For those of you who follow me on twitter – you might have seen me live tweet my day yesterday and the next blog post was supposed to be a summary of that. However, that’s going to have to wait until tomorrow because I did something today which I think is worth blogging about. I think it’s worth blogging about because it is such a simple, yet utterly brilliant idea: I took part in a philosophy reading group. Don’t laugh! I did and it was great.
So often we struggle on our own trying to understand the theories, philosophies and writers that went before. I’ve never really had the opportunity to sit down with people to read specific sections and figure out what they mean and go from there. Usually you get feedback on your application of the philosophies and theories – say through conference papers or similar. This group though is different. The group, as I understand it, isn’t aimed at discussion our own work but steps back from that to help us all get our heads round the philosophers we choose to look at.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. The reading was an extract from Foucault on ‘the Docile Body’ (A chapter from ‘Discipline and Punish’). I have never used Foucault explicitly in my work – probably mainly because I struggle to get my head round it all properly and I’m always scared of making a mistake that will make me look really stupid. I have however, drawn on Judith Butler who seems to draw quite a lot on ideas we also find in Foucault. Anyway, I digress. We only looked at a few pages and yet I feel like I have come away with a far greater understanding of what Foucault’s writing generally is all about. I have more of a handle on how he uses language (bearing in mind of course that we were looking at a translation!) and his key position. It also makes me feel more confident that my thoughts about Foucault were pretty accurate and that I haven’t misunderstood and got it all wrong (which is my default position when it comes to theoretical stuff!)
The really lovely thing about the group was that there was no expectation that anyone knew the answers, we were all just figuring it out together. It was the kind of collaborative, joint, supportive academic work I love. The kind of work that makes you walk away with a bit of a buzz, that makes your brain hurt in a good way and that makes you think about things. I loved it. I’m not entirely sure what I think of Foucault’s work, I’m not entirely sure I understand it all but I am sure that this theoretical stuff is not just something I have to think about – it is now something I want to think about. Thank you to all those who were there. Next time we tackle Nietzsche – just a paragraph of Nietzsche – but then I suspect that a paragraph is really all we can hope to get our heads round in the time we have. It will however be a pragraph more than I understood before and a paragraph more than I could ever hope to understand on my own. So I think I may finally have found a way to overcome my theory issues! I joined a group – who would have thought!
I had a riding lesson on a horse I had never ridden before yesterday and I struggled. It was physically much harder than riding the horse I ride often but I am more interested in this: It showed up flaws I know I have and mistakes I know I make that have somehow become masked. As my instructor put it ‘you learn their flaws and they learn yours, you learn to work around them’. The same is true for working outside of your own academic discipline. I’m a lawyer; I think in certain ways, I do things certain ways and I have a particular approach. I have learned the flaws of my discipline and in a sense the discipline has accommodated my flaws – I learned to work within it. It’s comfortable in the same way that riding a horse you know well is comfortable.
I have spent the afternoon with a group of political scientists talking about a book project I am lucky enough to be involved with. My brain is now full of questions I can’t answer, concepts I don’t know anything about and ideas for research I want to do (with the caveat that actually it probably has already been done in another discipline). I am out of my comfort zone. Some of my thinking, writing and teaching are being given a theoretical framework or context which puts a different spin on things, which exposes the flaws in my thinking which my discipline has masked and which expose the flaws in my discipline which I have just learned to accept and no longer see. It’s deeply uncomfortable (even if not quite in the physical sense that riding a different horse can be) because rather than making more sense it is making less. But this is what academia is all about for me, if thinking is to move on, we have to feel uncomfortable. If we’re not uncomfortable we are not asking searching enough questions and if we are not at least a little out of our comfort zone I don’t think we’re learning. Stepping outside of what we normally do and taking a minute to reflect on it is really valuable and we should do it more. Perhaps what I am doing is a little extreme, there are more gentle ways to familiarise yourself with another discipline than a 3 day intensive workshop where all other contributions come from a different background than your own – but the point still stands. Every now and then doing something different is good for you.
So, I wonder if, as legal academics and law teachers we play it safe too often? Do we push our students out of their comfort zone enough? Do we confront them with new ideas and ways of looking at things which exposes the flaws in their thinking and approach and makes them questions the assumptions that underlie everything they do? Probably not, but we should.