Q. Tim, your presentation at this year’s Teaching & Learning Forum is called ‘Stick a geranium in your hat and be happy’. An eye-catching title!

A. Do you know what put me on to that? I did the UTS Power of Screen Presenting course recently, and one of the first things they taught me was ‘grab the audience’. The title is relevant to my topic, but it was designed to grab attention.

Q. So…how do geraniums relate to teaching contract law again?

Tim Miles and some of his students
Tim Miles with some of his students

A. People’s memories are prompted by certain things. I read a book about creative writing that said, ‘don’t just talk about a flower, talk about a particular kind of flower’. So I thought, what kind of flower would I write about, and how would I put that into a legal problem for teaching contract law? And my parents’ balcony opposite the beach in Manly had geraniums. I also had a ‘hippy’ flatmate at one stage, and she had this poster on the wall next to the bathroom saying ‘put a geranium in your hat and be happy’. So far there’s not a legal story in this.

The legal story is my real story. I entered into a contract to buy a townhouse that was advertised with a beautiful garden. But when I arrived, the beautiful garden was all gone – it was all in pots and the seller was legally quite entitled to take them away. So I made that into a legal problem question, using a narrative, creative writing approach. Like a mini story that I can use in teaching. Needless to say, the plants in question were azaleas and camellias and not geraniums but as the saying goes ‘never let truth get in the way of a good story’. The truth lies in in the legal rules that the students apply to the story but, like the title of my presentation, the hook is in the story.

Q. And your next step is to get students to write their own legal problem scenarios like this?

A. I want to use that as a template to get students to think about a time when they bought something and it wasn’t as it was promised, which is a fairly basic concept in contract law. Some of the students are doing supply chain management, or human resources – but it helps if they can think of a scenario that may or may not have already happened to them, or could happen. The more they can relate the law to something from their own background, memories and imaginations, the more interesting it should be for them.

I want them to write their own literary scenarios that they can present in their own way – they could make a film or just use images, or even write a poem or a song. I can’t be sure if it’s going to work, but I think my students are going to be more involved if I do this. I’d like to take this approach right through the subject, so that all the areas of contract law are related to these narratives.

Q. You’re trying activate the students’ emotions with storytelling?

A. Yes – I want them to think about people. It’s all about people. Despite the technological age, we can’t have contracts without people. And that’s when problems arise, because of different personalities, different ethics and ways of thinking. Using a fictional style and slant can get you closer to the people involved, you think about their emotions. Normally when the law story finishes, the case is over and the claimants have got their damages. But nobody actually asks, whatever happened to the people afterwards?

In my first ice-breaking session I usually ask my students what books they have been reading, or what films they have been going to. The responses aren’t all that good. But students now are not just expected to go out after their degree with a set pattern, because it’s all pretty uncertain. Spreading their skills and their thinking, and being more creative, is really what is expected of graduates.

Q. What effect has adopting this literary approach had on your teaching so far?

A. Storytelling has given me a lot more confidence in teaching this area. It’s also made it more interesting to me. I find when I use this creative approach to write problem questions, even though I already know the law, I do discover new things. When you write, you don’t just create the meaning, you actually discover it. That’s what Stephen King says about the writing process; Kate Grenville says the same thing.

Tim presents his plans for the next stage of this experimental approach, and gives participants a chance to try it out and provide feedback, at UTS Teaching & Learning Forum 2016.

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