Friday, 30 March 2012

A closer look at the subjects

I am currently in my final year of Law school. I have followed subjects about the proceedings of criminal law, the practical implications of international human rights on criminal law, how ethics manifest in law in general, on the material norms of criminal law and finally about criminology’s effect on criminal law. With a little over three months left before graduating, I only have two more subjects that I need to finish.

The first is about economic and financial criminal law. Most of Dutch criminal law is written down in the Dutch Penal code, but in a few areas of law, like economics and finances, there are specific laws created to deal with the specific complexities. For instance the AWR (General Law on National Taxes) contains criminal provisions for people who do not pay their taxes. Because normal surveillance methods do not work (can you imagine a police officer learning anything about the state of someone’s finances from a body search?) and the complex nature does not allow much middle ground between ‘he might be evading taxes’ and ‘we are sure he is evading taxes’, there have to be new surveillance methods that can be used earlier in the investigation. This creates a whole range of problems. One such problem is the conflict that arises with supervisors who can compel someone to make a statement. Normally the European Convention on Human Rights would not allow this because it violates the suspect’s right not to incriminate himself, but if it is very early in the investigation, before a criminal charge has been brought against him, it is allowed for the government to compel someone to testify. It just cannot be used later in court proceedings.

The second ‘subject’ is my master thesis. I finally mailed the coordinator yesterday and got my subject approved. I will be writing about the principle of legality when it comes to the new law about animal welfare. This law states that all animals have an ‘intrinsic value’, but fails to really explain what this means in practical terms. It gives examples, like animals should be safeguarded against hunger and thirst… but immediately says this is only true if it would be reasonable when weighed with other interests. This leaves a lot of confusion and a lot of material to write about.

I still cannot quite believe that three months from now I will have written a master thesis and will be looking for a real job. I thought only adults were allowed to get a job. I’m not an adult yet, right? I am getting the same feeling I had when first told I would be owning a house...

Monday, 26 March 2012

The Dutch are awesome

I keep writing about law school related stuff, but this blog is directed at international students who, besides choice in university, will also want to learn about the many features of Dutch culture and customs. There are great resources available on other sites and I am sure the UU has some information available that I do not know about, but here is my take on it.

Like most major cities, you can get almost anywhere in Utrecht by using the public transportation system. However, Holland is unique in that most people use a bicycle instead. Looking at our infrastructure, it becomes pretty obvious that the city is used to a lot of people using their bikes as transportation. Bicycles are such a common sight in the Netherlands that they are the first thing most foreign students notice when they come here. They also notice that bicycles tend to pay no attention to the rules and go wherever they please. When crossing the street, pay special attention to them.

The Netherlands cannot boast about their food like France or Italy can. We do however have some special products you will most likely encounter when visiting. We have amazing cheeses and some special sweets and not-so-sweets. Very special though is a place we call a ‘snackbar’. It is similar to a fast food restaurant, but other countries do not really have an equivalent as far as I know. Basically, you got there and give your order, after which it is all deep-fried. Obviously you can get fries there, but also deep-fried breaded chicken, breaded ragout, breaded cheese, breaded anything. Also, something we call a frikandel.

We also have a few ‘weird’ celebrations that are not celebrated in other countries. The two most iconic are queen’s day, where everyone gets drunk, wears orange, and celebrates the queen’s mother’s birthday as if it were her own (the humor is not lost on us), while the other is St. Nick’s day, where everyone eats candy, sings songs, exchanges cheap home-made presents and praises a Santa look-alike.

One other thing that you are bound to notice is that almost everyone is willing to speak your language. Dutch people pride themselves with their language skills and love showing them off. As such, a large portion of the population speaks a decent amount of French, German, Italian and Spanish and almost everyone can speak English. Nine times out of ten if you ask a question in English to Dutch people, they will understand you perfectly.

Also, do not be alarmed when, after helpfully answering your question, this Dutch person will loudly complain about having to help a foreigner. Do not take offence. The Dutch just really love to complain. It is one of the outlets that help us be the third happiest country of the world.

Friday, 23 March 2012

D&D&Law – 4 things D&D has taught me about Law (part 2)

2. Lawyers are amazing
D&D is fun, but some of its rules are explained with enormous difficulty. Sometimes it is just one sloppy mess that could have been done much better by, you guessed it, any lawyer. Seeing amateurs in rules (though experts in games) take on the huge undertaking of creating precise and concise rules, while remaining clear and unambiguous, shows you how difficult it really is and how amazingly well done the rules are that we usually work with. Making rules is something you should leave to lawyers, cause we are amazing.

3. Law is (not) a science
Imagine there was a study to learn every rule of D&D and how to use and apply them. Would you ever consider that, let’s call it D&Dology, a science? Would you consider someone who has a degree in D&D laws, let’s call him or her a D&Dologist, a scientist?
What I am getting at here is that we tend to think of underlying subject matter as extremely important. But this is a little unfair. The person who would have studied D&D laws would have gotten the same scientific lessons (different interpretational methods, problems like the causal link) as someone who has studied law… just using theoretical and imaginary rules instead of real ones.

