By Ali Abel
Law professor Jennifer Koshan LLB ’88 didn’t always think she wanted to be a lawyer. A University of Calgary alumna with a degree in science, she originally had the intentions of pursuing a career in medicine.
But a course on bio-medical ethics during her undergrad degree captured her attention and made her realize that what she really wanted was to engage in ideas and debates about social issues. That realization led her to pursue her law degree at the University of Calgary and then to practice law in the Northwest Territories as Crown counsel, and later to work as the Legal Director of the B.C. branch of the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund, a non-profit equality rights organization. She also did graduate work at UBC, where she earned her Master of Laws degree. In a homecoming of sorts, she joined the Calgary Law faculty in 2000.
Over the course of her career, Koshan has developed a reputation as a passionate scholar and an academic with a broad set of interests. In recognition of this, she has been awarded the 2013 Canadian Association of Law Teachers (CALT) Prize for Academic Excellence. This award honours exceptional contributions to research and law teaching by a Canadian law teacher in mid-career.
Nominees for the award are assessed on three criteria — quality of teaching, creation of new courses, and research in relation to law reform or other legal matters — and Koshan sees these criteria very much intertwined.
“To be an excellent teacher, you need to be actively engaged in research,” Koshan says. “I try to bring my research and my work with non-governmental organizations into the classroom as much as possible, whether as examples of current issues or as problem-solving exercises. This makes things more concrete for students and keeps them aware of real world legal issues and debates of significance.”
Koshan strongly believes in social justice, and her research in human rights, constitutional law and violence against women, as well as her involvement in law reform work both in Canada and internationally, and her writing for the Faculty’s blog, ABlawg, help her convey the message to students and others that positive social change is possible using the law. Her passions in these areas helped to create one of her most memorable teaching moments at U of C.
“One Friday morning this past January, the Supreme Court of Canada released its most recent equality rights decision, and an article I wrote with my colleague Jonnette Watson Hamilton was cited by the court,” Koshan says. “I was literally bouncing up and down with excitement — as someone who writes critically about the court, I never expected to be cited by them. I happened to be teaching constitutional law that morning, and shared the news with my students. They gave me a big round of applause and followed up the next class with a handmade card they had all signed, which included a button saying Very Important Person. I was really touched and excited to share the moment with them.”
As with any career, there are always important lessons to learn along the way, and Koshan’s best mistake happened when she first began teaching. “I used to keep my opinions very close to my chest,” she said. “But after two or three years of teaching, a group of students encouraged me to be more vocal about my own views, and that’s what I’ve done since. It was a mistake to bury my enthusiasm for social justice, and I think being more explicit about that gives students a basis for thinking about and voicing their own perspectives.”
Koshan was nominated for the CALT prize by some of her colleagues, including the dean and the two associate deans from the law school, and the nomination was also supported by several students from the faculty.
“We nominated Jennifer because she is a prolific and important researcher with a national and international reputation,” said Arlene Kwasniak, associate dean (research) in the Faculty of Law. “Jennifer is an excellent, beloved and award-winning teacher, and her contribution to constitutional, equality, and human rights law is invaluable.”
Law Dean Ian Holloway adds, “Jennifer is the embodiment of the very best of the Calgary Law spirit. She is passionate about her beliefs, and she is not afraid to challenge her students — just as she challenges all of us who work with her — to bring out the best in everyone.”
Koshan will be presented with the CALT prize at their annual meeting in Victoria on June 4 during the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.