So today should be the day after the Association of Law Teachers conference in Stirling. I should be a happy exhausted buzzing with thoughts…Covid-19 had other ideas so instead of my annual sanity check and catch up with other law teachers I have been at home. I don’t mind being at home. As you probably know I find conference exhausting (not always in a bad way) and I need to ensure plenty of time away from people while there. I am very very glad to be an introvert in these weird times of lockdown. I think extroverts find this harder. People who draw energy from other people and need social contact to re-charge their batteries and feel happy and healthy are likely to struggle much more than I am right now. I like not being sociable! It’s what I do best. However there are a few things that I wanted to reflect on now that we are all settling into this very weird new way of being.
The Academic World is Run by Extroverts
At least that is what it seems like to me. There has been such a focus on, an obsession with even, connectedness. There seem to be more meetings, more phone calls, more emails, more messages. Meetings can’t be a conference call though, it must be video. We must still ‘see’ each other, we must ‘meet’ regularly, we must make sure to stay connected with each other, with our students with anyone we have ever met anywhere however fleeting. That’s what it feels like to me, to someone who is perfectly happy not seeing or speaking to anyone for, let’s say a few weeks, actually I can do longer I am sure, perfectly happily. The pressure is on to find the perfect angle for you webcam so it shows just the right mix of fun and intellectual books on your book shelf alongside the strategically placed family and pet pictures. I’m exaggerating of course but the pressure to connect with people has been immense over the last few weeks. And with that has come a pressure to respond to people. So many people have got in touch to check in so much more frequently than they would normally…. It’s exhausting. I am all for checking in (and not ungrateful, it’s nice of people to think of me and get in touch). I like to check in with my PhD students for example and with some of my colleagues – but I do that anyway. I check in with the people I check in with. I have not suddenly decided I need to check in with everyone who has ever given me a business card at a conference to ask them if they are ok and remind them to stay safe.
What’s with all the new tech?
And it’s not only this emphasis on connectedness, there’s something that comes with it – it’s the overuse of technologies that we weren’t using before. In the space of a few days I had to use several different apps/programmes to talk to people. From Adobe Connect via Google Hangouts and Skype for Business to Zoom and everyone seemed to feel the need to pop on their video, grab a pet and strategically position themselves to show off their home. And in addition to that 100s of Facebook and WhatsApp groups sprung up, email circulars exploded onto the scene at an alarming rate and the ‘answer some questions about yourself (so we can steal your valuable data) thingies popped up on Twitter and Facebook several times a day. That alongside increased email traffic because of a seemingly constant need to provide information – new or otherwise – has been really quite testing. It seems though that some people at least are enjoying this, that they are happily engaging with each other in this way and indeed even need that contact. I don’t understand that but then I don’t need social contact – or rather I need very little.
Academic carry on as normal rhetoric
Thankfully the thinking that we pretty much just do what we do usually has receded somewhat but somehow the underlying assumptions of the academic year and what we do, how and when have not changed. We are still talking about teaching the rest of the semester, of assessing the students, of progression and awards being decided at summer exam boards… I understand the need to think about these things carefully and think through the consequences and knock on effects but it also seems slightly ridiculous in a global pandemic to just carry on as normal. And mostly that’s what we are doing, we’re just doing it from home, without the infrastructure, without the time to plan it properly and with the assumptions that we can work from home as easily as we can in the office. I still see the odd ‘now that we have more time’ tweets and some people seem to see lockdown as an opportunity to get work done but I am not sure that’s the reality for most or even many of us – I’ll come back to that in a sec. I am not saying we should cancel assessments or that we should just progress students or progress them based on what they’ve done so far or that we find some random clever algorithm to tell us what degrees to award on the basis of grades so far and attendance and grandmorther’s cat’s middle name (or cynically of course parents’ income)… No, I don’t have the answers but I am concerned that we are not really asking the right questions. Are we too focused on getting the job done to focus on keeping each other and ourselves safe and sane or to even stop and think about what exactly this job that needs to be done actually is? I think it is a shame that as a HE sector we are not at the forefront of slowing things down and thinking really carefully about how we get through a pandemic doing as little damage as possible to ourselves, our colleagues, our students and our families. I also understand though why this isn’t really happening. The sort of thinking to do something different and not based on at least business as usual outcomes if not business as usual methods, requires headspace and a good sprinkling of bravery. In a pandemic headspace and bravery are in short supply and perhaps best spent on survival and getting the job at hand done. I honestly don’t know if pushing ahead with assessments etc is the right thing to do and I don’t know because I can’t seem to think it through fully. I get stuck on a thought or sidetracked with something else or I get hungry or sleepy… all further signs that things are really very far from business as usual.
