My twitter time line is full of threads about mental health in academia, I am thinking about my own mental health a lot and about the limits of what is and isn’t possible or acceptable, I am running the London Marathon for Mind…., there are mental health initiatives everywhere – about talking to each other, looking out for one another, being more resilient, training, knowing how to cope, reducing stress. It just goes on and on. Everything is, it seems, about mental health. My academic friends are doing their best not to give in to absolute cynicism and to protect their mental and physical health while still meeting the demands of our employers. Often they put on a brave face, in private, over coffee, in emails and social media private messages that face slips. But those are their stories to tell, not mine, so let’s make this about me. I’ve been realising something, it’s not exactly a comfortable realisation but the more I think about it, it is absolutely true: Academia broke my brain and it can never go back to pre 2015.
Ok I’m not making sense. Let’s start at the beginning. Remember 2015? Remember the day I was sat on the sofa with a brain so so poorly that it couldn’t process the words my girlfriend was saying to me? The day I experienced my brain shutting down and refusing do process anything else until it had had a proper rest. Remember that? Why would you. I do though. Since that day and the period of sickness absence that followed and the rebuilding of some sort of academic career that followed that I have heard time and time again that none of it was my fault, that it’s not me and that academia needs people like me. I only ever half believed that it wasn’t about me and that me being ill was not my fault and I really have no idea what ‘academia needs people like you’ really means. So, the uncomfortable realisation: It is about me and it is about academia and it is about academia and me. Academia simultaneously needs people like me and has no place for people like me. And by people like me, I actually just mean me because I know about me, I don’t really know about anyone else.
So to be clear, all bollocks aside, I know I am good at my job. This is not a post about imposter syndrome (though I am very familiar with that too) or looking for some ‘oh but you’re brilliant’ sort of affirmation and ego stroking. I don’t much care whether you think I am good at my job or not because deep down I know that I am good at the things I value and that are important to me. But the things I am good at are not really the things that are valued and/or made possible in academia anymore – and maybe they never were. Maybe I have a romantic notion of what academia should and could be. Maybe and maybe what I feel, think and experience is shaped by the institutions I have worked in and things are different elsewhere. Maybe. What is clear to me though is that what we have now is not good for any of us, staff or students.
I love teaching. But what we do is rarely about teaching these days. It’s about learning outcomes and module specifications and textbooks, it’s about progression statistics and good honours. It’s about pass or fail and it’s about assessment. In an age where information is easily accessed we still have content heavy degrees and lecture theatres full of students who are rarely expected to really think. That makes no sense to me. In a system which thrives on consistency and metrics, what I do doesn’t fit. Taking content out and asking students to read, reflect and think makes things less predictable in the classroom, draws on a different set of skills, takes a risk and sometimes makes my student evaluations drop. I’m supposed to care about that. Instead I care about the student who tells me she felt empowered by being asked to contribute to the discussion in lectures. A third of my students have failed my module. I am supposed to care about that. I do. I care deeply but not because of my module statistics but because it means that there is a third of my students I haven’t managed to reach effectively – and partly that’s my fault, partly that’s the fault of colleagues who don’t ‘get’ what I am trying to do with the module and partly it’s the fault of the system that fails so many of our students by admitting them in the first place and then not supporting them properly. I already have reams of notes on what needs to change for the next iteration of the module – but I won’t have the time to make even half of those changes.
Because you see, time is not something we have in academia. In a job where thinking, reflection, reading, more thinking is key, you’d be surprised at how little of that actually happens. My biggest fear, other than spiders maybe, is my brain packing up on me again like it did. It is impossible to explain – but imagine someone has changed the language that everyone speaks, the script/alphabet everyone uses is different and everyone seems to know but you. People are interacting normally around you and talking to you but you don’t understand. I don’t ever want my brain to go there again. But academia takes it in that direction because everything and I mean EVERYTHING in modern academia seems toxic to it. You see, this is about me. It’s about having a brain that is too broken and tired to keep fighting the battles that academia needs. It’s a brain that refuses to see resilience as a permanent state. I can’t give up. I can’t not work on building better sessions, modules and courses. I can’t not try to encourage colleagues to try new things in the classroom, I can’t not be a mentor, I can’t not try and build a better law school all round, I can’t not be me BUT I also can’t keep having the battles that make it possible to do those things. I’m stuck – unable to do what is required of me because I cannot act like or help produce little worker drones.