This puts the whole study of law into perspective for me. It really helps to realize that though there are scientific components to studying law, they are different from the law itself. Unfortunately though, with the large focus on learning the laws and the lack of attention for the overarching science. Also, if you think that D&Dology would be completely ridiculous, try to remember that for atheists like me it already exists in the form of theology.

4. Some skills are transferable
In D&D there is a company, Wizards of the Coast, who makes the rules. In your group, the DM will interpret these rules to solve practical problems. To change the rules there is a democratic system in place to either appeal to your DM or the maker of the rules. Sound familiar?

In Law school, we learn a lot about how our society is build and how the rules function to let everything work. It is amazing to see that a lot of the problems you encounter and skills you utilize are the same no matter what body of rules you are studying (real or imaginary) and that most solutions are transferable. And it works the other way around too. Having to learn the rules from scratch in D&D has taught me valuable lessons on how to learn real laws. Maybe all students should be required to play D&D. On the one hand, I have absolutely no proof that it will improve student performance, but on the other it would be so incredibly awesome that who cares if it has no practical influence whatsoever.

Disclaimer: I might just be proposing this so that I can play D&D each week and, like with Ace Attorney, claim that I am doing homework.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

D&D&Law – 4 things D&D has taught me about Law (part 1)

I love video games. When all the other kids were running around the playground, I was inside playing Tetris. While a usual student spends his Friday nights going out to bars to get hammered, my ideal Friday involves loading up on energy drinks and holding an old roleplaying games marathon with a television in the background playing an old cartoon like Dexter’s Laboratory.

It is only natural then that I would take an interest in Dungeons and Dragons, the tabletop roleplaying game that spawned most modern videogames of the genre. Basically, imagine monopoly with a lot more complicated rules. One person is designated the ‘dungeon master’(DM) and he is in charge of creating the narrative and controlling all outside factors. Now, you might be wondering why I am discussing this game on a blog dedicated to law. Well, there is a very good reason for that. Dungeons and Dragons has taught me a lot about studying law. This is partly because of how the game is set up and partly because of the nature of law. Here they are:

1. Knowing the law takes time
The first thing you receive when you want to play Dungeons and Dragons is the Player’s Handbook. It is a tome of 300 pages detailing the basic rules of the game. The DM gets to consult the Dungeon Master’s Guid, another 300 pages with more advanced rules. The Monsters that are fought are taken from the Monster Manual which is, you guessed it, over 300 pages long. Then there are 44 more books exactly like that. This multitude of rules can seem intimidating, but it is really not that bad once you start at the beginning and work your way through it. Almost all of the rules assume you already know all the other rules, so it is difficult to get started. All you can do is read everything and keep rereading until you got it…

… which is surprisingly a lot like how most laws work. There is a very large and complicated law, there are legal cases interpreting these laws and there is literature explaining them. The laws by themselves are usually confusing, but are essential to truly understanding the literature. And you need a decent grasp on both to really understand the legal cases. The important thing is to realize that knowing any set of rules takes time. Nobody is able to fully understand it because of the complicated nature of how rules fit together. You need to allow yourself the time to read and reread. Also, in both cases the process goes a whole lot quicker if you get someone who already knows it all to explain it to you.

The next three will be posted Friday. I was hoping to at least fit two things in this post, but, as it turns out, you quickly run out of space if you like ranting as much as I do.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Group assignments

It is common for the University of Utrecht, as it probably is in most Dutch universities, to issue group assignments instead of personal ones. Excluding the thesis for the Bachelor and Master, I have had to write 7 individual assignments and 11 as a group (of which 5 in a group of two, 6 in a group of more than two). It is often admitted that this is done to lessen the workload of professors and that is perfectly fine. However, it is also often noted that group assignments serve to enhance teamwork skills… and that is where I disagree.

In my experience, groups assignments can either go very well or very badly, depending on the motivation of the other students. Some students will stretch their agreed-upon deadline continuously until it is time to actually hand it in, others will be done before you have even had a chance to start on your own part. You never know what you end up with, but one thing is always the same: you will be judged on the group’s performance.

This is justified, according to the professors, because you all have an individual responsibility for the final product. This means that if another student’s work is below par, you should have caught on and corrected the work. This sounds good in theory, but it falls apart when you start examining it. Most team sports work, for instance, because all team members are required to work together. You are only as strong as your weakest link, so it is the group’s responsibility to strengthen that link. But when it comes to writing a paper together, it is the reverse: the best student dictates the outcome while the others are irrelevant.

But how, oh wise and all-knowing Ben, can this be fixed? I think there are three key elements.

Firstly, there have to be, at some point in the university’s curriculum, instructions on how to cooperate well. This should include tips such as handy ways to share documents and communicate online, while also containing rules like fair division of labor and meeting together to discuss each other’s work. Some students really do not know how to effectively work together and they should be taught.

