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.
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.
‘A parallel universe is a hypothetical self-contained reality co-existing with one’s own’ – says Wikipedia. Well today I found myself in one. The escalator from the ground floor to the basement of Kings Place in London is a portal between universes. That really is the only explanation for what happened today – at least the only one that makes any real sense.
I was at the Legal Cheek event: The Future of Legal Education and Training Conference. I was already irritated by the 8.30am start and the fact that all the breaks were termed ‘networking breaks’. I can’t get to London for an 8.30 networking breakfast. I got there and sat down just in time for the intro from Alex from Legal Cheek who really just plugged their exclusive survey saying that students are skeptical of the SQE and want more law tech included in their programmes. Well, from the brief bits he presented I doubt it’s that simple. Who exactly was asked what exactly and did they really understand what they were being asked? Some of the answers reported suggest that perhaps they did not. In fact a lot of what was said today suggests that the people who really ought to understand it (like the people invited to talk about it) don’t understand it. I could go through presentation by presentation and summarise it all for you but I value my mental health and my heart rate profile for today is quite erratic enough so let’s do this thematically. Here are the things that jumped out at me
- There were important voices missing. What we saw and heard today was a particular vision of law and lawyering which is not the law or the legal services that most of us (and certainly not most of the general public) engage in or come in contact with. It is rich mans law, it’s corporate, commercial and fundamentally about making already filthy rich clients more money. It is not about justice, it’s not about people, not about the social or the political, not about making the world a better place, not about harnessing the power (symbolic or otherwise) of law and lawyers to solve the big problems of the world. It was everything that makes people hate lawyers. I think it is what caused that flicker of disappointment in my mum’s face when I told her I wanted to study law and become a solicitor. It’s everything so many students think they should want even when they don’t.
- The SQE or at least the impact it is already having on universities and will certainly have on legal education is really poorly understood. Let me be clear. The SQE is an exam. It is not a programme, course or anything of that nature. It’s an exam. It therefore cannot deliver, in its own right, things like greater innovation, incorporation of tech, greater variety, cognitive diversity, any sort of diversity, thinking skills, improved written communication skills, resilience, creativity, project management and self management skills or commerciality. The only thing the SQE can do is test someones ability to pass the SQE. The preparation for the SQE might attempt to encourage some of those things but of course only if they are part of the SQE – which they are not. Many speakers made the assumption that legal knowledge would still be gained through law degrees and conversion courses – but why would that be the case? No law degree is required and many law schools will be under huge pressure to provide an SQE focused degree for fear of not recruiting students otherwise.
- There is a fundamental mismatch between what employers appear to want and say solicitors need (what they say they want – I’m not always convinced that they know what they mean when they say these things though) and what the SQE tests. There was much talk of creativity, thinking critically and differently, problem solving, managing yourself and learning how to fail and being more resilient. The SQE cannot test those things and other than for a small number of elite and very brave non-elite institutions the SQE means a move away from those things and towards learning to pass the multiple choice tests
- In spite of all the work done by the learned associations, all the SQE rhetoric is still operating on the assumption that what we do in universities is somehow not relevant to practice, can’t be quality assured and is not to be trusted. Varying pass rates, different curricula, different approaches and different assessments are presumed to mean that standards cannot be guaranteed. The problem about fitness to practice which is what regulation ought to be concerned is avoided and instead turned into a fundamental distrust of academics. But I agree with Richard Moorhead on this – the problem is more likely to be at the work place training end. The ridiculous consistency of people passing their training contracts is far more worrying than different institutions having different pass rates at LLB and LPC to me.
