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.
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.