Research is the same. My brain is and always has been, even before it broke, slow. It needs time to let things whiz around a bit. I do actually think that every now and again my brain can be quite brilliant, that it can see connections and make sense of things in a new way that is valuable to others and worth sharing. It can produce insights and it understands stuff that sometimes doesn’t make sense to others. I think I can write and write well. I think sometimes I have something to say. Do I say it in a way that hits the metrics I need to hit as a modern academic? Probably not. Am I interested in things a modern academic in a modern university needs to be interested in? No, probably not. Do I bring in money? No. Do I do research that could bring in money? Not really. Is my research impactful (is that even a word)? Who knows!?! Is it valuable – well I think it can be. But there’s no time. No time to spend thinking about things deeply. No time or inclination to allow me to think deeply about something esoteric and a bit odd which might turn out to be really important. No time to read, think and reflect. Demands are such that research gets squeezed into the odd day, an evening here and there, a weekend. But my brain can’t do evenings and it can’t do weekends. It broke doing that. It won’t, can’t, do that again. My brain is not good at being squeezed into tight time scales, it makes it work too fast and then it panics and then what could have been isn’t.
I’m reasonable at admin and management stuff. I can do it and do it well if I see the point but I am not very good at doing things that I see as pointless or idiotic. And there is lots of pointless and idiotic admin in academia. It’s increasingly bureaucratic and a fabulous example of work and task creation and the glorification of busy-ness. This is not what I want to spend what little brain power I can muster each day on.
So I am and have always been a good enough academic. Not excellent, not amazingly brilliant but an academic who can teach, research and stay on top of admin duties. Good enough. But good enough is no longer good enough in academia. We all have to be world leading, in everything we do, all of the time. I don’t think I’m up for that. I’d like to help others be world leading, shine, reach their potential and step out into the limelight. I’m more of a behind the scenes kind of girl but academia is not about behind the scenes…
So where does that leave me? Well that’s an interesting question. Sometimes I just want to leave, walk out of the university doors and never look back. Sometimes I think things aren’t so bad and I am just having a crappy day. I’ve sat on this blog for weeks trying to work out if I am just having a bad day…, sometimes I really really want a management position like Head of School or Dean or something because part of me still believes that all of this can be done differently – but maybe my brain is too broken for that. So for now I just want to keep doing good enough. I want to keep teaching and I want to keep researching and I want to keep doing it my way. I’m not striving for excellence or brilliance. I’m striving for good enough with a sprinkling of disaster and pinch of brilliance and I am aiming for survival in a sector which is fraught with difficulties. I think I am aiming for riding out the storm and contributing, in what little ways I can, to turning academia (back) into calmer waters.
Anyway, I think you get the idea. Something has to change I think because too many of us are breaking. Once broken a little bit of our sparkle is lost forever because we have given just a little too much. We’ll always hold back because if we don’t we risk going back to that dark place that does not guarantee a way out, that doesn’t guarantee a tomorrow. Academia should not be about holding back. It should be about going all in with an idea and seeing where it takes us collectively and supportively, working in collaboration or on our own, with our students or with each other. That’s the academia I want and we all need – we’ve got a long way to go and for now I’m coming along, walking the line between trying to make it better and breaking and hoping that that line holds!
SLS Day 2 commenced after a pretty poor night’s sleep. It needed to be good. Day one set the bar pretty high (oops, already used that pun on Twitter yesterday – can I get away with it twice given that it’s not quite as obvious a pun unless you read the tweet and/or my account of yesterday?). Anyway poor night’s sleep – The usual London dilemma – I had to choose between being too hot or it being too noisy. I am such a country girl, I just can’t deal with the city noise, it just really gets to me so – too hot it was. I gave up trying to sleep at 5.30am and sat up sleepily and sweaty. Given that I was already sweaty I thought I didn’t really have an excuse to not go for a run. I pulled my gear on and headed out and had a lovely little 2.5 ish mile trot out along the Regents Canal.
