What to write and how to write it. For this blog post as for research outputs, it always comes down to the same questions. Le fond et la forme, so to speak. Looking back, there has always been a duality in my legal journey. My education has started in France but in a double degree programme. At the time, I had not fully contemplated the importance of this choice. Still, it already foretold the doctoral research that I carried out both in France and Ireland, and to a large extent it explains that I am still part of a double degree programme, this time as a lecturer, here in the University of Essex.
I still remember the comment written by my Irish supervisor on the first page of my lengthy and, so I thought, carefully crafted first chapter of my doctoral thesis. ‘This is French written with English words!’ An issue of translation that runs deeper than linguistic considerations. Looking back, bridging the gap between fond and form has been a continuous reflexion on my journey from civil law to common law, back and forth. So here are some travel writing notes with the banal and still useful discoveries found along the detours.
One could assume that studying in Aquitaine, once English land, at the University Montesquieu, an admirer of the British regime, would be conducive to cultural exchanges. And yet, I have received a very French legal training. The way my approach to law has been shaped can be summarised in two features (but could it be any other number than two for a French lawyer?). First, legal writing provides for a positivist and neutral account of a legal question. Secondly, it reflects the same fearful symmetry as the gardens of Versailles with its division in two parts, subsequently divided into two sub-parts, subsequently divided into two sub-sub-parts, subsequently… and so on.
One needs to start from somewhere and the French approach has remained my point of departure, either happily left or preciously remembered. A point of departure because, having been exposed throughout my studies to a different legal tradition, I have always been appealed towards another other way of thinking that intends to engage beyond legal boundaries and that reflects a different conception of ‘legal gardening’ where arguments can be carried out in an odd number of steps.
One of the most valuable lessons I have received from my research experience in the English speaking world is the importance of conversation. By trying to implement this attitude as much as possible, I have come to conceive that, in some way, my research does not end but starts when engaging with others. It is enriched when it deviates from its original track and follows the new directions any encounter opens.
In consequence, I try to be aware of the gap between the interest I found in a topic and what may also be of interest to others. For a long time, I thought that my research activity should be reflected in its written account. However, to a large extent, my inquiry has a solitary dimension. It is driven by personal interests that are neither necessarily shared nor need to be. Nowadays, when I look for inspiration for an article, my first step is to imagine a dialogue with the people I want to address. May it be with fellow scholars, students or some friends who (to my bewilderment) have chosen of non-legal path, my priority is attempting to make the most of what is to be shared in a given situation. In consequence, I select aspects of my research that can make a fruitful contribution to an ongoing dialogue. Seeing research outcomes as a form of conversation also helps me to reach beyond the academic community. It forces me to consider to what extent a legal voice can engage with other social actors.
Conversation also influences the form I intend to give to my research outputs and helps me with the transition towards a different style of legal writing, one that has its own conventions. This will to engage with a wider community have prompted me to write primarily in English. Putting the interaction with addressees at the centre of my research outputs also increases the consideration I give to the clarity of my writing. It has forced me to be conscious of the familiarity I have developed with a certain topic, a familiarity that needs to be conveyed and shared rather than assumed. On a similar note, I have relinquished the two-parts outline inherited from my French background. With regrets, though. Not only because I have nostalgic memories of trying to fit three points in two boxes but because these often unsuccessful attempts have taught me the importance of devising a coherent discourse. I try as much as possible to maintain this objective while using outlines that actually reflect the main steps followed by the argument.
Well, that’s where I’m at. Not quite here, still not there but firmly convinced that research cannot consist of keeping a form of personal diary. Its success depends on its ability to be exchanged. I hope these travel writing notes have found an echo in own experience. If so, please let me know. It would be a pleasure hear about your own journey. On different paths maybe but still at a crossroad.
Dr Julien Sterck, Lecturer, University of Essex
(Suggested citation: J. Sterck, “Squaring the circle”, available at https://law-academics-unblocked.org/2016/10/05/julien-sterck-squaring-the-circle/)