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Life As an Academic: Dr Liz Fisher

By Heather Cowgill

Dr Liz Fisher is a Professor of Environmental Law at the Faculty of Law, University of Oxford and Corpus Christi College. Originally from Australia, Dr Fisher first studied for a combined Arts/Law degree at the University of New South Wales before completing a doctorate at Oxford University. She very kindly sat down with me for an interview to get to know more about her and her life as an academic.

Did you always know you wanted to go into academia?

At school I wasn’t particularly academic, it was only in my final year that I started to bloom. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to get into law, but, once I got the marks required, I decided to try it and see if I enjoyed it. And I did. In my fourth year of university, I took a job as a tutor teaching the philosophy of science and environmental policy. It probably took another two years following that before I decided to go into postgraduate study. Even when I did come to the UK to study, I always thought I would go back to practice in Australia. It was a long process of discovering who I was and what I loved.

What was your university experience like? What kind of extracurriculars did you do?

The study of law in Australia is slightly different, because you have to do a combined law degree. I combined mine with arts, and I majored in Science and Technology Studies. Rather than 3 years, our degrees are 5 years long. Also, in Australia, you tend to live at home, there’s not much university accommodation, and – unlike here at Oxford - most people work a lot while they study at university. In the first couple of years of my degree, I worked 2/3 days a week at a bush walking shop. I was really outdoorsy, so my extracurricular activities were usually walking, hiking and canyoning, which is something you can do a lot more of in Australia!

Who was your most memorable professor at university? Did they impact your decision to go into academia?

There were 3 who really influenced me and I thanked them in my very first book. One was a law professor, one was a sociology professor, and one was the person who first hired me to be an academic tutor. These three people were important to me in many different ways. They pushed me intellectually and made me realise it was okay to be academic and to be nerdy, which made me secure in myself and who I was – a message I try and pass on to my students. I’ve had other great mentors since then, but these first three supported and encouraged me to go into postgraduate study.

What were the steps you took to reach where you are now?

I began as a tutor of environmental policy while completing my law degree, and then worked as a research officer. I moved to work in the courts as a judge’s researcher, in a role called a tipstaff. I then moved to the UK to do my doctorate at St John’s College, Oxford where I was supervised by the truly inspirational Paul Craig (Emeritus Professor of English Law and Fellow at St John’s College, Oxford) and worked with the very wise Mark Freedland (Emeritus Professor of Employment Law, and Research Fellow at St John’s, Oxford). While doing my doctorate, I was a College lecturer at St John’s, but my first permanent academic position was at the University of Southampton.

In my last year of my doctorate, I met my now husband – Roderick, who is also in the law faculty, so I lived in Oxford and commuted to Southampton. While I loved Southampton (it was a great law school), commuting wasn’t fun after a while. I was lucky to get a post back in Oxford in 2000 and, in 2014, I became a professor.

What does the role of professor involve?

In short, I illuminate people about law! The idea of illumination comes from a wonderful piece by David Feldman, about legal scholarship. My job is not just to teach knowledge, but to illuminate the hard issues in the law and how to think about them. I want to help my students and my readers to develop their own expertise in law to ensure we create a really healthy, thriving legal community.

The role of professor involves three things. One – teaching, which is so important and what people most associate our job with. I teach Environmental, Administrative and EU law. Teaching is about communication, and how we teach law impacts on how legal communities understand what law is, and more importantly, what they think it can be. When I think of Tort law, I instantly remember my Tort law classes and how it was taught to me. You absolutely need those teaching skills, and good teaching is not something you can just click your fingers and master.

Two – researching and scholarship. I research and write about how law interacts with environmental problems and public administration. My interest is in how to develop robust legal reasoning in these areas and that requires understanding the complexity of these problems and institutions. Like teaching, writing in law is also about communication. Presenting and explaining ideas is hard, it takes a lot of trial and error to get right. Successfully communicating complex ideas takes patience and a lot of experience.

Three – administration. Learning and research need academic institutions to be successful. Those institutions don’t work if we don’t administer them properly. A large part of this side of academia involves working with others in a collaborative process. Some of this goes on inside the Faculty, College or university, but it also involves things like peer reviewing, and editorial work for journals.

Overall, in this job, what you’re trying to create is a sustainable interrelationship between those three things.

What is a typical day for you like?

