Academic Year 18/19 is here. Properly. The students have arrived. For some freshers’ week starts Monday, for some it’s just been and ‘proper’ teaching starts. Of course some courses (and therefore colleagues) have been ‘back’ a while on courses that don’t fit the traditional undergraduate timetable. I love and hate this time of year in equal measures. I love the buzz it creates on campus and at the same time find the busy-ness tiring and sometimes stressful. I like the promise that every new academic years hold – the promise of inspiring and being inspired. The promise of me keeping on top of emails and filing (ok that’s a promise I have long learned not to believe) and of deadlines not yet missed. This time of year signals the start of that all too fleeting time we have to try and engage and inspire, to share our knowledge and to learn from our students, to share a tiny part of their journey and to not fuck it up.
I think about the first year students arriving. In a couple of weeks I will have literally hundreds of them sitting in a lecture theatre in front of me. How do explain to them that the structures that we work in are far from ideal, that there are too many of them and not enough of us, that we all do the best we can but that that often isn’t good enough because it can’t be because, well just because. How do I explain that we are exhausted before term has even started because our jobs get ever more ridiculous every year. How in all of that do I make clear the most important thing of all – that all of them matter, not as student numbers that generate income, but as individuals who will change the world? I can’t wait to meet them but there is also something niggling. What would I say to them if I could reach each one of them individually? I think maybe this:
I may not know your name because I have over 300 new names to try and learn and I’m not good with names. Sometimes I may not recognise you as one of my students as I rush across campus to get to the next class or meeting because I wouldn’t notice my own mother in that moment – my mind is on what comes next not on the right now and once term starts I am perpetually late. It might take me longer than it should to reply to your email because I get too many every day and try as I might my inbox isn’t controllable. I may forget to call you back or I might miss your voicemail because, if I’m really honest, I don’t like the phone and I’m avoiding the phone, not you. I will get frustrated at your lack of preparation, because I will have spent hours preparing and thinking about how to best help you understand and think about the issues we’re dealing with and I’ll be frustrated with myself for not having been able to hold your attention and interest. I will get annoyed when you push me for the right answer (which doesn’t exist) and ask me what’s being assessed and what isn’t – but its not anger at you, it’s at a system that has created a culture where almost everything is about the test result and almost nothing is about the pure pleasure of learning. I want to say sorry for all of those things now and I want you to know this: I see you, each one of you, in that sea of faces in the lecture theatre. You are not a student number, you’re you and I wish there was the time to get to know each of you as you. I want you to know that it’s a privilege to be part of your journey and if I can contribute just a little bit to that journey being a successful one then this job, insane as it is, continues to be worth doing.
I also want you to know that you’re enough. University can be an amazing, exciting, wonderful place but it can also be lonely, dark, scary and it can be easy to get lost in that sea of faces around you. Make it a place to find, not lose, yourself. Please don’t ever presume I’m too busy to care, please never be worried about emailing me or coming to see me, never be scared to ask for help. I am where I am because I always had help, at every step of the way. I now have the privilege of being able to pay that forward.
Now go be whoever you want to be and change the world
Jess (or Dr Guth if you must, but not Miss, never Miss)
Day three started with me being lazy! I couldn’t be bothered to go out and run. It looked quite lovely outside but I had ideas swirling round in my head and wanted to play with them and have a slower morning. A cup of tea would have been nice but in student accommodation you just can’t have everything. I played with ideas for a while – I have too much going on in my paper and I know it all fits together somehow but I can’t quite articulate it. Then I vaguely considered running after all and joining the fun run but remembered just in time that I actually don’t like running with people. I spoke to Kath and then went for breakfast and continued playing with ideas but didn’t really get anywhere. I bought myself a cafe mocha and headed back to the room, finished the self care blog post and then headed for the AGM.
