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‘A Good Teacher Is a Good Student.’ Cultivating Success Through Patience and Openness

‘A Good Teacher Is a Good Student.’ Cultivating Success Through Patience and Openness

© Daniil Prokofyev/ HSE University

Alaa N. Assaf is a doctoral student at HSE University’s Faculty of Law. In addition to doing research for his PhD thesis, he teaches undergraduates. Alaa has shared his thoughts on studying international law, life in Moscow, and what he misses about teaching in person.


Alaa N. Assaf

HSE University has a wide academic outreach. I came to know HSE through research papers done by some of its professors who happened to have the same academic interests as I do. One of them, Professor Vera Rusinova, became my PhD supervisor.

After reading my project she agreed to be my supervisor and following her preliminary approval I applied to the PhD programme through the Russian Government Scholarship scheme and got admitted to the HSE PhD school at the Faculty of Law. There was a portfolio competition and an interview with PhD school academic director, Professor Rodion Belkovich.  

Furthermore, for any PhD student, the library is a fundamental asset for their research. HSE University has one of the best libraries in Russia with access to many up-to-date e-sources

I study primarily the question of territory in international law, hence my area of interest includes a variety of questions, such as the application of International Law in cyberspace and the theorization of State cyberterritory—issues related to the Arctic region and the problem of ice in a world that comprehends territory as a binary of land and water. Yet because of my background, I preferred to dedicate my PhD research to an issue that is more pressing to me, namely the role of territory in the operations of military intervention.

© Daniil Prokofyev/ HSE University

Teaching at HSE University

I’m teaching Public International Law, which is a very important course for any lawyer. Today’s world is identified as one with more interaction between nations than before. Borders are gradually starting to lose their significance. But with that comes a new range of legal issues that require proper structuring and analysis to fit within the paradigm of law. A modern lawyer should recognize the interconnection of the world today and carefully balance this with nations’ interests.

Teaching is tough, yet very rewarding. Education is like cultivating, it needs a lot of patience to reach a good fruitful ending when all students succeed. When I started teaching, I had one key skill that I use with my students— that a good teacher is also a good student, and my job is simply to provide my students with assurances that while learning is a painful process, yet it does not need to take a toll on their mental health.

I always try to make students feel that they have a class with one of their older peers who just happened to have more knowledge and experience, and who is open to all ideas

My aim is to make the classroom a safe space for the students to share their ideas on the topical issues of international law without fearing the consequences of being judged for their methodological erroneous opinions or even if a student was advocating an unpopular opinion.

This year I was teaching online due to the pandemic restrictions. While it is true that virtual learning helped institutions keep its education processes going despite a global pandemic, online teaching showed the importance of micro-interactions between teachers and students. Sitting in one room, face-to-face communication, living the atmosphere of students group in teamwork tasks—regrettably these interactions were mostly lost because of the online format.   

HSE University on Bolshoy Trekhsvyatitelskiy Pereulok
© Daniil Prokofyev/ HSE University

Living in Moscow

Moscow is a vibrant city that does not sleep. It is already my third year in Moscow. I face no issues as a foreigner. Moscow is a very big city. Your concept of distances will change, and it might take you some time to do so.

Some foreigners complain about the bureaucracy they face, particularly with regard to the registration process, as most foreigners do not have this process back in their home countries. Yet, bureaucracy is also law and order. Regardless of this, my experience living in this city so far is very positive.

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