Friday, October 28, 2005

Endings...

"Once upon a time..." words that enthralled us as children. A new adventure; to be swept away on the wings of imagination; how we enjoyed those words.

"And so they lived happily ever after." While the ending at least resolved the story without tears, it had a sadness that meant there was no more, that it was time to do something else. Ways were parted. Whilst we crave the ending, we also wish it wouldn't arrive. It only means another start and more to resolve. Is it possible never to end? Not really.

I was reading the conclusion of a friend's paper the other day. To be frank it was limp. It mentioned a few things that had occurred during the research, but it raised no great issues, there was no controversy. It didn't resolve anything, nor did it raise questions for the future.

Even the implied halt in "living happily ever after" is deceptive. We are left wondering what did happent to them? This is why Hollywood has cottoned on to sequels. It's why Tolkien himself discovered the joy of the prequel--The Silmarillion--after having run out of sequels.

This is why endings are so hard to do. What is the purpose of an ending? Sometimes it is imposed. An academic journal may state that we only accept articles of 8,000 words. One might feel that the topic justifies 12,000 words. Tough: they won't accept it. One has to find a way of stopping on cue. Other endings come because they have to. Because the story is over. Our problem is we don't always know when that point arrives. So we guess, we estimate our ETA for the paper and hope it's satisfactory.

I find endings difficult. Are they summaries--rather dull that? Are they provocative statements designed to arouse? Are they the fin de siecle in so far as we have said all there is to say? I have a research student with this problem. His examiners said the conclusion must be rewritten. It must connect with the body of the thesis. In that way it has to be more than an appendix (see below for when we lose them); it's got to be substantial.

As writers we often don't want to finish because that means we can't change anything anymore. And as most writers will say: rewriting is what writing is all about. Finishing means no more rewriting. The tentative must become the absolute, which is a giant step to take. This is probably why endings can be weak. The futility of the grand gesture is recognised, so rather than take risks and stir controversy, let's disappear without a sound, a mere whimper so no one notices.

Bah!
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Saturday, October 22, 2005

Italian Detective Novels and the University

Of late my addiction to Italian detective novels has grown to disturbing proportions, and I've been wondering why.

Detective novels have appealed to me for some years as they seem to do to academics in general. I recall my surprise when a philosophy professor of mine in graduate school told me that he never read fiction; biographies were the closest he ever came to novels. It was more than surprise, it was shock. And my feelings were mixed because I find fiction a world I can escape into, one where the possibilities aren't bounded by mundane existence. So when he said this, I didn't know whether it was a statement of pride, seriousness, or some kind of emotional deficiency on his part. Did it mean I was wasting my time with frippery? I never found out. I continued to read fiction with enthusiasm.

I don't know at what point detective novels started insinuating themselves into my reading categories. I suspect it must have been when I was at Northwestern. My roommate worked in the local academic bookstore and would bring home piles of books for us to pick through. Among them were John Le Carre's and then it was a sideways move from spies to detectives. Then I realised that some detectives liked food, eg, Robert Parker's Spenser. Why food? I didn't know.

That became clearer when I was living in Italy for a year. I had a Jean Monnet Fellowship at the European University Institute in Florence. I used to the library of the British Institute of Florence to supply my English fiction needs. The remainder of Florence and Tuscany taught me about food and why it was important! I've always liked pasta but to be able to go to my neighbourhood pasta shop and buy some freshly made gnocchi or ravioli was a revelation. Just as detection requires a methodical approach so does food and cooking.

A friend staying with me in Florence--a lot of friends stayed with me that year--put me on to Magdalen Nabb's Marshall Guarnaccia. These books of course imprinted Florence on my mind. But more importantly they elucidated the chaotic nature of Italian society and bureaucracy. Later on I was drawn to Donna Leon's Commisario Guido Brunetti of the Venice Questura. His dealings with authority displayed the corruption and the petty malice that could drive the Italian polity. It might be tax evasion or bribing planning officials to get retrospective planning permission. The state appears all pervasive while its officials seek their own advancement in influence and wealth. If you flow with it, it works well, but if you reject its mores the bureaucracy becomes stifling in its thixotropic capabilities. Brunetti was of course ambivalent about it. He lived within the hermetic environment of Venice yet he wanted it to be a good place to live. What level of venality was it possible to accept and remain virtuous? In addition, his wife, Paola, was an academic who cooked the most wonderful meals.

For a while I was tempted by the rationality of northern Europe as I read the adventures of Inspector Kurt Wallender (Henning Mankell) in southern Sweden. His melancholy was never leavened by enjoyment of good meals. In fact the food was rather dull.

