Bond University

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Graduate Research Seminars: Theory or Praxis?


Australian legal education has not devoted much attention to settling the form and content of post-graduate programs. Indeed, the very idea of a separate identity for post-graduate training is something of an oxymoron in Australia. Postgraduate degree programs were slow to develop in Australian legal education. They made their presence felt only in the mid 1970s, as masters by coursework programs were introduced at Sydney (1965), Monash (1973), and a few other law schools. In the design of these programs, little attention was given to systematic training in research methods or theory. The programs were introduced at a time of (comparative) plenty within the academy, and they built on very small scale thesis programs (LLM/Ph.D). In those schools where a decision was made to combine advanced coursework requirements with completion of a minor thesis, reliance was placed on the one-to-one supervisory setting as the transmission belt for that training. Indeed, by not requiring a minor thesis to be undertaken as part of the course-work programs, some schools effectively confined research training to full thesis programs (in 1986 Sydney dropped the thesis requirement for the pass LLM). The theory underpinning all of this was that research skills were best conveyed through a one-to-one (master/apprentice) relationship. At its best, this model involved supervision by an experienced researcher who had acquired their own post-graduate degree by research in this manner. The lessons from that experience, and their subsequent research career, were then effectively conveyed to the candidate in the course of the supervision. At its worst however, supervision was minimal, and the skills of the supervisor were sparse or outdated. The personal priority accorded to research by the supervisor (and the culture of research within the supervising institution) was not necessarily high either. The report of the Discipline Review in 1987 questioned some of these comfortable assumptions about post-graduate training in law. At the risk of misrepresentation of a complex set of proposals, their basic thesis was that post-graduate coursework education had drifted towards becoming advanced training in specialist (commercial) areas already covered in the undergraduate curriculum. They were particularly critical of the lack of systematic training programs in advanced research method, and the tendency to provide advanced specialised training rather than broader critical perspectives (“theoretical” issues). The concern about theory fell on fairly stony ground, and — although the demand for it is high — research training is still in its infancy as law schools struggle both to define the balance between undergraduate and postgraduate responsibilities and to find the resources to back those priorities. With the introduction of an SJD (Doctor of Juridical Studies) in 1991, Sydney Law School took the opportunity to meet some of these challenges. In doing so, it deliberately elected to pursue academic goals over skill competencies: theory has been given precedence over praxis. This paper sketches the assumptions of the Sydney model, outlines some of the details of the course which support characterising the unit in this way and assays a preliminary view about the national implications (and advantages) of electing to provide a “particular” brand of research training.

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