Doctoral candidates at this year’s retreat pose for a group photo in front of Thomson House during the morning break.

Doctoral candidates Jodi Lazare and Geoffrey Conrad organized the Faculty’s 5th annual DCL retreat this September, to discuss ‘Finding Our Place in Academic Life.’

By Bridget Wayland

Held on Friday, September 27 in Thomson House, across the street from the Faculty, the fifth annual DCL retreat extended from a bright and early breakfast to a cocktail hour in the evening, with four panel discussions in between. Throughout, the attendees—including 30-odd DCL candidates, a half-dozen law professors and a few special guests—covered various aspects of this year’s theme, ‘Finding Our Place in Academic Life.’

Geoff Conrad
Co-organizer Geoff Conrad

“The intention of the DCL retreat is for students to gather and build a sense of a communal project,” says Geoffrey Conrad (BCL/LLB’07), a second-year doctoral student who co-organized this year’s edition along with Jodi Lazare (LLM’13), a former SCC clerk who is now in her first year of the DCL program.

“After last year’s more practical retreat,” reflects Conrad, who helped organize that one as well, “Jodi and I decided we should take the opportunity to reflect about how all the different facets of academic life fit together, as well as any tensions between them.”

“I was pleasantly surprised by all the presenters,” says Lazare. “They covered many aspects of what we’re trying to do with a doctorate in law: teaching, research, citizen engagement and advocacy.” For instance, the Associate Dean of Graduate Studies, Professor Angela Campbell, along with Professor Margaret Somerville and DCL candidate Anna Lise Purkey, kicked off the first panel by discussing one aspect of the retreat’s theme, “Life as a Citizen,” while a second aspect of the theme, “Life as a Researcher,” was discussed by DCL candidate Francis Lord and Professors Hoi Kong and Lionel Smith. “I found that the panellists had really taken the time to reflect on the subjects we had asked them to present about,” says Conrad, “which I think speaks volumes about the level of engagement and commitment of our professors and students here at the Faculty.”

Jodi Lazare
Co-organizer Jodi Lazare

After lunch, the two dozen doctoral students in attendance heard from Professor René Provost, DCL student Isabelle Deschamps and Dr. Mariela Tovar of McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services, who examined the pitfalls and misconceptions of ‘Life as a Professor.’ “They presented all the obstacles, hurdles and mistakes that can befall you,” says Lazare, “and gave us some idea of the administrative responsibilities of a law prof—in addition to teaching.”

The final panel included Professor Robert Leckey, who discussed the role of advocacy in a professor’s scholarship versus in his or her real-world interventions, as well as DCL student Jeffrey Smith, counsel for the Western Sahara—which he described as “a real-life Jessup moot.” They were joined by the Honourable Nicholas Kasirer, Justice of the Quebec Court of Appeal and former Dean of the Faculty of Law. “Justice Kasirer brought an interesting perspective to our discussion,” observes Conrad, “because he has 20 years of experience as a professor and a former Dean at the Faculty, and has now experienced the other side of the spectrum—actually judging the hard cases that our society faces.”

The organizers were pleased by the turnout, as well as by the feedback they received from participants. “It was rewarding, in that we put on a really great retreat,” says Lazare. “We had the chance to exchange ideas about what we are getting ourselves into for the next two to four years, and to feel a real sense of community. Doctoral students spend a lot of time researching and writing, so it can be a little isolating on the social front. The retreat is a way for us to realize that we’re not alone in this.”

DCL candidates listen as Professor Campbell speaks about the academic experience.
DCL candidates listen as Professor Campbell speaks about ‘Life as a Citizen’.

Do the organizers think people left the retreat feeling that they had “found their place in academic life”? “Not at all!” says Conrad. “The retreat was designed to be more exploratory than conclusive or prescriptive. As elsewhere, life in academia is multifaceted and complex. It was not the point of the retreat to be able to leave saying ‘we have an answer to this,’ but instead to discover the places that academic life can take you, and to better envision a career in the university—with all the duties, benefits, opportunities and challenges that go along with that. And I think it was a step in that direction.”

Founded five years ago by Professor Shauna Van Praagh, the then-Associate Dean of Graduate Studies, the retreat has become a tradition at the Faculty. Though completely student-organized, the retreat is fully supported by the Office of Graduate Studies. “Associate Dean Angela Campbell was instrumental in making it the success that it was,” says Conrad. “We could not have done it without her.”