I have been thinking about whether to write and if I do what to write for days. I don’t know what to say. All of this is out of my comfort zone and that in itself makes me uncomfortable. Part of me feels I have nothing to add, nothing to say that matters in any way at all. But staying silent is worse. Staying silent is not really an option. Yesterday I saw the following tweet by Tahir, a researchers at Leeds Uni and the SLSA postgrad rep (who pops up in my time line so frequently I didn’t realise until today that I didn’t actually follow him) and I think that captures some of why not writing a post is not an option.
But what can I possibly say? The Association of Law Teachers tweeted
The landscape and narratives of legal education are indeed overwhelmingly white. My own history, my own education was overwhelmingly white, my world is in so many ways overwhelmingly white. So where to start. Of course I would like to think I am not racist and I would hope that in many ways I am anti-racist but I am also a white relatively privileged woman and therefore so much part of a global system and lots of national and local systems that are fundamentally racist. There are so many things here that I could write about and I know very little about all of them. As the #BlackLivesMatter protests continue and calls for white people to educate ourselves and do better increase, I think it is really important that we don’t all suddenly start pretending we know about race. It’s our time (and well overdue!) to shut up, listen and learn. So here I want to reflect on what all of this might mean for me as a law teacher. And by ‘all of this’ I mean, my emotional reaction to the murder of George Floyd and the protests which have followed, the call to learn more, the call for solidarity that is more meaningful than a building lit in purple for one night and a call for action which genuinely supports black and brown people in their protests and struggles, which amplifies their voices and helps to make them heard.
So before I start, I know very little, I have read not nearly enough and I have not engaged sufficiently with the question of race in the legal classroom. What I have engaged with is different ways of teaching law, treating all students as human beings rather than student numbers and building relationships with students. As part of that I have always been keen to listen to my students and learn from them. I remember listening to a student asking whether she could leave her research on abortion law in my office as she wouldn’t be able to take it home in case her parents saw it. I remember talking about language use in the classroom and whether teachers being excluded through the use of languages other than English was problematic. I remember conversations in class about intersections of law, race and religion and instinctively recognising them as important even when they appeared to be off topic and I remember a powerful and moving student presentation of a review of the book ‘Learning the Law’ (Glanville Williams) which was entirely focused on the discriminatory and colonial undertones of the word ‘the’ in the title.
I remember thinking about race and particularly religion a lot as Head of School – how do we design a legal curriculum that is meaningful for what was actually the majority of our students and which does the experience and realities of all of our students justice, which listens, which empowers and which does not simply re-tell the legal and historical narrative of white privileged men? The thinking here was framed by the Bradford context of course, it was about a Muslim, Pakistani and often economically poor cohort of students. I hope that I created a safe space in which to talk about some of the issues, but I also know that I did not centre race generally or even the specific concerns of the majority of our students. What we taught for the most was still a white curriculum, even if we added some questioning of it.
Since moving institutions I have done worse in some ways. I am not in a management role, I don’t have influence over our curriculum which, from what I can see is pretty traditional in many ways. I have made some changes but, perhaps obviously, these have been centred on things I know about. The Public Law reading list now contains some female authors where there were previously none (!) and I created a new module to make space for critical thought around legal education and aspects of law. While that module contains some discussion of race, it is focused on feminist and queer critiques of law and legal education. I hope it created space for thinking about law differently, for challenging our approach, my approach, to legal education and to teaching law and helped to amplify some voices not otherwise heard but I am not sure this is enough.
So what is enough? I don’t know. I need your help here. Tell me what you need from me, what would help, how can help? I wonder whether first recongising that we don’t know anything or very much is helpful. There are people out there who have been researching race in various context for years, decades. The expertise is theirs. It might be helpful to read some things outside of the current mainstream and when working out what that is, let’s talk to each other, let’s help each other. Let’s not laugh at someone for not having read or thought about something. Let’s be firm – we must do better – but gentle – we have to start somewhere and your somewhere will be different from mine and that’s ok – but we must start. Adding one or two things to the reading list to include some black and brown authors ain’t gonna do it though. In many cases doing something and starting somewhere means challenging the established and accepted curriculum in a given area, doing things differently, leaving out or re-framing things that we feel confident with and have always ‘known’ should be there. It won’t be comfortable. But I also don’t think we have to do this alone. Talking about what we are doing and why with our students is also really important. Creating space to challenge the orthodoxy, to hear other voices, to listen, I mean really listen, to our students, particularly our black and brown students is part of creating an inclusive legal curriculum which begins to challenge the dominant white narratives.
