I had a riding lesson on a horse I had never ridden before yesterday and I struggled. It was physically much harder than riding the horse I ride often but I am more interested in this: It showed up flaws I know I have and mistakes I know I make that have somehow become masked. As my instructor put it ‘you learn their flaws and they learn yours, you learn to work around them’. The same is true for working outside of your own academic discipline. I’m a lawyer; I think in certain ways, I do things certain ways and I have a particular approach. I have learned the flaws of my discipline and in a sense the discipline has accommodated my flaws – I learned to work within it. It’s comfortable in the same way that riding a horse you know well is comfortable.
I have spent the afternoon with a group of political scientists talking about a book project I am lucky enough to be involved with. My brain is now full of questions I can’t answer, concepts I don’t know anything about and ideas for research I want to do (with the caveat that actually it probably has already been done in another discipline). I am out of my comfort zone. Some of my thinking, writing and teaching are being given a theoretical framework or context which puts a different spin on things, which exposes the flaws in my thinking which my discipline has masked and which expose the flaws in my discipline which I have just learned to accept and no longer see. It’s deeply uncomfortable (even if not quite in the physical sense that riding a different horse can be) because rather than making more sense it is making less. But this is what academia is all about for me, if thinking is to move on, we have to feel uncomfortable. If we’re not uncomfortable we are not asking searching enough questions and if we are not at least a little out of our comfort zone I don’t think we’re learning. Stepping outside of what we normally do and taking a minute to reflect on it is really valuable and we should do it more. Perhaps what I am doing is a little extreme, there are more gentle ways to familiarise yourself with another discipline than a 3 day intensive workshop where all other contributions come from a different background than your own – but the point still stands. Every now and then doing something different is good for you.
So, I wonder if, as legal academics and law teachers we play it safe too often? Do we push our students out of their comfort zone enough? Do we confront them with new ideas and ways of looking at things which exposes the flaws in their thinking and approach and makes them questions the assumptions that underlie everything they do? Probably not, but we should.
I’m preparing for teaching this afternoon and I keep stopping and wondering what the point is. I’m feeling the loss of Dr Emma Lindley really keenly today. I didn’t know her well, we went to the same school, she was kind when I arrived as the new kid but even then she was in a different league. I was aware of her progress through academia, her PhD and her work on mental health. We didn’t meet up or chat on the phone or anything; we were friends on Facebook. Then, roughly 18 months ago my friend Rachel died suddenly. Emma’s post on Facebook in reaction to that news was something like ‘this is as unfathomable as everything else’. In the emotional chaos all around me Emma had somehow managed to capture it all in a simple statement and it was suddenly ok to feel anger and the unfairness of it all and that it didn’t make sense. Emma was there at Rachel’s funeral and her presence somehow helped me. We met for a drink a day or two after, that’s the last time I saw her… and now she’s gone. But this post wasn’t going to be about loss or being sad. It was supposed to be about something far more important and even less tangible than loss: the importance of treating people as fellow human beings, of valuing, not dismissing, taking seriously and being genuine. Both Emma and Rachel, in very different ways, had a knack of connecting with others on a genuine personal level. They could both make you feel like you were the only person in the world that mattered to them and that you were the most important thing at that moment. We all spend so much time rushing around not really taking in the people around us and as a lecturer I often talk to a lecture theatre full of people or a classroom full of students. I see student after student but do I truly engage with them or even see them as individuals, as someone other than a student? Probably nowhere near enough. So today in memory of two amazing young women, I’m not going to have meetings with students, I’m going to have meetings with people; I’m not going to teach my Employment Law class, I’m going to help a group of individuals learn and as I go through the rest of the day and week, maybe, just maybe I’ll manage to convey the same sense of being valued that both Emma and Rachel so often managed to convey to others.