My twitter time line is full of threads about mental health in academia, I am thinking about my own mental health a lot and about the limits of what is and isn’t possible or acceptable, I am running the London Marathon for Mind…., there are mental health initiatives everywhere – about talking to each other, looking out for one another, being more resilient, training, knowing how to cope, reducing stress. It just goes on and on. Everything is, it seems, about mental health. My academic friends are doing their best not to give in to absolute cynicism and to protect their mental and physical health while still meeting the demands of our employers. Often they put on a brave face, in private, over coffee, in emails and social media private messages that face slips. But those are their stories to tell, not mine, so let’s make this about me. I’ve been realising something, it’s not exactly a comfortable realisation but the more I think about it, it is absolutely true: Academia broke my brain and it can never go back to pre 2015.
Ok I’m not making sense. Let’s start at the beginning. Remember 2015? Remember the day I was sat on the sofa with a brain so so poorly that it couldn’t process the words my girlfriend was saying to me? The day I experienced my brain shutting down and refusing do process anything else until it had had a proper rest. Remember that? Why would you. I do though. Since that day and the period of sickness absence that followed and the rebuilding of some sort of academic career that followed that I have heard time and time again that none of it was my fault, that it’s not me and that academia needs people like me. I only ever half believed that it wasn’t about me and that me being ill was not my fault and I really have no idea what ‘academia needs people like you’ really means. So, the uncomfortable realisation: It is about me and it is about academia and it is about academia and me. Academia simultaneously needs people like me and has no place for people like me. And by people like me, I actually just mean me because I know about me, I don’t really know about anyone else.
So to be clear, all bollocks aside, I know I am good at my job. This is not a post about imposter syndrome (though I am very familiar with that too) or looking for some ‘oh but you’re brilliant’ sort of affirmation and ego stroking. I don’t much care whether you think I am good at my job or not because deep down I know that I am good at the things I value and that are important to me. But the things I am good at are not really the things that are valued and/or made possible in academia anymore – and maybe they never were. Maybe I have a romantic notion of what academia should and could be. Maybe and maybe what I feel, think and experience is shaped by the institutions I have worked in and things are different elsewhere. Maybe. What is clear to me though is that what we have now is not good for any of us, staff or students.
I love teaching. But what we do is rarely about teaching these days. It’s about learning outcomes and module specifications and textbooks, it’s about progression statistics and good honours. It’s about pass or fail and it’s about assessment. In an age where information is easily accessed we still have content heavy degrees and lecture theatres full of students who are rarely expected to really think. That makes no sense to me. In a system which thrives on consistency and metrics, what I do doesn’t fit. Taking content out and asking students to read, reflect and think makes things less predictable in the classroom, draws on a different set of skills, takes a risk and sometimes makes my student evaluations drop. I’m supposed to care about that. Instead I care about the student who tells me she felt empowered by being asked to contribute to the discussion in lectures. A third of my students have failed my module. I am supposed to care about that. I do. I care deeply but not because of my module statistics but because it means that there is a third of my students I haven’t managed to reach effectively – and partly that’s my fault, partly that’s the fault of colleagues who don’t ‘get’ what I am trying to do with the module and partly it’s the fault of the system that fails so many of our students by admitting them in the first place and then not supporting them properly. I already have reams of notes on what needs to change for the next iteration of the module – but I won’t have the time to make even half of those changes.
Because you see, time is not something we have in academia. In a job where thinking, reflection, reading, more thinking is key, you’d be surprised at how little of that actually happens. My biggest fear, other than spiders maybe, is my brain packing up on me again like it did. It is impossible to explain – but imagine someone has changed the language that everyone speaks, the script/alphabet everyone uses is different and everyone seems to know but you. People are interacting normally around you and talking to you but you don’t understand. I don’t ever want my brain to go there again. But academia takes it in that direction because everything and I mean EVERYTHING in modern academia seems toxic to it. You see, this is about me. It’s about having a brain that is too broken and tired to keep fighting the battles that academia needs. It’s a brain that refuses to see resilience as a permanent state. I can’t give up. I can’t not work on building better sessions, modules and courses. I can’t not try to encourage colleagues to try new things in the classroom, I can’t not be a mentor, I can’t not try and build a better law school all round, I can’t not be me BUT I also can’t keep having the battles that make it possible to do those things. I’m stuck – unable to do what is required of me because I cannot act like or help produce little worker drones.
