By Heather Cowgill
An interview with Lorren Eldridge, a Graduate Teaching Assistant at Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford. Lorren’s DPhil research involves English Legal History, and she teaches Contract Law, Land Law, and the History of English Law to undergraduates. She previously completed a training contract at a ‘Magic Circle’ law firm after completing her undergraduate BA at St Anne’s College, University of Oxford.
Did you always know you wanted to go into academia?
I wanted to be a marine biologist as a kid (growing up in New Zealand, that was a more interesting job than in the UK). I don’t think I really realised that academia was a job until I was at university. I applied to study law with an idea in mind of being a human rights barrister and saving the world, like lots of teenagers. Then I did some mooting and realized that actually I wasn’t that interested in the sort of formal advocacy involved in being in a courtroom – I had thought it would be more like the debating I had done at secondary school. And once I started studying some law, I also realised that I actually prefer kinds of law less politically charged than human rights! I have been in love with Oxford ever since I read Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, though.
What was your university experience like? What kind of extracurriculars did you do?
I had quite mixed feelings about being an undergraduate. I went to St Anne’s, and whilst the laid back atmosphere and the lack of stuffiness was a good fit for me, I didn’t feel like I belonged at such an energetic ‘party’ college. I wasn’t sporty, and I didn’t get a first, so it was only logical that I found a spouse, in true Oxford tradition. I met my fiancé on the second day of fresher’s week. We’ve been together since Hilary term of our first year at university (our wedding was meant to be later this year - thanks Covid-19).
I came from a family where nobody had been to university, and my working-class parents’ attitude, like a lot of working-class people, was that debt is bad. So in my first year of university, instead of taking out the full maintenance loan for living costs, I spent my own hard earned savings. That was really stupid, in hindsight, because most people will never pay off their whole student loan, anyway! I think Martin Lewis has been really good on explaining this, but I didn’t have that resource, and I didn’t even know I needed it. By second year of university, even having now taken out the biggest maintenance loan I could get, I was really short on cash, because the loan is based on your parents’ income, but doesn’t take into account whether they actually can or do give you any of that income! Most of my parents’ income went on rent, and they weren’t in a position to give me much whilst I was at uni. The issue of money and disadvantage for Oxford students continues to be something that bugs me a lot, and now I’m in a position to do something about it I do a lot of outreach work.
How did you eventually decide to pursue this career path?
I would have applied for postgraduate study straight after my undergrad if I could have, but three things stopped me. A big one was that I already had a job lined up because I had applied for training contracts in second year, and postgraduate study didn’t seem like a real option for me (grades-wise) until third year – I peaked late. The entry requirement for the BCL is really high - I didn’t know about the MPhil as another option – and I wasn’t sure I would get a first in my degree (as it turned out, I missed out on a first by a couple of marks…). The other was that there were no student loans for postgraduate study until 2017, and I did not have the money to pay for fees and living costs. By the time I graduated from my undergraduate degree, I really did want to stay, and I even sat the All Souls exams a few months after finals to try and get funding that way (which means I carried on revising through the summer after finals, which was an interesting experiment in self-punishment).
I thought I would go to the city for a few years, get qualified, make some money, and see if I liked it. It turned out that I didn’t know Commercial law could be really exciting, especially if you’re working on a cutting-edge case, but a lot of the time as a trainee it’s long hours for work I didn’t find very engaging. That gets better as you get more senior, because you get more control over what you work on, but I didn’t want to spend years doing boring work first. A training contract takes two years, plus the 7 months of the accelerated LPC, and after a year at work I had decided being a commercial lawyer was not for me. I wanted to use all the skills and the thinking that I had been trained to do at university. There had been a particular topic that really bothered me as an undergrad, so I started to fill up a notebook with ideas of what kind of research project would get at that problem, and then turned that into my research proposal for Oxford.
Who was your most memorable professor at university? Did they impact your decision to go into academia?
I had lots of good tutors as an undergraduate. One of them is my DPhil thesis supervisor, so that obviously worked out well – I’m not sure you end up really interested in legal history unless you have a good teacher. Another thing that had a huge impact was that, just after I graduated from my BA, one of my former tutors emailed me and said that they needed a research assistant and thought I would be good at it. That meant that I could earn some money, put something involving proper legal research on my CV, and get some experience of the sorts of work academics do when they aren’t teaching. And that person wrote one of my references when I applied back to Oxford, too.
After completing a doctorate, what options are there?
