As I engaged with the students it reminded me about the things that I love about our system and the things that do make me proud to be an American.”