Society of Legal Scholars Day 1
I am trying the conference thing again. It’s probably better than spending the next week or so in the office with everyone around me trying to absorb the pressures of the start of term. Still I am conscious that depression has kept me on the sofa much more than I would like and that anxiety levels have been generally high. I am working on the re-set but it’s not easy. So when I set off yesterday it didn’t seem like a great idea to be heading into people and give a paper based mostly on personal experience and reflection.
Travel was a bit irritating because the trains into Bradford and then back out to Preston didn’t match at all. I sat at Bradford interchange for 40 minutes watching the world go by…. that’s another story! Then I got on my little train and pootled towards Lancashire through the familiar northern landscape. It suddenly felt important to be staying in the north. Safer, less pressured, more familiar. I watched the hills and fields come and go and longed to be out there breathing the fresh air. I went over my paper. I stared into space and then a few blokes with dogs got on the the dogs were scary and I hoped they would get off at Preston so I didn’t have to go past. I was also suddenly very aware of my own privilege, of what having a job and a secure income at a level where worrying about money isn’t a thing really means; how rare that is in these northern towns I was passing through. I felt both lucky and powerless.
Preston. I walked from the station to the hotel to leave my bags and realised that some time out before people would be good. I found a Costa coffee and had a peppermint tea and bar of dark chocolate. I like Preston. It’s real. It’s a bit of a dump of course, there’s the university and there’s poverty and not much else but the people are real, they are friendly and welcoming and I couldn’t help smiling all the time. I belong in towns like Preston (or Keighley), it feels right. I slowly walked up to the university passing huge building sites and lost in my thoughts. I registered, I bought books, I chatted to one or two people and then it was time for session 1 and my paper.
The session started with Caroline Strevens (Portsmouth) ‘Challenging Assumptions:revisiting the Law Curriculum’ and her paper was packed full of fabulous ideas centred around self determination, motivation, mindsets and teamwork being the answer. I do think self determination theory is useful and it can tell us something about how universities get things wrong by undermining academics and their intrinsic motivation and how we get this wrong with our students too and basically force them to focus on extrinsic motivating factors… I am not sure about teamwork being the answer. I don’t know enough but as an introvert and someone who quite likes working alone and did as a student I wonder…
Then it was me. My paper reflects on two of my publications from 2008 and 2009 both written in the 2007/08 academic year and suggests that I was perhaps rather naive then and got some things wrong, not least arguing for a time turner to make the academic job doable. Instead, I suggest in this paper, we should make better use of an invisibility cloak and marauderers’ map (I do indeed solemnly swear that I am up to no good) to help us do things our way and defend against the dark arts (of neoliberalism, managerialism , marketisation, metrics, ranking, the glorification of busyness…) I am actually really looking forward to properly writing this one up.
The third paper in the session was be Steven Vaughan (UCL) and was, as always, a treat. I love the way Steven presents, it appears easy and effortless and pulls you in. The paper was one I had heard before but that didn’t matter. Steven told us about his work on the structure of LLB programmes and in particular the core subjects. I have often asked why the core is the core. In fact I ask my students and part of me loves the fact that we don’t really know, that it seems to be a historical accident and one which we can’t rally justify on pedagogical or legal grounds. The core is the core because it’s what was predominantly being taught when the core was decided but there were other subjects in contention too. What I find utterly fascinating though is that colleagues often find it impossible to imagine something else. That when you ask them to design a law degree starting with a blank page they start with what they now understand to be the core but they can’t articulate why.
I can write about what I would put in a law degree another time but for now let’s just say I’m not wedded to the core, I wouldn’t teach in the current modular silos and I am not sure I would make anything compulsory other than a sort of legal skills, methods etc course. I see logistical argument for first year compulsory modules but I am struggling for pedagogical and legal ones. But I digress.
I had coffee, there were too many people, I briefly considered going back to the hotel but then just went to the next legal education session instead. It wasn’t a great choice. The papers were just not really my thing. The first was by Roland Fletcher (OU) about apprenticeships and I think I was tired and stopped listening properly. The second was a panel on workplace focused law degrees and while what they were doing seemed quite interesting there is something about the focus of law programmes on providing legal experience to the exclusion of all others that annoys me. It perpetuates the myth that what we do is about our students becoming lawyers and that a degree is/should be about employability. Of course I am being unfair here, they might be doing all sorts and just sharing this particular aspect. I would have liked more on the literature and context though rather than just a ‘here’s what we are doing’ sort of thing.
I went back to the hotel, dumped my bag and checked in and then went back for drinks and dinner. They were fine, conversation was easy because I was with people I knew and people I was content to just listen to. The entertainment folk singing went on for a few songs longer than I felt happy with and I was glad for some air and me time on the walk back. I slept badly. I woke early. I wondered about going for a run but it was raining cats and dogs and the bed was comfy and I felt achey. I didn’t want a battle in my head, I wanted a slow morning. And that’s what I’ve had. Nearly time for SLS Day 2 now!
“I got bored of rules”
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.
Post Sabbatical Stories
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.