Reflections on 41 Years an Academic

By Kenneth Norrie - Posted on 14 December 2023

On 6 October 1982, I gave my first scheduled lecture to an undergraduate class, a third year module on International Private Law; on 23 November 2023, more than 41 years later, I gave my last.  Though I formally retired at the end of September, I carried on with lecturing Domestic Relations to see that module out under the old LLB curriculum.  It will not be taught again, but it was a fitting end to my time as a teacher.

Different people responded differently to the news that I was retiring.  Two colleagues responded with tears, which is touching, but not a large percentage. The Clerk to the University Ethics Committee which I sat on for eight years, responded with a one-word email – “Great!”, which is rather ambiguous.  The University’s HR Department responded by emailing me on Friday 29 September 2023, my last working day, around 4pm: “Please find attached your P45.  We advise you to keep this securely for your tax records.  Yours sincerely, HR”.

That was the only official mark of the end of my 33 years here at Strathclyde.  My first academic post was a one-year temporary lectureship at Dundee, and my first permanent job was a lectureship at the University of Aberdeen which I took up in 1983.  The past, as is well-known, is like another country: they do things differently there.  At Aberdeen, it’s almost unbelievable to remember, we still lectured wearing black gowns (though even then that was limited to the Faculties of Divinity and Law, and latterly the habit survived only with Geoffrey McCormick, David Carey Miller and me).

In the 1980s universities happily employed full lecturers on their own judgment of promise and not only after a portfolio of achievement had been gained.  I was appointed to my post at Aberdeen at the age of 23.  And I was by no means uniquely young.   Within a year either side of my joining Aberdeen, that university appointed to permanent lectureships Colin Reid (at the age of 22!), recently retired Professor of Environmental Law at Dundee; Ken MacKinnon, retired long-time head of RGU; Paul Beaumont, current Head of Law at Stirling; John Rankin, ex-UK Ambassador to Nepal, High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and currently governor of the UK Virgin Islands; Eilidh Scobbie, author and editor of Currie on Confirmation (amongst other major works).  All these appointments were risks: there was not a PhD among us, and only I had a couple of wee publications which had appeared while I was a diploma student.  Yet all these appointments paid handsome dividends to Aberdeen, and indeed (with all due modesty) to academic law in Scotland.  Would any British University take such risks today?  I seriously doubt it.

University life was very different in the 1980s, and indeed in the 1990s: there no REF, no teaching assessment, no teaching and learning committees or Faculty Quality Assurance mechanisms telling you how to do your job, no push for research grants – no women professors.  Strathclyde Law School, it is rather shaming to remember, was the last major law school in Scotland to give a chair to a woman, which it finally did in 2004 with Jenny Hamilton, when I was Head.

Nor was there any protection against discrimination for LGBT staff – that didn’t come until 2003.  Even if Strathclyde University was not the sort of employer to discipline its staff for being LGBT, that created real feelings of vulnerability.  In 1993 a group of parents complained about my sexual orientation to the then Principal, Sir John Arbuthnot, after I had appeared on a television debate on LGBT matters with (now Baroness) Annabel Goldie (of hallowed memory): they said that they couldn’t have their young sons being taught by a person like me.  Principal Arbuthnot personally assured me he wasn’t going to sack me – but at the same time he ordered an investigation.  I do find it disconcerting to remember in 2023 that this sort of employment vulnerability existed for more than half of my whole career.

Probably the biggest change in my time as a lecturer has come with the development in technology, and the ease with which we access, and can search, legal materials.  Throughout the 1980s, I remember quite often writing to the House of Lords to purchase a transcript of a decision that the newspapers had reported: the Law Reports would usually be at least a year behind, and commentaries appearing within a year or two after the decision were generally thought to be rather rushed and ill-considered.  

I remember the excitement in Aberdeen Law School in the mid-1980s when the Law Library purchased a Lexis Machine: it had a whole room to itself and was the size of a small motor car.  There was a telephone attached and you literally dialled up a connection, and then printed out whatever result you got.  Laptops hadn’t been invented, and I was thought at Aberdeen to be the height of progressive modernity for having arrived with my own electric typewriter: a heavy wrought-iron contraption that needed ten minutes to warm up after being switched on.  In 1988 the Department of Private Law (for at that time Law Schools – other than Strathclyde – were still Faculties in their own right, with departments) purchased a single Amstrad computer, with a dot-matrix printer attached: just in time for me to print out my PhD thesis, taking roughly three minutes per page to do so.