So as I think about my teaching I am partly confident that I can begin to make changes and partly totally lost. In Perspectives on Law and Society I will start with discussions on race in legal education and law. This section of the module used to come at the end, this year I will put it up front because I want to create a space where we can talk about recent events and think about how they impact on us and on how we think about law, social justice and legal education. That module is relatively easy because it’s not about legal rules or content and because it is not a traditional legal module so it is not weighed down by tradition or a textbook. The same is true for my Law in Literature and the Arts module which also allows for lots of opportunities to talk about race and racism and challenge the traditional stories. I feel ok about these modules, I feel like I can do something with them which is meaningful for all my students and which can help us all learn. I feel like in these modules I can say ‘I don’t know, I understand that sometimes I am part of the problem, help me be better’. I feel like with those modules I can make a start.
Then there is Public Law. Thinking about Public Law really highlights just how ingrained the dominant white narrative of our legal history is. I find myself sitting with a blank piece of paper staring at it. How do I make this module anti-racist? And I have to admit that I don’t know where to start. How can it be that in a module about the relationship between the State and its citizens I cannot think about how to logically frame an anti-racist curriculum. This should be easy. And yet, every time I put pen to paper to map out what the module should look like I end up with something that is so remarkably like the module I took over, the textbooks, hell, even the module I was taught. Adding women to the reading list and using their writings in seminars etc was easy, it didn’t challenge much. This though is much harder.
I am not an expert on race – either in specific fields of law or in legal education – but that’s no excuse to perpetuate racism in the curriculum and classroom. So what do I do? I teach Public Law to first year law students. I have a powerful platform which can help set the tone for students’ legal education and the way they see their place within the Law School and the wider world. It’s a platform which I can use to highlight that the dominant narrative of legal education, or Public Law specifically, is white but that there are stories missing and that the stories usually told have been whitewashed. I can point to alternatives and draw on the work of those with expertise and most of all I hope I can create space for genuine discussion and learning. So for now that Public Law outline is staying blank while I go and seek out the other stories and the missing bits in the stories I have always been told and that I have re-told. It stays blank while I deliberately go and seek out the things which make me uncomfortable, have conversations which highlight the whiteness of our Constitutional set up or the colonial assumptions which sit behind human rights frameworks for example. It will stay blank until I have thought about what is really important about Public Law as a thing – until I am clearer in my head what it should be – maybe if I can begin with a conversation about what public law should do, together we can work out what stories we need to tell about it.
So is there a point to this rambling? Well yes, sort of. My emotional reaction to the protests has been quite strong. I have felt angry and helpless and paralysed and motivated to facilitate change all at once. At the same time as thinking there was nothing I could do, feeling part of the problem with little power to make any difference I also remembered that I do have a powerful platform from which to start discussion and from which to hear and amplify voices. I am able to encourage real dialogue and learning. That’s where I can help make a difference – probably mostly to my own understanding and maybe that is more important than I often think. But mostly I hope that my students read this and see it as a genuine invitation to talk to me about race and your experience of it in law, in the classroom and in life. I hope that it is clear that I know that sometimes I have been part of the problem, and maybe always will be and that this has never been intentional. I hope that it is clear that I am listening and that I will, where I can, help you find your voices and amplify them. I hope you feel safe enough to get in touch, tell me what you think I should read/watch/listen to, tell me what’s important to you and help me to learn to be a much much better anti-racist educator.
My first week as an academic cat
In all the chaos that seems to dominate my social media, the news and conversations in and out of work, there is a new and altogether positive chaotic force in my life. Odin, the rescue kitten arrived in our house exactly one week ago. We were not planning on adding anyone to the family but the people due to adopt him decided they did not want him after all and because of his poorly eye no-one else showed interest either. Odin was born on 3rd April by caesarean section to a cat Keighley Cat Care had rescued. He spent the first seven weeks of his life there and then, when all the rest of his family had been adopted, he came to us. This is the story of his first week with us – in his own words – sort of.