Sicily, that irredeemably corruptible environment, drew me back as I encountered Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano, the policeman who resisted promotion and abhorred the bureaucratic constraints Italian officialdom burdened him with. His moments of relief come when he opens his fridge to see what dishes his housekeeper has left for him that day. (For a while in Indiana I had a Brazilian housekeeper who would cook South American food for me--fantastic.)

Both Brunetti and Montalbano succeed in spite of their superiors and organisations not because of them. Consequently, they were viewed with deep suspicion by the authorities who probably feared their forensic skills bearing down on them. Moreover, their virtue made it difficult to mount attacks against them. They are deeply sympathetic characters.

I think it is becoming clear why I like Italian detectives--and I add Gianrico Carofiglio's Guido Guerrieri, a new one--they are not intuitively frightened of authority but they respect its capabilities to to overwhelm at times. They can work within it and yet remain apart. They retain their individuality; they aren't lost in the maw.

Another resonance for me is the uncanny resemblance between the Italian state and the character of universities. An overweening sense of rectitude matched by an incompetence that can only exist within organisations and institutions that effectively don't matter. Universities are domains of petty jealousies inhabited by satraps who secretly are burdened by the knowledge of their own failure and lack of imagination. Neither states or university administrations earn universal applause nor do they give us much to admire. The truly awful question is: what would we put in their place? Are they the least-worst solutions we have? Please, god, no.
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Friday, October 21, 2005

Law Postgrad Students and the Task of "Getting It"

While law is a respected discipline in the academy that imposes rigour on its adherents and acolytes, it has a bizarre way of inculcating research ideas and techniques. For law students, research is finding the one case that will tilt the argument in your favour. Contrary to social science where one views phenomena in terms of averages and so forth and is therefore searching for the preponderance of evidence, law likes single cases that can be expressed as being "on all fours": the killer moment. One only has to think of Donoghue v Stevenson and the snail in the ginger beer bottle--did it ever happen?

With the exception of one or two most of my graduate research methods class is law trained. Some from the UK and others from civil code countries. Today I was talking about different modes of research, eg, historical, comparative, evaluative, observational and so on. I could see that they were a little perplexed. Why did all this complexity have to be introduced to do a little research? Hadn't they dealt with research when learning what the ratio decidendi of a case was? No.

Most law students have written essays as undergraduates that were descriptive or occasionally analytical. The idea of an extended dissertation (approximately 12,000 to 15,000 words in the UK) is alien to them. Their preference would be to capture a topic and tell me everything they can find out about it. The deficits would be critique, analysis and theory. My task is to imbue them with the thought that, first, these are deficits, and, secondly, they should be aware of them. This is hard. My classes are full of examples from my own research and that of others, and as much as I ask for questions and queries, I don't get many, if any. I then say that must mean they understand what I am saying and what I mean to say. However, when assignment hand-in time comes--January 4, 2006--I will see the results of their lack of understanding, at least for some of them. Some will write thoughtful and interesting assignments, but they will be the minority.

How then does one know if one has got through to them? I don't think the answer lies in aims and objectives (assuming anyone knows what those terms mean: I can't distinguish them) being specified, learning outcomes being articulated. That leads to tick box audit control of classes. If one has done this, students will then be deemed to have acquired these particular competencies. It's drivel.

Maybe we have to assume that only a few will get it and that the others will remain in the mists. I have a research student, for example, who must get to grips with the concept of globalisation because he is examining the role of law in foreign direct investment in developing countries. He doesn't think it has anything to do with his particular country. But when I have talked about the role of the World Bank and IMF, he agrees they are significant. Then he forgets about them when he refocuses on his country. He is one who I am convinced doesn't get it, nor will he. I don't know how to tackle this type of situation. I can say read this and that, but what else?

A continuing conumdrum.
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Monday, October 10, 2005

Problems with Legal Aid in the UK and Elsewhere

Last year, rather to my surprise, I was called by someone from the Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA) about the possibility of doing some research on legal aid. The call was a surprise as I haven't done any research on this topic before. But I was feeling in a mood to try something different. My colleague Avis Whyte and I undertook a secondary research on the costs of legal aid in other countries.