Research is the same. My brain is and always has been, even before it broke, slow. It needs time to let things whiz around a bit. I do actually think that every now and again my brain can be quite brilliant, that it can see connections and make sense of things in a new way that is valuable to others and worth sharing. It can produce insights and it understands stuff that sometimes doesn’t make sense to others. I think I can write and write well. I think sometimes I have something to say. Do I say it in a way that hits the metrics I need to hit as a modern academic? Probably not. Am I interested in things a modern academic in a modern university needs to be interested in? No, probably not. Do I bring in money? No. Do I do research that could bring in money? Not really. Is my research impactful (is that even a word)? Who knows!?! Is it valuable – well I think it can be. But there’s no time. No time to spend thinking about things deeply. No time or inclination to allow me to think deeply about something esoteric and a bit odd which might turn out to be really important. No time to read, think and reflect. Demands are such that research gets squeezed into the odd day, an evening here and there, a weekend. But my brain can’t do evenings and it can’t do weekends. It broke doing that. It won’t, can’t, do that again. My brain is not good at being squeezed into tight time scales, it makes it work too fast and then it panics and then what could have been isn’t.
I’m reasonable at admin and management stuff. I can do it and do it well if I see the point but I am not very good at doing things that I see as pointless or idiotic. And there is lots of pointless and idiotic admin in academia. It’s increasingly bureaucratic and a fabulous example of work and task creation and the glorification of busy-ness. This is not what I want to spend what little brain power I can muster each day on.
So I am and have always been a good enough academic. Not excellent, not amazingly brilliant but an academic who can teach, research and stay on top of admin duties. Good enough. But good enough is no longer good enough in academia. We all have to be world leading, in everything we do, all of the time. I don’t think I’m up for that. I’d like to help others be world leading, shine, reach their potential and step out into the limelight. I’m more of a behind the scenes kind of girl but academia is not about behind the scenes…
So where does that leave me? Well that’s an interesting question. Sometimes I just want to leave, walk out of the university doors and never look back. Sometimes I think things aren’t so bad and I am just having a crappy day. I’ve sat on this blog for weeks trying to work out if I am just having a bad day…, sometimes I really really want a management position like Head of School or Dean or something because part of me still believes that all of this can be done differently – but maybe my brain is too broken for that. So for now I just want to keep doing good enough. I want to keep teaching and I want to keep researching and I want to keep doing it my way. I’m not striving for excellence or brilliance. I’m striving for good enough with a sprinkling of disaster and pinch of brilliance and I am aiming for survival in a sector which is fraught with difficulties. I think I am aiming for riding out the storm and contributing, in what little ways I can, to turning academia (back) into calmer waters.
Anyway, I think you get the idea. Something has to change I think because too many of us are breaking. Once broken a little bit of our sparkle is lost forever because we have given just a little too much. We’ll always hold back because if we don’t we risk going back to that dark place that does not guarantee a way out, that doesn’t guarantee a tomorrow. Academia should not be about holding back. It should be about going all in with an idea and seeing where it takes us collectively and supportively, working in collaboration or on our own, with our students or with each other. That’s the academia I want and we all need – we’ve got a long way to go and for now I’m coming along, walking the line between trying to make it better and breaking and hoping that that line holds!
Many of you will know I am running the London Marathon on the 28th April to help raise money for the mental health charity Mind. As part of those fundraising efforts I am holding a raffle for legal academics. Routledge/Taylor and Francis, Hart Publishing and Red Globe Press have very generously donated some books.
- 1st Prize is the Edited Collection Perspective on Legal Education and 2 books from the Routledge Emerging Legal Education series as seen above.
- 2nd Prize is my favourite legal education book combination Fiona Cownie’s Legal Academics and Tony Bradney’s Conversations, Choices and Chances (the books pictured here are my copies – the ones you’ll get are brand new copies I have been given by the publishers).
- 3rd Prize is another Fiona Cownie book – ‘A great and noble occupation’ which is well worth a read.
- And finally there’s two copies of The Legal Academic’s Handbook to be won – and what’s more, both Chris Ashford and I will sign them – now who wouldn’t want a signed copy of that book!
So to enter the raffle you just need to let me know how may entries you’d like to buy. It’s £2 an entry or £5 for three. Give me your name and a way of contacting you – twitter, email, whatever and then sort out payment. You can pay by donating directly to our fundraising page – just remember you can’t Gift Aid a donation when you’re buying a raffle ticket with it, by asking me for bank or paypal details or by giving me cash when we see each other – I will be at the SLSA conference and the ALT conference in early April if that helps.
I will do the draw at the ALT conference on the 9th April and will get in touch with all the winners as soon as possible after that. You don’t need to be there obviously, I can post the books!
If you want to keep up to date with the running/training general madness of it all, keep an eye on my other blog Really (not) A Runner.
