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Bok Visiting International Professors Program adapts to remote learning

April 20, 2021

Each year, the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s Bok Visiting International Professors Program brings several internationally recognized experts to the Law School to lead intensive seminars, engage with faculty and students, and bring important global perspectives to the Law School community.

This year, international travel restrictions limited the Law School at Penn’s ability to continue the Bok program in an in-person capacity, but a global pandemic-driven pivot to remote learning led to new opportunities.

Bok courses provide students with a one-credit deep dive into a specialized topic with a globally distinguished legal scholar, judge, or government official. Typically, each course is only offered once, with new instructors teaching unique courses each year. However, when the pandemic caused Bok Professors to defer their visits to Philadelphia, Penn Law expanded the reach of this program to ensure that students would still have access to this special opportunity.

“We realized last March that we would not be able to welcome any international visitors to Penn Law, because none of them would be able to travel,” said Heimbold Professor of International Law and Deputy Dean for International Programs Eric Feldman. “But we also realized that there were other ways to globalize our curriculum, so we brought the world to Penn Law by inviting a select group of distinguished international scholars to teach remotely.”

With a priority that global voices and viewpoints always be represented in course offerings, the Law School reconnected with previous Bok Professors in Africa, South Asia, and the Caribbean and offered them the opportunity to teach remote seminars. In teaching these intensive classes for the first time from abroad, Bok Professors brought yet another layer of value to this unique experience.

“Against all odds, teaching a small Bok course online during the pandemic was, at least for me, as worthwhile as my experience teaching a Bok course face-to-face in 2016,” said Tracy Robinson, Deputy Dean at the University of the West Indies, Mona and a former Chair on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. “In a course where we were often thinking about both time and space … our different locations in the Americas may have oddly moored our discussions, rather than created distance.”

Robinson, who is internationally recognized for her work regarding sexual rights, sexual harassment, LGBTI rights, and rights of the child, led the Fall 2020 course, “Queer Questions, Moral Contentions and Transnational Human Rights in the Americas.”

Another Bok professor who “returned” in Fall 2020 was Akua Kuenyehia, a former Judge of the International Criminal Court and former Law Dean of the University of Ghana. Kuenyehia, who broke ceilings as Ghana’s first female professor of law, taught “The International Criminal Court and Africa,” which analyzed the complex circumstances and relationship between African States and the ICC. Her expertise in gender and the law, public international law, and human rights brought invaluable insight and perspective to students.

“It was a unique opportunity to hear from someone so accomplished in the international criminal law field,” said Leslie Reid L’21, who enrolled in Kuenyehia’s course in the fall. “I appreciated that she was so open to questions about her individual career path and candid about the difficulties and shortcomings of the system.”

A third Bok course addressed the practical and theoretical challenges of protecting women’s rights under Sharia law and explored the tensions between the Rule of Law in Western societies and Sharia states. “Women in Sharia Law” was led by Hauwa Ibrahim, a Nigerian human rights lawyer, 2005 laureate of the Sakharov Prize, and former prosecutor in the Ministry of Justice in Bauchi State. Ibrahim has defended several high-profile cases involving the death penalty or cruel punishment, including over 150 cases involving women sentenced to death by stoning and children sentenced to amputation of limbs under Sharia law.

Remote learning can pose its own unique set of challenges in any circumstance, but for Bok course offerings in particular, which are typically more intimate educational experiences over a shorter window of time, making connections with students who are often in different time zones became even more important.

“It was helpful for me to ask students what had changed for them in the learning experience since the pandemic started and what was becoming the new normal in respect of assessment and course load,” Robinson said. “This helped me to wade through some of the uncertainties of how best to teach and how much to assign. I was far from surefooted but assumed many university teachers were also slowly figuring out the best way to proceed. I am grateful the students were generous and engaged notwithstanding all the challenges they were facing.”

In a year in which foreign travel felt like a far-off memory for most U.S. residents, the Bok program managed to deliver impactful cross-border perspectives and furthered the Law School’s mission to connect students with distinguished global faculty, even in a virtual setting.

“Both semesters of the Bok course have given me perspective on my legal education,” said Alana Sheppard L’22, who attended both Kuenyehia’s and Ibrahim’s courses. “The international focus of the program allowed for a fascinating comparative analysis with my U.S.-focused doctrinal classes. Additionally, the experts that taught the classes were not only brilliant but also exceptionally kind.”