Constitutional Law is not known as the most exciting area of legal study but by drawing on everything from ancient Vedic texts through to Facebook and other social media, Bond University teaching fellow, Danielle Ireland-Piper has not only inspired her students but has won the 2013 LexisNexis-ALTA Early Career Award for Excellence and Innovation in the Teaching of Law.
“I personally think there are all sorts of pedagogical gems to be found in the works of ancient thinkers – from Greek philosophers to poets and ascetics like Rumi and Vedic texts such as the Mahabharata,” says Danielle, who currently teaches Constitutional Law and the Laws of Armed Conflict and Peacekeeping at Bond’s Faculty of Law.
“The ancient societies used allegories and visual symbols as teaching tools to contextualize principles that otherwise exist in the abstract. People generally understand and enjoy this narrative way of explaining various concepts, and that makes it a powerful teaching tool.”
At the other end of the chronological spectrum, Danielle has also embraced the teaching potential in 21st century media by bringing Facebook and other social sites into the classroom.
“Facebook is a means of communication that students easily relate to so we have a Constitutional Law page where I share links and resources that encourage discussion outside of the official lecture and tutorial sessions.
“The students have really responded well in terms of contributing to the conversations but I’ve discovered that it has also worked to promote a stronger sense of community as they interact with each other in their posts, arguing or defending various viewpoints.
“In fact, the system has been so successful in encouraging genuine engagement with the learning process that many former students continue to contribute to the social media sites relating to the courses I teach.”
Danielle’s ‘outside the box’ approach to teaching in undoubtedly inspired by her somewhat unorthodox upbringing, attending “at least ten different schools all over the east coast of Australia” before eventually graduating from Murwillumbah High School in northern NSW.
“I guess you could say we were a nomadic, somewhat unconventional family but I actually don’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in politics and the law – this was the stuff of family dinner conversations,” she says.
“I tried to join Amnesty International when I was four years old so I think it’s fair to say that my parents and grandparents always encouraged my interest in social justice and human rights.
“I’ve also been deeply influenced by my spiritual teacher, Srila Narayana Maharaja who often translated complex information into a real world context through the power of allegory.
“In my high school teacher, Ellen Doolan, I saw the importance of reaching out to students who may not learn through conventional teaching methods and my colleagues at Bond have inspired me with their intellect and commitment.”
After finishing Year 12, Danielle was awarded a prestigious Vice-Chancellor’s Scholarship to study at Bond University and, within four years, had completed a double degree in Law and International Relations, graduating with First Class Honours.
She was quickly co-opted as an Associate to the Honourable Justice Kiefel, now a Justice of the High Court of Australia – another “influential mentor” – and was then awarded a Chevening Scholarship to study a Masters of Law at Cambridge University in the UK.
Eventually returning to Australia, she gained a wealth of experience working with the Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission and as Policy Advisor to the NSW Minister for Community Services, Aboriginal Affairs and Health.In private practice, she worked with Sydney law firm, Baker McKenzie, where she focused on unemployment and industrial relations law while maintaining an active involvement in pro bono work.
“About five years ago, I was working with the International Legal Assistance Unit of the Australian Attorney-General’s Department in a role that involved training foreign officials in various aspects of international law.
“It slowly dawned on me then that I love teaching and seemed to be able to connect with my students.”
Following that call, Danielle returned to Bond University, signing on for double duty as a Senior Teaching Fellow and PhD candidate.
“In some way, teaching law and practicing law are quite similar; in other ways, they’re very different,” she says.
“Both require polished communication and inter-personal skills but teaching is more of an intellectual luxury that allows you to focus your thoughts and writing on a particular area.
“Teaching is also a little less glamorous … but far more rewarding!”
Danielle says that having such varied experience in the practice of law helps her translate complex ideas into a real world context for her students and design assignments that will be useful to them when they start practicing law.
“This is something that Bond’s Faculty of Law does really well,” she says. “Our students are negotiating, mooting and drafting legal documents from the outset.”
This combination of practical experience, unorthodox but highly effective teaching methods and a genuine interest in her students inspired a number of current and former students to provide glowing testimonials in support of her nomination for the LexisNexis-ALTA Early Career Award for Excellence and Innovation in the Teaching of Law.
But Danielle firmly states that she has never aspired to popularity.
“How do students respond to my teaching methods? Honestly – I think they either love me or hate me! There’s no in-between.
“But ultimately, my goal is for students to respond by being genuinely engaged in the learning process and that they seek to know more about the world in which they live.
“I want to work with them to develop skills that they will be able to use for the rest of their lives and equip them with a thirst for learning and sharing knowledge.”