LPS 2021 Employability showcase: making a difference through co-creation

[This post, by Jeanette Ashton (Lecturer in Law at Sussex), reflects upon co-creating with students, focusing on the School of Law, Politics and Sociology’s 2021 ‘Making a Difference’ Employability showcase. First published on the DARE to Transform blog, 28 July 2021. Republished here by permission.]

Guest post by Jeanette Ashton.

Jeanette Ashton is a Lecturer in Law (Education and Scholarship) and a Non-Practising solicitor, having joined the University of Sussex after 8 years at Brighton University.  She is Employability lead for the Law School, leads the Client Interviewing skills programme and co-leads the CLOCK legal companion scheme. 


This piece reflects on the experience of co-creating, with students, the 2021 LPS ‘Making a Difference’ Employability showcase. It is set within the pedagogical context of a growing interest in, and body of literature on, co-creation, knowledge exchange and students as ‘partners’ (Cook-Sather et al, 2014, Dollinger & Lodge, 2020, Little, 2012). Whilst aware of ‘co-creation’ often being used to tick boxes in HE spaces, as a team we genuinely felt we had co-created, and in doing so, had managed to ‘create’ something powerful and unique – and make a difference. Following the successful delivery of the showcase, I carried out a small study with the team, to explore themes including their motivation for participating, what they had learnt from the experience, any perceived employability and skills benefits, what co-creation means to them, and any learning points. This piece draws on those findings.

This piece explores how that genuine partnership came about, the benefits and takeaway message for future projects. 

Origins of the project – the need for honest conversations and doing things differently and building the team

This project was born out of a vlog series by myself and two final year law students, with a local practitioner Jo O’Sullivan (osullivanfamilylaw.com), where we discussed themes including the impact of the pandemic on them and their studies; their thoughts on the impact of AI on future employment; how the legal profession can become truly diverse, and their thoughts on the law generally. The students nominated me for a Sussex Education ‘teaching to disrupt’ award, for which I was shortlisted, writing about how they had valued the opportunity to speak frankly about their experiences as young women of colour, at the university and in wider society (Frank conversations about the law – YouTube).

Whilst discussing meaningful diversity, the students said it was important to them that employability events had practitioners who “looked like” them i.e., who they could relate to, both in terms of ethnicity and background and how they wanted to hear from a range of perspectives in the employability context (#Closing the Gap, 2019). New in post at Sussex, having joined in September 2020, in a challenging year with strikes and then Covid, I started thinking about what I could do as Employability lead, to help students from all kinds of backgrounds explore the range of career opportunities available and hopefully inspire them at the end of a difficult year. 

More traditional events such as our Law Fair and barrister/solicitor workshops were already in the calendar, so we wanted to do something different framed around the broad ideas of diversity and social justice. The three of us met to discuss what we could do, and from this the Employability showcase idea came. We wanted to create a series of events around the theme of ‘making a difference’ and to hear from a diverse range of panelists, rather than having a ‘diversity event’. Moving beyond the buzzword of ‘diversity’ is a challenge not only for universities, but for wider society, and we wanted to explore this through our showcase. The aim was to explore difficult questions and open up honest and frank conversations. 

From the outset, it was important to me that this event be truly co-created, not me leading and delegating particular tasks, but with the students involved in all stages of planning and implementation. The LPS Careers Connector and Race Equity Advocate (“REA”) joined our team, with all sharing the vision of wanting to open up some frank conversations on a range of themes from guests in a variety of roles. From this our showcase panels emerged: Women & allies in law; Disruptors in Law & beyond; Activism, Change-making & Policy-Influencers & NGOs and Human Rights.

Promotional material by the Sussex Student Law Society USLS, sussexunilawsoc.com

Motivations / drivers for the team

Interestingly, the motivation for the students, was broadly similar. One said they wanted to “make a little bit of a difference” and those in the paid Connector/REA roles were pleased to have a tangible task to work on alongside their exploratory work. With future career considerations being the second highest priority for students choosing a course in the 2021 UK Domestic Survey and a strategic priority for institutions including Sussex, it is perhaps surprising that when asked if they had thought about employability benefits/CV enhancement, the students all indicated this hadn’t been a motivation, although they appreciated the benefits subsequently. The common theme was doing something different, with one commenting that this project was “something different from our regular mundane law student life, where we just do the same things over and over again.” 

So, what is co-creation?

I was interested to explore what co-creation meant to them. Themes of working together, creating something and lack of hierarchy came through strongly. They felt it was “working together to develop an idea”, being “all in the same boat, relying on each other to get this thing out for the benefit of everyone to enjoy”, “an equal power dynamic” from the vlog series to the showcase, the ability to share experiences “without any boundaries” and “creating linkages” [with faculty, peers and professionals]. 

Control, trust and responsibility

In a piece co-authored with students participating in a new ‘Law Critique and Question Group’, my Law School colleague Verona Di Drisceoil writes about the experiences and challenges of breaking down the hierarchies of the teacher/student relationship (DARE blog). Throughout my academic career I have considered myself as student-focused and enjoyed working with students on various projects. However, whilst I have given students responsibility for particular tasks, I have retained ownership and ultimately control, of the projects. Perhaps the biggest challenge of co-creation is the fear of losing control (Bovill et al., 2011), particularly in the context of high stakes projects relating to curriculum and assessment design. The showcase project was arguably less pressured, in that it was an extra-curricular event, but it felt high stakes in terms of the goals for the project, namely wanting to do something different, to open up conversations for our students, showcase diverse roles and routes and help students to feel optimistic about their future career paths, particularly important given the likely negative impact of the pandemic on graduate employability. Alongside this, we were hosting twenty guests, from a variety of sectors, and wanted them to feel that their time had been well spent with us.

I undoubtedly experienced a sense of discomfort at stepping back from having control of the process, but, a sense of what a talented group of students I was working with, alleviated that. The students reflected that they had relished not being micromanaged, that through our meetings they were clear as to what was required and the timeframes. As one said “when you’re given the trust, you can then reciprocate, because you know you have the responsibility.” One of the students created a Google doc, where we could check in, share resources and suggest contacts for each other and provide progress updates, another arranged panel moderator training for the group. Each of them had responsibility for one of the panels, with each, as one student noted, able to use their “unique skills” to put their stamp on the night. The value to students of being able to personalise the project has been highlighted elsewhere (Dollinger & Lodge, 2020). They reached out to their peers for support, with the Student Law Society designing the promotional material and sharing widely with the student body, and the Women in Law Society co-hosting the ‘Women and Allies in Law’ night. 

Skills development

Reflecting on the project, the students felt that they had developed and enhanced a number of key skills. One of these, relating to trust and responsibility, was the experience of developing professional relationships through their communications with the guests on their respective nights, with one stating “the reaching out and emailing and talking to people is really good practice and I don’t think students are given enough opportunities” [to develop professional communication skills]. They all felt that the project had helped develop or enhance their public speaking skills, including the ability to “flex” on the night to move along the conversations, to manage time and attendees’ questions, alongside professional skills including organisation and project management, which one noted “you don’t really get to develop as a student”. Again, responsibility was a theme “holding myself accountable to get things done”. 

Important to all of them was teamwork, they spoke of supporting each other, including in the design of a template for the night, which they could then adapt. One, a finalist, commented “I didn’t know what teamwork was before this year really and it’s strange because we haven’t been able to see each other in person”. This sense of teamwork extended to the guests and attendees at the events. The showcase coincided with the week of protests relating to the murder of Sarah Everard (The Guardian, 2021) and the students felt this had perhaps added to what one termed a “community feel”, despite being an online event. 

Concluding thoughts and future challenges

From my perspective, the showcase was a career highlight and the first truly co-created project I have worked on. Attendees who completed the post-event survey were overwhelmingly positive, commenting on the breadth of discussion, which included racism; sexual violence; ‘having it all’; the internship loop; following your passions; being authentic, and how to make a difference without burning out. They enjoyed the diversity of the guests and careers paths, with many noting it had helped them feel more optimistic about future options. One of the student attendees wrote a post for the Law School’s student blog Exploring Careers that ‘Make a Difference’: Highlights from the Spring 2021 LPS Employability Showcase – Sussex Legal Minds (law.blog) and several offered to support future events. 

