Writing about our experiences as legal educators is challenging – but worth exploring

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All Photos © Elaine Campbell, 2016

Research methods that focus on the self can throw up all sorts of issues, especially for those of us who work in a law school. But that doesn’t mean we should avoid them.

My work has always been reflective. Even when I’ve tried to avoid it, it just slips back in. For a long time, I worried that my style wasn’t ‘academically acceptable’. And I queried whether there would ever be a home for the type of introspective work that I seemed to gravitate towards. My dream was to write, in detail and depth, about my role as a law clinic supervisor. But I couldn’t see how I could make that dream a reality.

Then I discovered autoethnography. A place where your emotions and experience are at the centre of the story. A place where you analyse your own culture. A place where saying “I feel” is encouraged, not rejected. My world was turned upside down. I consumed autoethnographic articles day and night.  Sometimes uplifting,  sometimes upsetting, and often witty, these works of lived experience covered all manner of issue – working as a table dancer, dealing with sexism in the workplace, coming out of the closet.

Sadly, I found very few autoethnographic articles that were located in the world of higher education. And I’ve yet to find any written by lecturers about their experiences working in a law school. Why? Well, I suspect that there are two key challenges that we face, and which stop us from using an autoethnographic approach in our work:

We don’t give ourselves permission to write our stories 

Traditional academic writing. Be honest, it can be a little, well, formal or (dare I say it) boring. Laurel Richardson dares to say it. She calls it deadening. She also says that it suppresses narrativity, and this, I think, is an important point. It’s also troubling. We need stories of lived experience in order to understand a particular phenomenon; its truths and its place in our culture. Stories can also help us to make sense of our experiences.

There are so many stories about the law school which are begging to be told. We face so many issues – the changes to legal training,  new understandings of what it is to be a lawyer, student and staff engagement with technology – our world is a rich site for autoethnographic exploration.

Writing about ourselves is fraught with danger 

Sike warns that insider research, like autoethnography, is “inherently sensitive” and therefore “potentially dodgy in both ethical and career development terms”. And therein lies the problem. When we write about ourselves we are exposing our innermost thoughts and feelings to whoever happens to read our work. And that can mean friends, family, colleagues, employers (past, current and future).

And it’s not just about us. Yes, we are drawing on our own experiences, but those experiences are created by interacting with other people. For legal educators, our interactions are with fellow law school staff and our students.  For clinical legal educators, we can add to that list the clients who come to our clinic for legal advice. So what’s okay to write about and what isn’t? Should we tell everyone we come across that any interaction we have might end up in an autoethnographic article in the future? Should we employ strategies like “mindful slippage”?  These are questions that need further exploration. But we can only do that if we engage with autoethnography and start to figure out what an effective approach might look like.

Let’s mine our rich field and produce deep autoethnographies that allow others to understand our experiences. In doing so, we can start to share our strategies for dealing with the ethical challenges that law school autoethnographers face.

For more about autoethnography & legal education, please see my recently published article: Campbell, E (2016) “Exploring autoethnography as method and methodology in legal education research”, 3 Asian Journal of Legal Education 95-105.

Experiential education & student engagement: a few pre-conference paper thoughts

For the past few weeks, I have spent a large proportion of my time pacing backwards and forwards and talking out loud. My audience of two, Valentino and Hugo,  have – save noisily munching on a bit of hay – been generally well behaved and respectful. But then they are guinea pigs and will do anything for a lovely handful of veg and a bit of pear.

Guinea Pigs: a wonderful audience, especially when your human family is a little sick of hearing about pedagogy...

Guinea Pigs: a wonderful audience, especially when your human family is a little sick of hearing you go on about pedagogy…

It’s pre-conference paper time. Which means a nervous few days, putting the finishing touches to slides & notes and generally practising what I’m going to say to anyone who will listen.

On Friday, Newcastle University is holding a one-day symposium: Negotiating Recent Reform in Higher Education: the Question of Student Engagement. The symposium is hosted by Dr Anselma Gallinat, Dr Lisa Garforth and Dr Adél Pásztor, and will focus on the intensification of organisational reform in English universities in the post-Brown review era through the lens of ideas about student engagement. The keynote speaker is Professor Susan Wright, an anthropologist and internationally-recognised expert on audit cultures and the neo-liberal university.

Aside from the fact that I will be in the company of a fantastic line up of educators, students and researchers, I’m delighted to be speaking at the symposium because its going to be a day of many ‘firsts’ for me.  It’s going to be the first time that I speak publicly about my passion for and use of autoethnography, the research methodology I’ve been exploring over a year. It’s going to be the first time I expose extracts of my personal diaries to an audience. And it’s going to be the first time that I discuss my view that experiential education allows for a new type of ‘teacherhood’ and engages students, academically and emotionally, on a different level.

The idea for the paper was sparked by this:

“someone outside the firm once described you as a ‘warm hug'”

At the end of each year, I ask my clinic students to stick a blank piece of paper on their backs and then we all walk round the room writing positive things about that person on the paper. No-one can see who has written what and we use different coloured pens to add another layer of anonymity. I get involved too. What do we write? Well, mostly it’s fun things that have happened during the year, like someone getting their first car or the time a client interview went really well,  or positive personality traits like being a supportive team player. Some of the comments might seem a little random (‘amazing festive jumpers’, ‘loves a photo opportunity’) but each one reflects the shared history of the group.