I have forever humans! Apparently there were some human who didn’t want me. Outrageous. I mean, have you seen how cute I am! I had to go in a carrier. It’s for biiiiiiig cats so I felt a bit lost in it and I didn’t really like being in the car. But the humans made me my own room – so I don’t get lost in my new home. I had so much space all to myself so I explored and there was food and a nice clean litter box in the corner and toys, oh my the toys, a little soft ball and a cuddly toy mouse that is almost as big as me. There was also a basket for me and a puffin to curl up with. I think I like these humans, they play with me and give me food and cuddle me when I get a bit scared. I purred.
Then they left me in the room. I mean they were gone ages, and they seem to do this every time it gets dark. Maybe they get scared in the dark and need to hide somewhere so they can’t come see me. I was a bit lonely and realised that I wouldn’t see my brother again. He’d be somewhere else like the others when they were picked up and I’d have to make do with the humans. I hoped the humans would come back. I also wondered whether I hadn’t heard OTHER CATS. Maybe I wasn’t the only one. Maybe there was someone to play with? Then the humans came back and played with me and cuddled me and fed me and I was with them all day and I think I like these humans. I purred.
There are other cats! I have met two but they tell me there’s another. The boss, the Master of the Universe, Shackleton. He is, they say, legend. The two I have met are magnificent and so huge. Kilian seems friendly and since our first meeting he’s played with me lots. He gets a little scary but shhh don’t tell anyone about that. I like chasing him so he can’t know that I’m not as brave as I look! Einstein growled at me. He doesn’t seem to want to play or think I am cute. Hm, his name suggests he’s clever but that does not. Playing with the big boys is tiring. I don’t want to miss out so I keep going but it’s nice when one of the humans picks me up and cuddles me to sleep. I purr.
So there’s another room! The humans carry me there so I am not sure how to get there yet. There was a litter box (I think the same one, the humans can carry it) and I got food and water there too. It smelled amazing. This must be where the big cats live at leas some of the time. There’s a huge window and something called OUTSIDE. It looks so exciting. There were different toys here and I found a pen to knock off the table and chew and there are more bookshelves that look fun to climb but I just wasn’t quite brave enough yet. For now I’ll just look and purr.
On Tuesday the humans said it was time for something called work. Neither of them seemed particularly excited about this. I don’t know why. I had just the best time. I was allowed to come in and out of the room by myself and come into another room. The humans have put an empty book case across the hallway so I can’t go that way – yet. But I have my room and the study and the study is just the best. I chewed books, sooo many books I don’t know if I’ll ever get to chewing them all. I also killed pens and chased paper and then the humans were talking – not to each other- but into a funny thing while staring at their screens – and I got bored and feel asleep in the sun. And I purred.
Sometimes when I wake up the humans aren’t there. I worry they’ll leave me so I meow just to make sure. It’s working, mostly they come running to check I am ok. I must remember that this noise and then rolling over showing my tummy and purring seems to get me whatever I want. Although it didn’t stop them putting me back in the carrier. I had just woken up when they did and they didn’t even give me time for a pee. They took me to this funny smelling place, it was weird and I didn’t like it. I think it was maybe where I was born. A woman who I thought was nice tickled me and looked me over but then she stuck a needle in my neck. I mean really?! She also put stuff in my eye – more than just a little drop like my humans do and it felt different. She said I was too tiny for most medicine so I have to go back. I don’t like that human. I did not purr.
It all took forever and I really needed to pee and I don’t think the humans understood. I nearly burst and ran to the litter box as soon as they finally got me back to my room. I peed for so long I nearly fell asleep in the litter box. At least the humans have now realised I didn’t like the water bowl they’d given me. It was hard to drink out of and I couldn’t see the water in it and got confused. I like the one I have now better. See humans can be trained! Good. I’ll keep purring.
Humans seem to do a lot of what they call work. Seems odd. I tried to help. Apparently having a desk cat is lovely but I am not the chew cables. Hm, well if I am not allowed to chew I need to find other ways to help. The humans seem fussy about this though. Knocking pens on the floor, chasing pens when in human hands, deleting columns in spreadsheets, accidentally sending and then archiving some emails and adding text to documents and messages were all rejected as unhelpful. Rolling around on my back, washing my face and having my tummy tickled got a much more favourable reception. So I purred.
