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.