“Ah, but you’re an academic lawyer,” said the man who I had never met before. He was a childhood acquaintance of a parent, introduced to me at the funeral of a distant, elderly relation, but that is of no relevance to this tale. What is relevant is the loaded nature of the stress on his penultimate word, which was palpable. “Academic lawyer.” This man also happened to be a solicitor, of the vanilla-flavoured variety, although that is a culinary clarification the man would have probably thought unnecessary. No need for any extra descriptor for him. If pushed, presumably he would have described himself as a “real lawyer.” Instant one-upmanship, played in a memorial setting where such one-upmanship was in no way fitting. Pass the sausage rolls.
How should one react in such a situation? Laugh it off? Blithely take the hit? Or take the hit then come back fighting? As it happens, I had the perfect riposte. The man was simply wrong. He had gleaned my CV and current job description from hearsay, perhaps another funeral “guest” had told him I had done some research for a university before, so I promptly pointed out that whilst I had published a few learned articles I was in fact a newly qualified solicitor in a city law firm and I was quite interested in law as a science. I would have thought this was not a bad thing, but in any event he was simply misinformed and I was not an academic lawyer.
Whilst I had a ready-made defence then, I no longer carry that shield. After my traineeship and a further period in practice and on secondment to industry, I am now a decidedly academic lawyer. Should this be something that my peers in practice can dismiss with a sardonic eyebrow raise or a dismissive turn of phrase?
As all seasoned law graduates know, you begin a law degree with a tendency to answer questions with a firm “yes” or “no,” whereas you finish a law degree with a tendency to answer “it depends.” The answer to my rhetorical question also depends. What kind of academic are you?
I now turn to two literary giants of somewhat different fields, who may not have been quoted together previously but hey have both touched on the same issue. The first is science fiction stalwart Isaac Asimov, the second is Scottish poet Norman MacCaig.
Asimov’s three laws of robotics could be studied as a model for clear legal drafting, but his potential as a paradigm for a parliamentary draftsman is not why I am referring to him. I borrowed a copy of his 1958 text “A Whiff of Death” from a friend. One innocuous paragraph in chapter two, setting up the central character of Professor Brade, noted the following:
“A university was part of life in the sense that an eddy was part of a stream. The students were in the main current, sweeping in from the distant brooks and rivulets of childhood, coursing past, then leaving to follow the stream further to a land Brade had never explored. And Brade remained behind in the changeless academic eddy.”
Harsh words for the poor and insulated Professor Brade. Asimov creates a character with little insight into the real world, possibly even implying a question as to whether such a person can provide any insight to his students. Is this the kind of academic that the man at the funeral so parodied?
MacCaig’s 1973 poem “An academic” is perhaps even more polemical. It would be a disservice to quote it other than in full.
“You sit at your fat desk, starching
your brains; you’re the tone-deaf man
in the orchestra, the frog
who wouldn’t a-wooing go.
What a job this is, to measure
lightning with a footrule, the heart’s
turbulence with a pair of callipers.
And what magician, who can
dismantle Juliet, Ahab, Agamemnon
into a do-it-yourself kit of semantic gestures.
Tidiness is decent. Trains
have to reach their destinations.
But yours, that should be
clattering and singing,
through villages and landscapes, never
gets out of the shunting yards.
I’m a simple man – I believe
you were born, I believe it
against all the evidence.
I would like to give you
a present of weather, a
transfusion of pain.”
Ouch. Undeniably powerful stuff from MacCaig. Both Asimov and MacCaig present an easy to criticise model of academia that is susceptible to further parody. That MacCaig did so whilst working at a university is telling in itself.
Returning to my rhetorical question, whether or not an academic lawyer, or an academic anything, is someone whose views can be easily dismissed also depends. It depends on whether you sing and clatter through villages and landscapes with ideas that need to be shared. Sure, you might clatter into a buffer or two, but to not do that is to fall into a certain cosiness that leads people to think of the “academic” descriptor as having negative rather than positive connotations. In my previous post I wrote about why I felt the need to take up my virtual pen. This second post is something of a sister to that elder sibling. It chimes with the idea I mentioned previously that academics should in fact feel that they are under a duty to blog, an idea that is interesting but I do not think I would quite go that far. That being so, here I am contributing to the debate. Or, as MacCaig might put it, here I am getting out of the shunting yards.
My point might not be restricted to academics. Those in other vocations might also be lackadaisical or stagnant, but it seems the accusation is levelled at academics more readily. Even my “good luck”/“sorry you’re leaving” card from my previous job in professional practice had an undercurrent of “enjoy your retirement”/“you just want to hang out with students” sentiment amidst the genuine well-wishes. So be it. Of course, there are alternative perspectives. A professor at my alma mater operated a tremendous subversion by referring to some who sought to cross from practice to academia as “refugees”. Those refugees were no doubt seeking the relaxed utopia that had been portrayed to, or by, them. Suffice it to say there are different skill-sets needed and different experiences to be gleaned when comparing the academic and real worlds Whilst I may miss the “at the coal face” insight day-to-day practice brings, many hard-nosed practitioners would not pay too much attention to the pedagogical techniques that bodies like the Higher Education Academy espouse.
Yes, I have not blogged anything of legal substance yet, but such posts will follow. I now regard my blogging foundations as in place. I wonder what the man at the funeral would make of all of this. He might still dismiss me (and this blog) as academic. So be it. But what kind of academic am I? Not one trapped in Asimov’s “changeless academic eddy”, that much is for sure. That sounds like purgatory and is certainly not for me. If my ideas are dismissed as academic in the pejorative sense of the term, please do so because whatever point I have made is not relevant rather than because I am not relevant.
As an aside, Asimov also noted (in chapter 4 of the same book) an old joke about an old professor. “Last night I dreamed I was lecturing to my class. I woke suddenly, and by God, sir, I was.”
I am struggling to decide whether I should or should not model myself on such an innate teaching style.