The Amicus Interviews are meant for broader discussions on legal education, and the legal profession at the global level. Along with the legal research and law schools, these interviews are meant to bring across a slightly “macro” perspective on things.
One of the first things that struck me about Heather Katharine Allansdottir was the sheer diversity of her career. She has learnt (and taught) at universities all around the world, and is currently at the Department of Law and Sciences in Bifrost University, Iceland.
In this interview, we talk about a host of things including the DPhil experience at Oxford University, comparative constitutional law, academic careers, and a whole lot more.
You have had such an incredibly diverse career so far! What got you to Bifrost University, and how has the teaching experience been?
Thanks for such an interesting question! I came to Bifröst University for two reasons – I am fascinated by the Icelandic constitution, and I wanted to develop my knowledge of innovative teaching methods, and Bifröst is a pioneer of various online teaching methods (in the last six months since Covid hit, Bifröst has been advising other universities as the world shifts to online learning).
I’ve had a great time teaching here, I supervised a BA thesis by a very bright young student on Brexit which made the newspapers so that was a great moment of pride for me as a teacher.
In general I’ve spent the year trying to develop my understanding of Icelandic culture and society. The constitution here is so fascinating. One of my colleagues was involved in the processes over the last decade to write a new constitution, and I am very interested in the idea of how to make constitutions as inclusive as possible.
Sticking with the diversity element, could you share some of the ways in which you planned out your education choices? More specifically, what have been some of the expectations you had from the different courses that you pursued?
I’ve made choices, both as a student and then as a researcher, to go to places that will change me and help me to grow.
I’ve received criticism for some of the choices I’ve made – for instance, going to Moscow to teach human rights was a bit of a high-wire act as it was at the height of tensions between the west and Russia, or going back to my ‘other’ home-land of Australia to learn about Australian law in 2018 was quite complex on both a personal and political level, in terms of my ‘positionality’ and my identity – but I always want to develop and grow, to learn a new language, a new system of law and a new way of thinking.
With comparative constitutional law it is important to understand the socio-legal dimension of constitutions and that is only possible through learning the language and culture.
I am particularly interested in the DPhil at Oxford – why Oxford, and once you had decided that you wanted to pursue a doctorate, how did you go about selecting your supervisor?
I was very lucky with my supervisor, Professor Denis Galligan, as he is one of the world experts on constitutions – how they are written, what they should contain, how they interact with the broader society – and he was very supportive of my project right from the start.
I decided I wanted to pursue a doctorate whilst I was a Masters student in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the topic of the 1995 Dayton Agreement was the topic of discussion in every café and lecture and party alike.
My year in Bosnia is what developed my interest in how constitutions affect citizens and how important it is for these texts to reflect the needs of the people themselves, as opposed to the very top-down, neo-colonial, un-transparent process of the 1995 Dayton agreement.
I wrote to Professor Galligan as I was leaving Bosnia and he was very receptive to my emerging interest in constitutions – this was in late 2010, and two months later the Arab revolutions happened so I made those constitutions my focus.
He was very supportive of my perhaps sometimes quite adventurous (or youthfully foolish!) decisions to go and interview people involved in these constitution-drafting processes.
Looking back, what were some of the most challenging aspects of completing the DPhil? What were the things that you wish you had known, if any, before you started the DPhil?
An Oxford DPhil, and any doctorate, is a challenging endeavour in any circumstances, so some general advice applies (not that I think I am particularly in a position of wisdom! I am still learning and growing like everyone), whilst each experience is also unique.
For instance, it is important to be flexible, to know that things will change, and knowing what you ‘don’t know’ – trying to make a mark on a page whilst knowing there is still so much you do not know is sort of the apprenticeship of doctoral-level work, transforming from someone who consumes knowledge to someone who produces knowledge.
My DPhil experience, however, cannot be unentangled from the specific challenges and experiences that I faced throughout it – in my case, the twists and turns of the Egyptian revolution from 2011-2014.
I learned a lot and also made a lot of mistakes in the dilemma of ‘who are you in what moment’ – academicians are also humans. I felt human attachment and loyalties and commitments to the young Egyptians involved in their struggle for justice – so that tight-rope walk of who you are as a person and who you are as a researcher became, at some points, very painful for me.
I had to make moral choices I never thought I would have to face.
Even my time in Bosnia, where I had been studying things like transitional justice and reconciliation, was little preparation for what I witnessed and experienced in Egypt during the revolution, the calculations you have to make as both an academic and as a person.
I wish I had known, when I began my DPhil in 2011, how to hold all this complexity at once, all the different people who you have to be at once, in order to try to pin down a moment, such as the ‘constitutional moment’ of 2011-2014, and also hold the complexity of the inner world of others – but at the same time, it is never possible to fully compartmentalise one’s life, and it only causes pain to try.
One piece of advice I would give prospective doctoral students of any discipline is to have a very clear idea of what you want to enact but also be aware and prepared for the fact that this will change, and also maintain a good relationship with your supervisor, which requires communication and flexibility, like any dance of human relations, it requires both of you to develop a good dynamic.
Research and writing are extremely valuable skills – how do you think law schools in particular can encourage and build these skills?
They are certainly extremely valuable skills!
I think law schools are particularly good at teaching you to wield your mind like a scalpel, how to parse a text with the precision of a scientist, how to build and deconstruct an argument.
I actually came to law quite late as my first degree was in History, and I think that law changed how my mind works – I read a text differently now to how I would read when I was a student of the humanities (not that I don’t think the humanities are also valuable, but law gives you specific understandings of concepts of intent, cause-and-effect, and a way to comb through the messiness of human relations).
So, I think law schools work well at encouraging clear thinking, and this is developed through encouraging writing – for students to write enough until they gain the skills to really make a very clear and robust case.
Conversely, I think it would be great if law schools placed more emphasis on both legal history and legal philosophy – these are often ‘elective’ courses in law school, but understanding how law developed, and the ideas behind law – what law is, what justice is – are invaluable parts of a law student’s education.
So, I would encourage law students to take courses in legal history and legal philosophy!
Lastly, as someone who has taught around the world, what are some of the most rewarding aspects of an academic career?
Academia is so immensely rewarding that sometimes I feel guilty, like I tricked my way into the best job in the world!
You get to spend your days reading about interesting things, coming up with interesting ideas, and sharing and discussing them with other people curious about the world – it’s just wonderful!
It is really an honour to be let into this world.
Many academics, especially with the pressures they face under the rubrics of academia in the marketplace, lose joy in their work with all the emphasis on metrics and output, so I find the way to maintain the joy of academia is through teaching.
I think teaching is an integral part to being an academic, not “something you have to get out of the way to get on with your own research” – the teaching relationship, of sharing and imparting and developing and debating ideas – is a really unique and valuable dynamic.
That is probably the experience I’m most grateful for from my experiences at Oxford. My undergraduate tutor Professor Daniel Butt, who taught me when I was a little eighteen year old brat, was the first person who really spoke to me like my ideas were of interest and mattered and could shape the external world if I developed and applied them. I have always been so grateful to him, and I use him as a model in my own teaching with my students now.
There is nothing more rewarding than feeling that you have imparted some knowledge to someone younger and at an earlier stage of their academic development, who will then go on to change that idea further and pass it on to others!
It makes you feel like you are part of a really noble and valuable line – of us all developing and growing and trying to more fully understand this strange, wonderful world.