Breakfast was a bit meh so on the way to the first session I bought a coffee that actually looked, smelled and tasted like coffee. The first session was my random session. I always have at least one at every big conference I go to. For this one I chose the Legal History Stream which started with a paper by Ann Lyon (Plymouth) talking about ‘It Wasn’t Just About the Suffragettes. The Representation of the People Act 1918 and the Realities of Voting in the 1918 Election. I loved this paper because it combined an analysis of the Act set in its historical context with personal stories from Ann’s family. It was a lovely example of being able to touch history through those lovely family connections and thinking through what the 1918 Act would have meant for those family members. That paper was followed by one from Judith Bourne with a great presentation on Bertha Cave who applied to join Gray’s Inn in 1903. I was struck by how little we know about her as a woman and Judith pointed out how she has sort of been decontextualised and isolated from her environment with a dehumansing effect. She is known as an unsuccessful almost first woman lawyer. I found the analysis of the reasons for prohibiting women from joining the legal professions interesting too and I don’t think that these been consigned to history. The culture at the bar is one of tradition and order and strict rules based on the English class system and a specific form of masculinity. Allowing anyone from the ‘wrong’ background in threatens that order. First women, then working class folk, where will it end… Somehow this doesn’t sounds like we’re talking 100 years ago. Outsiders are indeed a little troubling, aren’t they. The third paper was by Janet Weston who looked at the history if measuring mental capacity. I was still wrapped up in the first two papers that I lost focus through this one. It was a great paper with lovely stories of those involved in mental capacity cases and I was struck by how often a lack of mental capacity had nothing to do with the person whose capacity was supposedly in question but was about protecting women from others who might take advantage of them… I wish I had kept more focused because there was so much good stuff in there.
As I walked back to the publisher exhibition area and, importantly, coffee I was reflecting on the on how fabulous it was to be able to go to random sessions and listen to things that are slightly out of my area of expertise. It allows me to think about things in a slightly different way and prompts ideas about my own work. Conferences are actually really important to improve thinking. I had a quick coffee, picked up a couple of publisher’s lists with discount codes and then headed back over to the Law building for a Practice, Profession and Ethics session. I must walk round with my eyes shut or lost in deep thought most of the time because it was on this walk over that I registered that the ‘square’ I’d now walked past at least 6 times was in fact a graveyard. I like graveyards. I wished I could linger and explore it more but the session called. For those interested it is the Novo Cemetery, a jewish cemetery and you can read all about it here. It’s somehow quite moving. On my way back after the session I looked at it from the windows of each floor of the building as I came down the stairs. It has quite a powerful pull and somehow triggered an emotional reaction before I knew anything at all about it.
The first paper in that session was presented by Caroline Gibby (co-authored with Amanda Newby and Lisa Down) and was on Integrating Professional and Ethical Contexts. There was some great stuff here about the need to keep discussions about ethics and codes of conduct separate and about the value and pitfalls of narrative pedagogy. I like the idea of teaching ethics by stealth and there are lots of ways this can possibly be done throughout the legal curriculum and in professional/clinic settings. I wonder whether we actually need to start with thinking through what sort of ethics and values teaching we do through the explict as well as the hidden curriculum and then maybe make that more explicit. I like the notion of supporting students to become confident independent thinkers. I think this might be the key to lots of things. I need to think about this more though.
Next up was Richard Collier talking about wellbeing in the legal community and focusing on the group least is known about: us; legal academics. There is so much in his paper that resonates and that links to many themes I have been thinking about. I don’t want to steal his thunder and I hope the paper is published soon but here is a very brief summary of the argument followed by some thoughts:
- The literature points to lawyers (as in practitioners) just getting by – I think this sounds familiar in terms of the academy
- We still actually know very little about the private life of university law schools but we do know some things about other areas of the academy and law schools, while possibly unique in terms of being able to withstand some of the pressures facing Higher Education generally ( and I am not that convinced that they are all that different from other disciplines), law schools are not immune to those factors
- Metrics, hyper performance and acceleration are coming together to create a menta health crisis in the (legal) academy
- There are pockets of resistance – we need to slow the university down!
