A Class Of Their Own: Appealing lessons on law and life
In this series, NUS News profiles the outstanding educators who have inspired generations of students at the University.
Precision and authority mark Associate Professor Eleanor Wong’s demeanour in class, from the ring of her voice to her hand gestures emphasising a point. Watching her guide students in discussion, one is almost reminded of a conductor directing an orchestra in an unfolding, enriching process.
It is perhaps no wonder that NUS Law’s Assoc Prof Wong sees her job as an educator as designing an intricate experience. She draws on her rich experience outside the classroom – investigating commercial and securities fraud with the Commercial Affairs Department, practising corporate law in New York and Singapore, managing a leading local TV production company, establishing herself as a playwright and poet. She has seen first-hand that life can take you in many different directions, and one need not take the tried-and-tested career path assumed in popular consciousness.
Returning to NUS as an educator after having studied here as a law undergraduate, Assoc Prof Wong re-thought how one learns fundamental legal skills, such as reasoning, researching and communicating. “A few things became quite clear,” she recalls, “the first was that learning skills is different from learning content.” She thus set out to craft experiences requiring each skill to be attempted and learned. Her approach is methodical and meticulous. “Ultimately,” she notes, “it is about designing the exercise or the task in such a way that it targets the actual skill you want, and that is harder than it seems.”
The main challenge, Assoc Prof Wong shares, is in getting students to think things through for themselves and not take the easy way out. Because the modules she is responsible for are not trying to teach students the substantive answer, each year the Legal Skills Instructors come up with new fact patterns to prevent students from short-circuiting the learning with cheat sheets inherited from seniors. “It’s understanding where the students are coming from,” she muses, “respecting that it’s not stupid, ordinarily, to try and find a cheat sheet, but disincentivising them so that they undertake the real learning we want them to undertake.” This spirited approach to education has been noticed and applauded, and Assoc Prof Wong has been recognised with the Annual Teaching Excellence Award and the Centre for Development of Teaching & Learning Honour Roll.
Despite Assoc Prof Wong’s scrupulous attitude towards education, she does not hold excessively onerous expectations of her students. Rather, she credits them for their attempts at reasoning, even when they do not get the ‘correct’ answers. Her ex-student Ms Ruth Tang, a law graduate, playwright and theatre artist, recalled that she was “both the most intimidating and the most patient and open teacher – intimidating because she truly would not take any nonsense, and was very good at spotting it, but she was always patient if it became clear you just didn't know or didn't understand.”
Helping students build and improve themselves means much to Assoc Prof Wong. She relates, “Sometimes there is a moment where I can see that I helped one or two students to make a breakthrough for themselves. When that happens, it is a truly amazing moment, and that’s the joy of it – when you see that the skill has actually taken root.” She finds fulfilment when students can derive their own answers in a world where law does not stay static.
The thing that sticks with me is that moment when I know that something has clicked for a student. And sometimes it doesn’t happen during school, sometimes it happens afterwards when someone writes to me and says, it all clicks and now it fits. To have been even a small part in that journey for a student, that I think is what I value the most.
Assoc Prof Wong feels that independence begins in the university, where students must take responsibility to determine how to make the most of their legal education. “We offer a very high-quality, challenging, stimulating menu of choices,” she says, pointing out how the NUS curriculum strikes a balance between fundamental topics which help students appreciate how law operates in different spaces and plenty of electives which students can curate themselves.
“Let's get that foundation, and then look into yourself and take responsibility and ownership of designing something that will make you flourish, because for sure in this law school, there will be enough of those options made available to you,” she suggests.
Indeed, opportunities to grow extend outside the classroom. “At the end of the day, to be a good lawyer, you know the head knowledge is only so much.” Subtle things, like understanding people or grasping why certain laws came to be, cannot just be learned in the classroom. “You get that from being a real human being, having friends, doing things,” she adds. This perspective informs her other roles as Vice Dean for Student Life and Global Relations at NUS Law, and Associate Provost (Special Projects) in the NUS Office of the Senior Deputy President and Provost.
To Assoc Prof Wong, success as a law graduate veers away from the ‘one size fits all’ definition of being a good lawyer, with many pathways one can take within law and in wider society. “Law permeates everything and so law-trained people are valuable for their knowledge almost anywhere else that they go to.”
She proposes that people with an understanding of how things are regulated can contribute greatly to policy-making, administration and law-adjacent industries like banking, for example. “Because law essentially tells us how we live when we bump up against each other,” Assoc Prof Wong articulates, “so you can imagine that in society, as long as we touch each other, someone with an appreciation of law has something useful to contribute.” She describes how a law education exposes one to ways of resolving differences, such as mediation, arbitration and negotiation.
The fluidity in Assoc Prof Wong’s perspective of law and the world may be rooted in how she sees herself beyond the categories of her external roles, which in turn may be linked to her own life experiences.
“I don't like labels, so I think that it is artificial to say, oh, you're an educator, you’re a playwright, you're a lawyer. There are no fences between those parts of myself. We're always wholly where we are, who we are,” she maintains. Having reached a point at which she can make a coherent life for herself which comes together in a way that makes sense and does not short-change who she is, Assoc Prof Wong likewise hopes to help her students find their own meaningful road and value themselves for that.
“The thing that sticks with me is that moment when I know that something has clicked for a student,” Assoc Prof Wong smiles. “And sometimes it doesn’t happen during school, sometimes it happens afterwards when someone writes to me and says, it all clicks and now it fits. To have been even a small part in that journey for a student, that I think is what I value the most.”
This is the eighth instalment of a series on outstanding educators at NUS.
Read about Dr Susan Ang Wan-Ling from the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences as she shares her experiences teaching English Literature, and her hopes and dreams for students as they move through life.