That depends a lot on what you want, and what you want to use your doctorate for. There’s no reason you couldn’t go into practice, or into a job in business. If you want to stay in academia, there are broadly speaking two kinds of jobs: ones based on research, and ones based on teaching, but realistically most people do a mix of both. Oxford has a concept of a ‘junior research fellowship’, which is more research and less or no teaching, but there are very few of those to go around. There are also lectureships here and at other universities, and all sorts of other job titles involving various mixes of teaching and research. Being an academic also means convincing people to pay your salary, so sometimes you can get a job which is ‘non-stipendiary’, which means you have a job with no pay! You have to convince a funding organization to give you funding for your research.
What does the role of graduate teaching assistant involve?
One thing is that ‘graduate teaching assistant’ means something different outside of Corpus. If you were a GTA for the law faculty, you would probably do less teaching for less money, and work across different colleges more often. If you were a GTA at another university, you would probably teach groups in classes as a supplement to their main teaching in lectures by the professors, and, again, earn less money. The Corpus GTA job I now realise I have made sound incredibly well paid. It’s not, in real life terms - it’s just that early career academic jobs are all really badly paid – I earn about 1/3 now of what I used to earn, and genuinely 1/10 of what I would earn now if I had stayed in London. Anyway, my job is a bit like a mini-tutor job. It has lots of things in common with what a teaching fellow would do, but with fewer responsibilities.
My job contract says I teach ‘four contact hours a week’ – translated out of Oxford jargon, that means that I am expected to deliver 4 hours of tutorials a week, on average. For each hour of tutorial teaching, you need to multiply it by about 3x to get the hours actually spent, to take into account the time spent preparing for tutorials (you spend more time doing this early in your career than later, but you still need to make sure you’re up to date on new cases), time spent marking, and time spent doing general admin like timetabling tutorials etc. Plus, tutorials aren’t spread evenly across the year, so some weeks you might do a lot more than 4 hours of teaching. My job is designed to let you get on with research whilst also teaching, so a lot of the admin - like college committees - is not something I am involved in at all, but I do have regular meetings with the two college law fellows to talk about any issues with students’ work and just to make sure everybody – including me! – is ok. It’s a very supportive work environment.
What is a typical day for you like?
Right now, my days are not very typical. I’m still teaching contract law tutorials to the Corpus first years via MS Teams, which takes up about 2 half days a week, between teaching and marking essays. I try to spend time properly reading student essays and giving detailed feedback, and getting it back quickly, because I remember how much it used to annoy me if my tutors didn’t do those things! I’ve also been running revision classes for third years doing exams, and replying to lots of exam-related questions over the last few weeks.
If I wasn’t locked inside my house, I would usually spend about three days a week at college, either teaching or working on my research in the college library, law library, or Radcliffe Camera (I don’t have an office – that’s pretty typical for graduates who do teaching). I tend to make full use of my “partial dining rights” – a fantastic perk of my job which means I can have several free lunches and dinners with the fellows every week. Obviously the food (and the wine) is great, but this is also a really valuable opportunity to talk to tutors who have been teaching for much longer about how to handle teaching challenges or what the best teaching methods might be – I can’t over emphasise how helpful that has been. The rest of the time I work at home, and I work a minimum of 5 days a week, but often 6.
There are always side projects going on, too. At the moment, I just got back the reviewers’ comments on an article that I submitted to a law journal, and although they were quite nice, they want some pretty big changes before the journal will publish the article, so I need to find time to address these over the next few weeks. And this year has been busy in terms of public presentations of my work: I presented some of my research at Cambridge last term, I’ve talked about something completely different (online) to an Oxford-Cambridge seminar series this term, and I was meant to be presenting at a conference about another different topic in July, which has now also gone online. Presenting your work is really important as an academic for the feedback you get, and for the profile-raising function, but it can also take up chunks of time you would rather spend writing or researching.
What kind of qualities do you think an academic needs?
You spend most of your time working alone, so you need to be self-motivated and self-disciplined. If you don’t get your work done, nobody is going to do it for you and you’ll probably be the only one who suffers. It’s not great for people who get lonely easily! You’ve got to be able to take criticism, too, as when people do read your work they will often be telling you what you need to change about it – although hopefully it’s constructive criticism. It probably goes without saying, but there’s not much point in being an academic unless you’re really, really into your subject. And there’s a balance to find there between research and teaching, too. Sometimes we get that wrong, which is a shame because a good teacher makes an enormous difference to a student.
