What I’m reading: on legal education and equality/diversity

Rosey's 17th birthday 029On Monday 13 June, the next little phase of my research begins. This is part of a bigger project, which brings together two of my long-standing fascinations: equality (law) and (legal) education. I’m at the (horrible, yet exciting) stage of a project when I simultaneously experience wonder and delight at new discoveries, and fear that I will have nothing new to say, or won’t be able to say it coherently, in time for the (inevitable, self-imposed) deadline – in this instance a paper and poster at the Society of Legal Scholars annual conference in September.

This little phase of the bigger project – part of Sheffield Law School’s Law and Diversity work – runs for 6 weeks. I’ll be working with four students – three undergraduates (Nellie, Sarah, Nazma) and a postgraduate student (James) who will also lead the team. This is a way of working that I enjoy very much – I always feel like I’m learning way more from the students with whom I collaborate than they learn from me (see, for instance, my Dangerous Women post on what I learned from working with Laura last year).

James and I had a highly productive planning meeting on Friday. One of the things we discussed was how we would organise ourselves so that we create a record of what we have been reading for the project – a sort of living literature review. One idea, that we intend to run by the others in the team, is to have a series of blog posts on what we have been reading. I promised to write an example of what I mean: so here it is. I like the “what I’m reading” format (stolen from QUB’s HHRU), because it permits writing on something that you haven’t yet finished reading. Equally, this isn’t everything I’m currently reading. And I’ve limited myself to one paragraph per piece, with a follow up paragraph of reflections on what it might mean for the project.

Savage et al Social Class in the 21st Century (Penguin 2015) Remember the Great British Class Survey? This is the book from the project, led by sociologists Mike Savage of LSE and Fiona Devine (Manchester). Focusing only on the UK (and with the results for Northern Ireland being less robust than for elsewhere in the UK), the online survey was only part of the project, which also included qualitative data from in-depth interviews. Savage et al’s headlines are:

  • ‘middle class’ and ‘working class’ aren’t useful labels any more (their new model of social class has seven categories);
  • there’s an elite, at the top; and a ‘precariat’ (their word) at the bottom;
  • class in 21st century Britain is made up of
    • economic capital (income being only a subset of wealth, and not the main thing that matters, property being much more important),
    • cultural capital (where the conviction in the legitimacy of one’s cultural activities is what matters most), and
    • social capital (where the breadth of one’s acquaintances matters most).

No doubt this study has been subject to critiques – discovering those will be another reading task. It’s a Bourdieu-inspired approach, so I expect some of the critiques will be critiques of that in general too.

I haven’t yet reached the chapter on “Universities and Meritocracy”. But I can see already that it will be in part about how Higher Education isn’t the social mobility vector that we had perhaps hoped for in the 1970s, or that the Blair government promised (or that law schools implicitly promise in their recruitment activities). And there’s a chapter on “Class and Spatial Inequality in the UK” which will also have clear resonances with the experiences of our Northern Law School. It just is Different In The North. One of the things I’m musing on, thinking also about a project on ‘polish’ in the context of law interviews that I’ve heard about through LERN, is what a law school like Sheffield’s should do. Do we help our ‘non-polished’ students to become more polished? Or do we teach them about the inequalities that underpin the very notion of ‘polish’? Or both? Or neither?

Pitt and Norton, “‘Now that’s the feedback I want! Students’ reactions to feedback on graded work and what they do with it” 41 Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education (2016)  doi:10.1080/02602938.2016.1142500 A small scale (N = 14) qualitative study of UG sports studies students, based on interviews with them. The findings suggest that what determines whether feedback is ‘good’ (or in the NSS terms ‘satisfactory’) is nothing much to do with the feedback itself. Rather it’s to do with the ’emotional maturity’ of the student receiving it. If a student isn’t emotionally ready, then the cognitive processing of feedback is compromised by her/his emotional reaction.  The article builds from (but ultimately undermines)

an earlier study (Mandhane et al 2015*), which suggested that effective feedback

  • (i) focuses on the performance not the individual;
  • (ii) is clear and specific, delivered in non-judgmental language, and descriptive rather than evaluative;
  • (iii) emphasises the positive; and
  • (iv) incorporates ‘feedforward’ – suggests measures for improvement.

This article isn’t obviously related to learning and teaching equality and diversity (to law students). But if we are to help all our students to learn, then we need to help them to develop productive approaches to the feedback – and especially the ‘feedforward’ – we make available to them. If ’emotional/personal maturity’ is what it takes for a productive approach, what are we supposed to do in a law school that is trying to improve the student experience (including in feedback)? The Mandhane et al principles of effective feedback are rejected by the authors as ‘too simplistic’.  This is a conversation to be continued with our students. How can we help them to achieve the necessary maturity? Should we be doing so?

Back, Academic Diary: Or why Higher Education still matters (Goldsmiths Press 2016) A splendid, quirky, and in places poignant series of reflections from sociologist Les Back, who has spent his career in Goldsmiths, University of London. I could write a reflection on each of the scores of entries in this book, as each resonated with me in some way or another. If I have one complaint about the book, it is to repeat that it just is Different In The North – this is a very London-based take on HE in the 21st century. But that’s a tiny comment, compared to the treasures I found reading this.

For this project, the chapter entitled ‘Ivory Towers’ (p 141-3) is pertinent. It reports the 2002 claims of Geoffrey Sampson (Professor of Natural Language Computing, Sussex University) about the inevitability of ‘racialism’ (you can read his account of what happened to him afterwards here). What Back is interested in, though, is the debate that followed on the THES website. This discussion apparently (I don’t recall it, I’m afraid) saw many people of apparently liberal views citing ‘academic freedom’ in defence of Sampson. Back goes on to reflect on how deeply entrenched racism is within universities, in forms and ways which are invisible to the weighty white majorities, of whom of course I am a member.What’s most interesting is that Back is also critical of the position we have got ourselves into, where an accusation of racism is so terrible, so appalling (‘the face of racism is that of the moral degenerate, the hateful bigot or the mad eccentric’ p 142) that we cannot even get beyond outraged denial to a meaningful discussion. What we need – far from the ‘rewritten university mission statement’ which Back so scathingly dismisses – is an uncomfortable ongoing questioning of the very whiteness of the academy, and its curricula, and all that this means. I don’t think I’m personally nearly uncomfortable enough yet. Let’s start a conversation, and let’s keep talking.

*Mandhane et al, 2015 “Positive Feedback: A Tool for Quality Education in the Field of Medicine” 3 International Journal of Research in Medical Sciences (2015) 1868 doi: 10.18203/2320-6012.ijrms20150293.



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