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!
As I outlined briefly yesterday, Day 2 started with me not running and having a slow morning gathering my thoughts and enjoying not plunging straight into my emails and not dealing with the day to day. I walked up to the uni in a gap in the showers and found the room in which my PhD student was presenting. The audience was almost non existent when I got there although a few more people arrived. There were three papers in the session and I struggled to focus on them. The first was probably interesting but was almost entirely read out which meant I lost interest within about a minute. The second was better but not something I knew anything about. The third paper was of course fabulous. It s a different sort of nervousness watching your students or mentees give papers. I really wanted the experience to be a positive one. I’m certainly biased but I thought her presentation was by far the best of the three and I was very proud of her.
Then I went back to Legal Education having missed a couple of papers I had marked – by people I know though so I can catch up with them later. This session was a bit problematic for me. The first paper was interesting and had lots of good stuff in about personalisation of teaching and feedback and also about student expectations etc but I have concerns about the approach, heavily reliant on Myers-Briggs personality type teasing but without being trained in Myers Briggs. It did make me think about how we can talk to students about where they are in their journey, their skills and knowledge to understand more what they need from us. And of course that’s different for each student. The second paper shouldn’t have been there and was just a bit of a car crash.
That made me think too though… what’s the responsibility of conveyors in ensuring the appropriateness of papers? Can they be checked more without filtering out non obvious gems? What’s the role of Chairs in putting both speaker and audience out of their misery? And how do you manage that sensitively because you never know what’s going on for the speakers in the background! Anyway, then we had lunch and then I found a quiet spot to catch up with some other stuff before the plenary session. As I sat there it suddenly felt unbearably noisy, and in spite of hiding away in a corner there were people everywhere… before I really thought about it I packed my stuff up and left. I checked my heart rate (whoa!) and breathing as I walked down towards the hotel. I thought about what to do. I had time to walk a little and then go back to the plenary but in the end I decided I needed time out.
I had a little rest, maybe even dozed off for ten minutes or so. Then I got my running gear on to head out. It wasn’t entirely successful as my legs are so tight. My ankles started niggling almost immediately but I managed a mile, then I stopped and stretched and then did another mile run/walk, stopped to stretch again and then mostly walked another mile with a few jogs thrown in. It helped. I felt well enough to go to Dinner. Dinner was just dinner with a quiz I had no interest in, a pretty good speech and good conversation on my table. By the end I was really tired but otherwise ok.
I slept well. I woke up just before 6 and lazily snuggled back into bed for a little while before deciding to go out and run. As I walked around the room though my Achilles niggled and my calves felt tight so I instead I did some yoga, had breakfast, did some more yoga and then slowly walked up to the uni ready to start the Day 3 with the AGM.