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?
One problem here is that if we’re talking about lawyers alive or dead, the majority of the field are middle-class, white men. Not very relatable to me, as a rule. Luckily, there are loads of awesome women around, too. I’m a big fan of Lady Black, who was one of three judges on one of the few cases I actually got to sit in on when I was in practice, and who has demonstrated since her Supreme Court promotion the same amazing ability to sit in absolute silence for a long time, and then suddenly, calmly, make an absolutely withering comment on the weakest spot in counsel’s argument. Another amazing role model in practice is Jo Delahunty QC, who went to the same undergraduate College as me. I was at a dinner with her and lots of other women in law in February (to tie in with the 100 years events), and—my words, not hers, but hopefully she won’t mind—she proves a point that when you come up to somewhere like Oxford and study law and you’re from a working-class background, you don’t have to turn yourself into anything you’re not. Jo is tough and confident—and I imagine a bit scary to be on the wrong side of—but she’s also totally true to who she is and I can’t imagine she’d change for anybody. And she’s a QC and a judge, so I think she’s a great candidate as a role model.
One other pet project I’d love to properly research one day is about the women in Legal History and English History during the First and Second World Wars. While many men were away fighting, universities were still open, which gave lots of awesome women opportunities to teach and research that they may not have had otherwise.
What is your favourite part of your job?
I have ownership of it! One of the things that really didn’t suit me in practice was that I was never in control of my own time – if someone higher up said I was working all night, I was working all night. If I had no work to do because we were waiting for important documents to arrive, but it was the middle of the work day, I was sitting at my desk and waiting. Now, I decide (within constraints of things like Faculty lecture timetabling) when my tutorials are, when I do my essay marking, and how my time looks. I think there’s a general ideal in the psychology of work that when you feel like you have ownership of something, you feel more job satisfaction, and that is so true for me having experienced quite the opposite.
I also really like teaching. It’s not a requisite for being a good academic that you’re a good teacher, or that you like it, and things like marking a stack of essays are not very fun. But I usually come out of a batch of tutorials feeling really energised and cheerful—I hope the undergrads who are sharing them with me do, too—because it’s really cool to be in that room/MS Teams conference call and see people making connections and understanding things they didn’t before. I always look at my undergrad students and think that I wasn’t that clever when I was an undergrad.
I also love doing outreach, but that would be three things, and you only asked for one. I really like my job.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
When researching, a difficult part is having to stick to a particular topic or question. You’re fairly narrowly confined, since you are supposed to be answering a specific question, but the volume of work you get to read means often there will be so many interesting things you’re tempted to learn more about—but you can’t!
The hardest part of teaching I would describe as frustration more than anything. When you know a student’s clever and perfectly able (since you interviewed them!), but they spend far too much time at one of the many distractions Oxford has to offer and spend no time working. It’s so frustrating when you know someone is capable of doing so much better, and it’s completely different from when a student is struggling to understand a concept.
If you couldn’t be an academic, what career would you have pursued instead?
I do like some aspects of legal practice and could see myself doing that outside of London—somewhere the pace is slower and you work something more like 9-5. But I suspect I’m meant to write things. I wrote my first (very, very short) non-fiction book when I was 18, and in a very memorable and—at the time—depressing training contract interview one law firm partner had my CV in front of him, looked at it, looked at me, and said, “You don’t really want to be a lawyer, do you? You want to write books.” He wasn’t wrong, as it turns out, and funnily enough that firm didn’t offer me a job.
What advice would you give to someone hoping to be an academic?
It is hard to get an academic job – in some ways it doesn’t matter even if you are really good at it, because there are just very few jobs overall. So, be resilient, and if it’s what you want, and what you’re good at, keep trying. Get advice from people who know you/the academic environment. Talk to your university tutors about your ideas and ask them for advice: make use of the resources you have.
Find a good supervisor for your PhD/DPhil. Don’t pick somebody just because they’re good at their research—that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a good supervisor. Talk to their current and former students and find out if they’re actually going to help you. That’s not based on personal experience—I was lucky enough that I knew the person I wanted to supervise me already, but it’s based on seeing other people really struggle with problematic supervisors who have other priorities or just aren’t cut out to supervise graduate students. You want the person who supervises your doctorate to be on your side, to introduce you to your academic community, to help you develop, and to help you get a job. If they’re not doing those things, you’re going to be at a disadvantage from the start.