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Synergistic Literacies: Fostering Critical and Technological Literacies in Teaching a Legal Research Methods Course

Paul Havemann & Jacquelin Mackinnon *


Nowadays, new law courses are not approved unless both the “needs analysis” is convincing and the “consumer demand” is certain. Needs and demands today are driven by new pressures for technological literacy accelerated by globalisation and the current revolution in information and communication technologies (ICTs). The popular logic is that new global “knowledge economies” need “knowledge workers” or “wired workers” to labour in the new e-markets for goods and services and to use the burgeoning number and high quality of electronic information databases now essential to legal research. Students are acutely aware of these developments as well as of the highly competitive nature of the contemporary labour market for law graduates. Consequently, students are demanding more “how to” research skills training.

This article puts in context the reasons why, at the University of Waikato, we regard creating synergy between critical and technological literacy as essential for teaching and learning law-in-context research methods, and then describes the curriculum we designed for a legal research methods course in order to trial this approach.

From the start we have been clear that the new course was not just to be a “how to” course, and that we would be concentrating on critical literacy as much as technological literacy. For us, critical literacy is fundamental because it relates to the way in which one analyses the world, a process described as “becoming aware of the underlying structure of conceptions”.1 This awareness includes the politics in the architectures that constitute the Internet and the assembly of information accessible on it.

We designed our curriculum for critical literacy around five types of analysis. Our shorthand for this is to call these “the five ‘Cs’”. Our five interrelated categories for analysis focus on:

  • Change – in society, economy and culture

  • Concepts – legal and sociological concepts and analytical frameworks

  • Critique (and standpoint or perspective)

  • Comparisons (and Contrasts)

  • Contexts.

We argue that, at a minimum, these are the conceptual tools necessary to critique and engage the operation of the law in the context of society, noting especially inequalities and injustices.2 Throughout the course students are encouraged to harness technological literacy to each dimension of their analysis.

This article consists of two main parts. The first part (“Context and Assumptions”) explores in some depth the reasons for the need to teach critical literacy alongside technological literacy. The second part (“The Legal Research Methods Course”) describes our efforts to promote the synergy between critical and technological literacies in the context of a fourth year optional course, Legal Research Methods 2000, at the University of Waikato School of Law.

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