In terms of learning points, whilst the showcase was undoubtedly successful, with around 200 students attending across the week, it is clear that those who benefitted most from the project were the small team working on it. A challenge for future co-created projects is how to scale up so that more students have the opportunity to benefit (Dollinger & Lodge, 2020). Perhaps, in thinking about employability strategy, institutions should consider investing in more co-created projects, in terms of curriculum development, assessment design and extra-curricular/work ready opportunities, which provide students with lifetime benefits and a chance to make a difference to their communities. As well as being beneficial for the students and staff involved, which was the experience of this project, this could, as Nicholson suggests, benefit the institution more broadly, in enabling differentiation in the HE market (Nicholson, 2020).

I would like to conclude with the thoughts of one of our “Disruptors in Law and beyond” guests Michael Herford, Sussex alumnus and co-founder of Legal Lifelines:

“It was really insightful and inspiring hearing from the other panellists and I hope the conversation put fire in the bellies of the participants to pro-actively pursue their chosen path, or trailblaze a path, if necessary. It was abundantly clear from the quality of questions from the students that there is a new wave of brave, motivated and talented change makers set to join the frontline shortly – an exciting prospect indeed!”

My key takeaway from the project is that co-creation provides dual benefits for students and faculty, that this should be an institution priority, and that continuing to develop such projects is “an exciting prospect indeed!”


Bovill, C., Cook-Sather, A., & Felten, P. (2011) ‘Students as co-creators of teaching approaches, course design and curricula: Implications for academic developers’, International Journal for Academic Development, 16, 133-145, doi:10.1080/1360144X.2011.568690. 

bame-student-attainment-uk-universities-closing-the-gap.pdf (universitiesuk.ac.uk) (accessed 8 July 2021)

Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C., & Felten, P. (2014) Engaging students as partners in learning and teaching: a guide for faculty, San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Dollinger, M. & Lodge, J. (2020) ‘Understanding value in the student experience through student-staff partnerships’, Higher Education Research & Development, 39:5, 940-952, doi:10.1080/07294360.2019.1695751.   

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/jul/01/inquiry-condemns-policing-of-sarah-everard-vigil-and-bristol-protests (accessed 7 July 2021).

Staff-Student Partnerships in Higher Education (2012), ed. Little, S., Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Nicholson, A. (2020) ‘The value of a law degree – part 2: a perspective from UK providers’, The Law Teacher doi: 10.1080/03069400.2020.1781483

QS_UK_Domestic_Student_Survey_2021.pdf (accessed 7 July 2021).

Creative Commons License

This work by Technology Enhanced Learning, University of Sussex is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://blogs.sussex.ac.uk/daretotransform/.

Making sense of ‘Justice System Data’: a new report

[This post is by Judith Townend (Senior Lecturer in Media and Information Law at Sussex Law School) and Cassandra Wiener (Senior Lecturer at The City Law School and PhD graduate of Sussex Law School). It explores a new report on ‘Justice System Data’ written by Judith and Cassandra for The Legal Education Foundation, and highlights the report’s public launch event, which took place on 21 July 2021 (see write-ups in the Law Society Gazette and Legal Futures). Republished with permission from The Legal Education Foundation.]

It’s perhaps because the roots of ‘open justice’ run so deep that the data and information generated by our justice system is so messy. The system that produces, stores and shares that data is not something neatly and purposively designed but rather has – to continue the horticultural metaphor – entwined tendrils that are difficult to untangle and follow. Legal researchers and specialists often complain of the obstacles to accessing information from the justice system despite its purported openness, yet rarely is the system itself made the direct object of study.  In contrast, our new report published today is very much concerned directly with the system, and the practical details of its operation as well as underlying principles.

As part of The Legal Education Foundation’s ‘Smarter Justice’ programme, we were commissioned to undertake comparative research that explored the ways in which data generated by the common law justice systems in Australia, Canada and Ireland was managed. How do these countries define ‘justice system data’, and how is it categorised? What arrangements are in place for making it available to different stakeholders and public users? How is data closed, or made open? And what bearing does their approach have on factors such as judicial independence, public understanding of the law and confidence in the justice system, innovation, and the attractiveness of the legal system?

The central motivation for the project was to gather information that would help UK-based policymakers and lawmakers develop better practice in the maintenance and innovation of justice system data. However, during the course of the research, which largely took place between May and August 2020, it became clear that stakeholders and experts in these three countries were grappling with the very same questions. In fact, we found that these jurisdictions were often looking to the UK’s experience and programme of reform – sometimes with envy – despite the difficulties that have been documented in previous research by The Legal Education Foundation.

We found a mixed picture. The justice systems in each country were complex to navigate – particularly so in Australia and Canada, with divisions of (financial) responsibility and jurisdiction between regional territories and states. While we identified a common understanding and definition of justice system data types and access, our interviewees described a messy evolution of systems, made even more complicated with the emergency measures during COVID-19. There was, however, recognition across the board that better data would help deliver and improve access to justice, an objective within UN Sustainable Development Goal 16.3. Within that broad goal, better data quality and access would also protect open justice, judicial independence and public understanding of the law.

Our review of the policy and academic literature, enriched by interviews with over 40 research participants, exposed numerous shared challenges and tensions.  These included: the impact of legacy practice; the under-investment in and decentralised approaches taken to reform; a data deficit for user and case experience; concerns about the privacy implications of sharing personalised data. Most, worrying perhaps, was the lack of accountability for the management of justice system data which we encountered in each case study. That said, we were told about many examples that were perceived as positive initiatives, where data had been shared openly and successfully; where access policies were being developed and systems improved.

Our study also gave insights into an extraordinary period of change, with the COVID-19 pandemic accelerating the move to remote hearings and other digital reforms, and since we undertook the research last year there is more to report and discuss. In the UK, the Ministry of Justice has announced that the National Archives will create a new public repository of judgments; in Australia, the New South Wales Law Reform Commission has published proposals for access to court information; the Court Service in Ireland continues its programme of reform; and the Canadian Judicial Council has published new guidance on bulk access to court information.

There will be a chance to discuss these and other developments at a public launch event chaired by Joshua Rozenberg QC on 21 July 2021. We welcome your suggestions and feedback to help the development of future work. The research has reinforced our view that it is imperative that the management and governance of justice system data is given more societal and political attention. It is only by focusing on how we manage our justice data that we can ensure the principles of access to justice and public accountability – central principles of our common law system – are met.

About the authors

Dr Judith Townend, project lead for ‘Justice System Data’ is senior lecturer in media and information law at the University of Sussex, where she researches freedom of expression and access to information, with a special interest in open justice and the protection and regulation of public interest journalism.

Dr Cassandra Wiener, project research associate, is a senior lecturer in law at City, University of London. Her research interests are in coercive control and the criminal law, and she advises governments and activists around the world on the doctrinal implications of domestic abuse law reform.

Using Canva in a Teaching Context

Aisling O'Sullivan
Aisling O’Sullivan

This post is a video presentation by Aisling O’Sullivan (Lecturer in Law at Sussex) which formed part of the Sussex Law School symposium ‘Teaching During Covid-19: A Challenge or an Opportunity?’, previously blogged about by Verona Ní Drisceoil and Jo Wilson, and continues the ongoing education and scholarship series on the blog. In this vlog, Aisling explains how she uses the graphics website Canva.com within a teaching context to create visual information for students. In particular, she stresses how infographics can be a useful way to produce eye-catching visual information that can highlight the key points for students, whether for student-facing admin roles or for module convening. She also shows how she converted her lecture material into visual NGO-style booklets for her LLM students in Civil and Political Rights.

Video of Aisling O’Sullivan, ‘Using Canva in a Teaching Context’

Something old, something new: the snap Bulgarian elections of July 2021

[This post, by Dragomir Stoyanov (Doctoral Researcher in Politics at Sussex), analyses the snap Bulgarian elections of July 2021. It is republished with permission from the European Consortium for Political Research’s Political Science Blog, The Loop]

Something old, something new: the snap Bulgarian elections of July 2021

by Dragomir Stoyanov, The Loop
July 22, 2021

Dragomir Stoyanov analyses the outcome of recent Bulgarian elections, which, just like the April elections a few months ago, have failed to resolve the power struggle between parties of the establishment and new protest parties. The prospect now looms for combined presidential and parliamentary elections in autumn

It is a hot summer in Bulgaria – but there’s more than just a heatwave making Bulgarians’ lives uncomfortable. Political temperatures are high too, with a snap election held on 11 July. After three failed attempts to form a government, parliament was dissolved, and new parliamentary elections scheduled. The July election follows the regular election on 4 April, in which governing party Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) won a slim victory. The election was also notable for the emergence of new parties of protest in parliament.