Of course, there’s a typical day pre and post lockdown! In a pre-lockdown day, I’m usually into work around 8.30am, after seeing the kids to school etc. The rest of the day is a mixture of teaching obligations and meetings. I may also have ongoing research tasks to complete, which may be doing the primary reading for an article or a book, or it might be writing (or even rewriting) a piece I’ve submitted to a journal or a publisher. As the General Editor of the Journal of Environmental Law, I am often completing work related to that role, and I also have administrative responsibilities in the Law Faculty. I usually get home at around 5.30pm, and I would do an hour or two of work after dinner as well.

What kind of qualities do you think an academic needs?

A capacity for hard work! But, in fairness, that’s all jobs.

One of the things you need is a lot of intellectual empathy. It’s hard to teach if you don’t have that; with so many of the issues we think about, there is always another side. Making sense of where the other person is coming from is really important to the quality of work we do.

Another quality needed is the ability to juggle different things. Paul Craig taught me this when I was doing my doctorate. I learnt that you can’t devote all your time to one project – we have very mixed workloads which means we’re working to a range of different deadlines to meet. Some of these deadlines are sharper than others, but you can’t let any of them slip. You have to stay focused, get on and do what you need to do.

Our job is about evaluation - that’s at the heart of what we do. Our own work is evaluated, and we evaluate the arguments put forward by others. Having a really healthy relationship with evaluation is important; we need to use this criticism to keep pushing ourselves. The very reflective Sanja Bogojevic, a Law Fellow at Lady Margaret Hall once noted that dealing with criticism isn’t about having thick or thin skin; it is about having a permeable skin. Criticism can sting, but it’s about listening, thinking carefully, reflecting and understanding it, which again involves intellectual empathy.

Another point is teamwork – you have to work as a team. Our research is very individual, and sometimes so is teaching, but we are part of a community. To build a community of students and other fellows, we need to share our expertise and pass it on. My expertise came from my lovely mentors who helped me become a better scholar. If our job is to illuminate the law, you can only do that as a community.

Does your career allow for lots of free time?

No! I often joke that I have no social life, but part of that is me balancing work with my family life. In any decision, my family comes first. I would also say that many of my colleagues are actually my friends, and that this job is a vocation, where you’re not doing it for money but for love, so you have to commit fully to it.

If you had to pick one person (alive or dead), who would you say, from the legal world, do you most look up to/has inspired you the most?

This is incredibly difficult! I would push back on this question because, to me, having just one role model means you risk getting into a kind of hero worship, so I wouldn’t want my students to admire just one person. You can admire people for different things, and I admire people who know themselves and do things on their own terms. The people I especially admire are those who can speak an honest intellectual truth. I can think of lots of lawyers who fit into that category and I can also think of women outside law – the American author of speculative fiction Ursula le Guin, the British anthropologist, Dame Mary Douglas who focused on human culture and symbolism, and Shelia Jasanoff, Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Harvard. Having a range of different role models is a part of celebrating a diverse community. We need to be able to disagree in society. To make the world a better place (which, yes, is a bit cliché), we need different people doing different things. As lawyers we are acutely aware of this.

What is your favourite part of your job?

There’s so many, I love my job! If I had to pick, though, I think my favourite moment of my job is the point when, in teaching or scholarship, my students or readers look inside their own intellect and see something they didn’t see before, particularly about themselves and their ability.

If you couldn’t be an academic, what career would you have pursued instead?

I would probably be a solicitor, and probably not a very good one! I didn’t always know I wanted to do this job, but now that I’m doing it, I can’t see myself doing anything else. Figuring out who you are can be really difficult, it can take a long time and quite a lot of courage. But once you have done it, it is hard to imagine anything else.

What advice would you give to someone hoping to be an academic?

Once it may have been that people could dabble in both legal practice and academia, but that’s not the case now. You have to make a decision to do one or the other, the days are gone when you could divide your time and do both. You have to make a commitment to one path as both practice and academia are competitive.

If you do decide to become an academic, you will need to get a doctorate. In terms of applying for academic jobs, you also need to be ready for many rejections. If you aren’t successful, it’s important to remember it doesn’t mean you weren’t good enough to do that role, it just means there was only one place and there was a better person for that job based on those criteria at that point in time. You also need to be open-minded about where your career might take you. And of course, as I discussed before, you need to enjoy balancing a range of different roles. Most importantly however, you need to be curious about the world, ideas, and people and be willing to keep asking questions and exploring the unexplored.


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