Globe, the Graduate Institute Review
09 November 2022

Teaching as Collective Knowledge Production: Examining International Law’s Past to Reimagine its Future

Professor Janne Nijman shares her perspective on teaching at the Institute. 

Teaching at the Geneva Graduate Institute is a great privilege. It is intellectually rewarding as well as personally enriching. The diversity in nationalities and backgrounds that our students bring to class paired with their high academic level allows for graduate seminars to be spaces for a genuine exchange of (world) views and experiences, and for collective knowledge production.

This is all the more true in a course on history and theory of international law, which studies international legal thought since the 16th century. For one, when discussing primary and secondary texts in class, the students and I examine how the conceptual legal toolbox is developed through time, often with a view to legitimising forms of colonisation and domination.

Together, we contextualise historical legal texts, examine the political issues at stake and question our own and each other’s often deeply rooted assumptions, beliefs and understandings of international law. This requires the classroom to be a trusted space: I am always moved by how carefully students listen to each other and how respectfully they engage with one other. 

Dealing with international law’s past is not merely a theoretical exercise. Practitioners often tell me: “Our new staff will develop further their lawyering skills with us at the legal office or in court, but we want them to come to us with a sense of how the law develops, how it plays out, how it is mobilised and contested.”

When we critically discuss texts by Vitoria, Grotius, Hobbes, Feichtner or Koskenniemi, we do not engage with texts written by and for philosophers, but with texts produced by legal advisors and practitioners. Vitoria was a 16th century advisor to the Spanish king on the colonisation of the Americas. Hugo Grotius was a corporate lawyer for the first part of his professional life. Koskenniemi emphasises that he is writing as an international lawyer coming from practice. Theory and practice are inseparable and this is clearly visible when dealing with international law’s past.

My interest in the history of international law and institutions has been driven increasingly by a certain dissatisfaction, and I recognise this with many of our students. However, I am convinced that we should stay away from an attitude of cynicism and nihilism, especially with such talented students as ours. We all know how easy it is to go on that path.

Fortunately, being in Geneva precisely invites re-imagination. Past and present international law and institutions may be given to us, but they may not be as “given” as we perceive them to be. Seeing their contingency makes us aware of human agency, of how our thinking and choices matter. Doing history creates space for the re-imagination of international law that benefits from collective knowledge production.

This article was published in Globe #30, the Institute Review.