Shunning the ballot box

The July election broke several political records, one of which was a record low turnout, of 42%. This was a rude awakening not only for the opinion polling agencies (which had predicted significantly higher turnout) but for some politicians, too.

According to political observers, there were two reasons. First, it was the holiday season. In July, many Bulgarians prefer to go to the beach than participate in political life. Second, the government implemented machine voting for the first time. All polling areas with more than 300 registered voters had to use the new machines. As a result some people – generally older people and those with lower education levels – abstained. This demographic was unsure whether they would be able to handle voting through a machine.

The parties of the status quo

The establishment parties, and especially the party of government over the past decade, GERB, came under attack during the campaign. The caretaker government led by Stefan Yanev, a military officer appointed by the Bulgarian president, began an overhaul of GERB personnel. The overhaul exposed multiple corruption cases and mismanagement by the GERB administration.

Media coverage, which had previously been favourable to GERB, became much more critical. So it was not surprising that, without its usual control of the government and media, GERB lost its first parliamentary election since it was founded in 2006.

without its usual control of the government and media, Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) lost its first parliamentary election since 2006

The other establishment party, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), continued its decline. BSP’s share of the vote shrank even further compared to the April elections, giving the party its worst result since 1989. The party seems unable to resolve issues to do with its ideological positioning. It is also failing to attract young and educated people. BSP continues to be the party of older people with lower educational levels.

The third of the old parties, the DPS (the party of Bulgaria’s Turkish minority), held on to its share of the April vote. Since 1989, the party has been, and remains, an important potential coalition partner because it represents a significant number of voters.

Bulgarian parliamentary elections – results

*Democratic Bulgaria is an electoral alliance formed by three political parties: Yes, Bulgaria!, Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria, and The Greens
Mainstream parties GERB, BSP, DPS
Challenger parties ITN, DB, IMV
Far right Ataka, VMRO-BND, NFSB, Volya, Văzraždane

The parties of protest

The three protest parties – There is Such a People (ITN), Democratic Bulgaria (a coalition of three parties) and Rise up! Thugs out! – were active participants in the street protests of 2020.

In the April elections, the parties surprised many observers by securing significant representation in Parliament. In the July election, they re-entered the National Assembly, two of them improving considerably on their April results.

The social conservative populist party ITN is led by popular showman Slavi Trifonov. ITN increased its vote by more than 6% after a campaign under the slogan ‘It’s time for something else.’

the three protest parties surprised many observers by securing significant parliamentary representation in the April elections

Democratic Bulgaria, a right wing-liberal coalition of three small parties – Democrats for Strong Bulgaria (DSB), Yes, Bulgaria! (DB), and the Greens – increased its share of the vote, too. Its support appears to come mostly from young, urban and well-educated voters.

The social-liberal coalition Rise Up! Thugs Out! slightly improved its April result, receiving 5.01% of the votes.

Despite their successes, the protest parties did not gain the 121 MPs (out of 240) required to form a majority government. The parties of the status quo, therefore, still prevail.

The far-right parties

The far-right parties had not succeeded, as single parties, in securing representation in Parliament. Prior to the July election, they formed a coalition (Bulgarian Patriots) of three parties – Internal Macedonian National Organization-Bulgarian National Movement (VMRO-BND), National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB), and Will (Volya). Again, however, they did not secure enough votes to gain any seats in Parliament.

The far-right parties’ campaign concentrated on the Turkish minority and its electoral influence. It also targeted the Bulgarian Roma minority, the LGBT parade in June, and the conflict with Macedonia over Macedonian intentions to start EU accession negotiations.

The other two far-right parties, Ataka (Attack) and Văzraždane (Revival), received 0.46% and 3.01% respectively. Văzraždane is a relatively new actor on the far-right political spectrum, with very similar rhetoric to Ataka. Without Ataka’s discredited and eccentric leader Volen Siderov, Văzraždane seems to be the far-right party with a political future.

Combined elections in the autumn?

A presidential election is planned for the autumn. The incumbent president, Rumen Radev, is projected to win, but the dynamic nature of Bulgarian politics could bring something new. There is currently speculation that Slavi Trifonov could stand. This follows his June statement that he would not become a Member of Parliament but seek political responsibilities elsewhere.

Incumbent president Rumen Radev is expected to win the autumn presidential election

At the same time, new parliamentary elections are not off the cards. On the day after the July election and before the official results were announced, Slavi Trifonov surprised everybody by proposing a minority government composed of young and ambitious people. A few days later, he withdrew his proposal.

So ITN’s first post-election moves have been confusing, and signal continued political instability ahead. A combination of presidential and parliamentary elections might brighten politically the dog days of what could be a rainy autumn.

This article was originally published at The Loop and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Sussex Law School’s Inaugural Teaching and Learning Symposium – Teaching During Covid-19: A Challenge or an Opportunity? (PART 2)

Photo of Verona Ní Drisceoil
Verona Ní Drisceoil
Photo of Jo Wilson
Jo Wilson

This is the second of a two-part piece by Verona Ní Drisceoil (Senior Lecturer in Law at Sussex) and Jo Wilson (Lecturer in Commercial Law at Sussex) reflecting on Sussex Law School’s inaugural Teaching and Learning Symposium held in June 2021. Both Jo and Verona focus on education and scholarship in their work, and this post (and Part 1) launches a new open-ended series on education and scholarship within the LaPSe of Reason blog, building on previous contributions related to this theme.

In this follow up blogpost we raise further questions and provocations, of, and on, some of the key themes of the SLS Symposium specifically on engagement, community and belonging, and how they intersect. As part of these provocations we draw on findings from our current research projects.

What do we really mean by ‘engagement’?

In planning the SLS symposium, we had several opportunities to discuss our own thoughts on what is meant by engagement. How do we define student engagement, we asked? What does it look like and what should it look like? Have we all been guilty, we wondered, of seeking out one dominant type of ‘engagement’ in our classroom spaces? Are law schools particularly guilty of this, given problematic assumptions and dominant narratives about ‘behaving like a lawyer’, ‘thinking like a lawyer’ or in ‘being confident’? We asked again, is higher education more generally set up for one type of performative engagement?

As has been well documented elsewhere, what is at play throughout much of the neoliberal university is performativity – student, staff, and management performativity. We are all, essentially, performing. Macfarlane (2019), in his work, notes that ‘student performativity is a mirror of teacher performativity’ and recognises that there is a ‘demand to play the game’. This then links, of course, to debates about confidence and belonging and what those terms mean. Is performativity confidence? Are extrovert displays performative and therefore ‘engagement’?

In Verona’s current research on ‘Confidence, Community and Belonging’, 83% of student participants said that confidence had/has a significant impact on academic progress and student experience. The student responses, however, also recognised the very complex nature of this relationship and impact. As one student noted on confidence:

‘For me, its foundation is in a feeling of security. It’s also informed by external influences, respect from others, interest from others, friendships, love, and support. It’s knowing whatever space you are in, whether that’s literal or figurative, is safe.’

This reference to ‘safety’ is worth highlighting and unpacking further. It brings us, we argue, back to this point on engagement. It points, we suggest, to the close correlation between engagement and feeling safe, confident, and indeed belonging in your learning environment. If you don’t feel you belong, feel safe, how can you ‘engage’, perform?

Many of these themes and issues – confidence, safety, accessibility, belonging – also emerged from the responses given by staff and students in Jo’s current research on Engagement in the Classroom. When asked to define the term ‘student engagement’ many participants simply referred to the active role of a student in the learning process: ‘participating, listening and contributing’; ‘students taking an active rather than passive role in their education’.

But both staff and students also highlighted the role of the teacher in creating a learning environment which enables students to engage. One staff member described student engagement as:

‘A process that requires positive action by both students and educators. Educators need to create an environment, including resources and a classroom environment conducive to learning.’