The AGM was efficient and smooth and included the election of a new Vice President. I was a little disappointed that the choice was between three white men and spent some time reflecting on diversity at the conference. It doesn’t feel as dominated by white old men as I remember previous conferences but there is still a little too much white men in suits talking to white men in suits going on – though that might just be me not being quite ready to admit that maybe the SLS is not as stuffy as I thought it was. As part of the AGM/Council Meeting session Joanne Conaghan gave a presentation on the REF. There wasn’t much there I didn’t already know but I think the key message (which I agree with) was this: Get yourself REF literate! And if you don’t know where to start with that, have a look here.
I headed straight for the Legal Education stream then which began with a keynote from Fiona Cownie. It’s no secret that she is one of my greatest role models, has been a fantastic mentor and has taught me so much about navigating the, shall we say challenges, of university life. I love listening to her speak. For a start it vaguely takes me back to being an undergrad student and I often chuckle at how much of my large group teaching style is modeled on how I remember hers; then her presentations are always told as a sort of story which is easy to follow, logical, coherent, thought through properly and fun. Today she was taking a look at the history of legal education research. I thoroughly enjoyed the presentation and am pleased to report that I am in fact a political scientist after all:
The next paper was by Lydia Bleasdale and Sarah Humphreys and focused on trigger warnings. I have heard Lydia talk about her resilience research before and the full report is worth taking a look at. This paper focused on a couple of questions the students were asked and I think it really highlighted that most of what we know about trigger warnings is fake news. There is, as they argued, a moral panic around this and that is probably fueled by misconceptions about what trigger warnings are. I actually haven’t given trigger warnings much thought – at least not in the sense of actually calling them that. I do think it is useful for students to know what topics will be discussed/considered so that they can choose how to engage with material they know might have a negative impact on them. To me giving information that helps students better prepare on an emotional and intellectual level for an academic discussion of issues can only be a good thing. What is clear is that much more research is needed here and that the trigger warning stories perpetuated in the media provide lovely teaching materials for the importance of checking your sources properly.
Rossana Deplano then presented her experience from an action research project looking at using concept maps in Public Law teaching. A number of things struck me – Leicester have 6-8 students in tutorials. Wow. Oh my goodness that’s a different universe. I mean that’s how I remember it at Leicester but I presumed it would have changed and the groups would now be bigger. I was also struck by how many of the things Rossana was describing she did in her tutorials that used concept maps are things I often do instinctively in the classroom. I often end up drawing diagrams to try and show links
between ideas and principles and to work through theoretical ideas and practical problems. I encourage students to do the same and I used to capture may of our joint efforts and share them with other groups on the VLE – I haven’t done that for a while but it’s powerful because it often demonstrates variety of equally valid approaches to the same question, issue or idea. Any way, I’m off to read a bit more about concept maps.
I chatted with lovely people over lunch and then went for coffee with Lisa Webley, another fabulously generous lovely woman who has given up her time again and again to help me figure out how this crazy world of higher education operates. Talking to her was just brilliant and I now have a much clearer picture of quite a few things in my head. Sometimes it really does help hearing someone else articulate what you do really already know but can’t quite grasp hold of. Thank you!
After Lunch Avrom Sherr asked whether legal education research was really about legal education and concluded that legal education was a never ending debate. It was a whistle stop tour through lots of contested questions and issues in legal education and it was kind of fun.
The next presentation was perhaps the one that fit least into the broader discussions we were having about legal education. It was all a bit too business-y and employability-ish and bit ‘yay cash prize’ etc for me. I stopped really listening although I think there could have been some really interesting stuff in there about the nature of learning.
The final paper was by Caroline Gibby on Liminality and morphogenesis and I really really wish this hadn’t been the last paper of the day because I was flagging a little. This stuff is messy in a good way and thinking about the transformation of (legal) educators is interesting and important and I do think what Caroline was getting at is probably right (if I understand her correctly that is) – some legal educators feel locked into narrow roles where opportunities for development are minimal and thus limit the overall progression or evolution of a particular context. I need to go back over the notes I took, her abstract and look at some of the literature Caroline cited to help me think about this some more but I think there are answers to some of my tricky questions in there somewhere.
