Abongwe Bangeni

Senior lecturer, Academic Development Programme, Centre for Higher Education Development, University of Cape Town


Fall 2013: Mandela Mellon Fellow

Black South African students’ engagement with legal cases: Making the tacit explicit in academic law

Project Description

Black South African students’ engagement with legal cases: Making the tacit explicit in academic law

The low graduation rates for Black South African students within law faculties in South Africa have raised questions around the extent to which these students are prepared for higher education and the literacy requirements of Law. My doctoral thesis explored the ways in which a group of English additional language (EAL) students who graduated with Social Science degrees from the Humanities faculty negotiated the transition into the professional disciplines of Law and Marketing at a postgraduate level. The study interrogated the implications of this transition for the students’ writing practices and how they negotiated the genres which served to prepare them for professional practice.

The data yielded by the study pointed to the ways in which the Law students struggled to reconcile the discipline’s epistemological orientations with those constituting their Social Science degrees. More specifically, the findings illustrated how an effective engagement with the discipline’s literacy practices depends, to a significant extent, on the acquisition of tacit knowledge as well as an understanding of the discipline’s epistemology and its interface with the professional domain. Students’ novice status meant that they lacked the tacit knowledge guiding the reading and writing of key genres within the disciplines; knowledge which is typically gained through prolonged participation in the discipline. For a majority of the students, this lack of tacit knowledge translated into difficulties with reading and deciphering legal cases; an integral skill required in producing one of the discipline’s key genres; the legal problem question answer. The data also illustrated how this struggle was compounded by their English additional language (EAL) status. While my thesis provides a detailed analysis of the struggles students encountered in producing the legal problem question answer, it only provides a surface description of the students’ challenges with legal cases and the implications of these struggles for their overall academic performance within the faculty. It would seem that even though law schools provide students with strategies to read cases effectively, their struggles with attaining this skill persist.

This project therefore aims to firstly, provide an overview of the nature of first-year students’ struggles with reading legal cases and the extent to which their lack of the tacit knowledge shaping the genre’s literacy practices could be said to contribute to their struggles. A sub-question of this seeks to understand the extent to which the literacy practices they bring with them from previous learning contexts allow for an effective engagement with legal cases. The second phase of this investigation would explore the ways in which the findings could be used to develop strategies for addressing issues around learning, with a particular focus on widening access for students who have English as an additional language.

The questions that this project therefore seeks to address are:

1. What is the nature of the struggles experienced by Black English additional language students in reading legal cases?

2. In what ways do the literacy practices they bring hinder or facilitate an effective engagement with this genre?

3. What practical strategies can be put in place to address disciplinary novices’ struggles with engaging effectively with legal cases so as to improve teaching and learning?

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