In similar vein, one student commented that for them, student engagement is about ‘inspiring students to participate and play an active role in their learning through guidance.’ The key message then is the crucial part that we play as educators in facilitating and encouraging our students to engage through our teaching practices. This, of course, includes the extent to which we create accessible and inclusive learning opportunities. One member of staff noted that student engagement is ‘The extent to which students participate in (class) discussion – includes the extent to which they feel “safe” and “included” to do so’. Similarly, for one student, engagement means the ‘Equal ability of any student to participate and be noticed/heard.’ These responses highlight quite profoundly the link between engagement and feeling safe, feeling confident and feeling a sense of belonging in your learning environment. We must create an environment in which all students feel able and inspired to participate.

What role for technology?

This leads us on to the potential role for technology in breaking down some of those barriers to creating an equal, safe, and inclusive space for all students to engage. Indeed, the pandemic has shown us that technology can help us to improve the student learning experience; to bring different forms of engagement into the classroom space, and beyond, as the examples of practice in Part 1 highlighted. This is not to say that technology solves all the gaps in teaching and learning. It certainly does not. On this, a useful reminder from Lydia Arnold is ‘need first, technology second’ (Keynote, HEFi Festival, 5 July 2021).

When asked about the utility of interactive learning technologies such as polls, a number of students, taking part in Jo’s research, commented positively on accessibility and inclusivity. One student noted that online learning tools ensure that ‘students participate and it allows them to do it anonymously so if they get the question wrong, they won’t feel embarrassed.’ Another commented that ‘Everybody is able to participate equally, which is not always the case during in-person lectures.’ What this highlights, importantly, is that these interactive technologies (once all students of course have access to technology to start with) help with providing multiple means of engagement. This, in turn, means that all students have an equal opportunity to benefit from that learning experience, rather than just those students whose backgrounds, social capital, personalities – and our biases, perhaps – allow them to embrace more traditional Q&A/vocal forms of engagement.

What do we mean by Community and Belonging?

In the same way that we suggest it is necessary to challenge views on ‘engagement’, it is necessary to consider what we really mean by community and belonging. It is quite easy to say ‘let’s do more to build community and belonging’ but as we noted in Part 1 it is important to ask, and reflect on, what we mean by community and belonging: What does it mean for our students? What does it look like in online learning and what will it look like next term for students returning or incoming, having experienced much disruption in the last 18 months? What does it look like against the backdrop of further requests on us to increase student intake year on year?

We ask these questions not in an attempt to avoid a commitment to doing the work but rather to emphasise that we need to reflect more deeply about what is possible and perhaps to be more honest about what is not possible, and why. This questioning also allows us, we argue, to think about where we do community and belonging work, where does it start and finish (if ever), the need to be more creative and, indeed, to ask who does the work? Whilst we note the very need for this work, we also stress that it cannot be done be a few individuals, namely female colleagues, early career academics and those with student facing and pastoral admin roles. It is something we all need to think about collectively, and individually.

In thinking about community and belonging next term then, we advocate that a community, belonging, and wellbeing focus (as highlighted by Fiona Clements in Part 1) must happen more proactively within our seminars. This focus links to ongoing work on decolonising the curriculum and building inclusive classrooms. To achieve this, it might be the case that some subject content is removed, or some seminars are pared back to simply allow time for students to connect and engage with us and each other. Our progression students have already indicated that they would very much welcome more opportunities next term ‘to connect, meet new friends and to get to know us’.

‘Get to know us’, is a recurring theme that came through in Verona’s research this term. Student participants rated having a connection with staff in SLS as more important than a connection with other students ‘to feel part of the SLS community’. On community more generally, it seems our focus has been placed too heavily on building community between students when in fact they want to be part of a community with us. We need therefore to foster spaces with our students rather than for our students. This can happen by building on examples such as the Employability Showcase and the Your Teachers are Researchers event to allow our students, particularly our undergraduate students, to be part of events and seminars with us – to have a voice and to share in a non-hierarchical space.

Taking a UDL approach

To conclude, for us, the pandemic has, in a good way, challenged, more deeply, our thoughts and assumptions about engagement and community and belonging. It has placed the attention back on us. Linking to Macfarlane’s work above, we recognise that engagement – and the general trend of discussions on ‘engagement’ – is as much about us, as our students. Vocal engagement and interaction with us in the lecture theatre or across Zoom does help us feel better about ourselves – our performance as teachers – and this is perfectly reasonable. Teaching is about relationships and relationality, but we argue, there is a need, particularly in law, to move beyond dominant views about what ‘engagement’ looks like and how we measure it anecdotally or otherwise and indeed how it changes over time, and at different stages of the student life cycle.

Similarly, with community and belonging, there is a need to be more reflexive about our approaches to community and belonging. How can we ensure that our students, all of our students, belong and feel part of a community? Is it possible? As we approach the coming term, we may wish to ask what we can do in our classrooms, and in our communications to ensure that all students feel like they belong and are valued and have a voice. This might start with some signposting on your Canvas page about your mission statement/s for your module, your commitment to an inclusive classroom and to invite students to provide feedback on how this can be achieved. It may also be a note on your Canvas page about accessibility – and again an invite to students to highlight any accessibility issues with content and resources. This is not about getting everything right, but it is about demonstrating that we are all learning and willing to learn and unlearn.

In broad terms, we suggest a move towards a universal design for learning (UDL) approach in our design and delivery. Such an approach has inclusion for all students at its core. It aims for no barriers to learning and by doing so asks difficult questions of us. It asks who is not in the room, and why not? What are the biases in our practice, and hierarchies in law schools, that prevent inclusion, engagement and community and belonging? And what changes can we make to our teaching practices to overcome those barriers?


CAST, Centre for Applied Special Technology. (2018) ‘Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2’. Available at: https://udlguidelines.cast.org/.

Caron, L and Gely, R. (2004) ‘Taking Back the Law School Classroom: Using Technology to Foster Active Student Learning’, Journal of Legal Education 54, 551-569.

Macfarlane, B. (2019) ‘The neoliberal academic: Illustrating shifting academic norms in an age of hyper-performativity’, Educational Philosophy and Theory 53(5), 459-468.

Merry, K. (2018) ‘Developing teaching practice with Universal Design for Learning’, Educational Developments 19(3), 16-19.

Research Projects

Ní Drisceoil, V. ‘Who is not in the room, and why not?’ (Spring 2021).

Wilson, J. ‘Engagement in the Classroom’ (Spring 2021).

Sussex Law School’s Inaugural Teaching and Learning Symposium – Teaching During Covid-19: A Challenge or an Opportunity? (PART 1)

Photo of Jo Wilson
Jo Wilson
Photo of Verona Ní Drisceoil
Verona Ní Drisceoil

This is the first of a two-part piece by Jo Wilson (Lecturer in Commercial Law at Sussex) and Verona Ní Drisceoil  (Senior Lecturer in Law at Sussex) reflecting on Sussex Law School’s inaugural Teaching and Learning Symposium held in June 2021. Both Jo and Verona focus on education and scholarship in their work, and this post (and Part 2) launches a new open-ended series on education and scholarship within the LaPSe of Reason blog, building on previous contributions related to this theme.

On 15th June 2021 Sussex Law School (SLS) held its inaugural Teaching and Learning Symposium. The vision for this annual event, moving forward, is to create a space for colleagues to come together: to pause, to reflect and to share our teaching and learning experiences and practices.

This year, such a space was of particular importance. The symposium theme, ‘Teaching During Covid-19: A Challenge or an Opportunity?’, came from our experiences working as educators during a global pandemic and the questions that it raised: How will we engage with our students? How will we connect? How can we improve our teaching and assessment practices? There is no doubt that the move to online and blended learning presented a huge challenge, both for colleagues as teachers, and students as learners. But it also provided an opportunity for us to revisit and re-evaluate our teaching practices to find new ways to engage with our students, to foster a sense of community and belonging with them within the law school, and to consider more authentic modes of assessment and why this is necessary.

To capture our responses to, and of, the last year, we began the symposium by asking everyone to share a GIF on a Padlet wall. There were rollercoasters, tears, shared moments of disdain, laughter, panic, and exhaustion. As the GIFs demonstrated, there was/is, of course, no single teaching ‘during the pandemic’ experience. There were highs and there were lows. There were moments of real connection with students, even across Zoom squares, but also moments of disconnection and loss of identity as teachers and educators. There were moments of frustration with technology, anxiety, and lots of stress but also moments of achievement and ‘wow, I just did that’. Perhaps, we didn’t or haven’t had time to say a well done to ourselves – for all that we achieved, mastered, experimented with, and survived. If that is you, take a moment now to do so.

