Enhancing scholarship through mentorship and appraisal: The CLS’s inaugural Sociolegal Studies Early Career Workshop

From 17-19 August 2017, Centre for Law and Society at the University of Cape Town hosted the inaugural Sociolegal Studies Early Career Workshop.  An intensive writing workshop which saw a small and promising group of draft papers from advanced postgraduates or recent PhD’s, receive close attention and feedback from Sociolegal scholars and mentors. The long-term goal of this workshop is to improve the diversity and quality of scholarship in sociolegal studies. 

Vanya Gastrow

‘What? My paper was accepted, but I’m not presenting it?’ I thought, perplexed as I scanned the workshop presentation format guide. The workshop I’m referring to was the CLS’s Sociolegal Studies Early Career Workshop that was held on 18 and 19 August 2017. It was hosted in partnership with the US-based Law and Society Association and aimed to encourage and nurture early career scholars working in the field of law and society.

It soon dawned on me how wise this approach was. I didn’t present my paper, but someone else did, and in the process they identified key gaps in my arguments and opportunities for strengthening my academic thought. Rather than honing my oral presentation skills through attending the workshop I spent two days reading and critiquing the work of others, and similarly being open to vigorous appraisals of my own paper.

These exchanges are an important step in the development of law and society scholarship in South Africa and the continent more widely. Despite a plethora of formal and informal legal systems existing in Africa, as well as diverse understandings of law, social rules and ‘rights’ across the continent, the study of law and society is a relatively new field in African tertiary institutions.

What was needed most amongst the early career scholars in attendance at the workshop was not a line up of paper presentations, but conversations with similarly placed scholars as well as experts on how to enhance the quality of their work, and find tools to relate their research interests to broader national, regional and global debates.

The workshop went beyond what I expected in addressing these needs. Each participant enjoyed an hour-long session devoted purely to the analysis and critique of their work by mentors and scholars in attendance. The engagement was enhanced by the fact that it was a small group of only six authors and six mentors, enabling everyone to have the chance to share their views in an intimate and relaxed setting.

The workshop papers covered a wide range of topics including women’s rights and the payment of bridewealth, the governance of migration, legal responses to marital rape, strategies aimed at ensuring food security, Afrocentric communitarianism and the right to health, and the role of due diligence in addressing sexual violence. Case studies were drawn from a number of countries including Tanzania, Ghana, South Africa and Kenya.

Through having my work reviewed, as well as reviewing the work of others, it became clear that many early career scholars in attendance encountered similar challenges in their academic writing and thought. For example, being largely schooled in law meant that many scholars struggled to engage with empirical fieldwork findings, which is a key facet of much law and society scholarship. Furthermore because most scholars were based in South Africa and Africa many had not carefully reflected on how their research could be of relevance to audiences further afield. Having US-based law and society scholars in attendance (Mark Fathi Massoud of UC Santa Cruz and Susan Sterett incoming to the University of Maryland) helped to locate their work more broadly and better prepare it for publication in international journals.

The workshop was therefore both unique and very effective, as all participants focused on actively assisting and engaging with each other’s work. Many thanks go to the organisers (Kelley Moult, Dee Smythe, Mark Fathi Massoud, Diane Jefthas, Nolundi Luwaya, Jemima Thomas, and Vitima Jere) for arranging a highly enjoyable, innovative and constructive workshop, which will hopefully form part of a much more long-term academic and intellectual journey.

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