• Michael Randall

It's Not Worse, It's Just Different - Induction Week 2020

This week sees the majority of the law school marking the start of the new academic year (I say majority – our Postgraduate Diploma students started a week ago, and October sees the arrival of a new PhD cohort). It is always a particularly busy time of year – I am writing this post at 22:10 on a Wednesday evening after having spent a large portion of my week so far speaking to students and attending meetings.

We welcome new 1st year undergraduate students at the start of their journey through the degree (I know that’s quite a saccharine way of phrasing it - it's late in the evening).

We welcome back students who have faced an exam period and summer like no other – the “where did you go on your holidays?” chat is not quite so prevalent.

We also welcome a new intake of postgraduate taught students – some of these are continuing students. Some are international students, studying away from home/friends and family in different time zones. Others are returning to study from a period of employment, or travel.

When you break it down our cohorts that way, without meaning to sound like an infomercial/advertisement for the school, it demonstrates that our student cohort is particularly diverse. At the induction evening for postgraduate LLM students, for example, the postgraduate coordinator has tended to read aloud all of the different States/Countries/territories that our postgraduate cohort is from. It is not a short list, and there’s always a wry smile when you hear that a student from the Seychelles has elected to come and experience the glorious weather of Glasgow in September.

Normally, of course, these meetings and events would be in person. I would be running around like a headless chicken as I go between my computer, frantically typing away (posting updates about our Personal Development Adviser system, probably), heading to an induction lecture for my English Law of Tort class, to the Barony Hall to contribute to our annual introductory event, ‘Grenfell and the law’ (more on that shortly) and to the Graham Hills building to meet new postgraduate students before getting home in the dark at 8:30, microwaving whatever I lined up for dinner, and promptly falling asleep on the sofa.

That has not been the case this time – with induction being held online, it has seen me deciding my attire 10-15 minutes before going live on a call, before undoing all of my good work in wearing slippers. Although it is also noticeable that the shirts in the wardrobe are a little bit more snug than I recall them being in the past. The running around is logging out of one Zoom call and into another. One thing that has not changed, though, is this tends to be a ‘Red Bull heavy week’ (for competition law purposes, other caffeinated energy drinks are available, but if any of them want to sponsor me, get in touch).

I think I speak for all of my colleagues when I say that, whilst it is nice to have a 30 second commute from the kitchen to your desk, we would all, in a heartbeat, wish that we were able to have a traditional/standard induction. I keep telling myself that this isn’t negative/bad, it’s just different, and there have been some clear positives of the virtual format/setting. Those in my tort law class last year may have noticed a lot of awkward shuffling, pacing and stretching in lectures last year, owing to a persistent niggling injury that I just can't shake off. That is at its worst after spending 2 hours standing at the front of a lecture theatre. So that's an adjustment which I need to focus on as a positive in current circumstances.

Induction is, of course, not something which just happens – it involves a lot of work behind the scenes from administrative staff (the absolute saints of the school in my book) and teaching staff. For some reason, this year in particular, there is always a late flurry of activity – you plan ahead, but something will pop up to respond to. That might be a new case/development to work into lectures (solidarity to anyone teaching EU, Public, or International Law this semester/year), or it could be making a mistake and accidentally counting a staff member twice in the Personal Development Adviser (our version of Personal Tutors) allocation, so they have double the number of students compared to another staff member. Senior Tutors – can’t turns out they can get things wrong, after all.

Returning 2nd and 3rd Year Students

For the students returning to study, it is always a strange time. You have introductory lectures, but you are also thinking about skills – one thing I frequently ask students who come in to a Personal Development meeting with me in years 2 and 3 is “what are you going to do differently this year?”. The whole point of studying is you make mistakes, and adjust. So if a student has a mark from last year which stands out as a high mark, what did they do for that class, which was different from another? If they have consistent marks, how can they look to turn those into consistently higher marks?

You also tend to be thinking about careers as well – I often discuss what my fellow graduates from my undergraduate degree are doing now to these students to demonstrate you don’t just have to practice law, and that you can’t predict what opportunities will come your way over the next few years. If you told 2nd year me, back in 2008-9 that I was going to be lecturing at University, he wouldn’t have believed you. My mum would probably like me to point out to you that he’s also likely have had a lie in, and should have been more diligent in his note taking/filing them (this was before laptops were standard in lecture theatres). 2020 me probably agrees with that assessment.