The second thing needed is effective control over your writing partners. Without some kind of authoritative threat, you do not have a means to compel them to stick to their deadlines and to do their fair share of the work. If failing a deadline in the group could have the same results as failing the official deadline (i.e. exclusion from receiving a grade), students would be much more motivated. This is also why the above instructions are very much needed; they can contain both rules and consequences for breaking those rules.

The final requirement is, at least the first few times, an official assessment of the teamwork. That is, after the assignment has been handed in, a professor goes over the documentation and correspondence as written by the individual members and assesses how well they worked together. Everyone receives constructive criticism on how to improve and the troubling cases get a notice so that they can be monitored by future professors.

Of course, I doubt that anything will actually change. So until then I have the following tips: be prepared to offer to do the whole thing by yourself in exchange for a monetary award, bring some treats with you so that you can reward the good behavior of others and research how much whipping you can legally get away with without breaking pesky maltreatment laws.

Friday, 16 March 2012

A student’s motivation

I remember the first few classes I had in my junior year. I read all the material required, I prepared all the assignments perfectly and I did all the optional work available. Somehow, that motivation got lost along the way. The novelty gets lost and, like my colleague at the Dutch legal blog has found out, you find yourself doing only what is necessary for you to get through your seminar without your professor marking down an absence due to being unprepared. A blog about how to get away with this behavior is currently in the works.

The reason that we fall back into this state of inactivity is not completely known, though I have my theories. For one, the more you study law, the more it becomes work instead of something you do purely out of enjoyment. Another problem is that is relatively easy to pretend to have done work and I do not know about you, but for me it is incredibly tempting to play video games instead of doing my homework. If I can get away with that, there is something wrong. I wrote about this two years ago when I decided that I would not settle with barely getting by and really wanted to start putting in the effort.

The thing is, we like law. We want to study it and we enjoy reading about it. We have to if we can survive the first few months without either pulling out all of our hair or running away screaming. We are not just going to classes because we wanted to get a diploma. We are going because law interests us. We are going because when I say the subject of a talk will be ‘the comparisons of the principle of intention concerning criminal law in Germanic countries’, your reaction resembles that of a child in a candy shop.

Just try to remind yourself of this. When going to a lecture, you are listening to the wisdom of a professor telling you in basic terms about a subject that you care about. For seminars you get to solve legal puzzles that allow you to show off your cunning. A written test may sometimes feel like a chore or even something incredibly scary, but it is also the proof that you have learned something new. Even if it does not feel that way because of hindsight bias

So, when you are losing motivation, think about how much worse it could be. Remember high school when you had to spend the majority of your time studying subjects you could not care less about? You probably do not because of human tendency to idolize the past, but it remains a valid point. University the place you have been dreaming of going; a place where even the subjects you care least about are still about a subject you adore. This is it. Enjoy it.

Monday, 12 March 2012

How the UU has changed me over the years

It is hard for me to write what it is like to be a student at the University of Utrecht because I have been one for almost four years. While first-year students might notice the difference from high school or HBO or kindergarten (everyone had a genius toddler taking criminal law with them, right?), most of the experiences I have now seem normal to me. I do have the edge with something else though: I can talk about the long-term changes caused by the University of Utrecht.

As I am writing this, I can think of two. The first has to do with how to deal with philosophical problems. When I was still in high school, I used to think really abstract and theoretical. I could, for instance, never resist pointing out that you can never know something with complete certainty. That is, gravity is an induction and not a deduction; objects could suddenly start falling up. I used to bring this point up to stop discussions and show people how clever I was. Of course now, I am actually clever.

Though I was technically right, law school has really put all that theoretical knowledge into perspective. When reading the law it is always important to look at the spirit and not the letter of each provision. If something is unclear, you can skip ahead and resolve the rest. Unclear things can be dealt with on a case by case basis and general rules are not always needed or even desired. On the contrary: sometimes vague laws are actually better to understand than the detailed alternative. Transferring this way of looking at things to philosophy and general life really is not that hard. It just means picking the practical answer to impractical and theoretical questions.

The second thing that has changed is the way I look at language. I remember one discussion I had recently where everything just fell into place when I was able to pinpoint the exact word where our definitions differed which resulted in different opinions. Likewise, I can never read a sentence like “Go to jail without passing go”, without mentally dissecting it into four pieces: (1) go to (2) jail (3) without passing (4) go. Just writing this makes me think of all the things that can be written about ‘going somewhere’ and the concept of ‘jail’ and ‘go’. I could rant for hours about it, which, incidentally, is why I am not allowed to play Monopoly anymore.

The thing is, this all happened very gradually over the course of several years. I do not know what caused it, but I do know it is something I share with the other law students. So join us at the legal side; we might not have cookies in the grammatical sense of the word, but we do have ‘cookies’ in the contextual sense of the word. And seriously, those are awesome.