After the session I went for food with my ALT vice Chair Caroline Strevens to talk about
some ALT stuff and now I am back in my little room and really not far off going to bed (It’s about 9.30pm). I am beginning to have a sense of what I want to say tomorrow and I think sleep and a morning run will do far more good than trying to finalise it completely now.
Day three was good, day three has, it occurred to me walking back to my room through the London drizzle, been genuinely good for the soul.
Ah yes conferences, the playgrounds of academics. You laugh but actually conferences have in my experience at least been exactly that. They have been spaces where academics work hard and play hard. Good conferences offer great papers and discussions, too much coffee and sugar and then too much rich food and alcohol to top it all off. Late nights, early mornings, not enough exercise… it is of course a recipe for disaster. Increasingly I am distancing myself from the work hard play hard thing. Don’t do anything hard! Conferences are fabulous. They offer opportunities for catching up with colleagues and friends, for lively and sometimes heated discussions, for quiet reflection on new ideas or new thoughts on old ideas. They’re an escape from the daily grind of the office. The coffee and lunch breaks as well as the evening social activities are often as much part of that, if not in some ways more important in renewing connections and helping ideas form. So yes it’s work and yes it’s play and I am not by any stretch of the imagination advocating being a saint.
However, there is also a darker side to conferences and conferencing. The crippling anxiety some academic feel before and during their paper presentations, the pure horror at having to be with other people for a significant amount of time, the pressure of being on the ball and on your game all the time, the pretense of hyper performance and the glorification of busy. Saying ‘actually I achieved everything I wanted to this summer because I decided I wanted to do fuck all and just have a proper rest’ somehow sounds and feels less acceptable than the frantic, but oh so familiar ‘oh my god I can’t believe the summer’s over, I haven’t even really started on my to do list yet’. This is bonkers.
I used to attend pretty much every session and all socials at all conferences I went to. I was often last woman standing and first woman up. I used to be able to function feeling pretty crap and hungover and usually didn’t even really notice until I got home. I don’t actually know if I can still do that but the reality is that I don’t want to. There are better ways to do the conferencing thing and get a lot out of it but also preserve sanity and health. I started editing this post yesterday. I’d actually started writing it at the conference in Mexico last year (June 2017 archive for the posts from the conference if anyone wants to have a look) but I think I have always tried to be too generic – to give advice that works for everyone and it just sounds vague and unhelpful. So I have re-written the thoughts below to focus on what it is I do, don’t do, should do, wish I did…
- We all have different conference tolerance levels that probably also change over time. Very few people can take in every session – particularly if they are packed in. Tuesday I went to one session and then had a power nap. I was sad to miss the session I missed but that’s life. It is always possible to ask for the paper or have a conversation with the presenter at a later date. Yesterday I felt pretty good so I went to all sessions – however…
- … I had too much coffee. This is a real thing at conferences for me. It is so easy to just keep drinking the stuff at every break and before you know it you had some at breakfast, before the session, after the sessions, at lunch, after the afternoon session… and I didn’t drink anywhere near enough water because I forgot my water bottle in my room. I need t carry a water bottle or I just don’t drink – possibly because I’m an idiot.
- That links nicely to food – you don’t move much if you are attending several sessions. I have liked walking from building to building at the SLS conference this week. There is something nice about those few minutes of fresh air but often you have to work much harder to achieve that. In Mexico for example everything was in the hotel and I had to make a conscious effort to go outside, breathe, make sure I actually saw some natural light. Oh hang on I was going to talk about food – yes well even though you might not move much, your brain is working bloody hard, or at least mine finds it hard! So you need fuel but you don’t need a full English breakfast, pastries, cookies, a huge plate full of sandwiches, wraps, cake, a 4 course meal….. I love a little conference indulgence and I am currently sitting in my room with a Cafe Mocha which I almost never have at home but which just feels lush on this sunny but cool morning. A little indulgence isn’t a bad thing. I now usually have whatever sweet thing is offered with morning coffee because the afternoon version is usually bigger, heavier and more likely for me to induce a complete afternoon sugar crash. Yesterday I had both and had the most awful sugar headache through the final plenary session.