Time is a funny thing
This sort of links to some of the things I have seen pop up on social media about time. There are lots of marketing things seemingly based on the notion that we now have time to get crafty, take up new hobbies, exercise more in the home, learn a language, learn to play a new instrument and in the case of academics, finish those millions of unfinished papers lying around waiting for us to have the time to spend on them. Right, so, is that notion so ridiculous? Do I have more time? Probably. For a start I am cutting out the commute. Door to door it probably takes me roughly an hour so that’s a couple of hours several times a week. Then I am not going out anywhere so time to travel to my gym sessions or yoga classes are also gone and any home workouts are generally shorter, as are the runs I am doing at the moment (although I have been out more frequently than I had been). But just being at home adds work – cooking, cleaning, tidying up all step up a gear when two of you are at home all the time and eating every meal at home etc. Then add the weirdness of lockdown and for me that has meant being unfocused and flitting about between jobs without settling to anything. It has meant struggling to hold on to thoughts for long enough to finish thinking them, it has meant being sleepy randomly and hungry basically constantly. It has meant desperately wanting to go out and being anxious about going out at the same time. So do I have more time? Probably yes, do I feel like I have more time? Nope! Do I want to spend time taking up a new hobby? Fuck off! I am spending the time I have on 2 things. 1. Getting the most important work things done so I do not let students or colleagues down and 2. staying as mentally healthy as I can so I can continue to do 1 as well as enjoy time with my partner and our furballs. So anyone who is managing to get shit done. Awesome. I am happy for you. For everyone else – it doesn’t matter!
And this is me, no kids, zero responsibilities really and with working at home being normal and nothing new and I didn’t even have to move teaching online because I wasn’t doing any face to face teaching this semester. People who have any sort of caring responsibilities in all of this do not have more time, perceived or real. They have less time and they are trying to work, educate, care… this ‘more time because we’re on lockdown’ is bollocks for almost all of us.
So have I learned anything?
Well, I can sleep 12 hours and still be tired and there are really very few people I feel the need to stay particularly connected to and I don’t at all feel the need to be more connected during a lockdown than I was before. I don’t really have any tips for handling any of this because I am not sure I am handling it all that well. The only thing I do want to say though is that all that advice that is out there about routines, about exercise, about being sociable… pick and choose what works for you. Last weekend I spent the entire weekend just reading (Book of Dust 2 if you must know) and clearing out the box room in little bursts. It was great to get lost in the book and not worry about anything else. That’s what helped me reduce the randomly sky high anxiety at the weekend. Walking up to the moor to see lapwings and curlews and take a few deep breaths before gently jogging
back down helped with focus and energy levels. Sitting in the garden having a little chat with the cats, the frogspawn and bumble bees helps with making sense of it all. What helps you will be different so work on that, not on some forced notions of connectedness or productivity (though if these things really do help you – and I can see that at some point getting lost in my academic writing could be helpful – then go for it). You do you and allow others to do what they want/need right now. There is no right or wrong way of doing lockdown as an academic or as a human. There’s just a way or ways that work for you.
I got bored of rules. Well yes I did but not recently. I think I probably got bored of rules a long long long time ago. I got bored of rules the minute I figured out that most of them make no sense, that most of them serve no real purpose, that most of them are bad rules. Was I a pain in the arse child that constantly asked why? I honestly don’t know – ask my parents. I am, like we all are full of contradictions though. I mean it seems a bit odd for someone bored of rules to study law, right? And perhaps even odder then for someone bored of rules to teach law. It’s also odd for someone bored of rules to have coined #MyRunMyRules as their running mantra. So here’s where the blog post splits – keep reading here for my academic-y stuff and click over the my running blog for the running rules stuff.
So what does being bored of rules mean for a legal academic? It’s an interesting one that. I’ve never found rules per se interesting. Law as rules is boring. What is interesting is how we engage with rules, how they impact on our lives and how we choose to navigate that. So when I say I got bored of rules I think what I mean is that I got bored of engaging with rules, particularly rules which I believe are pointless and at best serve no real purpose and at worst do significant damage to us. In the context we were talking in in the therapy session a number of things could have triggered that statement. I am bored of the supposed rules about teaching infrastructure – that our lectures are x minutes long, our workshops the same, that our workbooks for students basically should look the same, that assessment rules stipulate world length for levels etc. Most of these rules serve no useful purpose at all. I am also bored of law as rules. Law is so much more and learning about law shouldn’t be about learning rules. It should be about learning to think about rules and what they mean, how they come to exist and if, why and how there could be better rules, or no rules or just different rules.
I am bored of traditional, outdated, flawed ways of thinking about law and law teaching. I am bored of university rules or rather of engaging with them as if they matter. Mostly they don’t. More and more often I find myself thinking about how things could be better – how do we make changes that really matter – how do we change the rules? What sort of rules should there be? Should there be any? What are the meaningful rules that we need to make a university work? I’m pretty sure they’re not rules about logo placement, about what the VLE looks like or the number of words students have to write at any given level. I wonder if there have to be rules about lectures and seminars and what learning happens when (as if that could ever be a meaningful rule anyway) and I wonder if rules about student attendance really mean anything. What happens when we don’t follow the rules? What happens if we pretend they don’t exist, if we try and think much more creatively about what we want to do in our law schools, why we want to do it and how. What would the rules look like if we did that?