Tony Bradney said (in his recent Law Teacher article): ‘Only if law schools choose to align their teaching with the new examination, if law degrees become degrees to become a solicitor, will the SQE have an influence on law schools’.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot because it is a really important point and one which seems to be getting lost somewhere. As I have been thinking about this anyway and the SQE madness has been whirring away at the back of my brain somewhere, I was delighted to accept an invitation to go and speak about it at the Law School at Newcastle University today. As usual I was utterly useless at following my notes and am now just as useless at remembering what I said but below is a brief outline of roughly the argument I was going to make. I am not sure what it adds to the things I have said elsewhere recently but maybe it is useful nonetheless
- What is the SQE?
Well this is relatively well rehearsed I think and yet I am always surprised that there are people who really should know, who do not. That wasn’t the case in the audience today so I didn’t have to explain. Let’s be clear though, the SQE is not a new course or qualification as such. It’s just an exam. It’s a 2 part exam with part 1 testing legal knowledge and its application in 3 MCQ tests and then some legal research and writing and part 2 testing some professional legal skills like advocacy, client interviewing, drafting etc. In order to qualify as a solicitor the SQE is one of 4 requirements, the others being a degree or equivalent level qualification, being of suitable character and a substantial period of work experience. The slides from a recent SRA event hosted by Coventry University are quite useful at providing an outline
- Why reform the route to qualification?
Excellent question. Maybe simply because there always seems to be someone who thinks something should change. Maybe simply because we have review after review after review after review of legal education and training. Maybe because someone somewhere in the SRA (or elsewhere) had an idea and nobody who heard it said ‘just hang on a sec, let’s think this through’ or maybe because the proposed changes fit a neo-liberal market driven and status quo protecting agenda. The original rationale appears to have been based on three main issues though: Widening access to the profession, protecting consumers of legal services and complaints about the quality of graduates and the varying standards across the education and training providers (see all the Training For Tomorrow consultation documents etc). I don’t find any of those points particularly convincing. The Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) didn’t find too much wrong with legal education and training. It rightly notes that the cost of qualification was high and thus a barrier to access. It made some other recommendations all of which had potential for good, bad or indifferent regulatory outcomes. Chris Ashford and I wrote about that in a 2014 paper published in the Law Teacher (give me a shout if you don’t have access). There is nothing in the LETR which suggests the need for SQE though so let’s look at the 3 points underpinning the rationale in a little more detail.
- Complaints about the quality of graduates
I find this irritating. The evidence is weak. The claim is based on pretty selective consultation and anecdotal evidence from a pretty narrow range of employers as far as I can tell. I am not aware of any systematic research which assesses the quality of graduates in any methodologically rigorous way. If it exists please point me in the right direction. Also what does quality of graduates mean? I think there are a number of things going on here. I think it is pretty clear that graduates now probably have a different relationship with knowledge and a different set of skills than I had when I graduated. Things have changed. Knowledge is easily accessed. Everything can be looked up quickly. As the ever wonderful and on point Becky Huxley-Binns once said: ,It’s not that our students don’t know shit, they just know different shit’. I agree and they can do different things too. So to some extent employers need to refocus and ask whether the knowledge and skills they are saying graduates don’t have might actually be knowledge and skills that, while valued by them, are actually pretty outdated. In addition it might be worth thinking about what we could and couldn’t do and did and didn’t know when we graduated. Were we really as perfect and fully formed as we now think we were or did we maybe have some of the same weaknesses we are now so critical of? A slightly different point relates to the extent to which the skills apparently absent are actually skills that graduates should already have – so are they skills we, as legal educators should be developing or are does the responsibility lie elsewhere? And finally, what exactly should our role be here – develop skills employers want now (and if so what are they), develop skills employers will want in the future (crystal ball anyone) or develop skills that are academic in nature and enable students to, in Nussbaum’s words ‘make their minds their own’? No prizes for guessing what my answer to that would be. In short I just don’t believe our graduates are as bad as some employers on some occasions like to make out and I certainly do not believe that this is a sector wide problem. I do think this is a fascinating area for research though!
- Consumer Protection
I have not (yet) unpicked the data here or even spent a huge amount of time working through it. Clearly the regulatory objective is to ensure that solicitors are safe to do their thing. Clearly complaints are one way we can look at whether or not solicitors are doing a good job (yes I know that doing a good job and being safe to practice are not the same thing). It’s not a complete measure and it leaves much unexamined. But one of the things the SRA did say early on in developing the SQE was that it will lead to greater consumer confidence and fewer complaints.