- Social events – I’m not a fan of people so these used to be pretty awful unless I already knew people in which case they were marginally less awful. Now I just don’t go unless there is a specific reason to. So Tuesday night there was a dinner which I hadn’t booked for but then last minute I had the chance to catch up with a wonderful academic and friend so I got a ticket and we spent the evening hovering at the edge of the drinks reception and at dinner creating our bubble around our conversation and then I left early. I did not go to the conference dinner last night. I have a low people tolerance level. People exhaust me so conferencing all day and then playing in the evening is a huge ask and I need time out, serious time out, half an hour isn’t going to do it. There are some conferences where social events are really part of the deal or where my role requires me to be there. I adjust accordingly during the day and I make sure I know who is going
- Sleep – well I stopped writing at about 10pm last night and went to bed. That is a late night for me in general terms. I am usually ready for bed, tucked up and probably asleep by 10pm. For a conference it’s an exceptionally early night. Sleep is important but I often don’t get enough. I was wide awake at 5.30am this morning and yesterday. If I need a powernap I’ll have one
- Exercise. Like I said, its easy to hardly move at all. I like exploring places with a little run and recently I have run regularly at conferences. In Mexico I even joined the organised fun run. Not the greatest experience so today I have not joined the SLS conference fun run. I did my own thing yesterday and quite honestly, this morning I just could not be bothered. Instead I got up and played with some ideas on my paper. I may go at lunch time though but I have also learned not to see this as another thing I have to somehow squeeze in while I’m at a conference. I will do it if, and only if, I really want to
- That brings me to the last and possibly most important point – conferences can be really anxiety inducing. They can push all my buttons – the ‘am I good enough’ buttons, the lack of sleep buttons, the too much caffeine buttons, the I don’t belong here buttons, the alcohol buttons, the sugar buttons, the ‘oh my good people are hideous’ buttons, the noise buttons, the ‘here’s another bloke in a suit explaining the world to me’ buttons, the ‘I feel really stupid’ buttons and the ‘there’s all this other work I should be doing’ buttons… there are more I’m sure, I have a lot of buttons. So more and more I am learning to listen to myself and take note of rather than dismiss the early warning signs. Yep, I can function perfectly well through high levels of anxiety and even minor panic attacks. Unless you know me very well you would never know but it’s not actually much fun, or healthy. Sometimes that means doing less at a conference and missing sessions, sometimes it means being very selective about the people I spend time with and sometimes being borderline rude (sorry) and walking away. It means choosing sessions as much by who else will be in the room as by topic, it means being ok about not asking questions or making a contribution. Perhaps counter intuitively I have become quieter and am less likely to ask questions as I have become more confident in what I know and don’t know. I am ok with giving my brain more time to process and I am ok with emailing someone later if something does occur to me that I really want to talk about.
So in short, my conference self care for me is about drinking less caffeine (rubbish at it) and alcohol (pretty good at this lately and this time not drinking at all given the Great North Run at the weekend), getting enough sleep (not great at it), eating well including some conference indulgences but as with running – eat to fuel (mostly good), drinking enough water (ok as long as I remember my bottle), being aware of when I am getting to capacity and dipping in and out of things (good) and allowing time, space and activity for the adrenaline that will inevitably build up when I have to spend time with people in a work environment like this to dissipate or be burned off (pretty good).
I should also say though that actually going to conferences is a form of academic self care for me. It allows me to connect with people across the discipline(s) I work in. It gives me a check on where I am with my research and what else is going on and how what I do fits into the bigger picture. The discussions, whether formal or informal, are good for the soul and for perspective. I often find them challenging from a sanity perspective but not attending and sharing my work and listening to others would be far far worse.