End of an Era – Please

The last 2 academic years have been awful. They have been full of the worst that HE has to offer, full of the worst that people have to offer and it made me question everything. It made me question whether I want to be an academic, whether I am capable of being an academic, whether I can teach, whether I can research, whether anything I have ever done has ever been good enough, whether it was worth doing, made a difference. It made me question my management skills, approach, and philosophy. It made me second guess everything I have ever been sure of and it pushed me far further towards a total darkness than anyone should ever have to go.

The last academic year ran me over like a freight train  and some days I didn’t know if I’d ever get up again. I had days where I physically couldn’t make myself get out of bed, I had days where I just cried for no reason, I had days where I couldn’t breathe, where I couldn’t leave the house, where I couldn’t read, didn’t understand anything anyone said to me… days where I just didn’t function and yet – on some of these days I did function. I functioned at a stupidly high level. I spent the best part of a day in an ‘Academic Portfolio Review’ meeting answering question about the Law School, the courses, the research etc. I was apparently ‘very impressive’ – I barely remember it. I’d got off the bus a couple of stops early on the way there because I couldn’t breathe.

I spent most of the academic year on high alert waiting for next ‘attack’, crying in the toilets, smiling vaguely in meetings because I had no clue what had just been said and just trying to breathe. I knew, when I took on the Head of School role, first on an interim basis and then permanently, that there was a lot of work to do. What I didn’t know was that I would get no real support to do that work and that there would be a small but significant group of people who would happily undermine me, stab me in the back, lie, cheat, make stuff up and do it all with a smile. I don’t like to be a victim, I don’t like what my experience says about me. If I don’t succeed then that is down to me – that’s the way I work. Success and failure are my doing BUT the more distance I get the more clearly I can see that I was bullied from the minute I stepped into the role. I hate that, I absolutely hate that. I am not someone who is bullied. This doesn’t happen to me. I am in control of my own destiny, my own actions, my own future, everything. I. Don’t. Get. Bullied.

But I did. I was promised a mentor when I took the management role. I suggested a couple of women in management or senior roles who I admired and my suggestions were laughed at and then nothing happened. I had no management experience but I tried – I signed up for an MA module in leadership (I got a distinction just for the record), I read as much management and leadership stuff as I could get my hands on and I concentrated on some of the gendered stuff – I wanted to be ready for this shit. I spent lots and lots of time talking to Law School staff, my staff. We figured out together how this was going to work for us. The Law School worked, it was the least dysfunctional part of the university as far as I am concerned. I was ‘disciplined’ for raising Law School concerns about an admin restructure with the restructure steering group (as in hauled in to see the Director of Administration and the Dean) and very quickly some very clever people had constructed a narrative of me as inexperienced, emotion led and hot headed. And they fed that narrative throughout the next 18  months.

I was lied to about my staff and lied about to my staff. I was told confidential information that was then leaked to others and I was blamed for the leak. I was told information and told it was confidential and then reprimanded for not having ‘cascaded’ it to my team. I was patronised, ignored, laughed at and dismissed more times than I care to remember. I was asked to do stuff, delivered and then asked why I did the things I’d been asked to do with a room full of people insisting I’d never been asked to do something and this was me ‘going it alone’ again. I was told to completely re-write our Law UG provision in about an 8 months period. Later all the issues that come with having to do this sort of thing quickly are all my fault because I insisted on doing it for the 2016/16 academic year. People offered help, then didn’t help, then ignored my pleas for some assistance and then swear blind they never heard from me.

I was told I was doing an excellent job – but only ever behind closed doors. I had two performance reviews as Head of School – the first was 5 minutes about how amazing I was and 40 minutes about how I need to learn to keep my temper in check because it undermines everything I do. The second was even more bizarre than that and I won’t say any more about that one. I had a meeting with a senior figure another time and was sworn at, asked if I now realised how wrong I was about everything and told to get a grip. My staff were told that if I learned how to manage and they could keep me in line, the Law School might not be in so much trouble (it never was!). I made a complaint, a formal one, to the Dean and he refused to engage with it and told me he did not agree with my assessment of the situation and to let it go.

So, I have cried, I have screamed, I have run stupid miles to get the adrenalin out of my system, I have taken time off sick, I have gone back, I have tried again but my body won’t take the miles I need to run to keep doing this shit, I don’t have any more tears left, I have run out of energy and out of self belief. I cannot work in that toxic environment. I cannot keep crying myself to sleep at night. I can’t get to the point where being bullied feels normal. So I resigned a while ago. My finishing date was the 14th August. It was the hardest thing I have ever done. The Law School means the world to me. The colleagues there are everything HE should be and they reminded me every day that we need to fight for collegiality, honesty and loyalty within academia but my little Law School oasis wasn’t enough to combat the crap outside of that. I do hope the university realises what a gem it has.

