A portrait of Katherine Biber sitting in front of a bookshelf and smiling in her office.
Dr Katherine Biber. Image credit: Shane Lo.

I studied during the ‘chalk and talk’ era. Academics were eccentric, intimidating and mysterious. Most of them were genuine intellectuals, area specialists but with extraordinary general knowledge. The only way to contact an academic was during their ‘office hours’, although they were rarely in their offices during office hours. Every subject had at least 100 pages of reading each week. The weekly reading materials were available in the library for 2-hour loans. The expectation was that we would attend all of the classes, read all of the materials, and not open our mouths unless we were confident that we had something meaningful to contribute. Unprepared students could expect to be humiliated in the classroom. There were no student feedback surveys, and student satisfaction was an irrelevant consideration in determining the quality of our education. I am probably somewhat more personable and available to my students, but I am grateful for the rigorous education I received.

The trickiest thing about teaching in my discipline area is…

I teach Evidence which is a core law subject and an area that is regarded as highly technical and complex, and perhaps a bit boring. The laws of evidence contain a huge number of rules, and many of them have been subjected to confusing analysis by the courts. Students find this daunting, and the subject has a reputation for being difficult. I like to approach the subject from its foundations: why do we need these rules? The answers always come back to matters of fairness, common sense and justice. Adversarial litigation is usually an ugly dispute between parties. The laws of evidence try to ensure that the dispute is conducted fairly and that the result is rational, supported by the facts. If students can understand the underlying basis for these laws, the details are easier to grasp.

What gives me the most joy in teaching…

I love the moment when I watch a student grasping a new concept. Sometimes they know they’ve learned it, because they made mistakes along the way, or it was very hard to master, and so they look relieved and proud. But most of the time they haven’t noticed, and yet they start applying that concept in their own work, in their own words, and I can see a new sophistication in their understanding and analysis. Marking exams at the end of each session, which is nobody’s favourite job, is made so much more pleasurable when I try to focus on all of the new knowledge my students have acquired.

My next trip will be to…

An interior shot of the Eastern State Penitentiary Prison.
The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

I am attending the American Society of Criminology annual meeting in Philadelphia. I am a member of their Division of Critical Criminology, and part of a growing group of cultural criminologists, although most of them are not legal scholars. My panel examines practices of state power in the context of secrecy, and I will be talking about my research into redacted public records. Whilst in Philadelphia I also hope to visit the Eastern State Penitentiary, a prison which opened in 1829 and closed in 1971 and which is now a tourist site. This kind of ‘dark tourism’ is the subject of critical criminological research.

If my academic career was a song, it would be…

Elvis Costello’s ‘Watching the Detectives’. It contains the line “She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake”. It comes to mind more often than you’d think.

Feature image credit: Wikimedia Commons. 

Join the discussion