The nub of the problem is that we, England and Wales, spend vastly more than anywhere else on legal aid. Currently we are running at £2.1 billion a year. Criminal legal aid takes the main portion; civil legal aid is more tightly controlled. The DCA was concerned to see how it could reign in costs yet satisfy the European Convention on Human Rights' Article 6 on right to a fair trial. Avis and I showed how costs varied sigficantly across countries as well as means of coping with them. Some countries use public defenders, others use legal insurance, and some do nothing! We finally wrote an article "What's wrong with legal aid: lessons from outside the UK" (which is published in Civil Justice Quarterly, January 2006, but is available in preprint from www.johnflood.com [look under "Publications"] ).

Having satisfied my desire to tackle issues of legal aid, I believed that would be my last foray into it. Wrong. We handed in our report last winter and this autumn we received another call from the DCA, but a different part. This was Lord Carter's Review of Legal Aid Procurement. The Carter Review emerged from the report of the previous review we had engaged with. The official wanted to see our report and article, so I sent them in. Later we were asked to come and talk with them. It seemed the Carter Review wanted its own research on international comparisons of legal aid; Avis and I were happy to comply as we could build on what we had done before and also through the Case Allocation project. We brought in a research assistant, Sylvie Bacquet, who had experience of empirical research. She would handle most of the data collection, and being of French heritage could obtain data on France also. We are on a tight schedule since we are due to report on our research by the end of November.

Our research focuses on three areas: lawyers involved in legal aid representation, case management, and case disposition. Within those are various variables that I won't go into here. But let me point out one difference, that of time. Cases can take a long time to deal with in the UK: constant adjournments because witnesses or defendants fail to appear in court; new reports to be requested; prosecution not ready; and so on. In the US, in Chicago, for example, criminal cases are disposed of quickly as a matter of pride by court, prosecutors and defenders. (See Steve Bogira's Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse [Alfred A. Knopf, 2005] for a truly enlightening account of the day to day realities of the criminal court in Chicago.) This is not to say one is better than the other.

There are problems with the costs of legal aid. It has always been a demand-led, open-ended budget, except now it competes with other demands like health and education. Even the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has problems with the costs of defending accused (click on "Defence" on home page to see items on costs). I don't know what the solutions are to these problems. They will have to be dealt with sensitively; it will only take a couple of wrong convictions for an outcry to occur about miscarriages of justice.

More anon.
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Friday, October 07, 2005

My New Website!

Today is terrific! I have a new website up and running. It's http://www.johnflood.com/. Following the brouhaha surrounding the university changing its website and not telling us in the law school (see August 5 blog), I decided I should control my own little bit of cyberspace. I wanted to put up copies of my papers for download and run web pages for classes as and when I felt like it.

I worked with a web designer called Caroline Mockett who is located at carolinemockett.com. She has designed a simple yet sophisticated website that is fully searchable. All the papers are tagged with keywords, so that one can search through the database with terms such as globalisation, big bang, culture, lawyers, bankruptcy, and so on. Alternatively, papers can be listed by date, category, or co-author. The database works behind the scenes: all the potential reader has to do is point, click and download. It's all very user-friendly. My details are there as well as links to useful research websites.
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Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Danger of Inappropriate Management Speak

Perhaps the most stimulating thinker on organisations today is Martin Lukes whose bon mots appear epigrammatically--in the form of emails sent to colleagues and loved ones--in Thursday's Financial Times. Martin "touches base" with us with on how he gives "120%" of his available "bandwidth" to projects at a-b global. Two immediately come to mind, Creovation (tm) and Integethics (tm). (For those somewhat awed by Martin's conceptual artistry, the former is the synegistic configuration of creativity + innovation, the latter is integrity + ethics, both trademarked.)

While Martin is a master at whose feet we can learn, others who imitate him without undergoing a long and arduous apprenticeship can look a little foolish. This was brought to mind when a memorandum fluttered across my desk warning us, among other things, about the dangers of "silos" in the university. Since I am a mere tyro compared to Martin, and my linguistic and conceptual mindmaps are yet to be drawn fully, I was perplexed when I saw we had silos. Naively, visions of wheat, corn and intercontinental ballistic missiles drifted across my imagination. How stupid I was: of course the writer was referring, perhaps too opaquely, to the ways organisations give rise to little pockets of expertise that enter into discourse with themselves or similar groups in other organisations. (Sub-units form that don't have much to do with other sub-units, ie, turf wars.) The memo further contended that we should crawl out of our silos--well, not in those words, but that's what it meant--and engage with the entire organisational community. A gigantic brotherhood of communal scholarship, enriching, enlightening and maybe a tad entropic.

