Our first two ‘Connecting Legal Education’ (CLE) hangouts, back at the end of March and beginning of April, focussed on community within legal education – what it is and how it could be built, through assessment, through modules, and through extra-curricular activities, such as pro-bono work with our students. So, for our 7th #ConnectLegalEd hangout, it was fitting that we returned to the theme of community, but this time from a different angle, exploring the impact of a student-run publication had on student belonging, academic engagement and professional development.
Belonging and Community: the Magna Carta Law and Criminology Gazette
Dr David Yuratich, Royal Holloway University of London
In 2019, the Department of Law and Criminology at Royal Holloway, University of London, was proud to launch the inaugural edition of Magna Carta: The Law and Criminology Gazette. This is a student-edited publication which combines aspects of a traditional ‘Law Review’ with a more community-minded newsletter. In a typical issue, readers will find case comments, brief articles on legal developments or controversies, interviews with staff and discussion of their research interests, news on employability events, updates on extra-curricular competitions, and general discussions about studying law. You can read the gazette online here.
Magna Carta is a student-led project which publishes student-created content. The idea first came from Suhail Mayor, who is currently a final year LLB Law student. The inaugural student editorial board was made up of Suhail, Yasmin Ilhan (final year, LLB Law with Criminology), Nica Andrén (final year, LLB Law) Harneet Virk (final year, LLB Law), and Hredi Chhabria (second year, LLB Law). They were appointed following a competitive process overseen by myself and another academic colleague.
One of the reasons that the Department has been so willing to support this project is that it provides an excellent way to build community within the department and to inculcate a sense of belonging for students and staff alike. In a recent Connecting Legal Education talk, myself and Suhail gave a short talk discussing the creation and evolution of Magna Carta and outlining the results of some focus groups that were run with some of those who participated in the gazette; more are planned.
This blog will focus on three distinct aspects of community that could be identified from the transcripts:
- Community as a general concept.
- Community between students and staff.
- Community between students and students.
A fourth theme, which sits a little adjacent to the idea of community, was the impact that work on the gazette had on the professional skills of its editors and contributors, not least on time management, interpersonal relationships, drafting, and proofing. These points will not be discussed in this blog, but they should be noted, since it further shows the benefits of running this project.
The blog will finish by reflecting on further evaluations of Magna Carta and outlining some ‘top tips’ for any institution wishing to support a similar endeavour. If colleagues are interested in the process leading up to launching the gazette, then I would strongly encourage them to get in contact with me.
1. Community as a general concept.
Community is a difficult concept to pin down. As academic lawyers we may be tempted to say, tongue-in-cheek, that ‘we know it when we see it’. When participants were asked about what a law school ‘community’ meant to them they tended to provide quite a clear definition. A community was a space and atmosphere in which students and staff could talk about the law and legal study for its own sake, rather than for an employment- or attainment-related purpose.
One participant noted that law was very competitive, and that this could “be a little bit overwhelming at times. It’s natural … we all want to do best in the country, but specifically in the law industry”. Another said that there should be space to say “this is what [we] studied, this what we do and I want to talk about these things”, adding that “the hardest part about this degree is all the barriers of entry into the profession and so we’re always being forced … to think about these things”. These comments remind us that if we are seriously trying to build communities within our law schools, we must remember that they are foremost places for intellectual development. Community is not just about having as many careers events as possible (vital though that is!) or about having sufficient numbers office hours (although, again, these are clearly very important things) or about running skills competitions (which, again I do not wish to belittle, not least given my own involvement in mooting). It is about feeling that you belong somewhere and that you are given space to pursue your interests for their own sake. As one participant said, “I feel like people actually wrote about things that they genuinely were interested about and that actually allowed really good quality of writing to come out”.
This particular vision of community can be broken down into at least two sub-communities: those between students and students, and between students and staff.
2. Community between students and students
Participants felt that Magna Carta helped to create the space for students to express themselves as part of an intellectual community for its own sake. One put this as the central reason for the gazette: “it’s building a community, it’s building a communal purpose, it’s building in a shared understandings and shared appreciation for what it is that our students can do and have done”. It is, crucially, not a competition with “winners or losers”. One striking comment, particularly given the concerns about how competition stifles community, noted that after one article about a successful extra-curricular competition, “people were talking about say, oh my God, I didn’t [know] you guys did this. That’s so cool. I hope they do this next year. I’m so happy for you. I’m so proud of you and like seeing that shared gratification across everyone. I think that makes everything worth it”.
This also builds into a sense of shared purpose. As one participant put it, “I wanted to be a part of it because I think it’s really important to use our voice when we do have a voice and we’ve got a potential platform to use it … I’ve contributed to something where people can critique the world around them in particular the law and related topics”. Outside of the constraints of formal classroom structures and assessments, the gazette appears to have helped students find their voices and a sense of social justice.
