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.
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)
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.