You may detect a hint of dissatisfaction on my part with this portrayal. Fair cop. Of course we should hold Martin Lukes in awe: he's bloody awful and represents everything, everything that's worst about organisations. The truly horrible thing about Martin's musings is that when you first read them, you take them seriously for that's how close to the bone they are. It takes a few moments before you realise that it's a joke. Rather like the way "Yes, Minister" used to pillory the mandarins of Whitehall.

When senior administrators in universities start talking about the silo mentality in their institutions, I wonder if they can see what it is that universities do and are. (And I should stress the memo was, unfortunately, no joke.) They are collectivities of intellectuals and experts who have undergone extensive and intensive intellectual training/education over many years with a view to creating and disseminating knowledge by research and teaching. They are not in the business of peddling creovation (tm). I mainly want to speak to colleagues and collaborators who are in similar research areas to mine. There are some within my own law school and others outside in different institutions. I may want to consider working with others in my university, but only if I so choose. It is pointless telling me that I ought to do so or that I have an obligation to so engage.

My law school, for example, has one of the best research reputations in the UK for socio-legal research. We have built up that expertise over a decade or so. Our aim is to maintain or, better, enhance that reputation, especially as measured by exercises like the Research Assessment Exercise (see earlier blogs). That philosophy may inculcate a silo mentality, although I wouldn't call it that. We are specialists who like talking to each other. If we are forced to become less specialised in order to satisfy the latest management guru's edict (the "One Minute Manager" comes to mind...), we diminish ourselves. We become dishonest. Our intellectual community is fostered by closeness and trust built up over time. It's foolish to let that dissipate. There are, however, times when it's right to connect with the public mind, but that is not our primary responsibility.

Before I wrote this, I looked through some organizational texts that discussed silos. Not one referred to universities. I wonder why. Perhaps Martin Lukes should put his immense intellect to it
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Sunday, October 02, 2005

Hitting the Ground Running....

One always hopes that a new year will flow smoothly. The university administration will have been working efficiently to ensure that classrooms are allocated to maximise the use of space and ease the new students into the institution. And incidentally help me and my colleagues focus on the intellectual tasks of educating our charges.

Were it so.

About 40 minutes before my first class of the year was due to start, I took a research proposal to the head of the school for signature before it was sent to the university research office. Another colleague with a nearby office to the head is in charge of the timetable: a most important duty. She told me that my allocated classroom had been changed. (Room bookings are handled centrally and so she didn't know until virtually the same time as me.) I didn't mind as the new room was smaller, on the same floor as my office, and would have a decent acoustic. The original room was a hall in which it was difficult to hear anyone. We didn't know if the students had been told. I put up notices to warn of the room change.

At the start time for class I found myself in a room with no windows, no air conditioning, and rather a lot of students for the size of room. Within 10 minutes we were all gasping for air. The door was jammed open with a table to let some air in. After another 5 minutes about 15 students attempted to pile into the room. There were no chairs and simply no space. None of this made sense--I had gone from a room with too much space to one that now had only half the required room.

Flashback to early summer: some point in the previous year saw the administration decide to put research methods over two semesters with most of the commercial and financial law masters students allocated to semester 2. I would do semester one with the remaining students and my colleague, Reza Banakar, would take the second.

Back in the classroom: a few questions later I discovered the incomers were financial law students who hadn't been told that they were a semester early. Once that was explained to them and they were evicted, we were down to a manageable dozen. There was at last more air to breathe but if the air conditioning isn't fixed, it's going to be hard to run a two-hour class in this room without air breaks every 20 minutes.

Somewhere over the rainbow is a university where the buildings are looked after properly, administrators think considerately about their academic colleagues...I know, it's an illusion, a fantasy, but can't I dream occasionally.
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Saturday, October 01, 2005

A Year Ago Today...

A year ago today Eleni and I were in Reykjavik, Iceland, for a weekend break. On the second day there I had a stomach ache which wouldn't go away. I tried antacid but it didn't work. Eleni eventually insisted I go to a doctor. The doctor tapped around my abdomen and insisted I go to hospital directly. "You have appendicitis", she said. I thought it only happened to children.

The opinion of the hospital doctors varied somewhat from the GP. They thought I had peritonitis because my appendix had already burst. I was rushed to theatre...and woke up very groggy the next morning, dosed with morphine. My appendix hadn't burst; it did that on the way out. The hospital, doctors and nurses were terrific.

Not only did I think I was too old for this, but it was one of the few intimations that something awful was happening and I might not survive. My mother's first husband died of peritonitis. I was depressed for a while after and then encroaching deadlines took me out of it.

It's my first anniversary without my appendix.
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