Law Profs Abroad: Astronauts or Nomads?
The advent of wireless, social networking, and shrinking electronics is, to my delight, moving us ever closer to the day when anyone can be a modern-day “urban nomad.” According to this Economist article, urban nomads, like “their antecedents in the desert,  are defined not by what they carry but by what they leave behind, knowing that the environment will provide it. Thus, Bedouins do not carry their own water, because they know where the oases are. Modern nomads carry almost no paper because they access their documents on their laptop computers, mobile phones or online.”
But as I began my visiting position in Beijing, my Bedouin hopes were dashed by an unexpected drag – the pile of textbooks I needed for the classes I was wrapping up in Maryland and the ones I was to teach in China. Thus, my need for books and paper rendered me not a nomad but an “astronaut.” Textbook-laden law professors are much like the astronauts who “must bring what they need, including oxygen, because they cannot rely on their environment to provide it,” leaving them “both defined and limited by their gear and supplies.” Books are my oxygen, and to me, symbolize the intellectual freedom of academia. But now, during this trip, they began to limit me as well, adding to the practical, linguistic, social and cultural obstacles between me and my students in both Maryland and China. Ultimately, the heavy book-filled bag I had to check in forced me think about the deeper implications of urban nomadism, and of course, what this could mean to law professors.
The key to urban nomadism is not, as I initially thought, about travel and a zero-drag lifestyle. It is both
different from, and involves much more than, merely making journeys. A modern nomad is as likely to be a teenager in Oslo, Tokyo or suburban America as a jet-setting chief executive. He or she may have never left his or her city, stepped into an aeroplane or changed address. Indeed, how far he moves is completely irrelevant. Even if an urban nomad confines himself to a small perimeter, he nonetheless has a new and surprisingly different relationship to time, to place and to other people.
The nomads now emerging around the world are different from those of the past because of their constant connectivity, not motion, and the implications of this are still unfolding.
So naturally my next thought was: could I, as a law professor, shed the gear that sustains yet limits me? And what would this feel like?
I decided (and was partly compelled by circumstance) to limit my reliance on textbooks and paper in search of challenge, freedom, and a different type of interaction with my students. And, given the exigencies of life in Beijing, I thought it best to do so quickly and cleanly, like a Band-Aid that’s outlived its purpose. Printers, copiers, faxes and other relics from the age of landlines can be difficult to find (and good luck finding ones that actually work at the moment you need them). Luckily, wireless abounds in Beijing (though generally for those who can pay for it). Like many rapidly developing cities I’ve seen, it maintains a dichotomous relationship with technology; only a slice of the population is connected, but whether because of practicalities or adventurousness of spirit, that slice has embraced wireless and other technology far more passionately and thoroughly than its American counterpart.
About halfway through my trip, I largely abandoned textbooks and paper in favor of freely available online sources, and increasingly began communicating with my students in both Beijing and Maryland via email and Blackboard (and even attempted to conduct an extra review session entirely through email). As a true nomad would have predicted, the real revelation of this transition was not enhanced mobility, but rather, enhanced connectivity and the corresponding impact this had on my teaching and experience abroad.
Perhaps none of this is a surprise to my students (or the already tech-savvy), but I found that in many ways I was able to connect with my students more easily and substantively electronically as opposed to in the classroom. Class participation became broader and deeper; nearly all of my Maryland students started (and kept) emailing me, including some who rarely, if ever, came to office hours or spoke up in class. And their questions and comments grew increasingly more detailed and thoughtful; in fact, many of their finely crafted questions and hypotheticals would have made great exam questions. In China, email helped me and my students leap over language and social issues—students who were hesitant to engage in relatively unfamiliar Socratic-style dialogue in class jumped at the chance to do so over email, and many were more comfortable typing out their questions or comments. I also (generally) enjoyed and tried to constructively apply the instant feedback I received. And both sets of students helped enhance my cultural connections by emailing me tips on places to visit or things to try in China, as well as keeping me up-to-date on everything from study-group progress to blow-by-blow bailout news and reactions in the U.S. My only regret is that I didn’t connect my students in Baltimore and Beijing more directly, instead of using myself as a filter and conduit for their questions and comments for each other. Blogging, too, has proved to be a terrific way to connect with fascinating people (some, it turns out, in the same city) whom I’d never have met otherwise.
Despite this fascinating experience, I can’t yet teach an entire course without books or even paper, so as a law professor I’m still largely an astronaut abroad or at home. But now I long for the day, hopefully not too far away, when I can load up all my textbooks onto my ipod and move from intellectual oasis to oasis. Or even better, simply place all the texts I need online where I can include all the links and comments I want, and watch and join into the dialogue developing between my students, and perhaps some of the wider world, too.