Ages ago my colleague and friend Sanna challenged me on facebook to post a book I love a day for ten days without explanations. I didn’t like the no explanations thing but eventually decided to play anyway and use the blog to add explanations – short ones, not full book reviews. I posted the books in random order, not ranked in any way. The first one I posted was Footnotes by Vybarr Cregan-Reid. Now I don’t really need to explain this one – I reviewed it here. I loved the writing and it all instinctively made sense to me. What is interesting is that I keep coming back to passages and it often pops into my head. It’s one of the few books that I have read relatively recently that is actually staying with me.
Book two was House of the Spirits by Isabelle Allende. It probably wasn’t but it feels like it was the first ‘grown up’ book I read, certainly in English. I read it not long after the film came out (which I saw after) so I was 15 ish. I remember laughing and crying and being captivated by the story telling. I remember the affinity I felt with the strong but complicated women and the slightly unsettled feeling much of the story left me with. I also remember seeing the film and not really liking it that much. The characters weren’t what I had in my head. Clara in particular just wasn’t quite right in the film and Blanca wasn’t as complex as I wanted her to be. This book might well have been my first ‘stick to the book’ moment. I also realise now that I probably didn’t know anywhere near enough about Latin American and in particular Chilean history so some of the context will have been lost on me. I might re-read it. Although part of me wants to just remember how I felt reading it the first time round. This was also one of the first books that left me with that empty and not ready to re-join the world or start another book feeling that often leaves me aimlessly wandering the house trying to work out what to do with myself when I have finished a novel.
Book three: Affinity by Sarah Waters. I can’t remember whether I saw or read Water’s Tipping the Velvet first. I was vaguely fascinated by a lesbian story line and impressed with the way Sarah Waters builds characters but I wasn’t gripped. Then I read Affinity and I couldn’t shake that novel off for weeks. I read it in one on a grey, cold, gloomy afternoon which probably helped it along nicely. I remember being transported into the novel, like I was there, watching. I remember holding my breath, biting my lower lip wanting desperately to know how the story unfolds but not wanting it to end. The sense of fear, desperation, darkness and other-worldliness was real. As I write this, I realise that I couldn’t tell you the story line in any detail, what I remember from reading Affinity is foreboding, a feeling of powerlessness and a sense of darkness that took a while to lift.
So book 4 – and now for something to completely different. Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. I’ve really only just finished this. I like it because it’s readable science. I’ve never really had problems sleeping and I have always known sleeping is good for me. I often sleep myself better and I really enjoyed reading more about what happens, scientifically, when we sleep. Intuitively the science described makes sense to me although I really don’t know enough to evaluate whether the studies cited to support the arguments are robust. Occasionally I had questions about methodology and how the things that were supposedly controlled for could have been but overall I thought the case for sleep was compelling – I knew that really but I enjoyed reading some of the evidence.
And finally for this post, book 5. Ah this book. The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law by Albie Sachs. It is as close to perfect as a book can get. I read this book in a lovely little hotel in Capetown in January 2012 and I couldn’t put it down. It’s a special piece of judicial writing that is so very different from any other legal writing or judicial memoir. It is open and honest and doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of making the big (legal) decisions. It’s a stunning insight into how one of the best and most emotionally intelligent legal minds of our times thinks and worries about law and its application. It made me laugh and cry and it made me think. I love re-reading bits and I find new things to think about every time and I love using it in teaching because it’s accessible and readable and yet so intelligent and full of meaning. I think maybe I love this because it encapsulates everything I love about thinking about law.
More books in round two!
So there we have it – the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) has been pushed back to 2021. No surprises there really, we could have told the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) ages ago that there is no way they’d be ready by 2020
Anyway, people keep telling me that this is happening, that I just have to accept it and that we just have to get on with it. Well, no, no and no. While it does seem like the SQE is indeed coming, final approval for the assessment is still required from the Legal Services Board. I desperately want them to grow a backbone and declare that a qualifying examination which is likely to harm widening participation, disadvantage already disadvantaged potential solicitors further and write any ‘poor people’s law’ out of education and training for solicitors completely is just not good enough. Come on, we’re better than this utter nonsense. We can do better. We don’t need to kills aspiration and crush a generation who could make a real difference in the world.
Anyway, even if the SQE is coming, I do not have to, nor will I, just accept that. I will keep shouting about it. I will keep telling anyone who will listen (or who won’t, don’t care) why I think it’s a disaster. It promotes a skewed and, I would suggest, harmful conceptualisation of law. Luke Mason has written about this in his contribution to the forthcoming Special Issue of the Law Teacher: The International Journal of Legal Education. In the same issue Doug Morrison highlights the risk the SQE poses to creativity within the law curriculum and Elaine Hall teaches us a thing or two about robust assessment – which the SQE is not. Kathryn Dutton and I wrote about widening participation. These articles alone give you plenty of reasons to scrap the SQE as proposed and go back to the drawing board or at the very least for Law Schools to ignore it.
Let me be clear. I find this hard because I find it hard to justify why I am even remotely interested in the SQE. I don’t care about the professions, I don’t teach/train/whatever future lawyers much less solicitors. I, on a good day anyway, help people learn about law, help them to think, help them to articulate those thoughts and to write and argue and evaluate and use information to form a view and build and argument. Then I want them to go away and make the world a better place and some will do that as lawyers but most will not. So I care, not because of the impact the SQE has on the profession (although I care at the level we should all care about the lack of legal aid lawyers, solicitors who know about family law or employment law or social welfare…) but because of the impact law schools are allowing the SQE to have on the undergraduate law provision.