I do have another job lined up and more on that soon. For now I am just trying to remember that I am good at my job, that I can teach, that I can research and that I can lead, not manage, lead.

And then the tears came

I have been grappling with the news of the shooting in Orlando. I saw a news headline and then avoided the news for several hours because I didn’t want to, couldn’t, think about what this means. But I couldn’t avoid it forever and when I did eventually look and engage with the news it felt like a punch to the stomach, the sort that leaves you breathless and eyes watering. It feels different than the recent terrorist attacks. I watched the coverage of those in a state of shock and grief somehow unable to tear myself away from the terrible rolling news coverage which was so full of assumptions and misleading information as well as sensationalist reporting.  I cried lots. This is different. I can’t explain how this is different. I can’t put that into words. It is different because it feels personal. The Paris attacks felt like an attack on our freedom – something we (or maybe it’s just me) think about quite a bit but mostly in the abstract. Orlando wasn’t an attack on our freedoms it was an attack on us, on who we are. And because of that it’s too unfathomable.

To me this feels different because to me it feels personal. It’s an attack on my community and it feels weird writing that. I have never been a big part of the LGBTQ+ community. I have always fiercely protected my identity as ‘me’ not as part of a group. I have never strongly identified as a lesbian and  I can count the number of times I have been in a gay club on one hand, the same is true for Pride events… . Today it somehow seems important to say it out loud, to be out and proud – not just be me but to stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community, my community.

I have been struggling to make sense of all this – to understand. I’ve been trying to get my head around the background and context that allowed this to happen and I get that US gun laws allowed this to happen, I get that cultures and legal systems where homophobia and discrimination go unchecked allowed this to happen, I get that a society where religion can and is often used an excuse for bigotry allowed this to happen.. but still none of it makes sense to me. As I watched the Channel 4 News coverage the tears finally came and with the tears a feeling of total helplessness and a realisation of just how senseless this all is. Yes it is amazing to see the solidarity and support for the victims of the Orlando shooting across the world but what happens next?

How do we change the world? Thoughts and prayers won’t do it! My tears won’t do it. I don’t know what will but I do know that somehow the ‘we’ and ‘us’ and community has become really important. I don’t have the words – I’m just rambling. I’ll keep thinking and working through this. Others have expressed some of what I’m thinking already – take a look at Professor Chris Ashford’s blog post for a rather more coherent piece.


Thanks from the picket line and the sofa

It’s day two of the UCU strike for fair pay in HE. I’m at home sitting on my sofa feeling a little lost. Truth be told, I’m worrying about work. I’m worrying about the pieces of assessment I haven’t yet marked, the meetings I haven’t organised, those I haven’t prepared for and whether I really have the time to go to an training course that is useful for me rather than the institution more widely tomorrow afternoon. I worry about my to do list, or rather I worry about looking at it because I know it will be overwhelming and already scarily out of date. I am resisting the urge to open my email and start dealing with stuff because this is what I am talking about, feeling like this, under constant pressure is part of the problem. So for today I will keep feeling a little lost, I will keep fighting the urge to deal with stuff and firefight and keep the balls in the air.

Yesterday I spent the morning on the picket line. It was slightly disappointing to see some academic colleagues heading into work and some of the driving  by staff was a bit aggressive as people did their best to avoid eye contact as they drove up to the barriers and hastily waved their staff cards at the sensors. If you’re an academic and the picket line makes you uncomfortable, maybe you need to think about why. If you’re not an academic and therefore not part of this strike action, stop and show us a bit of support; Smile, say hi or wave or something. Thanks to those who did! Thank you thank you thank you to the guys driving a university van who turned around and didn’t cross the picket line – you’re awesome.

I spent a lot of time yesterday and this morning keeping an eye on twitter – thanks for the support shown there. Thanks to the students in particular for tweeting your support and for understanding that we are doing this for you as much as for ourselves. But what happens tomorrow when we all got back to work? The temptation is to try and cram the last two days worth of work plus tomorrow’s work into tomorrow. The temptation is to still try and meet those deadline, get those exams marked, those meetings sorted, that paperwork done. My instinct is to do that because it needs doing. Let’s be honest, it needed doing last week, last month… But that can’t be how this plays out. The strike cannot result in us all being more stressed out. If I give into that temptation then basically I’ve just not been paid for two days but I still do the work and the university just gets even more of me for free.

