Thursday, September 13, 2007

Intellectual property law for middle-schoolers

As much as I mock Harvard, and as much as I question whether the education I receive there is worth the tuition I pay, I have to admit that I miss the quality of pedagogy there.

Part of the problem is linguistic. I certainly appreciate the fact that classes here are taught in English...if they weren't, I couldn't come. And there's a rational basis for their decision to use English, beyond its nominal status as an official language in Hong Kong. Internationally, it's still the most important language in the world. Cantonese isn't even the most important language in China (that'd be Mandarin). But it's one thing to have students who are learning in a second language. It's another thing to have teachers teaching in a second language. Several of the professors seem visibly uncomfortable conveying technical information in English. Some of them have trouble finding the words they need to convey a certain point, and (with a couple of exceptions) even those who seem to have a stronger overall grasp over the language still have their speech so riddled with pauses, both silent and "um"-filled, they're hard to follow. I trust that these professors are genuinely smart, and I suspect they're a bit self-conscious about their inability to communicate themselves as cleanly as they would like. Which would go toward explaining how much they chronically repeat themselves. Even their inflections are weird and unnatural-sounding in a lecture context...the effect is not unlike listening to a particularly grating monotone, even though there is tonal variation. I don't judge these people personally, I certainly couldn't teach a class in Spanish or Russian. But I'm not trying to.

You know that professor you have who's 170 years old and speaks at an average rate of 15 words per minute, so that you can scarcely keep yours eyes open, let alone absorb anything that's being said? Like that. With everyone.

And really, the problem goes far beyond language issues. The classes here are definitely taught to the stupidest person in the class. Our first day of copyright class in the U.S., we were shown a photograph of a boat and asked if it was copyrightable. The right answer involved a serious discussion of whether the photograph possessed the requisite originality to be protected, what were the circumstances of its taking, etc. Here, if you were shown that same picture and asked if it were copyrightable, the correct answer would be "Yes. It is a photograph. Photographs are copyrightable." I realize that the increased scope of the class necessarily means a sacrifice on detail, but that is so intellectually unstimulating, it makes sticking my finger into the electrical socket next to me seem like an attractive way to actually get a neuron or two firing.

Another example, unfolding right in front of me. In my International and Comparative Intellectual Property Law class, we are all staring at a Powerpoint slide that is titled "Characteristics of IPRs" (note: IPRs is their preferred acronym for items of intellectual property), and lists Intangible, Creative, Monopoly, and Territorial (with explanations of each point). The professor just asked us, "What are some of the differences between IPRs and other forms of property?" The answer she was looking for was "IPRs are intangible, creative, monopolistic, and territorial."

My saving grace is that I don't have to pay attention, because the grades in all 4 of my classes are based entirely on research papers, so I'll just teach myself whatever I need to know. And then I'll write about it in gorgeous, florid English that will totally obfuscate the incredible paucity of actual content. Like that.

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