Following this introductory reflective session, the symposium was then divided into three sessions: ‘Engagement’, ‘Community and Belonging’ and ‘Authentic Assessment’. This blog post (Part 1) will provide an overview of the wonderful examples of practice from colleagues and invited speakers from each of the sessions. In a separate post, Part 2 (available here), we will offer some further reflection and response to the core themes of the symposium.

Session 1: Engagement

This session considered issues such as what the term ‘student engagement’ actually means, how we can make engagement more inclusive, and whether the use of technology can foster interactive student learning (see, e.g. Easton 2009). Padlet, Zoom, Poll Everywhere, Canva, and Mentimeter are all words most of us had never even heard of 18 months ago and they now feature regularly in our academic vocabularies. But what is the impact of these online technologies on the student learning experience? Do they create a more engaging learning environment?

During the first session, colleagues reflected, via 5 minute lightning talks, on their own experiences of using creative teaching methods to facilitate student engagement.

Jeanette Ashton began by sharing her experiences of using Padlet as an interactive tool to engage students. By embedding a Padlet wall on each topic page of her module on Canvas, Jeanette provides a safe and anonymous space for students to ask questions and receive timely feedback. Why Padlet over Discussion Board you ask? For Jeanette, the visual appearance of Padlet works much better and students can see all of the responses in one place.

The theme of check in and opportunity for students to highlight ‘the muddiest points’ (for more on muddiest point metacognitive approach see Richardson 2019) also came through in Tanya Palmer’s presentation which explored the introduction of Poll Everywhere in her whole cohort Criminal Law workshops. During these interactive sessions, students had the opportunity to answer multiple choice questions (MCQs) and raise questions in relation to a particular topic. The response from students was overwhelmingly positive; they enjoyed the interaction and the use of MCQs and other elements of Poll Everywhere as a means of checking their knowledge and understanding and sharing thoughts on the topic.

We also had two great pre-recorded videos from Andres Guadamuz and Aisling O’Sullivan in this session: Andres shared his use of visuals, GIFs, memes, and music in teaching, and similarly Aisling shared her use of Canva to provide visually appealing posters, infographics, and booklets to enhance her teaching and student facing admin role/communications. There is a free version of Canva! Check it out.

Finally, Jo Wilson discussed the introduction of legal packs in her Contract Law seminars. Instead of students being given a prescriptive problem question, they are given a legal pack containing relevant documents and correspondence such as newspaper articles, text message and email exchanges, relevant contractual provisions etc. This approach, she argues, provides students with a more engaging, more authentic, and more relatable ‘real-world’ experience.

The session finished with a space for colleagues to convene in smaller groups to reflect on the lightning talks and discuss their own teaching practices during the pandemic. One of the key messages that came through was that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, and even small changes can make a big difference and provide a more inclusive space where all students can interact and engage.

Session 2: Community and Belonging

Over the past year, there has been much focus, rightly, on the need for community and belonging and the importance of a pedagogy of care approach in higher education (see Maha Bali’s work). But, as we asked in the opening of this session, what exactly do we mean by community and belonging? What does it mean for students? For us? What does ‘building community’ and belonging look like in online learning and against the backdrop of further requests on us to increase student intake?

As with Session 1, in Session 2 colleagues shared examples of their practices to connect and build community within their modules or as extra-curricular type elements. Marie Hutton began by providing a powerful account of her use of music and song to connect and engage students in her Justice, Equality and Society lectures. Marie drew out strong themes of song/s that connected with the topics of the module – equality, power, justice – but she also used music and song as encouragement at key stages of the term such as before assessment and revision. Brilliant!

Fiona Clements followed with advice on student well-being. Fiona noted how important this work will be next term as we support incoming and returning students who will all have had some level of disruption to their learning (some more than others). Linked to Fiona’s work, Marica Moscati shared some examples of the various methods she has used in her teaching over the past year to ‘build up belonging’ and connect with students. Among others, these included breathing exercises, a Spotify Empowerment playlist, group formative assessment and meetings with lawyers and mediators.

Teresa Sutton also shared with us insights from the Law Reading Connector Project. This project focused on two key aspects – accessibility of reading lists and decolonising the curriculum. For those within the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at Sussex, the findings from the project can be found on the Education Resources for LPS Faculty Canvas page.

Finally, Verona shared some insights from the ‘Law’ Critique and Question Reading and Writing Group set up for first year students to connect, read and share. You can read more about that project here.

Session 3: Authentic Assessment

Another positive of the pandemic, in our view, is that we can no longer use the argument that ‘it’s too difficult to change assessment’. Every university in the UK had to change assessment modes within weeks of the first lockdown. That said, the move to take away papers or distance exam type papers brought with it other issues such as an increase in the use of essay mill providers. As a result, universities and educators have been forced to look at ‘more’ authentic modes of assessment. Of course, education developers have long been calling for more authentic modes of assessment because it is sound pedagogically.

According to Victoria Burns (2015), authentic assessment involves ‘meaningful “real-life” problems or tasks.’ Thus, rather than simply assessing our students based on the knowledge they have acquired, authentic assessment requires students to apply that knowledge and use their skills in relation to a real-life situation or environment.

In this session, Imogen Moore shared her approach of ‘fake authenticity’ in assessment in the Law of Equity module in Bristol. Her students are assessed based on a fictional but ‘authentic’ case bundle activity which allows them to apply their knowledge to a real-life situation. Imogen argues that this cognitive realism helps students to develop higher order skills, provides motivation for them to learn, and increases engagement.

In Leeds, Rosie Fox has rejuvenated the assessment mode on her Criminal Law module by introducing a visual case report poster. Why visual case reports? For Rosie, this approach provides an opportunity to challenge ableist structures in assessment and the ‘privileging of the word over other forms of creativity and ownership’ that result from the continual replication of male, white, middle-class practices in the academy (Matthews-Jones 2019).

Finally, Carli Rowell, from the Department of Sociology at Sussex shared her work on ‘Class in the Classroom’ and specifically her experiences of co-creating a module alongside working-class students at Sussex. On authentic assessment, Carli highlighted the importance of embedding assessment design discussions from the outset – and ideally to have those conversations with students.

For other examples of how to make assessment more authentic, see Sally Brown and Kay Sambell’s open array resource.

Final Reflections

Some takeaway messages for us. Relationships matter, connecting with our students matters. Questioning what ‘engagement’ looks like matters. Experiences are not homogenous and need to be contextualised. There is no one universal pandemic teaching and learning experience. For some students and staff, this period worked well but for others it was, let’s be honest, a nightmare trying to manage work from home, WiFi, childcare and home schooling. The pandemic has placed a very bright spotlight on the deep inequalities that exist in HE for both staff and students. For staff, research has highlighted the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women in HE, specifically women of colour. King and Frederickson refer to the impact as the ‘pandemic penalty’. For students, it is now abundantly clear that our current efforts on accessibility and inclusion and indeed how we treat our international students does not suffice. The commitment and momentum to increase student numbers post pandemic has to be, we argue, matched with the same, and genuine, level of commitment to student support resources and services.

For further reflections and provocations on Engagement, Community and Belonging and why we need to rethink assessment see Part 2.


Bali, M. (2020) ‘Pedagogy of Care: Covid-19 Edition’, Reflecting Allowed, 28 May. Available at: https://blog.mahabali.me/educational-technology-2/pedagogy-of-care-covid-19-edition/.

Burns, V. (2015) 53 Interesting Ways to Assess Your Students (3rd ed. The Professional and Higher Partnership).

Easton, C. (2009) ‘An Examination of Clicker Technology Use in Legal Education’, Journal of Information, Law and Technology 3. Available at: https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/2009_3/Easton .

Matthews-Jones, L. (2019) ‘Assessing Creatively, or why I’ve embraced the #unessay’. Available at: https://lucindamatthewsjones.com/2019/09/11/assessing-creatively-or-why-ive-embraced-the-unessay/.

Neoliberal Law and the Human-Nature Binary

Photo of Hannah Blitzer
Hannah Blitzer

This post is by Hannah Blitzer (Doctoral Researcher, and graduate of the LLM International Human Rights Law, at Sussex Law School). Here Hannah sets out key issues she is contending with in her doctoral research, problematising and responding to Eurocentricity and anthropocentricity in mainstream – neoliberal – approaches to environmental and human rights law in the UK.

