Associate Professor Jacqueline Yeats’s teaching career is, she says, the result of “a happy turn of fortunes”. She was practising as an attorney in the corporate commercial department of a large law firm when UCT contacted the company looking for a guest lecturer. Yeats volunteered, albeit with the sense that she was “taking one for the team”.
Almost 13 years later, she’s still at the university where she is an associate professor teaching corporation law, advanced company law and corporate governance.
Not only is Yeats a recipient of a 2017 Distinguished Teacher Award, she is also a member of the Higher Education Learning and Teaching Association of Southern Africa’s (HELTASA) Teaching Advancement at University (TAU) fellowship programme and concedes that she is “completely sold on academia”.
What is it about teaching and academia that won you over from practising law?
Several things, including timing. My husband is also an attorney. Before I joined UCT, we both worked in the commercial law environment. Our careers were demanding and stressful, which was heightened by having a young family.
Once I joined the Department of Commercial Law in 2005 and was immersed in teaching, had daily contact with students and became involved in researching the work that I taught and teaching the areas in which I researched, I realised how much I enjoyed it. Now that our four children are a little older, I could go back and practise, but I choose not to.
Law is sometimes referred to as ‘a thinking profession’ and few cases are the same. Were you not concerned about the notion of teaching being repetitive by comparison?
No. While some of the core teaching material obviously remains the same, the groups of students are so different every year that it’s essential to adapt and change teaching methods and content accordingly. I like to keep things interesting, not only for my students, but also for myself. In addition, there are always new developments in law, which make it an exciting and organic area of study.
Can you give us some examples of how you keep things fresh and different in the classroom?
One of my objectives is to encourage students to think more creatively. It’s not only that I believe law students need a creative outlet. Having practised as an attorney, I understand that if you know the law and can apply it, you can be a good lawyer. But you are never going to be a great lawyer unless you can work creatively. If you want law that creates groundbreaking arguments and changes the status quo, you have to be creative.
Law students are, I believe, naturally creative thinkers. However, the teaching system is achievement-centred and competitive, thus militating against real creativity in the classroom. This means that students may feel they cannot afford to take the risk of being academically creative.
To counter this, I introduced a voluntary extra-credit video project, which challenges groups of five students to turn a legal principle into an entertaining, original two-minute movie. It must be filmed by phone with the aim of providing peer-to-peer training. The results have been mind-blowing. We’ve had plays, hilarious skits and cases that were decided more than 50 years ago set to rap music, and students tell me years later how memorable and effective the exercise was.
“If you want law that creates groundbreaking arguments and changes the status quo, you have to be creative.”
I have also experimented with changing tutorials by using game show and quiz formats. In some cases, students provide the questions and answers for quizzes and test their peers. This is useful for several reasons; it not only covers the work we do without requiring extra studying, but, because the students who come out tops in the quiz are also those who achieve the best results in other assessments, it confirms that the standard teaching assessment system works.
How do you come up with these ideas?
What underpins my approach is that if, as a teacher, you are not engaging with students, you are wasting their time and yours. If I have to change my teaching methods to pull students in and keep them interested, I will. People might argue that teachers are not entertainers and lectures are not shows, and I accept that there’s a lot of complex content to cover, but I think that it is essential to engage our students if they are to learn effectively.
When the university nominated me for the TAU fellowship programme – which is a collaboration between all South African universities, HELTASA, the Council of Higher Education and the Department of Higher Education that aims to enhance teaching and learning in higher education – I was exposed to a greater understanding of the science and psychology of teaching and learning. It’s helped me further develop the techniques I had introduced and experimented with, and has given me new insights to do more.
You mentioned that law is ‘an achievement-centred and competitive’ field of study. Aside from encouraging creativity, what do you do to alleviate unnecessary stress among students?
I am very concerned about students’ anxiety levels. Last year members of the UCT psychology department came into my classroom to do some mindfulness training with students to try to moderate this. It made a difference. Students relax, which improves their ability to learn. Hopefully they have also learnt techniques that they can apply throughout their studies and careers.
Another technique I use in the classroom to advance engagement is to decrease the physical distance between teacher and students by moving around the large lecture hall. This is particularly useful given that there are up to 200 students in my classes. I like to close the teaching distance literally and figuratively, and I find it improves engagement no end when a student suddenly finds I’m standing right next to them even though they are sitting in the back row.
“I find it improves engagement no end when a student suddenly finds I’m standing right next to them even though they are sitting in the back row.”
What are the most rewarding things about teaching?
It’s the ultimate reward when I can see that there is impact, and that they are excited or infuriated by some aspect of law and have connected with what they have learnt on an emotional or visceral as well as a cognitive level. I feel huge satisfaction when students connect with law beyond what is in their textbooks; that’s when I sense that the contribution I may have made to their legal education really matters.
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The Distinguished Teacher Award is the highest accolade awarded to teaching staff at all levels within the university. Through the award, the University of Cape Town acknowledges the primary place of teaching and learning in the university’s work.
Distinguished Teacher Awardee Dr Janice McMillan's work is not discipline-specific; rather it's about transformative teaching and how we engage the wider world beyond the university. This community-based learning encourages students to think about themselves simultaneously as students, emerging professionals and active citizens.30 Mar 2017