The Start of a New Honours Year

For honours students, it is facing a new type/method of studying. The closest I came to this style was on my own masters, and this was the format which I preferred i.e. the class depended on you doing prep work, and having group discussions/debates in a way which is different from tutorials. The honours dissertation is also a unique piece of work compared to others – an individual research project on a question set by the student. Most other assessments see students answering the same thing. If any honours student reads this, my advice – don’t get involved in the “how many words have you written?” debates. Different projects naturally proceed at different paces. Word count alone isn’t an indicator of progress. I can't necessarily write the verbatim answer that I would give to someone who was trying to compare progress by comparing word counts, this blog is PG at least, but it would involve directing the individual, forcefully, to leave me alone and not ask me again.

The New 1st Year Undergraduates

Of course, the biggest leap is for the new 1st year undergraduates. That group which makes me feel increasingly old every year as they don’t get what I assume is a common popular culture reference. Lectures are new – trying to know what to write/what not to write, and developing a shorthand is a skill that is acquired rapidly. Tutorials can seem like a fearsome gladiatorial arena, where you are struck down for saying something wrong, so you don’t say anything – this is, of course, complete and utter hogwash. Tutorials are there to clarify your understanding before an assessment/exam. I don’t get bothered if a student gets something wrong there. I also don’t get upset if a student asks me to rephrase/repeat something – chances are they were listening, and someone else is thinking the same thing. I don’t particularly enjoy the long silence as a sort of ‘who will break and answer first?’ style gameshow. If you’re a first year student reading this – just make sure you are speaking/saying something. I promise, it will pay dividends.

The Grenfell and The Law Event

For me, the most interesting event we host in induction week is ‘Grenfell and the Law’. This started a few years ago, and the idea was initially based on the Hillsborough disaster. However, I think it would have been about 3 years ago, we felt that the same/similar issues applied in a more contemporary example. This year, being virtual, we also extended an invitation to the postgraduate taught students.

The premise of the event is simple. A number of lecturers take approximately 10-15 minutes to talk about the legal issues surrounding the Grenfell Tower fire, focusing on their particular area of teaching/expertise. Aidan O’Donnell presents on Legal Process matters. Donnie Campbell presents on criminal law matters. Therese O’Donnell discusses the impact of human rights legislation on the inquiry (specifically what Article 2 of the ECHR on the Right to Life means in this context). Malcolm Combe discusses property law considerations. Charlie Irvine presents on mediation, and assessing what the limits of law/legal action are in achieving a satisfactory outcome for those impacted by the fire. Kenneth Norrie presents on family law, specifically concerning bereavement payments. And I present on liability for psychiatric injury, specifically for ‘secondary victims’ – a rant which is a blog in itself.

The subject matter is serious, but the approach is one that I find fascinating as a lecturer. It has been a long time since I was a student, sat in a classroom, with someone teaching me about a subject area. I get snapshots into areas of law which I am not expert in. I also get to see the lecturing and structuring style of colleagues – ironically, I never normally get to see my colleagues doing their job (and granted, that applies to them seeing my presentation style, too).

The only minor quibble about the event – my topic naturally fits after Kenneth’s presentation. Trying to follow Kenneth is a bit like trying to follow Queen at Live Aid – lecturer of the year in a national competition in (I think) 2008, don’t you know. A strong, enthusiastic Dundee accent, discussing a subject that he has quite literally written the book about is very different from a slightly monotone, mildly suppressed (it creeps out every now and again) Bristolian accent.

This year, though, the virtual session was better for Q&As from students. In person, we would normally speak, finish our time, and would then walk off stage and sit down. Students had our email addresses, and could ask us questions afterwards if they wanted to. However, on Zoom, the Q&A was live as chats were continuing – it gave a real sense of engagement between staff and students, and was something positive that my colleagues and I enjoyed.

That, I think, is a good point to end at in writing up about induction week – it’s not the one we anticipated a few months ago, it’s not the one we necessarily would have wanted. But there are positives – it is just different, and different is not necessarily a bad thing. To all of our students, we wish you all the very best of luck – I am particularly jealous of the position you are in of entering/continuing studies, and getting stuck in to the course content.

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