Peter A Allard School of Law

Professor Isabel Grant Honoured with Prestigious Killam Teaching Prize

Jul 2, 2020

Isabel Grant
Professor Isabel Grant

In recognition of her years of exemplary service to the Allard School of Law and UBC community, Professor Isabel Grant, has been honoured with the prestigious Killam Teaching Prize, awarded annually to faculty nominated by students, colleagues and alumni in recognition of excellence in teaching.

Professor Grant recently made some time to share with us some highlights of her illustrious career.

You joined the Allard School of Law in 1987. What have been some of the biggest changes you’ve seen so far?

There have been so many changes including, of course, our building. One very notable change is the makeup of our community both in terms of faculty and students. I was only the fourth woman in a tenure-track position when I joined the faculty in 1987 and we now have more than 50% women. I’ve also seen increases in the number of women students and, especially, in the number of women pursuing criminal law.

What’s the highlight of your time at Allard Law?

There have been so many highlights it’s difficult to identify one. From a teaching perspective, one of the highlights was returning to the 1L classroom in 2017 and 2018 after a long absence from first year teaching. From a research perspective, the highlight has undoubtedly been my collaboration with Dr. Janine Benedet. Just over a decade ago we decided to collaborate on one paper bringing together our interest in sexual assault (Professor Benedet) and mental disability (me). That one paper evolved into 10 co-authored articles, a book chapter and several shorter pieces together. I have learned so much from this collaboration and look forward to continuing to do so.

On the administrative level, I enjoyed working on the hiring process for three years beginning in 2015. I was involved in the hiring of almost 20 new colleagues. I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with hundreds of brilliant students, both as members of the Gale Moot team and as research assistants. I still keep in touch with many of them.

But no question my proudest moment, and one which will be hard to top, was a personal one – watching my daughter walk across the stage as part of the Allard School of Law graduating class of 2018.

Can you tell us about your research?

Most of my research is in the area of criminal law. Over the last decade I’ve focused on male violence against women including intimate partner femicide, criminal harassment and sexual assault. I’ve also published several articles on the prosecution of people for failing to disclose their HIV-positive status. A paper I have been working on recently addresses how HIV nondisclosure prosecutions have actually distorted the law of consent for sexual assault more broadly.

This is one of the great privileges of being an academic; I can choose what issues matter the most to me and get involved in cases that will develop the law as they move their way through the courts or through a legislative law reform  process. 

You were one of the first professors to develop a web-based course, what was your experience with that? In times of social distancing and with an increased demand for online learning, what do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing law school teachers today?

I have enjoyed teaching my online course on the Law of Homicide so much so that I have just developed another online course on the Principles of Sentencing to be offered this fall.

Certainly, in the short term, I think one of our challenges is how to build and maintain a sense of community with our students while working remotely. I know from experience that online teaching does not preclude close relationships among students or between students and professors.

I think the central challenge in moving to remote teaching is to re-imagine how students learn in an online environment. In other words, don’t just try to copy what you do in the classroom into an online context. Think about the tools that the online context brings that the classroom does not bring. For example, many students are actually more comfortable participating in writing than they are in person; take advantage of that. Think about what tools the Internet brings for problem-based learning, small group learning, and other innovations that may in fact work better online. For example, I’ve heard colleagues say for years that we don’t give our students enough opportunities to develop their writing skills. Online learning is a great opportunity to help our students hone their legal writing skills.

Many of us will need to deliver some content in large classes but if you are doing discussion groups or problem-solving, think about dividing your class into small groups with each student participating in one small group consistently. They may not get to know all their classmates, but they will get to know some of them well and they will develop a level of trust with each other that increases participation.

Building community is often more challenging online but it is possible.

Over the years, you have actively contributed to the community through advocacy, interventions at the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court of Canada, and in the development of mental health law in BC. What motivates you in your community engagements?

This is one of the great privileges of being an academic; I can choose what issues matter the most to me and get involved in cases that will develop the law as they move their way through the courts or through a legislative law reform process.

I’ve worked with a number of different organizations. Many of the interventions have been through LEAF National, and I am currently the Chair of the Strategic Litigation Committee for the Canadian Association of Community Living, a large nonprofit committed to full inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities.

I’ve also worked with Crown and defence counsel on various criminal cases. In addition to criminal law, I’ve also done some work in mental health law. I served as a chairperson of the BC Mental Health Review Panel for a number of years and have had the opportunity to work with some amazing community activists in British Columbia. I’m also a member of the Expert Advisory Panel for the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability which is a different kind of advocacy work. Our job has been to track and bring public attention to the killing of women in this country. We seek to raise awareness about this pressing social problem that has to some extent become normalized. This is challenging work because we are dealing with women who have lost their lives to (overwhelmingly) male violence. But it is also important to shine a light on the actual women behind the names that appear in the media almost daily and to pressure governments to take action.

All of the advocacy work is deeply rewarding, especially when, at the end of the case, one feels one has contributed to advancing the law in a positive way.

You’ve made significant contributions in areas relating to sexual assault, homicide, to the legal implications of nondisclosure of an HIV-positive status. Can you highlight a couple of these contributions?

It’s hard to measure the impact of one’s own work but I like to think I’ve had a small impact in a number of areas. My work on HIV nondisclosure has been used widely by courts across the country to temper the very harsh approach we have taken to these prosecutions in Canada.

Several of my articles with Janine Benedet have been relied on by courts in a number of sexual assault cases and appeals, some of which have led to positive developments in the law. For example, the BC Court of Appeal relied on our work in R v Angel, 2019 BCCA 449 to decline to extend a judgment of the Supreme Court of Canada that we had argued was deeply problematic.

Most recently the Supreme Court of Canada referred extensively to our work to highlight the myths and stereotypes related to adolescent victims of sexual assault in R v Friesen, 2020 SCC 9.

I have also contributed to law reform, working with the Department of Justice on reforms to the Criminal Code in a number of areas such as extreme intoxication (s. 33.1), and sentencing for intimate partner violence (s.718.2(a)(ii)). One also has to be aware that one’s efforts do not always lead to positive change and even that one’s work can be used in ways were never intended, as has happened on occasion. Thinking about how one’s scholarship is going to be used can make one more careful and strategic about how one presents ideas.

You’ve been honored with several awards and accolades, such as the Georges A. Goyer, QC Memorial Award for Distinguished Service for your contribution to the development of law in BC. You were also recently awarded a UBC Killam Teaching Prize, what impact does this have for you personally and professionally?

Of course, it’s a great honour when people believe your work should be recognized through an award. The Curtis Teaching Excellence Award meant a lot to me because it was initiated by students and teaching is such an important part of what we do. Even for the Goyer Memorial Award, I was nominated by a former student with whom I have had a close working relationship for years. Having said that, I doubt any academic is motivated by the prospect of awards. The work is its own motivation.

What motivates you in the classroom?

Going to law school was a real turning point in my own life and I had some amazing teachers who inspired me in and outside the classroom. The privilege of being able to be that person for students, to inspire them about the study of law, and criminal law in particular, in the same way that I was inspired all those years ago, is not lost on me.

I want the study of law to be as meaningful for my students as it was for me. I know that I won’t have that impact on every student. But if one aspires to have that impact on every student hopefully one will have it on a few.

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