- There are apparently still people who think the SQE can deliver equality, diversity and inclusion benefits. There’s no evidence of this. If it reduced the cost of qualifying dramatically, maybe, but it can’t do this – you still need a degree, you’ll have to pay for the test, you’ll have to prepare for the test, you may fail the test and have to do it again… This cannot be significantly cheaper than degree plus LPC and funding option may disappear (for example the availability of loans for Masters degrees means that many LPCs are available in LLM versions so funding is available). The type of assessment has diversity implications and I just don’t see the SRA taking this seriously. They say they will fully test and analyse the statistics including by protected characteristics… but the fact still is that if you can pay to practice repeatedly then you are more likely to be successful. AND THAT IS NOT NEUTRAL
- Obviously we did not really talk about the ghettoisation of legal service provision and how the SQE might widen the gap between magic circle and high street. I can’t help thinking about the careers adviser I had at my school. When she saw my choice of A-levels and what I wanted to do with my life she said, well you won’t get into vet school – why not be a vet nurse? I said that I wanted to go to uni though and she asked me what for and why I’d want to waste my time doing a degree if I could get a job. I wonder what she will be telling kids at that school about becoming a solicitor, whether she understands the differences between solicitors and different firms and that the cheapest, most obvious route via an SQE ready degree might look great for these kids but is likely to funnel them into dead end paralegal jobs. I can’t help thinking about the girl at that same school who wanted to be a human rights lawyer but didn’t think she would be accepted anywhere because she came from the council estate down the road. Her teachers were telling her to stay local because she’d fit in better. I told her to be bold, that it would be awful at times, that it was a different world but that as much as I love working for the sort of institutions that I have worked for and now work for, they are sometimes just not good enough – she went to an elite uni- hated it but got to where she wanted to be. I can’t help thinking about the countless conversations with students about what they want to do, about repeatedly having to say – great – but you will have to do more and be better than those at Russel Group institutions, you will have to work harder and you will have to be lucky. And that’s without creating a real division in types of programmes. With the introduction of the SQE those who need the rigorous academic degrees most to help them to get to where they want to be are even less likely to access them. I feel utterly defeated by this.
- Of the lawyers or former lawyers who spoke, all totally normalised long hours. There was talk of 90 hour weeks and it was framed in terms of work ethic and being ambitious. I’m sorry but working 90 hours a week is not ambitious, it’s not having a good work ethic, it’s, pardon the language, fucking stupid! Maybe the perceived competency problem and consumer complaints are actually problems of exhaustion and not being able to function and of burn out and having been ground down. This is insanity! And no resilience is not about learning to deal with that shit. That’s not resilience. You have not failed if you can’t work those hours – you are human. Oh and maternity leave – it’s for baby things (what do I know!) and having coffee with your friends etc – it is not for re-training, setting up your business, working yourself to death… and if you take a part time job 4 days a week you don’t have the other 3 days to work on your business. Just stop. THIS IS NOT NORMAL.
- There are people who see the SQE as a massive opportunity and apparently think that it will free law schools from the shackles of regulation to be free to innovate. No no no just no. This is just so naive. The SQE will have a huge impact and makes it more difficult to innovate not easier. The SQE can actually only deliver on some of its promises if law schools take on the role of training students for it. The SRA is banking on this happening. (I say let them bank on it and screw them, let’s just collectively decide we’re not doing that and instead uphold the integrity and rigour of our programmes). So what happens to in depth teaching of legal subjects? Family Law? Social Welfare Law? International Law? Anything Socio-legal? The underlying assumption here is also really problematic. We’re not sitting around in our ivory towers happily doing what has always been done. We are constantly thinking about how we can change things, teach differently, engage our students, help them achieve those light bulb moments…
- Who chose who was invited to speak? Why weren’t the learned associations asked? Why not those who actually research these issues? With one or two notable exceptions is was an impressive line up of non-experts, people sort of wheeled out as representing something when in fact legal services weren’t represented well, law schools weren’t and in spite of Alex’s insistence that the student voice was really important to Legal Cheek there wasn’t a single student speaker.
I could probably go on and on and on but this gives you a flavour. I’m still a bit confused by it all. And I’m exhausted from trying to understand, from trying to work out what it is I’m missing, from forcing myself to have the confidence to know I’m right on this because the thing that perhaps took me by surprise the most is how easily my confidence in what I know and believe can be rocked by a bunch of men in suits spouting utter nonsense. After all, what could a girl from a small town in West Yorkshire possibly know about this? It took a two mile people and cyclist dodging run to clear my head and restore some sanity.
This conversation is going to continue and I’ll be back to participate but for now please do chat amongst yourselves while I re-charge.