Anthropocene? Capitalocene? Necrocene? Plantationocene? Cthulucene? It is easy to lose count of the number of neologisms that have recently proliferated in social and environmental theorists’ well-meaning attempts to define the world “we” now live in. The feminist social theorist  Donna J. Haraway once, perhaps now infamously, suggested we “stay with the trouble” and adopt “tentacular thinking” to navigate the ontological nature-culture dualism and Eurocentric human exceptionalism that have long-defined the “modern” world. Nevertheless, maybe (as Latour once suggested) we have never been modern.

In contemplating these overarching theoretical considerations, it is difficult not to question whether it is possible to “make matter great again” and recognise the excluded materiality and material practices that have resulted in our contemporary ecological crisis. More specifically, how can we overcome human-nature dualism and marketised epistemologies of mastery that have become entrenched in our legal systems?

Admittedly, my doctoral research adopts one of the above narratives, the Capitalocene, as I attempt to situate these questions in the context of environmental law and human rights in the United Kingdom. In my view, this particular narrative is the most useful framing because the “modern” legal framework is steeped in a dialectical materialism that entrenches long-standing, Cartesian subject-object distinctions that are entangled in (certain) humans’ worldview. The origins of our crisis, the threat to our “web of life”, is the result of capitalism’s operation as a world ecology of power. It is the root of rift between humans and “nature” under the project of modernity. We are all capital now. Taking this one step further, I argue that this dualism, at least since the late 1980s, has been driven by the ideological domination and institutional entrenchment of the neoliberal market economy and the power relations that emanate from the anthropocentric binaries that it accelerates.

Under neoliberalism, we start “from here” in respect of environmental protection. It is human nature, not capital, that is the single common denominator of the planetary crisis. Marketisation, commodification, privatisation of the commons, the protection of corporate interests and free trade – starting from where we already are – will get us out of our problems. Humans and nonhumans alike are subsumed into the logic of the market. Paradoxically, the neoliberal market is an ontologically distinct entity, based on an epistemic doctrine that knowledge emanates from the market. It is an epistemology of human-market mastery. As such, “market society must be treated as a ‘natural’ and inexorable state of humankind”. The market economy is therefore an unmistakably anthropocentric construct. Furthermore, the neoliberal project ascribes an intrinsic value to the artefacts of the corporation and to the market. Legal personality under the neoliberal project, are therefore primarily directed towards maintaining the neoliberal episteme and its entities – capital, the transnational corporation and the self-interested, entrepreneurial human being.

Starting from “here” has created numerous legal issues, most of which revolve around the manner in which law legitimates neoliberalism and excludes non-human matter from subjectivity. This human-nature dichotomy is expressed in both environmental and human rights (particularly environmental rights) law and policy, which continue to be centred on an enclosed, anthropocentric subjectivity. Environmental law and policy across the fields of nature conservation, biodiversity protection and sustainable development enshrine the dominant, anthropocentric discourse and neoliberal market principles. We can see examples of this in the commodification and marketisation of biodiversity conservation, natural capital rhetoric and payments for ecosystem services. Under these paradigms, neoliberal principles support the valuation of nature as being something “out there”, an entity of instrumental value (or paradoxically a marketised form of intrinsic value) for humans. The normative commitments emanating from British law’s human-nature dichotomy have inevitably legitimated the outright denial of rights to vulnerable non-human, and human, entities in favour of maintaining the natural state of humankind – the market society. 

These issues emanate from how the (neo)liberal legal framework addresses the question of “who is law’s person?”. This is something I seek to explore in depth as it is already possible to grant non-human and inanimate entities legal rights – the corporation and the nation-state being central examples. Therefore, an arguably more important question remains: Are the rights-duties dialectics that have come to define the “modern” legal framework still working in practice, given the accelerating rate of environmental degradation and climate breakdown that we have yet to tackle in a just, effective way? This question is particularly relevant as the human rights framework has been heavily criticised as operating as a “moral framework” for neoliberalism.

My thesis explores the opportunity for critical resistance that may be offered through the various ways of affording legal subjectivity and rights to excluded human and non-human entities. There has already been significant momentum in the legal space in relation to the environmental justice movement, ecocide, environmental human rights such as the Human Right to a Healthy Environment, and the Rights of Nature. Just last month, an Independent Expert Panel (IEP) of international lawyers unveiled their proposed legal definition of ecocide as a potential fifth crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The achievements of these movements in respect of beginning to shift the boundaries of the human-nature binary and decentre certain capitalist interests cannot be understated.

However, the debate on the Rights of Nature and whether we can or should be protecting non-human entities with “human-style” rights remains contentious, perhaps even “wrongheaded”. There is, of course, the risk of broadening the concept of the “rational” human actor as a rights bearer with legal personality (with all of its Eurocentric, Western, classist, ableist, etc. historical roots) and directly transplanting that basis for rights onto non-human agents. Moreover, existing human rights language and legal frameworks, including that of international law and environmental (human) rights, inadvertently risk reinforcing the legitimacy of human exceptionalism and of non-human objectification, thus shaping the human relationship with the more-than-human through hierarchies of exploitation. These frameworks remain inherently anthropocentric.  A recent example of this is the criticism lodged against the IEP’s definition of ecocide – that it remains grounded in an anthropocentric understanding of environmental destruction.

I question whether these issues are surmountable. The criticisms outlined above become increasingly problematic when considering the relationship between international human rights law and national laws, principally because under the individualistic, property-favouring ethos of neoliberal, Western states, the rights of non-human entities arguably remain grounded on the interests of capital. My research critically assesses relevant legal theory and the Human Rights Act 1998 in light of these issues, particularly in respect of post-Brexit legal reforms.

Finally, is there a true moral case for returning to the same legal frameworks that have been so easily co-opted by the macroeconomic, capitalist structures that have driven the planetary and climate crises? Some basic principles of New Materialism (many of which are outlined in Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin’s excellent book) may help us answer this question. New Materialism is based on an ontological monism that recognises the diverse, affective capacities of all matter. There is thus a rejection of longstanding Cartesian human/nature and mind/matter binaries. Crucially, the rejection of essentialism in favour of transversal, relational assemblages. These may enable critical perspectives that overcome the legal and moral enclosures of the dominant legal subject under the neoliberal capitalist order (which promotes an epistemological centring of human exceptionalism – via the market – and seeks to commodify the differences of the vulnerable human and more-than-human “other”). By decentring and deterritorialising the “modern” subject, we can challenge the legal hierarchy that exists under neoliberal knowledge production and power structures.

The law may yet be salvageable, at least if we as legal scholars are open to new legal imaginaries that incorporate the diverse, yet vital, interests and capacities of non-human entities. A point of particular interest to my research is whether there may be space for constitutionalising the material need for a healthy environment[1] and stable climate in a way that embraces expanded forms of both legal and moral subjectivity. Accordingly, the thesis considers the possible conceptualisation of ecological integrity or a healthy environment and stable climate as a constitutional grundnorm. An ecological grundnorm is not a new concept, with theorists such as Rakhyun E. Kim and Klaus Bosselmann and Sam Adelman having written strong arguments in support of one on a global scale.

My view is that such a legal strategy may be well-placed to address the UK’s environmental and human rights laws’ anthropocentricity, regulatory gap and enforcement problematiques. However, as with many research projects, it is expected the answers to these research questions will evolve over time. For the moment, my focus is on exploring and developing the potential for ecological integrity or a healthy environment and stable climate as a constitutional grundnorm. I look forward to publicising my own case for it in due course. 

[1] Though it is appreciated that the term “environment” is itself problematic, and alternative language is explored in the thesis.

The Beautiful, the Sublime – and the Ugly

Photo of Emily Robinson
Emily Robinson

This post is by Emily Robinson (Senior Lecturer in Politics at Sussex). The post reflects upon the way that Conservatism claims to be based on ‘ordinary’ lived experience, while simultaneously invoking a sense of extraordinary power. It traces this tension through mid-twentieth-century Conservatism, and into right-wing resistance to addressing the ongoing legacies of empire and colonialism in contemporary Britain.

What does it mean to be ordinary? To believe your own experiences, beliefs, opinions to be — if not quite universal — then, at least, the norm? And what happens when you are confronted with the fact that this is not the case. That your simple pleasure is built on someone else’s intense pain?

