Reflections of a Law Lecturer in Cambridge and Beyond
by Dorothy Heeneman on 8 May 2017
BA Law 1981-84
The reflections expressed here represent a kaleidoscope of memories from my life. After leaving Lucy Cavendish, bringing up my family and coping with illness, I eventually began teaching law at a college in Cambridge that evolved into what is now Anglia Ruskin University (ARU). While I was lecturing there, I studied for a LLM in Comparative Commercial Law at UCL.
One may ask, why teach the subject when a law degree offers wide ranging and more lucrative possibilities? My choice was directed by family contingencies and an earlier, successful career in teaching. From experience, I knew that teaching was incredibly rewarding work. I was being paid to talk about a subject that ranged from the theoretical to the practical and pragmatic and which touched on everything we do in life.
The responsibilities of a law lecturer are generally those of any lecturer and can be tedious at times: administration, meetings, setting and marking examinations, and assessing student course work. Setting examinations always presented a tension for me, between being academically demanding but at the same time allowing all students an opportunity to display their abilities.
One of the pleasures of teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate level was the rarity of disciplinary problems; the students knew that they had chosen to study for a degree that would lead to a promising career. There were occasional problems with plagiarism which ranged from not attributing sources, to collaboration. With amusement, I recall that on one occasion I became aware of two identical adjacent scripts. They had been submitted in different fonts but the culprits did not have the wit to separate them.
The clear logic of Contract Law appeals to me and I also developed interests in Commercial and Single Market Trade Law. I avoided Criminal and Family Law because issues turning on human unkindness and cruelty disturb me. I had a degree of autonomy in course design and emphasis subject to internal review and external validation. My role as an external examiner at other universities provided useful opportunities to compare our approaches.
There is often a general misunderstanding that lecturers have an undemanding role. Time spent in direct class contact is the performance part of the role and this overlooks preparation and other aspects of our work. I spent considerable time in student support and reference writing, departmental meetings and the development and updating of material in a rapidly developing field. The law of the EU was particularly demanding in this respect. This pressure was greatly alleviated by annual visits to lectures given by staff at the Commission in Brussels and to the annual updating conferences at King’s College London.
The profile of law on the Cambridge campus was raised when ARU’s Chelmsford law department accepted Cambridge’s case to teach law as a single honours LL.B. degree. Law was no longer considered to be an ancillary subject. The sense in moving the LL.M. in European trade law was also conceded. These were exciting and demanding developments which energised the department.
On an assumption that it enhanced the departmental CV, I was permitted to teach a module titled, ‘The Law of EU Integration’ to M.Phil. students in the history faculty at Cambridge University. Initially this was intimidating but it became enjoyable and student feedback was extremely positive.
The classes comprised Ivy League graduates who were ambitious, organised and academically driven. They prepared well for their seminars and teaching by the Socratic method was possible and enjoyable. There was, however, some departmental anxiety when one cohort realised that, almost without exception, they were Harvard alumni. They celebrated this by partying for most of the year. Our concern was unfounded; they returned ‘high performance’ results.
My involvement with the LLM at ARU gave me opportunities to visit partner universities in Europe where there was enthusiasm to collaborate in areas of European law. At UMEA in Sweden the emphasis was on social areas, while in Germany it was on commercial and competition law. This national split was not surprising.
On one occasion, we were invited to observe a Q&A session in the European Parliament, when we were in Brussels. This was hosted by a local MEP specifically for small businessmen from Suffolk and Norfolk. This audience was aggressively anti-EU and was encouraged by three other MEPS who took it in turn to ridicule and insult each Member State – portents of BREXIT. It was an objectionable display of xenophobia which was witnessed by a class of predominantly young French students. I cringed! Later I tried to convince them that we do not hate them.
My work took me beyond Europe to partners in Florida and Malaysia. I travelled to Florida with a group of undergraduates. We were introduced to US constitutional law and Florida criminal justice. My daughter travelled with us and was distressed to witness defendants, even for minor crimes, being led into court in shackles.
Unfortunately, we were in Florida during the week when an electrical execution failed to function as expected. This resulted in a horrifyingly traumatic life termination. The incident was later discussed at dinner with a local deputy district attorney. The conversation turned to alternative methods of execution. The use of the guillotine was mooted as being fast and merciful. Subsequently the suggestion was discussed and rejected by local politicians.
On a lighter note the visit inspired my daughter to study law at university and she is now a government barrister working in EU law. BREXIT looms for her!
I was sent to Malaysia in 1996 to make a pre-report before a Law Society inspection of a private law institute that had a teaching agreement with ARU in Chelmsford. My report identified failures including empty library shelves and no air conditioning in class-rooms, which were unbearably humid. The exhausted lecturers worked for unrealistic hours - up to 28 hours a week of lecturing, plus all their other duties, and the owners were raking in the profits. The outcome was that on returning to Cambridge I was debriefed and advised that I should not visit again.
Kuala Lumpur is well provided with police barracks and feels a bit oppressive. On flying in, the usual pilot's greeting also warned us that possession of drugs carried the death penalty. This happy information was repeated in red on all tourist information!
While I was there I had plenty of free time to tour. I visited Penang which is a vibrant Chinese town; the old merchant architecture and the Chinese temples were a delight; one highlight was the Green Temple in which jade coloured snakes curled around vases and pillars.
However, as I lived outside KL I felt rather isolated, especially before my phone was installed, after a long week. I found my time there interesting and enriching and the Malaysian food completed my pleasure!
In so many ways teaching law has been rewarding. It has been a privilege to know and inspire students and to guide them towards attaining their ambitions.