As a sector we have fallen for the SRA’s ploy. They want us to do their work for them. They want us to train solicitors. University Law Schools are to train their students to pass the SQE. The SRA frees us from the shackles (not that they were particularly tight!) of the Qualifying Law Degree (QLD) for their purposes (but the Bar keeps it) and says they are leaving us alone to get on with things as we think fit but at the same time clearly expect education providers to pick up the SQE preparation. Why are we doing this? Some institutions clearly see opportunities here and others feel they have no choice because they need to continue to recruit high numbers of students. Seriously? You understand that we are lying to our students by selling them SQE ready programmes, yes? If the SRA insists on the SQE, we should leave them to it. As legal educators we should stick two fingers up at them and reclaim our discipline and our expertise. We work in Higher Education. Education people. Education!
The best thing we can do for our students in Post 1992s or lower ranked Schools generally is to provide them with a strong UG education which focuses on helping them to think, articulate, write and have confidence in themselves. If others then want to think about tagging on an SQE prep course, be my guest (but don’t expect me to contribute or be nice about it). I’m not suggesting we try and be like Russel Groups institutions – we’re different, we can, should and must offer different things to our students because generally our students are different and what we do can help bridge the gap life has created for some of those coming to us. What is that difference? Well that’s for each institution to articulate but it has to be based on an understanding of who our students are and how we can help them get to where they want to be.
Anyway, I started writing this thinking about the other part of today’s headline – the cost of the SQE is likely to be between £3000 and £4500. That’s just the exam. JUST THE EXAM. For what it’s worth I think the eventual cost will be at the top end of that or higher but even if those figures are correct, add a prep course and you’re squarely within LPC fee territory. So the only way the SRA’s insistence that the SQE route would be cheaper than current routes holds true is if university law schools prepare candidates for the SQE as part of degree programmes. But the SRA aren’t expecting that. Not at all. Not one bit.
So why won’t I stop going on? Because this shit matters. It matters to my students, it matters to the legal profession, it matters to society and it says something about who we are and what we value. I hope I am wrong about the SQE, I hope that those more optimistic than me are right but I’m not prepared to sit back and let the SRA get on with it on the basis that maybe I am being a bit dramatic about all this. Are you?
Academic Year 18/19 is here. Properly. The students have arrived. For some freshers’ week starts Monday, for some it’s just been and ‘proper’ teaching starts. Of course some courses (and therefore colleagues) have been ‘back’ a while on courses that don’t fit the traditional undergraduate timetable. I love and hate this time of year in equal measures. I love the buzz it creates on campus and at the same time find the busy-ness tiring and sometimes stressful. I like the promise that every new academic years hold – the promise of inspiring and being inspired. The promise of me keeping on top of emails and filing (ok that’s a promise I have long learned not to believe) and of deadlines not yet missed. This time of year signals the start of that all too fleeting time we have to try and engage and inspire, to share our knowledge and to learn from our students, to share a tiny part of their journey and to not fuck it up.
I think about the first year students arriving. In a couple of weeks I will have literally hundreds of them sitting in a lecture theatre in front of me. How do explain to them that the structures that we work in are far from ideal, that there are too many of them and not enough of us, that we all do the best we can but that that often isn’t good enough because it can’t be because, well just because. How do I explain that we are exhausted before term has even started because our jobs get ever more ridiculous every year. How in all of that do I make clear the most important thing of all – that all of them matter, not as student numbers that generate income, but as individuals who will change the world? I can’t wait to meet them but there is also something niggling. What would I say to them if I could reach each one of them individually? I think maybe this:
I may not know your name because I have over 300 new names to try and learn and I’m not good with names. Sometimes I may not recognise you as one of my students as I rush across campus to get to the next class or meeting because I wouldn’t notice my own mother in that moment – my mind is on what comes next not on the right now and once term starts I am perpetually late. It might take me longer than it should to reply to your email because I get too many every day and try as I might my inbox isn’t controllable. I may forget to call you back or I might miss your voicemail because, if I’m really honest, I don’t like the phone and I’m avoiding the phone, not you. I will get frustrated at your lack of preparation, because I will have spent hours preparing and thinking about how to best help you understand and think about the issues we’re dealing with and I’ll be frustrated with myself for not having been able to hold your attention and interest. I will get annoyed when you push me for the right answer (which doesn’t exist) and ask me what’s being assessed and what isn’t – but its not anger at you, it’s at a system that has created a culture where almost everything is about the test result and almost nothing is about the pure pleasure of learning. I want to say sorry for all of those things now and I want you to know this: I see you, each one of you, in that sea of faces in the lecture theatre. You are not a student number, you’re you and I wish there was the time to get to know each of you as you. I want you to know that it’s a privilege to be part of your journey and if I can contribute just a little bit to that journey being a successful one then this job, insane as it is, continues to be worth doing.
I also want you to know that you’re enough. University can be an amazing, exciting, wonderful place but it can also be lonely, dark, scary and it can be easy to get lost in that sea of faces around you. Make it a place to find, not lose, yourself. Please don’t ever presume I’m too busy to care, please never be worried about emailing me or coming to see me, never be scared to ask for help. I am where I am because I always had help, at every step of the way. I now have the privilege of being able to pay that forward.
Now go be whoever you want to be and change the world
Jess (or Dr Guth if you must, but not Miss, never Miss)