Now of course we get judgments within hours of their being delivered, on all sorts of devices, and commentary is expected within days – sometimes hours.  Personally I am doubtful about the merits of this development.  I still find myself very reluctant to comment on new cases and the like without taking a good few weeks or months to consider what my thoughts on the matter are and make sure I understand before publicly giving a view.  It seems to me that that is what being a professional academic commentator requires.  Instant blogging, tweeting and the like on legal developments is journalism – which has an important place in modern higher education, but it is not academic insight.

I came to Strathclyde in 1990 just around the time everyone was given a desk-top computer, and throughout the 1990s when we advertised jobs, one of the attractions we emphasised in the advert was always “access to dedicated desk-top computer, in your own room”.  I don’t remember when we were first given laptops, nor indeed when email first appeared – but that was certainly at some point in the early 1990s.  I do recall when I started using the internet. It was in 1997 – after 15 years of doing my job solely using printed materials from the library.  The internet had probably become widely available in 1995 or 1996 and I very distinctly remember saying around that time to John Blackie (as always, an early advocate of new developments) “this internet has nothing on it for me”.  But in 1997 I had my first sabbatical at Sydney University and, on John’s recommendation, I decided to use the time to “learn the internet”.  Now, of course, I would find it difficult to do my job without it.  But we did so, in the past.

Our students have changed too.  At Strathclyde (and probably elsewhere) our students are far more diverse than they were when I started lecturing: in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, open sexuality and gender identity, and neuro-diversity.  Strathclyde Law School helped diversity, of course, with the first Part Time LLB programme in Scotland.  Students are also today far more demanding (rightly), and complaining (usually wrongly) than in the past.  We take far more care of our students today than 40, or even 10, years ago – though I do worry that our increasing efforts to care for our students risks us assuming (legal) responsibility for their wellbeing.

What has not changed at Strathclyde Law School has been the consistent collegiality and support of truly wonderful colleagues.  Very few and far between have been the colleagues who are unhelpful, spiteful and rude – I can count on one hand Strathclyde Law School colleagues over the past 33 years who we were generally glad to see the back of.  We have also been incredibly lucky with the range of Heads we have had, from Bob Burgess who was Head when I arrived to Adelyn Wilson who has just joined Strathclyde Law School as I depart.  And it is not just academic colleagues who have enhanced my working life.  Our admin team too has been simply world-beating throughout all my time here.  It is our people who have combined to make Strathclyde Law School an absolute joy to work in.

But all good things come to an end, and for good reason.  The long passage of time has had the effect that I have rather lost touch with how students operate.  Their embrasure of IT in all its manifestations has changed the way they study, changed how they learn information, develop skills and perform the tasks we set them.  I have not been able to keep up with that, whether it is students’ use of social media to learn things, or what they perceive as worth remembering.  I am increasingly conscious of the fact that my style of teaching – set-piece lectures where I stand there expounding on my understanding of the law – is terribly old-fashioned.  I actually liked the experimentation that we were allowed to indulge in during the Covid lock-downs, but I also found comfort in reverting back to the old chalk and talk style: it was like snuggling up to a beloved grandparent.  Mostly, that was because I know (again, with all due modesty) that I am very good at that style of teaching, but it is increasingly at odds with effective learning mechanisms that our students need in today’s world.  So it is, at the end of the day, right that I am retiring now.

But for all that I do so with regret because, even after 41 years, I still massively enjoy my job.  I continued this semester to wake up on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as I did in 1982, and think “Great, it’s a teaching day today”.  My abiding hope for the future is that our younger colleagues (which is basically now virtually everyone in the Law School) are lucky enough to be able to say exactly the same thing when their time comes to stop being paid for what they love doing.

Professor Kenneth McK. Norrie's valedictory lecture will be at the University of Strathclyde on 28 February 2024. Those interested in attending should book in advance (for free) via this Eventbrite link: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/valedictory-lecture-professor-kenneth-norrie-tickets-776542418277.

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