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.
A little earlier this year something possessed me to think it might be a good idea to present something at the Excellence in HE conference that Leeds Beckett hosts annually. It’s run by the quality team so goodness knows what I was thinking. I either wasn’t or I was feeling disruptive and a bit naughty.
I have some poorly thought through thoughts on Excellence in HE and have spent some time doing a few bits of research that speak to the issue. I’ll come back to that in a moment. When the day came and I stood at Crossflatts station in the rain I was cursing myself. A day, a WHOLE DAY, away from writing my book and having to engage with people who can say ‘Excellence in HE’ with a straight face.
I actually had a great day. After the usual welcome we heard from Ant of WonkHE who told us all about TEF and how it tells us nothing about teaching (or excellence) and how the results are totally meaningless but there is some quite interesting data we should all go away and look at – because it tells us something – even if that something isn’t about teaching. I’m ok with that. The day had started with something that made sense. Then came the second keynote on the role of governing bodies in HE. I’m afraid I tuned out. I heard ‘accountant’, ‘leadership foundation’ and ‘committee of university chairs’ (or something) and saw white slides with lots of black text and I was gone – I spent a delightful 40 minutes in my own head – sorry. My bad, I’m sure.
Then we had coffee and split into groups. I’d really wanted to go to the session on Research Informed Teaching but I couldn’t – I had to be in the Learning from Research session to give my talk. The first presentation was great – about dissertation bootcamps and a field trip to Malham youth hostel to walk, think, write. How awesome is that. Such a great opportunity to engage properly with students and treat them as humans rather than numbers. What a great way to foster individual excellence and to inspire and be inspired. Then I was up. Not using a powerpoint confused the organisers for a minute or two but then I was off. The paper after mine was also interesting – matrix learning and resilience in a number of disciplines. The last paper I didn’t really ‘get’ (and I heard it twice because it was repeated in the afternoon) – it was about Dance education and university students going into schools to teach dance (I think, but I sort of tuned out. I needed more coffee and was getting hungry).
After lunch the sessions were repeated so the Dance paper was first up and then it was me again and then my colleague Teresa told us about her work on transition from 6th form to university and how we can’t really expect students to be independent learners overnight. Then we had coffee and finished with a plenary summarising all sessions. It had been an unexpectedly good day.
So what were my thoughts on Excellence in HE. Well I’m interested in the rhetoric around excellence. And I think it’s all wrong. Excellence is a buzzword – it’ll fall out of favour soon enough and we’ll all be talking about something else. It’s hard to define and we all see it differently. But because it is hard to define we struggle to measure excellence so we measure a proxy or rather lots of proxies instead and pretend that they tell us something about excellence but usually they don’t – they tell us how many students got jobs or how much they earn or what grades they came and left with. Excellent teaching is measured in module evaluation scores covering all sorts of proxies. But when, through my research and informally, I talk to people about excellence it is rare for tangible things that can be ticked off lists to be mentioned – usually it is about the emotion of a situation or context, about how a teacher made us feel, how a research paper made us think, how a well timed and well constructed question by a teacher made us see something in a different light altogether. Excellence is not always (or even often) synonymous with a good student experience of being happy and getting what you want – students I spoke to often talked about excellent teaching making them deeply uncomfortable and being very challenging.
I’m also interested in how universities present ‘Excellence’ claims and mostly on the websites I studied they don’t unpick their assertions at all. Some (guess which ones) claim they are excellent teaching facilities and offer excellent student experience because they are highly ranked research institutions. Others claim to offer excellent teaching because their staff all (or mostly) hold teaching qualifications and others claim that excellence because their staff hold professional (industry) qualifications. None of those claims are justified or explored further. Anyway, I rambled on about all of this for a while but my thinking sort of got to this: We need to move away from thinking about excellence as something that can be achieved, measured or even really articulated and accept that it means different things to different people – as such we can all be excellent to some people (students, colleagues, managers, funders….) some of the time but we can never be excellent to everyone or even to some all of the time (and for me that means choosing who is my priority – some things that make it more likely that students get an excellent learning experience might be in conflict with what management expectations of my excellence are – guess who wins). Also, because excellence means different things we can and should take a more personal approach to excellence and remember that our students are not numbers, they are people, people who all have the potential to be excellent some of the time. I think, and this was prompted by one of the comments in the plenary, that we need to shift our focus away from what good or excellent teaching is because that isn’t getting us anywhere and instead think about what conditions we need to create to allow for excellent learning. I said in the first iteration of my paper that inspirational teaching might be excellent teaching and that was picked up in the plenary with a throwaway remark that I had possibly just come up with that on the day or ‘maybe she had thought about it before’. I wasn’t quite in punching distance to the bloke who said that (of course it was a bloke) but I thought that was a bit rude and I wondered whether he would have said it about a bloke. He also didn’t use my title when he referred to me but he did use the title when he referred to one of the blokes. Every day sexism for you but that’s not the point of this post…
I’ll keep thinking about this stuff. There’s something about the way we talk about excellence in HE that is fascinating.