Faculty Spotlight: Alison Fischer, IES Abroad Amsterdam

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IES Abroad
August 8, 2016

Alison Fischer has been teaching at IES Abroad Amsterdam since 2014. She holds a B.A. in Political Science from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a Juris Doctorate from Columbia University Law School. Alison has extensive professional legal experience, having applied her skills in both domestic and international contexts, and brings this unique insight to the classroom. Alison speaks English, Dutch, and Spanish.

IES Abroad: What courses can IES Abroad students take with you in Amsterdam?

Alison Fischer: I teach PO/LW 350 Major Issues in Law and Society: A Comparative Context. The course takes issues like free speech, education, criminal justice and policing, marriage, and family and looks at them from a legal perspective. We examine American legal standards and compare them to those in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe.

IES Abroad: What makes Amsterdam a particularly great city to study comparative law?

AF: The Hague, about an hour south of Amsterdam, is commonly known as the home of international law. Both the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court are based there, as are many international human rights organizations and United Nations tribunals. We take at least one or two trips there every semester. Amsterdam itself has a long history of hosting many different people and communities who have somehow figured out how to get along. Examining the policies and practices that have made this possible and comparing them to how things are back in the United States can be a course unto itself.

IES Abroad: Your teaching style has been described as “brilliant” by both staff and students. How would you describe your teaching style or methodology?

AF: That's very flattering. In my own education and career, I've benefited from truly brilliant teachers and mentors. My teaching style, if anything, is mostly what I've stolen from them. I try to ask a lot of questions, some of which I may not be able to answer, and encourage students to do the same. I try to choose topics that are relevant and interesting. But every group of students is different; it's their attitudes and participation that make the difference. 

IES Abroad: How do your professional experiences within the criminal justice system positively impact your work in the classroom?

AF: Criminal defense lawyers are famous for telling war stories, and I'm no different. If I've had an experience with a case or situation that is relevant to a class discussion, I share it with the class—protecting confidentiality, of course! I also try and share with students what it's really like to attend law school and be a lawyer. It's not for everyone. We discuss pros and cons and what you can and can't achieve using the law.  I hope this helps students figure out if law school is the right choice for them, before they invest a lot of money and time. 

IES Abroad: What is most interesting question you’ve received from an IES Abroad student in your course? How did you respond?

AF: There have been so many interesting questions, it's impossible to choose. One of the best discussions I've had with the class was right after the Supreme Court released the Obergefell decision on same-sex marriage in 2015. Most of us agreed with the result, but the Court's rationale was very different from the lower courts that had decided to protect same-sex marriage before. The students and I were really examining the language of the decision at the same time and debating the merits and implications of what we found, which is exactly what lawyers do. It was exciting to be working together on that level.

IES Abroad: What is the most important takeaway you hope students leave their study abroad experience in the Netherlands with?

AF: It sounds cliché, but I hope students leave Amsterdam with more open minds. Living abroad lets you see that there are different ways of organizing societies: How we choose the people who govern us, how we decide what to make illegal, how we pay for education or health care, how we punish people, and how we deal with cultural difference. No one country has a monopoly on the right or wrong way to do any of these things. Context and history matter, but nothing is set in stone. We all have a role to play in shaping the societies in which we live. I hope students go home with more ideas about how that can be done.  

IES Abroad: What has been your proudest teaching moment or career achievement?

AF: I feel gratified when I read students' final papers and see the connections they've made over the term or during our end of term moot court when students put what they've learned into practice. My proud moments probably come when a year or two after taking our course a former student sends me an email to let me know what they are doing and mentions something they learned in our class that has stuck with them or helped them on their way. That's the best career achievement I can imagine.

Learn more about Alison Fischer’s course and the rest of our program offerings in Amsterdam!


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