I have been thinking about whether to write and if I do what to write for days. I don’t know what to say. All of this is out of my comfort zone and that in itself makes me uncomfortable. Part of me feels I have nothing to add, nothing to say that matters in any way at all. But staying silent is worse. Staying silent is not really an option. Yesterday I saw the following tweet by Tahir, a researchers at Leeds Uni and the SLSA postgrad rep (who pops up in my time line so frequently I didn’t realise until today that I didn’t actually follow him) and I think that captures some of why not writing a post is not an option.
But what can I possibly say? The Association of Law Teachers tweeted
The landscape and narratives of legal education are indeed overwhelmingly white. My own history, my own education was overwhelmingly white, my world is in so many ways overwhelmingly white. So where to start. Of course I would like to think I am not racist and I would hope that in many ways I am anti-racist but I am also a white relatively privileged woman and therefore so much part of a global system and lots of national and local systems that are fundamentally racist. There are so many things here that I could write about and I know very little about all of them. As the #BlackLivesMatter protests continue and calls for white people to educate ourselves and do better increase, I think it is really important that we don’t all suddenly start pretending we know about race. It’s our time (and well overdue!) to shut up, listen and learn. So here I want to reflect on what all of this might mean for me as a law teacher. And by ‘all of this’ I mean, my emotional reaction to the murder of George Floyd and the protests which have followed, the call to learn more, the call for solidarity that is more meaningful than a building lit in purple for one night and a call for action which genuinely supports black and brown people in their protests and struggles, which amplifies their voices and helps to make them heard.
So before I start, I know very little, I have read not nearly enough and I have not engaged sufficiently with the question of race in the legal classroom. What I have engaged with is different ways of teaching law, treating all students as human beings rather than student numbers and building relationships with students. As part of that I have always been keen to listen to my students and learn from them. I remember listening to a student asking whether she could leave her research on abortion law in my office as she wouldn’t be able to take it home in case her parents saw it. I remember talking about language use in the classroom and whether teachers being excluded through the use of languages other than English was problematic. I remember conversations in class about intersections of law, race and religion and instinctively recognising them as important even when they appeared to be off topic and I remember a powerful and moving student presentation of a review of the book ‘Learning the Law’ (Glanville Williams) which was entirely focused on the discriminatory and colonial undertones of the word ‘the’ in the title.
I remember thinking about race and particularly religion a lot as Head of School – how do we design a legal curriculum that is meaningful for what was actually the majority of our students and which does the experience and realities of all of our students justice, which listens, which empowers and which does not simply re-tell the legal and historical narrative of white privileged men? The thinking here was framed by the Bradford context of course, it was about a Muslim, Pakistani and often economically poor cohort of students. I hope that I created a safe space in which to talk about some of the issues, but I also know that I did not centre race generally or even the specific concerns of the majority of our students. What we taught for the most was still a white curriculum, even if we added some questioning of it.
Since moving institutions I have done worse in some ways. I am not in a management role, I don’t have influence over our curriculum which, from what I can see is pretty traditional in many ways. I have made some changes but, perhaps obviously, these have been centred on things I know about. The Public Law reading list now contains some female authors where there were previously none (!) and I created a new module to make space for critical thought around legal education and aspects of law. While that module contains some discussion of race, it is focused on feminist and queer critiques of law and legal education. I hope it created space for thinking about law differently, for challenging our approach, my approach, to legal education and to teaching law and helped to amplify some voices not otherwise heard but I am not sure this is enough.
So what is enough? I don’t know. I need your help here. Tell me what you need from me, what would help, how can help? I wonder whether first recongising that we don’t know anything or very much is helpful. There are people out there who have been researching race in various context for years, decades. The expertise is theirs. It might be helpful to read some things outside of the current mainstream and when working out what that is, let’s talk to each other, let’s help each other. Let’s not laugh at someone for not having read or thought about something. Let’s be firm – we must do better – but gentle – we have to start somewhere and your somewhere will be different from mine and that’s ok – but we must start. Adding one or two things to the reading list to include some black and brown authors ain’t gonna do it though. In many cases doing something and starting somewhere means challenging the established and accepted curriculum in a given area, doing things differently, leaving out or re-framing things that we feel confident with and have always ‘known’ should be there. It won’t be comfortable. But I also don’t think we have to do this alone. Talking about what we are doing and why with our students is also really important. Creating space to challenge the orthodoxy, to hear other voices, to listen, I mean really listen, to our students, particularly our black and brown students is part of creating an inclusive legal curriculum which begins to challenge the dominant white narratives.
