Challenges and 'fit'
Attempts to make the teaching and learning of EU law more socio-legal may face some module-specific challenges. First, there is the problem of the systemic strangeness of the EU, stemming from lack of prior knowledge of what the EU is or does, and a socio-legal approach would leave less space for detail and institutional knowledge to familiarize students with the systems and processes of EU law. Second, the basic concepts in EU law are unfamiliar in a way that terms such as 'provocation' and 'consideration' generally are not. Rather than play with ways of thinking about EU law, the supposed strangeness of it all leads us to think students just want to be taught rather than to learn. Experiences at Leeds University, where some students reacted negatively to a focus on 'economic, social and political perspectives' of integration theory suggests that in some cases a socio-legal approach may serve to further abstract the subject from territory with which students are familiar and comfortable. Third, EU law is often unpopular, possibly related to negative or non-existent media coverage; lack of public engagement means that ways into thinking about the EU and society are not obvious. Shared student experiences also feed this distaste - teaching EU in the third year at YLS means many of our students have 'been warned' by their peers in other institutions who have studied it in the second year. EU is already perceived as 'different enough', so maybe a socio-legal reformulation not echoed elsewhere in the curriculum would be alienating.
When it comes to meeting these challenges, socio-legal methods offer the opportunity to normalize some of the 'strange' aspects of EU law - by looking to real life impacts and accessible studies. Requirements for large amounts of information absorption can be avoided partly through following a themes-led approach, explored in the next section; reducing space for detail can be a positive thing, making more space for thinking. Rather than falling into spoon-feeding teacher-centredness to take the pressure off confused students, that potential confusion is all the more reason to find ways of active learning to aid comprehension. And the EU is not as low profile as we might think - and is certainly media-present enough for students to accept its treatment as a social force/actor/series of actors.
So much for the premise - but the challenges of implementation remain. As the Kingston respondent in the UKCLE survey put it, 'You have to start with the institutions, which is boring', pointing out that 'Everything is novel' to students at the start of the course (Ball and Dadomo, 2010, p. 79). I suppose here is the point where I ask a quick question and dive for cover - why do we have to start with the institutions? It surely makes sense to try and crystallize exactly what it is about the institutions that we think is necessary to know in order to feed into the learning objectives of engaging critically with EU law, and to differentiate 'key' from 'background' or analytical from descriptive. Having done that, it is worth thinking about the order - whether those analytical points are the first things students should encounter - or whether we take them 'into' EU law through a more familiar route. As will be seen below, I argue for dismantling the institutions/principles/law pillars of traditional modules, but, even adopting an integrated approach, it is necessary to think honestly about how much 'framework' information is needed to begin with. Some of that framework could potentially be relocated to other modules - basic consciousness of EU institutions feeding easily into English legal systems and public/constitutional and administrative law. This could give a little more freedom to play with the module's style of opening, plus, adopting a touch of EU jargon, it 'mainstreams' the EU, or adopting a more cynical metaphor, inoculates students to avoid significant adverse reactions when exposed to higher dosages later.
Crossing modules has to be done carefully of course, keeping an eye on what is being assessed in each, especially as professional bodies do require us to assess modules separately. But that should not stop us from placing content appropriately. Of particular interest over the next few years will be the developing Graduate Diploma in Law course at Sheffield, in which the EU content is to be divided up and delivered entirely through other modules. It is a bold move with a clear message about the role and place of EU law as bound up with, rather than packaged up separately from, national law. However, the suggestion here is to retain the space a module gives for EU-related socio-legal issues, while setting the thematic scene a bit earlier, and normalizing basic structures and principles, through introduction/mentions within other modules. At York we have as much as possible linked up the teaching of EU with Public Law 2, as we find that it is much easier to set authentic problems when they involve integrated modules. It has made clear the interrelated nature of the European and domestic legal systems and also stressed common themes about state responsibility and subjecthood/citizenship.
The belief that institutions are incompatible with socio-legal approaches should seem all the more misguided when we consider how amenable to socio-legalism the study of UK institutions has proven - whether considering judicial perspectives through feminist drafting exercises (Hunter et al., 2010), or critiquing balances of power by analysing immigration policy debates, or assessing the responsibilities of the state through a review of qualitative studies of applicants declaring themselves homeless (Fitzpatrick, 2000). We can invite students to look behind EU judgments and legislation in similar ways - all the more so as it is a continually growing and relatively weakly harvested field. There is plenty of inspiration from existing academic work in, for example, the role of nationality-related interests, or apparent personal ideological preferences amongst advocates-general and judges (Cohen, 2008), but there remain genuine opportunities for undergraduates to demonstrate original insight. There is no reason not to adopt similar methods in the context of EU institutions - investigating the relationship between national influence and gross domestic product for instance; considering the possible effects of the gender imbalance of, for example, the European Commission (which has now had 11 presidents, all male) on its work - such study could draw upon Kenney's work with regard to the gender imbalance in the European Court of Justice (ECJ) (Kenney, 2002), who applied the social/legal policy concept of gender mainstreaming to the processes of judicial selection. It is also possible to explore questions of power balance by tracking discrimination policy debates; Beger's application of queer theory to two key ECJ cases provides an example of the Europeanization of law-based socio-political theory (Beger, 2000).
Negative or absent media coverage - though arguably exaggerated as a problem - can be an obstacle to tapping into students' socio-legal imaginations; it contributes to a sense of 'distance' from the subject and a predisposition to beware impenetrable, bureaucratic law. Explicitly negative media coverage is always a good springboard in itself for discussion, so it is really the absence of coverage that creates the biggest barrier, impacting upon possible activities and materials, because there is a reported 'paucity of televisual resources' (Ball and Dadomo, 2010) that lecturers might otherwise use to draw students in. However, many stories with explicit or implicit EU aspects make it into the news, and it is worth catching them and flagging them up. Bradford law school has started having a special session with students in which they must bring along cuttings of stories that they think have EU law implications, which they must talk about and relate to the themes of the course - a session that is described as a bit challenging because of the unpredictable nature of the content. However, the courage to 'let go' of control over the content of the session yielded productive and germane discussion, and it was felt that it would be good to have more detail on each person's piece, and to have this feed more directly into assessment. On the point of student-directed learning, it is worth noting the approach of the Sheffield optional Current Issues in EU Law module, which requires the student group to identify at the outset the current issues on which they wish to focus.
At YLS we started an 'EU in the news' blog, but this foundered because it was not written by students. Anecdotal feedback suggests I chose too cumbersome a VLE (virtual learning environment) blog tool, as it required students to go through a large number of pages to get to it, the interface was poor, and the 'public' nature, meaning all students on the course had access, was too intimidating for would-be contributors. We are experimenting with getting something more quickly accessible up, with separate group blogs, and flagging up early on how, and if, using it might contribute down the line to assessment. It should still help to bring to the fore topical and controversial debates in which EU law plays a part.
EU law is no more impervious to socio-legal methods than other branches of law. Not only is it entirely possible to learn new things and think about them at the same time, such thought and analysis is the only way to really learn, as opposed to passively imbibe. The lofty technicality of modules can be scaled down, and we can embrace that which makes EU law particularly ripe for socio-legalism - its inherent interdisciplinarity.