I know I flirt with breaking rules or ignoring them a lot of the time but I am beginning to get a sense that that’s not enough. That doesn’t change the rules, they’re still there being pointless at best and obstructive to good teaching and research, to collegiality and our collective and individual sanity most of the time. I think we probably need something more. I don’t really know what that looks like though because for now I am simply very very very bored of rules at work and in my work. I’m getting irritated and I am getting angry about rules too and I think I need to work through this more fully before I can get to re-writing the rules – by which I mean mostly scrapping the rules because most of them really are just pointless and destructive.
Well I am no longer on sabbatical. Not that it felt like I ever properly was really. I had a semester without teaching but it didn’t feel like a sabbatical and I pretty much hated it. That’s as much my fault as anyone else’s although there are things the institution could have done better. There was the very late notice that meant there was no time to clear the decks or plan, there was the inability to really cover my work while I was gone resulting in literally hundreds of emails about stuff I wasn’t supposed to be dealing with, there were the unrealistic expectations about what can be done with a sabbatical where there has been almost no notice of it and there was me, totally underestimating just how exhausted I actually was from keeping my head above water in the run up. I could spend time and head space unpicking all of that. Maybe I will but for now I wanted to share how I feel in the sabbatical aftermath.
In spite of having completed a journal article, 3 book chapters and 3 funding applications as well as having planned and delivered a couple of conference presentations and started a project on writing skills, it feels like I did nothing. I know I did loads really but some of the questions and comments I’m getting reinforce the notion already so dominant in my head that I am not good enough, that this was a missed opportunity, that I simply should have done so much more. I had that under control until over the last couple of weeks or so a series of emails and discussions highlighted that there are aspects of work I explicitly said would need to be covered while I was away, that have not in fact been covered. They have just been left. Things I thought were being dealt with and handled have just been put to one side waiting for me to come back to. All of these things are now overdue, some of these things are now urgent (well as urgent as things ever are in a university setting) and, rightly so, people waiting for these things to be done are frustrated particularly as it seems they have been assured that I will in fact do these things.
All of this made me think about how we deal with colleagues being away – away for whatever reason – annual leave, sickness, maternity, sabbatical, whatever. We are really bad at this. I’ve seen countless emails from colleagues supposedly on leave. I have seen even more out of office replies that refer to people being on annual leave and therefore only checking emails intermittently – WTF checking emails intermittently on leave and apologising for it? WTF. I know plenty of people who work through sick leave because they feel they have no choice and I have heard people say maternity leave can be a great way to just get this or that finished (I don’t see how new parents function never mind work – having just spent the weekend with two young children I need about a week to recover and I slept well and just did the fun stuff). In a way my sabbatical shows how we have created a culture where working constantly is easier than taking time out. If work just waits for us while we are gone coming back to work after a period of any sort of leave is daunting, overwhelming and actually impossible. But in HE it’s difficult for other people to do our work. Most of the time I can’t cover for my colleagues any more than they can cover for me. I can’t finish their papers or their research projects, I can’t really deal with their personal tutees where the intervention or contact might be anything other than a routine administrative type query, I often can’t even teach their classes because I don’t have the expertise or because I am quite likely to be teaching at the same time. I can’t pick up their marking because I’m drowning in my own or because then the process supposedly lacks transparency and clarity somehow and I can’t help with their committee work because – well because I’m not on the committee… Being collegiate and throwing colleagues who are going under a lifeline is almost impossible and where it is, taking that lifeline is even harder. Lifelines come with expectations and/or consequences it seems. If I do this for you then I must expect something in return, there’s a price to be paid. Or taking the lifeline is a weakness, something that can be used to show how awesome one person is because they could cope with their work AND did all this stuff for someone else who really just needs to pull their socks up. Taking a lifeline might lead to discussions with management. Best ignore the lifeline and sink just a little bit deeper because – you know, it’s not so bad really.
Well actually, it is. I know not everywhere is like this. And maybe I am exaggerating but I also fear that much of this will sound too too familiar to far too many of us. I have seen so many comments on social media about people dreading their inbox, being overwhelmed coming back off annual leave, not knowing where to start… I am looking at my pile of work to do. I am roughly 3 weeks behind I reckon based on the work I was expecting. That’s pretty good going. That’s within normal range for me and that feels ok and under control. It’s within touching distance. Now add in the work that I thought had been covered and done or covered and progressed. Well that’s the tipping point. That’s what makes all of it an impossible task. If I do that now I won’t meet a couple of research deadlines and I won’t get my teaching materials done in time. If I don’t do them? They won’t go away and clearly no-one else is going to do them either. It’s hard to argue they are not my job because now that I am back, they are. I could be awkward about this but then I spend hours and energy that I don’t have on arguing about not doing something which ultimately does need doing. I could insist someone else does it thus chucking them under the proverbial bus or I can just try my best to get things done. I can try and count on my fairly newly acquired self-preservation skills, I can add in some additional therapy sessions (and at £50 a pop that’s a privilege not everyone can afford!) to help me remember that in our job nobody is ever going to stand next to me bleeding from a major artery and that therefore everything can wait, everything can get done in its own time and I can hope that that’s enough. But really? Is academia really a place where we should get by on self-preservation, therapy and hope? I don’t think so. I think we need to do better.