So as I think about my teaching I am partly confident that I can begin to make changes and partly totally lost. In Perspectives on Law and Society I will start with discussions on race in legal education and law. This section of the module used to come at the end, this year I will put it up front because I want to create a space where we can talk about recent events and think about how they impact on us and on how we think about law, social justice and legal education. That module is relatively easy because it’s not about legal rules or content and because it is not a traditional legal module so it is not weighed down by tradition or a textbook. The same is true for my Law in Literature and the Arts module which also allows for lots of opportunities to talk about race and racism and challenge the traditional stories. I feel ok about these modules, I feel like I can do something with them which is meaningful for all my students and which can help us all learn. I feel like in these modules I can say ‘I don’t know, I understand that sometimes I am part of the problem, help me be better’. I feel like with those modules I can make a start.
Then there is Public Law. Thinking about Public Law really highlights just how ingrained the dominant white narrative of our legal history is. I find myself sitting with a blank piece of paper staring at it. How do I make this module anti-racist? And I have to admit that I don’t know where to start. How can it be that in a module about the relationship between the State and its citizens I cannot think about how to logically frame an anti-racist curriculum. This should be easy. And yet, every time I put pen to paper to map out what the module should look like I end up with something that is so remarkably like the module I took over, the textbooks, hell, even the module I was taught. Adding women to the reading list and using their writings in seminars etc was easy, it didn’t challenge much. This though is much harder.
I am not an expert on race – either in specific fields of law or in legal education – but that’s no excuse to perpetuate racism in the curriculum and classroom. So what do I do? I teach Public Law to first year law students. I have a powerful platform which can help set the tone for students’ legal education and the way they see their place within the Law School and the wider world. It’s a platform which I can use to highlight that the dominant narrative of legal education, or Public Law specifically, is white but that there are stories missing and that the stories usually told have been whitewashed. I can point to alternatives and draw on the work of those with expertise and most of all I hope I can create space for genuine discussion and learning. So for now that Public Law outline is staying blank while I go and seek out the other stories and the missing bits in the stories I have always been told and that I have re-told. It stays blank while I deliberately go and seek out the things which make me uncomfortable, have conversations which highlight the whiteness of our Constitutional set up or the colonial assumptions which sit behind human rights frameworks for example. It will stay blank until I have thought about what is really important about Public Law as a thing – until I am clearer in my head what it should be – maybe if I can begin with a conversation about what public law should do, together we can work out what stories we need to tell about it.
So is there a point to this rambling? Well yes, sort of. My emotional reaction to the protests has been quite strong. I have felt angry and helpless and paralysed and motivated to facilitate change all at once. At the same time as thinking there was nothing I could do, feeling part of the problem with little power to make any difference I also remembered that I do have a powerful platform from which to start discussion and from which to hear and amplify voices. I am able to encourage real dialogue and learning. That’s where I can help make a difference – probably mostly to my own understanding and maybe that is more important than I often think. But mostly I hope that my students read this and see it as a genuine invitation to talk to me about race and your experience of it in law, in the classroom and in life. I hope that it is clear that I know that sometimes I have been part of the problem, and maybe always will be and that this has never been intentional. I hope that it is clear that I am listening and that I will, where I can, help you find your voices and amplify them. I hope you feel safe enough to get in touch, tell me what you think I should read/watch/listen to, tell me what’s important to you and help me to learn to be a much much better anti-racist educator.
My last set of reflection on the lockdown are now well over a month ago. In some ways it feels a lot longer and in some ways it feels like I wrote it yesterday. As I said then, time is a funny thing. So how have you been these last few weeks? Nah, it’s ok, I don’t really know how to answer that question either. Here are some rather rambling thoughts though on what it’s been like, on what’s been hard, on what has been quite nice and on what has helped keep me as sane as I ever am as we make our way through a very bizarre Mental Health Awareness Week in the middle of a global pandemic.
Time is a totally weird concept. No seriously it is. I know we all have days or weeks that feel endless and hours that race by in a flash. As a really bad runner, believe me I know that 30 seconds can last forever. But this is different. It’s like time doesn’t mean anything anymore. In some ways it reminds of summer holidays as a kid. Remember? The ones that stretched all summer, where it never rained and you cycled off into new adventures with your friends every day and it was always going to be like that. Except this feels like a more sinister version of that. More like time standing eerily still before the dementors attack in the playground while at the same time everything continues at a ridiculous pace. It’s like being in parallel universes at the same time. One where time has slowed to almost standstill and the other where everything has been accelerated. There is no normal time anymore. Things fly by, hours, days, weeks just gone and yet, somehow, nothing.
I think the initial drive for connectedness has eased a little. I think people are now craving actual contact, are maybe realising that face time etc just actually don’t do it. I am still perfectly happy not being sociable. But then I am also lucky. I don’t live on my own and Kath and I have enough space to stay out of each others way – so the not living alone doesn’t become an issue. Also, my Mum lives down the road and we have had some (distanced of course) conversations as we dropped of shopping and I am used to not seeing Dad often and just chatting on the phone with the occasional skype to see each other. All of this is sort of still within my normal range of not talking to people! So it’s not the not seeing people etc that I find hard.