According to the SRA itself complaints centre on lack of communication, delay and not being kept informed. They are also concentrated in areas of Family Law, Wills and Probate and Conveyancing. I’m not yet really sure what that tells us (and aware of the very limited info given here) and it is of course true (as was pointed out in today’s seminar) that the lack of complaints about knowledge or competence is because people wouldn’t necessarily know and that the practice areas may simply be about volume of work. Nonetheless though I do not see how the SQE deals with the issues most often complained about. I also find it unsurprising that the general public, when surveyed, favoured a centralised assessment, particularly given the phrasing of the question they were asked. Of course people like the idea of solicitors having gone through the same test to assure a level of competence but it rather assumes that the test does in fact do that. I suspect that if you asked the general public if they’d like to get family law advice from someone qualified as a solicitor based on a standard test that did not include any family law the answer might be different.
- Widening Access
Oh yes, the SQE will widen access to the profession. It will level the playing field. Kathryn Dutton and I have written about why that position is indefensible nonsense. (Again shout if you don’t have access). To genuinely do that the route would have to be significantly cheaper than current routes and it simply isn’t (as the SRA recently admitted) and it would have to force firms to recruit on the basis of SQE scores (and somehow control for the different opportunities to pay for and access preparatory and crammer courses). Widening access to the profession, I mean genuinely doing so, so that even inner city council estate kids with ‘just about scraped a place at a post 1992 and then ‘got it’’ kind of backgrounds can get Magic Circle firm positions; so that opportunities are genuinely equal, will only happen if recruitment practices change dramatically. ‘They’ already think they are getting the brightest and the best. They already think they are recruiting on merit. Why would they change?
- Will the SQE work
No of course not. It will not address the real or perceived weaknesses in graduates. It will not offer any more protection for those of us who need to seek legal advice or other legal services and it will not widen access to the profession. On a more cynical note of course maybe it is working just fine. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe it serves an elitist profession well because it appears to level the playing field without changing anything at all. It makes entry to the profession the same for everyone without actually making it the same. It de-regulates undergraduate degrees while at the same time exerting phenomenal pressure on law schools to do certain things in certain ways (see Doug Morrison writing in the Law Teacher for a small example of this) and it promises consumer protecting and inspires confidence by promising a standard which is meaningless.
- Law School Responses
Law Schools vary in their response. Some are in panic mode feeling the need to respond but being unsure as to how. There is an element of knee-jerk and headless chicken chaos in some institution with half thought out ideas being implemented throughout curricula. There are others resigned to their perceived fate. Responding with a shrug of the shoulders and a ‘Well if this is what the SRA want then we have to deliver’, there are others still who are thinking about options and waiting to see what the sector does overall and there are one or two who see the SQE as an opportunity and are embracing it. Whatever Law schools are doing the individual response to SQE is often guarded as commercially sensitive information and shared in hushed tones and whispered secrets. Quite frankly, if it wasn’t so serious it would be really funny.
I’m with Tony on this. The SQE has no implications for law schools other than the implications each law school decides it has. We do not have to react to it at all. In fact I would argue we should not react to it. Law Schools are not just for wannabe solicitors. Law Schools are really good at teaching students to do all sorts of really important things like find, read, distil and analyse huge volumes of information, reason, argue, provide evidence from a variety of sources and use it to build arguments, write, be precise and specific, problem solve, think, really think. Why would we want to stop doing that? We should keep doing exactly that through our undergraduate and post graduate academic provision. If some law schools also want to jump in and provide crammer courses for the SQE and they have the expertise and staff to do so then so be it. But there is no reason at all why the SQE should have any influence at all over our academic provision. As law schools we should be much more fierce in protecting and (re)claiming our discipline. For more on this see Luke Mason on the recent Law Teacher special issue because he is much better at articulating this than I could ever hope to be
- So where does all that leave us?
I suspect that Julie Brannan was right when, at the ALT conference at Keele University about 10 months ago, she said that the SQE was coming. It still needs final approval from the Legal Services Board but, unfortunately, I think that will come. It would be too embarrassing to pull it now. However, reviews of legal education and training come and go. The SQE won’t work and it won’t be around for long – certainly not in its proposed form, because as my host today, Richard Mullender, noted in our conversation, bad ideas are usually found out. We need to start influencing the conversation and shaping the next review. We need to make clear what helpful and effective regulation of legal education and training might look like. We need to drop egos and agendas and start talking about what the issues are, how we work together and how we start respecting each other’s expertise. Maybe the SRA has gone rogue and lost its way. Maybe. Maybe it is doing exactly what some think it should with exactly the outcomes they want. Maybe. For those of us who are deeply worried about the SQE future, we missed our chances to stop this madness but we do have the chance to shape the debate and the future beyond the madness that is SQE.
GETTING IT ALL WRONG! – The slides from the seminar if you want some silly pictures to go with the narrative