3 Community between students and staff
Participants were united in saying that their involvement with the gazette had improved their relationships with staff. One commented that before they started work on the gazette, “I was … scared of them almost … I only see them once in a week and they give lectures on such important things”; this clearly changed afterwards.
There is an underpinning sense here of being taken seriously. Of course, from our academic perspective, we take students and their studies extremely seriously, and gladly commit large amounts of time to helping them with their work, in providing the most constructive feedback that we can, and in providing pastoral support. We may, however, forget that it does not always come across like that. Participants in the focus group seemed to suggest that their work on the gazette helped to remove some of the hierarchies between students and staff.
One participant remembered that at the launch party, a lecturer said they felt there were minor errors in one of the articles. In what seems to be a truly de-mystifying moment, the participant said “it was good to see that”; this comment was taken in the positive and constructive way in which it was clearly meant. Criticality does not mean hostility; it means that student work is valued. It seems as if the gazette helped students to understand that and to develop their own critical lens.
This was shown to run both ways. Participants noted that when they discussed the gazette and their contributions to it with staff, they were met with almost universal enthusiasm. A typical comment was that, “to see his excitement in his eyes, to see how you know, he was reciprocating, like, ‘oh so you guys are doing this I think you could potentially’ … just to see the department engage … it’s been amazing”. Interactions such as these “further fortified the fact that the Gazette is a departmental thing. It’s not just students doing an activity in their free time”. Similarly, one participant recounted that one member of staff contacted them to see whether there was space to run an article on their new book, and “that symbolized to me that … we really did have support from a lot of the staff … it felt like they really do have faith that we’re actually reaching a lot of students”.
In sum, it seems like the gazette helped to create a student-staff academic community, where the ideas and work of the students is valued and supported for its own sake, not simply as part of an assessment.
This blog has only been able to scratch the surface of the focus groups, and as noted in the Introduction, more are planned to take place once the assessment period has finished. It is clear that the groups have produced some rich material on notions of community and that this will in turn need to be subjected to a more rigorous methodological and qualitative analysis. Based solely on the extracts discussed here, it is clear that more careful work will be required to assess how the project inter-relates with broader notions of community. There is also a risk of triumphalism. You have read a very positive account here, and that is because this has been an overwhelmingly positive and successful project. There is however scope to think more critically. In particular, we will need to consider whether in breaking down student-staff hierarchies for contributors, the gazette has created new ones between individual students. The focus groups also laid bare the amount of work put in by the editors, and as pointed out during our Connecting Legal Education session, this might raise questions about how to mitigate that workload.
- Take your time. It took almost a year between the original meeting with the Head of School and the initial publication of the gazette. Any project like this needs clearly defined goals, content, and processes for generating that content. There is no one-size fits all approach. What does your law school want from a project like this?
- Let the students run it. One goal of the gazette, as we saw, was to create a communal space for students to discuss the issues they were studying or which interested them. By ensuring it was student-run, we helped to avoid the lecturer-student hierarchy which was identified as a barrier to community.
- Staff support. There are at least two aspects to this. First, as we saw, the gazette has succeeded at least in part because academic colleagues have been as enthusiastic about the project as the students are and have engaged in discussions about content and in Q&A sessions about their own research: they have taken the project seriously. Second, each issue of the gazette is vetted by an academic member of staff to ensure there are no glaring inaccuracies or any dubious content. This member of staff also acts a general liaison between the Department and the editors.
- Choose the student editors well. This gazette is run by the editors who are solely responsible for creating each edition and getting contributors on-board. Having a competitive process, run by academics, meant that candidates who were serious about the process and who had the requisite skills could lead the gazette.
- Have clearly defined roles for the editorial team so that responsibilities are clear and that the team can work more effectively together.
- Have deadlines. This is especially important. Student contributors and editors must be able to plan their time. Deadlines obviously help to do this and mean that a clear publication schedule can be produced.
- Know your intended content and stick with it. This point goes hand-in-hand with the importance of deadlines. It is far easier to canvass content and produce an issue if there are clear expectations around what sort of content will be published.
- Publication does not need to be in hard-copy. We did produce some hard copies of the first issue, but Magna Carta is an online-first publication which is created using the free software Canva. This adds a flexibility to the format and to the publishing, and also means that the success of the project is not based on funding.
The slides that accompany David’s blog and from the hangout can be downloaded and include further detail about the project for those interested in knowing more.
By the time you read this blog, we will have already held our 8th #ConnectLegalEd hangout on Legal Design with Michael Doherty, Tina McKee and Emily Allbon (with blog to follow shortly). Our 9th hangout was on Tuesday 2 June at 11am BST, where Emma Jones, Sheffield Law School shared the results of her recent collaborative research with a colleague from OU Law, regarding law students views on online teaching and support. As ever, if you wish to join the CLE Teams space for future #ConnectLegalEd hangouts, please drop Michael Doherty (email@example.com), Lydia Bleasdale (firstname.lastname@example.org), or Emma Flint (E.E.Flint@bham.ac.uk) a line.