Tomorrow I will make a huge effort to work at a sensible pace, starting at a sensible time and finishing at a sensible time. I will not work all weekend to catch up. The strike is supposed to have an impact, that’s the point of a strike! I do wonder whether sometimes we let ourselves down by going back to work and trying to catch up – if we do that we negate the effect of the strike.

I’m struggling- partly self-preservation is kicking in and I want to work to make sure I can keep afloat. I don’t want the ‘well if you hadn’t been on strike you’d not be so behind…’ conversations. I don’t want to be behind… So I’m getting off the sofa and I will find something to do to distract myself from the possibility of work. Maybe I’ll make jam.

Why Strike?

I haven’t blogged for a while, well not on this site anyway. Truth is, I have lots to say about being an academic, legal education, the state of HE… but I’m feeling a bit ground down, a bit ‘what’s the point?’ and a bit weary from being battered with wave after wave of neoliberal and/or just plain idiotic requirements, requests and demands. Going into work  to be patronised at some level on a daily basis is getting a bit old. Whether it’s the mansplaining some older male colleagues seem to feel entitled to, whether it’s the string of meaningless emails which put the cart before the horse (or forget the horse altogether), whether its questions that show that the person asking hasn’t a clue what I do or whether it’s a play on my inexperience as a manager (that too is getting old, I’ve been doing the job for 2 years) or whether it is a meddling clueless government peddling an agenda that might well ruin what is left of HE- it is all just a bit tiring.

I should be fighting back – on all sorts of fronts. At discipline level, at faculty level, at institutional level and at national and international levels. I should, along with my academic, admin and student colleagues, be fighting for higher education that is meaningful and puts learning in all its various forms at the heart of everything. Instead I’m just a bit tired – and I don’t think I am the only one. I nearly lost my temper with a student who popped in to say hi and as he left  chirped ‘enjoy your summer off…’ What? That myth still exists? Wow. You see, one of the reasons I, along with many academic colleagues, am tired is because the academic year is relentless and the demands placed on us are unreasonable. Universities are now about making money and one way to do that is to do more with less – which is what academics have been asked to do for years.

I am still in the middle of marking. According to a workload allocation model we use I have roughly 40 minutes per student per module – if the module has two pieces of assessment I have 20 minutes to read, mark and provide written feedback on a piece of coursework or an examination script – actually less because I also need to fill in a couple of forms at the end. But not only that, I also have a total of about 100 to look at (and this is a very very light load because I’m Head of School) and the usual turnaround time is 2 weeks. Once the marking is done,there’ll be more marking – this time as external examiner for other institutions,then there are assessment committees and exam board all with pre-meetings and paperwork, then June is pretty much over, but not before an Open Day. Often I get to take a breath in early July but we have our Academic Portfolio Review in July and then there are re-sits, more marking and more assessment committees and exam board. There’s also LLM thesis supervision, PhD supervision and then A-Level results and Clearing. Now we are at the end of August and there are emails requesting all sorts of documentation (relating to the next academic year) which is already late because I haven’t had time to even think about it until now. So now we are about 3 weeks away from induction and I haven’t yet given a thought to any teaching I might need to do, never mind my own research. Induction week, 12 weeks of teaching with (thank goodness) a reading week in the middle, more marking, Christmas day flies by in a blur, more marking, committees, 12 more weeks of teaching (yay for the reading week), marking and we are right back round again.

It’s never ending. It should be a predictable cycle that allows you to plan and be organised and get ahead of things and therefore create time for your own research. But there’s too much. You never get the chance to really get ahead because all you can do in a day is firefight, you don’t get chance to get ahead. It’s nearly 3pm and I am about to look at my to do list for today because when I logged on at 6am this morning I started with the important/urgent stuff in my inbox. I haven’t go to the urgent but less important and the important but not urgent isn’t likely to get done until it is urgent. I’m drowning and do you want to know why? Because I care. I care about my colleagues in the Law School so rather than watch them struggle through totally unreasonable amounts of marking I have pitched in – not much but maybe enough to help a little;  I care about HE so instead of just nodding and smiling I have and continue to challenge in meetings etc when I think issues need to be talked about or when decisions are likely to impact on us negatively; instead of buying into the neoliberal HE agenda I am trying to run our School in as collegial a way as possible. I also care about students. That seems unreasonable in the current climate. It’s about the market and what the market wants, it’s not about students. I refuse to accept that we are providing a student experience. No, university is not an experience in that sense although it is absolutely an experience is so many other ways – but they’re all non-market ways.