The recent so-called ‘culture wars’ show us what happens when this process is worked through; when assumptions that are easy, straightforward to some, are seemingly made difficult, problematic by others.

The work of this undoing, this naming, and problematising is awkward, difficult, relentless. It involves — in Sara Ahmed’s iconic phrase — being a killjoy. And the ‘joy’ it kills is shown to be by no means simple, innocent, but deeply complicit in the power relations we have been conditioned not to see.

The rather hysterical reaction of the right-wing press to the news that the National Trust was addressing its properties’ legacies of slavery and colonialism has laid this bare. Corinne Fowler, the academic lead of the ‘Colonial Countryside’ project was forced to defend her work, telling the Telegraph that visitors might well feel ‘uncomfortable’ by the histories on display, but that ‘It’s not all about cream tea.’

We might take this one step further and insist that the experience of the tea is inextricable from the history of the setting – its power. Country houses were never apolitical (and, nor, for that matter, was tea). The cosy middle-class Englishness they evoke is necessarily underpinned by something bigger, more reverential. Otherwise, we might as well be at a garden centre.

As I argued in a recent article, Conservatism has always rested on this uneasy, unacknowledged, tension between the ordinary and the awesome, the comfortable and the terrifying. Its proponents have insisted that it is not about politics, but is instead rooted in the simple pleasures of daily life. In the early and mid-twentieth century, Conservative discourse resounded with sights, smells and sounds: cricket, roast dinners, children singing. It was presented as a natural, uncontestable, matter of feeling, and therefore as a more authentic way of knowing than the artificiality of thinking.

Yet, there was also more to it than this. The seemingly straightforward invocation of everyday sensory experience was not only (as we might expect) deeply classed, gendered and racialised. It was also underpinned by far grander conceptions of nation, faith, hierarchy, and power.

We might think about this in Burkean terms as the distinction between the beautiful and the sublime. The former is a social emotion, associated with love, smallness, fragility, and subordination: ‘we love what submits to us’. In contrast, the sublime is individual, rooted in self-preservation, awe, and the contemplation of horror. It holds power over us: ‘we submit to what we admire’.

If the beautiful is located in everyday social relations, the sublime operates on an awesome, unfathomable scale. It guarantees order, hierarchy, and allegiance, while the beautiful works to soften and socialize this power – making it seem a matter of custom and common sense. Without the sublime emotions of awe, reverence, and fear, Conservatism would be little more than comfortable sociability. But without this gentle veneer, we would have only the brute power of the state.

We might, for instance, think about the way that empire was domesticated within the everyday spaces of (white) home and family – what Deborah Sugg-Ryan has called the ‘everyday exotic’ of mass-produced ebony elephants, oriental vases and Benares brasswork. This worked, in Burke’s terminology, to ‘beautify and soften’ it. But it also placed the domestic space within a vast and exoticized network of power relations. The (sublime) terror of imperialism was refracted through the homeliness of everyday colonialism, while the (beautiful) domestic was made less parochial by the awesome backdrop of empire.

In post-war England, this relationship became increasingly difficult to sustain. Ordinariness took on its own political authority, and no longer needed to be underpinned by its relationship to the awesome. The age of deference was over; both the British Empire and the country-house lifestyle crumbled.

And yet, as we have seen, their cultural power remains. There is not only a residual unwillingness to examine the power structures that sustained them, but, in some quarters, an active hostility to doing so.

This is not new. From the mid-1960s ‘ordinariness’ has been pitted against ‘trendy liberalism’, ‘political correctness’, or – more recently – ‘wokeness’. This is often expressed as a plea for common sense and simplicity over the awkwardness and disruption of thinking. Why do you have to make everything so complicated? Why must you spoil things? Don’t be such a killjoy. Though the question this invites is how something too painful to bear thinking about came to seem ordinary, or joyful, at all.

As the National Trust has recognised, it’s not that we cannot enjoy these houses, cannot consume cream teas, or run through the gardens. There is beauty there, and we should take pleasure in it. But if we are to undo the insidious power such spaces continue to wield, then we need to look it square in the face, and see that it’s not sublime after all. It’s just ugly.

“The wheels firmly on the bus”: Reflections on teaching a new module in the ‘new normal’

[This post is by Jeanette Ashton (Lecturer in Law at Sussex) and Paulo Oprandi (Senior Learning Technologist at Sussex). It is cross-posted from DARE to Transform and the Law Teacher blog. Republished with permission.]

by Jeanette Ashton & Paolo Oprandi

About the authors

Jeanette Ashton is a Lecturer in Law and a Non-Practising solicitor, having joined the University of Sussex after 8 years at Brighton University.  She teaches Contract law, Equity and Trusts and Understanding Law.  Her research interests are legal education, whistleblowing and contract law.  She is Employability lead for the Law School and co-leads the CLOCK legal companion scheme.

Paolo Oprandi is a Doctor in Education with a colourful and varied academic background. He is currently working at the University of Sussex as a Senior Learning Technologist in the Technology Enhanced Learning team. He has an interest in technology in teaching, curriculum design and assessment and enhancing the student learning experience so that students can make the most of their years in education.

There is no doubt the 2020/21 academic year has presented educators with unprecedented challenges, and I cannot help feeling a sense of relief at having made it through the Autumn semester without, as one of my colleagues said ‘the wheels having fallen off the bus’.  I want to reflect on the effectiveness of learning and teaching techniques I used in delivering Understanding Law, a module for first year non-law students on the Legal Studies pathway, which I convened for the first time.

Introducing Flipped Learning

Dr Paolo Oprandi and I have explored the flipped learning approach. Many advantages have been found with this approach including more students meeting and exceeding the learning outcomes (Lee & Choi 2019) and more students taking self-regulated learning approaches to learning (van Alten et al 2020). It is a curriculum design where the content that the student is expected to learn is presented before a face-to-face session via a recorded lecture presentation, an academic paper and/or any other medium that students can engage with in their own time. The face-to-face session is used to discuss, analyse and critique the learning material with the tutor present. It is called a flipped curriculum design as it sits in contrast with curricula that present the learning material during the face-to-face teaching session and confine opportunities for students to discuss, analyse and critique the material to homework tasks and reading groups when the tutor is not present. The major worry for academics taking this approach is that students engage with the learning material before a taught session.

Planning the module delivery

With the benefit of having attended various TEL training sessions during the summer, I decided to utilise Panopto to frontload preparation via short, pre-recorded lectures.  To facilitate communication and engagement I planned to use the Padlet tool and Zoom quizzes within live, follow-up lecture sessions.  When planning the module, for around 75 students, I did not know who would be delivering the four two-hour seminars, so I took the decision to run these as synchronous online sessions.   

The key objective of Understanding Law is to give students a solid foundation as to how law is made, interpreted and developed, an overview of human rights law, and the different types of public and private law, alongside a working understanding of the court system of England and Wales.  This equips them with the legal skills necessary for the subsequent modules on the Legal Studies pathway.  The usual form of delivery is via live two-hour lectures and two-hour seminars.  Particularly as this was my first time convening the module, and mindful that arrangements for students starting in September were uncertain, for each topic I decided to record 3 x half-hour content sessions, with a Padlet wall on Canvas for each, which I would then use to build a live dual mode session, complemented by an in-lecture quiz. 

Students’ views

To find out how the students felt about the flipped learning approach and the effectiveness of the Padlet tool, Paolo and I drew up a Qualtrics survey, to ask how this approach compared with other modules without pre-recorded material, how effective they had found Padlet, and their thoughts on the live session quizzes.  The response was low, to date only around 15% of the cohort, and this may be partly due to survey fatigue, and perhaps if I had been able to see more students in person, they would have been more inclined to complete. 

Students’ views on pre-recorded content

Despite the limitations however, the qualitative responses are interesting. On the pre-recorded content, a common response was that this enabled the students to manage their time, work independently outside of the live lecture, pause and take notes, and replay parts which needed clarification. 

In our study, students were able to access the pre-recorded materials ahead of the live session and the corresponding seminars. I had the peace of mind that, whatever the semester might bring, the content was there. Many of the students appreciated the recorded lectures saying,

 “[They gave] context to the required readings”

“I was able to take notes effectively at my own pace, since I was able to pause the recording and re-listen to parts I was unable to understand the first time I heard it.”