What I do find hard are video calls. The new tech obsession I mentioned in April also seems to have calmed down a little. I had a nasty experience with Zoom which means I will never ever use that platform again (even if they fix the security etc, trust is gone) and have settled into MS Teams which I find pretty intuitive, the other platforms are just there to confuse me every now and again and make sure I don’t get too comfortable. Video calls are hard work. I don’t know whether it is because I take so much from body language and other non-verbal communication normally or what but I have to concentrate so much more to follow conversations and I find it much much harder to read people. There were several bits and pieces written on this which I was too tired to fully engage with!
So do I have a routine? Ha! You know me better than that. I was sort of beginning to settle a little bit: I was getting up at a similar time every day, starting with yoga or at least with some quiet time outside with a cup of tea, I was getting out to run short loops and I was working in sort of effective short little bursts. And then we ended up with some foster kittens for a few days. Cute and lovely as they were that was our routine gone. No yoga, no running, high levels of worry and anxiety (they were quite poorly) and completely random and inefficient working. Once they were gone I tried again. I seem to have a bit of a routine now, it seem to mostly involve putting off going for a run (I need to stop that, there’s a marathon on the horizon) and wondering what I can eat next though.
Interestingly it was marking that helped me focus on work stuff – it didn’t help me focus on marking of course, although I did get through the first batch quite quickly, but somehow it gave me purpose that translated into other areas of work and I made some progress. I wonder if it was because marking gave me a real sense of normality. When marking comes in I generally hide until it’s done. I have always been of the ‘just get it done’ school and tend to start and then just keep going for as long as I still feel like I can give the work the attention it deserves. Sometimes that can last for a very long time and sometimes that means one or two scripts at a time but for some reason I am quite efficient between scripts. When I am mid marking admin jobs get done because I can just do them quickly between scripts. I think the boost of seeing the to do list shrink a little as I ticked off all the tiny little things I had added to it helped.
The other thing that has helped is thinking about #100DaysofWriting (Google it) and I didn’t do anything with it or start it for quite a while. However, even thinking about it and wondering whether I could commit to writing most work days for 100 days or at least commit to working on a research/writing project helped me make some progress and enjoy it. It’s little things, we’re not talking articles appearing out of nothing etc but just getting a paper closer to being finished, clarifying a point in my mind, actually reading something for the ideas rather than because I have to evaluate it for one thing or another… the little joys of academic life. Having an idea.
I was surprised to find that actually talking to some very select people on the phone also helped me feel better about work stuff. I avoid the phone when I can but just having a quick chat with people sorted some things out quickly and saved a bunch of emails and talking through a joint paper really made me sharper about the ideas expressed within it and it is now actually not far off finished. Overall I’d say that the first period of lockdown stopped me in my tracks in terms of capacity to do work and think about things. I got nothing done and I was exhausted. I think I am now in phase 2. I am getting some things done but it takes much more energy and headspace to achieve those things than it ever did before – so I am still absolutely knackered and have little capacity for thinking about anything. I still have trouble holding onto thoughts for long enough to finish thinking them and inefficient reigns supreme. If I am looking at one document and then need to navigate away from that to say a spreadsheet to check something I will forget why I have navigated to the spreadsheet and also what document I was in so I’ll go back to email say and then an email will send me back to another spreadsheet or whatever and I can go round that cycle several times before eventually doing the thing… It’s very much a try to ‘do one thing at once with total focus’ time and so I am constantly writing myself a note of what I am doing. It’s actually quite funny. I’m also talking to myself which I think Kath finds more annoying than funny. Somehow all of this makes work feel relentless – and that’s something I want to think about a little more and maybe write about in another post.
Every now and again my thoughts flick to the future. Sometimes this is prompted by emails from the university asking for or providing information and sometimes it’s just that my brain quite likes thought experiments. There are moments where I am anxious about what’s to come, about what the Law School will look and feel like come September, how it will all work etc. Mostly though I am just watching and waiting. There is all sorts of planning going on but the reality is that none of us know what September and the start of a new academic year will bring. The problem with that is of course that good teaching, whatever form it comes in, takes time to prepare and time is something we don’t really have. I don’t feel too worried about this. I have a lot of teaching experience in different structures and settings and can probably adapt pretty well to whatever structures the university and law school eventually settle on. I feel for people new to this job and starting on their teaching journeys. How do you prepare for September teaching when you have no clear idea of structures, delivery modes or patterns? It’s hard, really hard.
In fact all of this is really hard, it’s weird, it’s unfamiliar, it’s unnerving and there are no answers… We might be getting used to some of this but that doesn’t mean that it is no longer difficult or that it gets in any way easier. In some cases it may well be getting harder. Let’s not forget about that. Let’s remember that just because many of us are finding more and better ways to cope with the lockdown, it doesn’t mean that we’re finding it easy or that we’re perfectly ok in this. Keep being kind!
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.