- And we need to be crtical of the wellbeing movement – challenge the narrative of resilience and also of the hapiness industry.
Thoughts: I agree wholeheartedly with every single word Richard said. The marketised university creates an environment and setting where good mental health is almost impossible but where the responsibility of having and maintaining good mental health is put solely on us and when we inevitably fail on that we do so because we are not resilient enough (in my case probably because I haven’t completed my online resilience training). But resilience should surely be about crisis or particular difficulties. Resilience is not about getting through normal every day life. The problem is that we have normalised overwork, perfomance metrics and all that other crap. There were links in the paper to my work on excellence and on academic indentity and the paper also raised questions for me about what, as educators, we role model for our students. My brain is still working on this and thoughts pop in and out my head.
Lunch was, like breakfast, a bit meh. Hot food just doens’t work for these sorts of things – do decent wraps, sarnies, salad etc. Much better. Then, rather ambitiously I think, the organisers put two plenaries in the afternoon. The first was Access to Justice in Troubled Times chaired by Mr Justice Robert Knowles with contributions from Mrs Justice Maura McGowan, Dame Hazel Genn and Professor John Fitzpatrick. The rather depressing message from that session was the our justice system is falling apart, access to justice is basically non-existent for many and that law schools are not only providing invaluable service to individuals who seek advice and support in university law clinics but are basically also propping up the system, a system which Maura likened to the NHS – the bulk of the work and the most emotive work is being done by those judges working in the most difficult conditions. As Maura said in response to one of the questions- ‘in an ideal world you would not have UG students providing legal advice… but because we’re in the state we’re in, it has to work’. There may be some hope with a move to more of the work being moved online but like Hazel I am a little sceptical and like Hazel I hope the powers that be will collect or allow the collection of data that will allow the research community to fully evaluate the changes being made. We have to do better.
While the speakers were interesting I found the panel overall odd. Too much ‘men in suits talking’ at the end and the Chair was directing the questions/conversation in an odd way and limiting the audience participation which made it slightly uncmfortable to watch. I was in need of coffee. As I was walking over somone I only know from Twitter caught up with me and said hi so it was great to meet properly and we chatted over coffee and then headed to the second plenary of the afternoon. The Rule of Law in troubled times. I was flagging a little and my brain was quite full but I enjoyed all three papers even if they all over ran leaving almost no time for questions or comments at the end. I liked Renata Uits’s point that there is a key difference between Rule of Law and Rule by Law but that the line between the two is really only easy to draw with hindsight. She was talking mostly about the Polish and Hungarian context and attacks on judicial independence, a theme which Murray Hunt returned to. I think she is right in saying that the rule of law is vulnerable to abuse because it is an abstract concept that lawyers talk about and it is difficult to translate into practice, it easily slips into rule by law and constitutional engineering the like of which we are currently seeing across the world – Murray gave examples in addition to the central and eastern European examples but I have now forgotten them.
Thom Brooks spoke about the rule of law in the US and there were really no surprises there. Trump talks about support for the rule of law but only really in terms of immigration and walls and what he really means is strict law enforcement (but not against him or his friends). He quoted Bob Dreyfuss saying ‘Never before … has a president so openly challenged the legitimacy of the entire justice system’.
Throughout the plenary I was struck that this was such a legal panel. I missed the political science discussions on this which I have been able to dip into more recently attending political science events. I missed the more critical approach to terms like populism and democracy and also rule of law actually. I felt a little alien in my own discipline because I realised that we’re using the same words but mean slightly different things, or understand them differently, but that the political science meaning is more familiar to me, and more meaningful, because those are the debates I have engaged in. Maybe I’ll make a half decent politcal scientist yet.
So that was that. My brain is full. I am not going to the conference dinner (something about dinner at the Inns makes me feel deeply uncomfortable and I’m not paying a small fortune to feel deeply uncomfortable) so a quick trip to the Co-op later and I have provisions for the evening and vague ideas about just chilling out doing nothing at all – or maybe catching up on things I never get round to like sorting out this blog a bit, filing some stuff (electronically) or just reading a few of those articles I have been meaning to read for ages.