The humans tell me I am a good boy and that I am learning fast, too fast in some cases. I learned that starting to climb up human legs means I quickly get a lift up, that attacking the hand holding the toy means I can disable the toy and get it quickly, that I can use humans to get to where I want to be by climbing up them and that if I get somewhere from where I can’t get down all I have to do is meow. I’ve also learned that I can sleep without worrying, that there’s food for me and that human hands are great for testing claws and teeth but also really really good for belly rubs, shoulder scratches and chin tickles. I think I like these humans. They make me purr.
The relentlessness of academic work in lockdown
In a draft post from the end of February that I have just discarded because it wasn’t going anywhere I wrote: ‘I have also had flu and have been ill or not quite right for 3 weeks now. That means that work has slowed down dramatically adding to the perpetual feeling of being behind with everything…’ Well very soon after that everything changed, campus closed and university life moved online. I was as behind as I always am but not really any more so. I was making progress even if that progress was slow.
In lockdown the perception of time, of productivity and of what is important shifted. In one sense it just put into sharp focus that so much of what we do as academics is utter nonsense. For the first part of lockdown I struggled doing anything. I wrote about some of that in the two previous posts. For me it wasn’t a time thing, I don’t have kids to home school for a start, and it wasn’t that I don’t have the right set-up at home to work effectively – we’d just re-done our study so we can both work in it at the same time and it is really quite lush. No, it was about headspace and focus. Things improved a little bit as time went on but I was still struggling to get anything done really.
Then I started going to really detailed to do lists. I broke up everything into much smaller sub-tasks and wrote each of those down as a thing to do. It meant ticking things off more often, seeing the list get shorter and then longer again and generally created a sense of things moving along. With that system alongside a weekly planner on which I recorded roughly the plan for the week with times of ‘meetings’ blocked out and the time around them allocated to overall tasks like REF output reading, marking or edit joint paper, I had a couple of weeks of getting shit done.
But at the start of the third week I was anxious as hell, exhausted before I had even started the Monday, running on caffeine and really struggling to concentrate. I went through Monday and Tuesday like that – a completely heightened state of alertness (and not in the idiotic government message sense) and hyperactivity that had me racing from one job to the next. It felt like a race to tick things off the list. I stopped writing things on the list but then I promptly forgot them adding to stress levels as I wondered what I’d forgotten or got reminders down the line. I got to the end of that week feeling absolutely knackered.
So yes, I had spent 3 weeks getting shit done and was probably more on top of work than I have been in years but I felt wired, and not in a good way. Last week then I tried to start more slowly, to be more considered and to take more breaks and reflect more. Some of the work I got done was nice work. There’s a paper nearly finished, a new project nearly ready to go and they have been fun to think about. It is nice to have the marking done, some institutional level paperwork pretty much ready to submit by the deadline… so why did the working at home over those 3 weeks feel so relentless?
Well I didn’t work more hours overall. And I didn’t stretch the working over a longer day. What I didn’t do was allow myself time to come round and get into work mode. I basically got out of bed, threw clothes on and started work. It felt useful to get a head start. I stopped to have lunch but only to quickly make lunch and then eat it. I had my drinks at my desk and didn’t stop between tasks. The tasks on my list seemed so little that stopping between them to acknowledge having completed them seemed silly. The result: the feeling of rushing even when not, the feeling of urgency even when there wasn’t any, a slight sense of panic at the length of the list in spite of it shrinking quickly through the day. The tiredness came from the hamster wheel of work that needed to be kept going and therefore felt relentless. A three hour meeting on the Friday of that 3rd week nearly broke me. I needed a brain time out.
Last week was better. I was more aware of the risks of the list. I still want the list because I am forgetting stuff and flit around too much forgetting what I am doing, the list helps with that. But I am back to mornings being more deliberately slow, drinks also functioning as breaks, lunch being about more than quickly making it and eating it to get back to work, and the list as something to help remember things not as something to be rushed through. So last week was better. And next week, well next week will be better again because yesterday Odin, killer of feet, joined our family and he is the perfect play break enforcer!