When I got back to my desk last year and took a peek at what my paper said, I was struck by the comment I’ve shown above. It sat with me for a while and it still sits with me now. For a long time I had been advocating that experiential education – learning by doing, students working in a live working environment as part of their studies – was different. I argued that it had an ‘otherness’. But I struggled to be able to articulate why that was.  And after that comment it finally hit home. I think it boils down to the connection that clinicians/supervisors have with their students that goes beyond the traditional conception of what it is to be a ‘teacher’.

On Friday, I’ll be utilising extracts from my diary and drawing on personal experience to make the case that in experiential education there is a movement from teacher to mentor, colleague and even friend.

I can’t wait to get going and to listen to the other speakers on Friday. It’s going to be a really interesting day. For those on twitter, the hashtag is #HEreformNcl.

Top 5 reasons to attend & speak at conferences

I submitted an abstract for the 2nd British Autoethnography Conference yesterday. Those who follow me on twitter will already know how excited I am about this conference.

This is the fourth conference abstract I have submitted this year. I’m quickly approaching what will be a veritable conference-fest, which will begin in style in a fortnight’s time with the Association of Law Teachers 50th Annual Conference in Cardiff. Then it’s up to Glasgow for the Commonwealth Legal Education Association Conference. A short breather and then I’ll be flying to Turkey for the International Journal of Clinical Legal Education/Global Alliance of Justice Education Conference. I’ve also got a trip to Berlin for the 3rd iLINC Best Practice Sharing Event in the middle of it all – but thankfully my iLINC colleagues haven’t asked me to submit an abstract!

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I write all my submitted abstracts/confirmed conferences on a bright yellow post-it note which sits at eye level along the bottom of the pin board above my desk. As I wrote ‘AE, Aberdeen,  S(ubmitted), Oct’ on that post-it, my mind turned to why I go to conferences and why I like to speak at them. I’ve had this discussion with early career academics quite a few times recently so I thought I’d write a post for people who are worried about going to conferences or unsure what to do when they get there. Here – in no particular order – are my 5 top reasons to attend and speak at conferences:

1. Meet like-minded people

Chances are that you’ll pick a conference which is linked to something you’re interested in. I love conferences which are all about education, for example, because I know that everyone there is passionate about making a difference to students’ lives. It can be a real buzz to be around people who – put simply – like what you like. Conversation flows easily and you can pick up great tips and ideas (see 3!).

2. Build a network 

Conferences are a great opportunity to build your professional network. But you have to put in some work before you arrive so you can make the most of that opportunity. It’s not enough to just turn up and hope that someone will talk to you. Have a strategy. When I was a private practice lawyer and I first started to go to networking events I had a “target list” of people I wanted to speak to. I knew their work and the questions I wanted to ask them. I made sure that I introduced myself and spoke to them, even if for a few minutes. It may sound strange but you can do the same thing at conferences. I make a point, for example, of trying to meet people whose work I enjoy reading. Nobody ever told someone to go away because they said “I really like reading the papers you write”, so don’t be afraid to tell people!

3. New ideas, techniques and research

We might think we know everything. But we don’t. I was at last year’s Association of Law Teachers Conference when the penny finally dropped and I worked out how I could use twitter to enhance my students’ experience of clinic. And that was because I got the chance to listen to Matthew J. Homewood’s (prize winning) engaging paper “Twittery Vision – Using Twitter for Revision Feedback – Win, Win”. I promise you’ll come away from a conference with copious notes, whether it be journal articles you fancy reading, new tools to try or even (if you’re like me) some new words to Google!

4. Get your voice out there!

I called this post 5 top reasons to attend and speak at conferences. I think many new academics see conferences as being a one way street: you are there to listen to the great and the good. Yes, it’s important to learn from others but don’t downplay what you have to say. You have experiences, ideas, techniques and research to share, so (deep breath) go out there and share them. Many people argue that going along to conferences, asking a few questions and talking to new people is enough. I think that’s great, but why not present a conference paper? When you present a paper you give people the chance to learn more about you and your practice. They can ask you questions and really make you think about the direction of your work. You know what? Sometimes they might not agree with what you’re saying. But that gives you an opportunity to practice defending your position. You’ll more than likely have to do it again at some point, so why not start now! And you can always use those dissenting voices as inspiration for an article….

5. To have fun

I’ll be moving house slap bang in the middle of two conferences in a short while. Why do I want to go during what will clearly be a stressful time? Well, for all the reasons above. And to have fun. Conferences are really enjoyable if you embrace all they have to offer. Great company, (usually) super food, interesting conversation, and lots of laughter. Conference dinners in particular can be a real laugh. You get some hear some funny stories, share your (inevitably contrasting) views on the wine and celebrate the work that you do.

Why do you go to conferences? Do you think I’ve missed anything off the list?