The live sessions that followed the students watching the pre-recorded lectures worked well. However, one respondent, whilst stating the benefits of doing the work in their own time, felt that the pre-recorded content ‘lacked a personal feel’. The first of these was online only, while room capacity issues were finalised, and the remainder were dual mode, though in person attendance dropped off towards the end of the module, with the majority of students choosing to access via Zoom. 

Personal reflection and students’ views on Padlet

During the sessions I used Padlet to ask questions of the students’ understanding and students to pose questions back to me. The combination of building in additional content to address questions raised on the Padlet wall, Zoom polls to check understanding, and questions via the Zoom chat function in the session, facilitated engagement and connection, albeit in a different way from usual. 

This was the first time I had used the Padlet tool.  At the beginning of the module, students needed a lot of encouragement to post questions, and it took a little time to direct students away from emailing questions to me, and instead to post on the Padlet wall.  However, once they got used to this, comparing with my experience of other modules, this proved more effective than the Canvas Discussion Board.  Perhaps this is because it is more visual, sitting alongside the topic materials, rather than accessing via another window.  It was also easier to see other students’ questions and to know that these will be covered in the live follow up session, avoiding duplication. The students appreciated my efforts; one stated,

“[Padlet] was a really effective way of bringing up a question and making the seminar more useful”

On the live session quizzes, the responses were largely positive, for example,

 ‘I found it motivating to stay on task and up-to-date on lectures’

‘I was able to check my own understandings of some terms and the system of English Law’. 

One student stated that the questions were simplistic and that there wasn’t an incentive to get the answers correct, but hopefully they found the seminars, which required them to analyse a case on the theme of the legal topic area, more challenging.  I deliberately made the quizzes anonymous, to encourage students to answer without fear of getting the answer wrong and participation in the lectures for the quizzes was always 80%+, which was encouraging. 

The students were asked to rate the effectiveness of the Padlet tool.  Again, acknowledging the low response rate, most responses were ‘highly effective’ or ‘somewhat effective’, with a couple of respondents answering ‘neither effective nor ineffective’.  As I had set up the Padlet walls as anonymous, to encourage students to post questions no matter how minor they might be, it is impossible to say how many students engaged with the Padlet.  The anonymity was appreciated by at least one of the students who mentioned,

[I found it] good for asking questions anonymously”

However, even if a student did not personally use a Padlet wall, it was effective in ensuring they were all able to access the same information, either through the live session, which they could also access afterwards, or by the answers on the Padlet wall itself, as per the Assessment Padlet wall below:

Screenshot for padlet wall with Q&As on assessment.
Assessment Padlet

Final reflections

My concluding thoughts on the learning and teaching experience of the Understanding Law module this semester are that I did not feel I built the same connections with the students as in ‘normal’ times, with solely in person two-hour lectures and the rapport which those bring.  However, despite that, I feel that the overall learning experience was positive, that the students were on the whole engaged, and the feedback from the tutors running the seminars supported this. 

I am looking forward to seeing the AB1 assessments and feel confident that the module has succeeded in getting the students where they need to be for the rest of their pathway programme.  The Padlet tool has been effective in facilitating communication with the students and in giving them the opportunity to play an active role in shaping the live sessions (Fuchs 2014)  I have already designed the Padlet walls for my two core spring law modules, but this time giving the students the facility to edit and respond to posts to help each other, which I hope will facilitate collaboration. Now just to plan the rest…….


van Alten, D.C., Phielix, C., Janssen, J. and Kester, L., 2020. Self-regulated learning support in flipped learning videos enhances learning outcomes. Computers & Education158, p.104000.

Fuchs, B., 2014. The writing is on the wall: using Padlet for whole-class engagement. LOEX Quarterly40(4), p.7.

Lee, J. and Choi, H., 2019. Rethinking the flipped learning pre‐class: Its influence on the success of flipped learning and related factors. British Journal of Educational Technology50(2), pp.934-945.

Boris Johnson’s Downing Street refurbishment: might a law have been broken?

Sam Power, University of Sussex

The Electoral Commission has announced that Boris Johnson, the, erm, prime minister of the United Kingdom, is under investigation. Well, to be precise, the Commission will investigate whether any transactions relating to refurbishment undertaken at Johnson’s flat are an offence under political financing law. In fact, in its official statement, the Commission suggested that there are “reasonable grounds to suspect an offence or offences may have occurred”. But what has actually happened here? What are the laws that might have been broken? And why is it a problem anyway?

The row begins, as will be all too familiar in homes across the globe, with a bit of good old-fashioned DIY. Every prime minister gets £30,000 a year in public money to renovate their private residence. The accusation laid at the door of Johnson and fiancée Carrie Symonds is that their works came in at as much as £200,000.

This wasn’t an issue until the prime minister’s former adviser Dominic Cummings entered the fray. He launched a blistering attack suggesting that Johnson planned to have donors (most notably Lord David Brownlow) “secretly pay” for the refurbishment. Adding that it was “unethical, foolish, possibly illegal and almost certainly broke the rules on proper disclosure of political donations if conducted in the way he intended”.

What are the rules?

So if it was (possibly) illegal and did break the rules, what are those rules in the first place? In the main, it is an issue of disclosure. Any donation of over £7,500 to a party or £1,500 to an MP must be declared to the Electoral Commission within 30 days. This rule applies to money that is loaned and also applies to lots of donations that might not look like a simple cash transfer.

So, if you buy an MP a photocopier, if you sponsor meetings and events, if you do paid research, or, indeed, if you provide £58,000 (either as a loan or otherwise) to decorate their house, it needs to be declared. This is the crux of the rule that may or may not have been broken and the questions that the Electoral Commission will put to Johnson and his associates.

Johnson insists that he has paid for the renovations with his own money but continues to evade questions about whether Lord David Brownlow paid for them in the first instance before being repaid. If the money was donated (or loaned) by Lord Brownlow either to Johnson or his party and it wasn’t declared in a timely manner, then electoral law has been broken. There are, of course, legislative complexities but, at the end of the day, it’s as simple as that.

What happens next?

A long investigation lies ahead to get to the bottom of this matter. In terms of outcome, the sanctions the Electoral Commission can hand down are small. It can issue a maximum fine of £20,000 and involve the police if further laws are deemed to have been broken. However, the political damage could be vast.

As well as having (not all that punitive) sanctioning powers, the Commission also has significant investigatory powers. It can call on anyone it likes to give evidence. That might include Symonds, cabinet secretary Simon Case and/or Lord Brownlow. It can subpoena private WhatsApp messages, emails and other evidence and – as the Brexit Party discovered – visit party offices for more information if needed.

The investigation, then, which will run and run, has the potential to be as damaging as any sanctions that might come from it.

99 problems, of which a kitchen is one?

Beyond the legal, there is also the question of tone. In general, no one will deny a prime minister the right to do up the flat that they live in. But defending that right in itself leads to rather awkward situations that can make those in power seem pretty out of touch.

Johnson comes unstuck over his wallpaper in PMQs.

MPs found this during the expenses scandal of 2009, when their claims for lavish decor created the sense that their idea of reasonable costs were far removed from those of the wider public. In this case, one particularly out-of-touch contribution came from Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine, wife of Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, who reminded us that the prime minister “can’t be expected to live in a skip”.

“Cash for curtains” is also damaging because it is happening at the same time as numerous inquiries into other potential scandals surrounding lobbying. A drip-feed of revelations has raised significant questions about standards and ethics in public life – and left many with the sense that these are not things the current administration has all that much interest in.

However, there is, as yet, limited evidence of the all-important “public cut through”. The law is complex, and very few people really want to get stuck in to the minutiae of regulating donations. Are MPs inboxes filling up in the same way as they did in the wake of Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle? Apparently not, yet.

Moreover, mud doesn’t seem to stick to Johnson as easily as it does other politicians. He is no stranger to issues with regards to personal standards of good behaviour and yet continues to be popular. All this may be priced in for voters.

However, we know that things can snowball rather quickly, as they seem to be doing at present. I often think of Johnson’s predecessor, David Cameron – and his rather abrupt downfall – in situations like this. Remember, he was known as the “essay crisis” prime minister. He would always, somehow, get out of a sticky situation at the last minute. Then, one day, he didn’t.

So, whilst you might not bet your house on it being curtains for Boris just yet – the snowball is getting bigger and bigger. And it is rolling towards Downing Street at quite a skip now.

Sam Power, Lecturer in Corruption Analysis (Politics), University of Sussex

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.