Anyway, I care about students – that means that I actually read their exams and their coursework. I read it carefully. And if I get tired and one assignment blurs into the next, well I just make another cup coffee and try again. I spend time with students – before the exams and after to talk about my subject but also to talk about their lives – because often they don’t have anywhere else to go and have those conversations. I could have dealt with exam concerns, worries about what comes after graduation, as well as personal issues – some minor some major – by email but more often than not I invite students to come and see me to talk it through. Why? Because it matters to them! And this whole bloody thing is about them!

I also care about my research but I actually just don’t have time to care about my research. I just don’t.

So what has all this got to do with striking for fairer pay? Well quite a lot. A lot of what I have outlined and what I experience daily is part of a pretty toxic culture in HE. It’s a culture that values managers far more than academics and which constantly devalues and undermines the work that academics do, the expertise we have and the contributions we make to our institutions and the wider world (and I don’t mean our economic value!). The totally unbalanced pay structures which see senior managers earn significant pay packets and leave junior lecturers barely scraping by is a fundamental part of this culture. Let me be clear, my salary is a decent salary. However, the person who had the job before me got paid a lot more, A LOT MORE, than I do (yes, male); women still earn less than men on average but often also when doing exactly the same job; staff on casual contracts are paid almost nothing when you take into account their qualifications and what institutions expect of them. It’s simply not fair and it is the best way to run our universities into the ground, to take any fight out of us troublesome academics and to produce armies of little worker drones who are well equipped with employability skills but wouldn’t know an independent thought if it slapped them in the face.

So yes I’ll be striking tomorrow and the day after. Not because I personally want to be paid more but because we need to start fighting back, we need to set the wheels in motion to get our HE back. We need people at all levels to be paid fairly, we need senior managers to take equality seriously, we need to think about what putting students at the heart of HE really means and we need to create time and space for academics and for students to care, to think, to listen,to teach, to learn, to read, to write and to breathe.

If you want to find out more about the strike please take a look at www.ucu.org.uk



Independent women (Hi Mum)

For the School of Law Blog I wrote a little post for International Women’s day which touches on my work on gender and the judiciary. I also wanted to write something more personal about the women who have inspired me to be who I am. And then it dawned on me  – this is a really hard thing to do! Of course there are people who I admire hugely. Like Ruth Bader Ginsburg – I mean, she’s just got a scarily sharp legal mind and amazing insight and a way with words. For example as far back as 1971 she wrote (in the brief she wrote for the plaintiff in the US landmark case of Reed v Reed):

‘Laws which disable women from full participation in the political, business and economic arenas are often characterized as “protective” and beneficial.The pedestal upon which women have been placed has all too often, on closer inspections, been revealed as a cage. ‘

Anyway, I could list the inspirational women in law but that list wouldn’t be very imaginative and it also would not be true to say that those women inspired me to be who I am today – mostly I doubt I was aware of them as I was finding my path through school and university. So who are those women I want to celebrate? I think I have always been surrounded by really strong and independent women. Gender equality wasn’t really a thing for me growing up. I remember sitting in a tutorial at university talking about careers and my personal tutor (the wonderful Professor Fiona Cownie) making a coment about the lack of female professors. It was an ‘aha’ moment for me. It felt like being hit by a freight train: This shit is real. Women actually are disadvantaged. That didn’t happen in my world. In my world my gran lived on a hill in the middle of nowhere on her own and just dealt with shit, my Oma took charge of everything,  my Mum was a working single mum who encouraged and valued my independence almost to a fault. My best friend’s mum encouraged us to be whacky, individual, always in your face and fiercely independent. I had friends from traditional family units but if I am honest I thought they were decidedly odd. I thought the mums staying at home was just weird – why on earth would they want to do that. I thought the ‘have lunch, sit down and do your homework’ structured approach and the micro management of my friends’ lives was odd. I thought I had the best mum in the world – obviously – because she wanted me to be me.

I liked my world. In my world gender didn’t matter, sexuality didn’t matter, in fact nothing stupid like that mattered. I went to a German grammar school where suddenly where you were from and who your parents are mattered. I remember thinking that this was strange. I also remember that I once got incredibly angry because a teacher made a comment about how as a kid from a single parent family and living on the other side of town my chances of being successful were singificantly reduced. That didn’t make sense in my world where just being you mattered but I didn’t quite have the language to express that. I think that has stuck with me. People shouldn’t have to change for the world they live in – people should change the world.

So here’s to the fiercely independent women of the world. In fact here’s to the fiercely independent people of the world, who never stop asking questions, who are there to see their friends, families and complete strangers succeed and who are always striving to  topple pedestals and tear down cages.