Dr Dawn Watkins is Associate Professor in the University of Leicester Law School
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
From a young age I had a strong love of the countryside; so wanted to be a farmer for a while. I had quite an idealised view of what that would entail. Apart from that I envisaged being a writer or an artist.
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
I have developed this area of my work quite recently; since 2011. Before this my work was more text-focussed.
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
My first professional job was as a Solicitor; although I didn’t do it for very long. I qualified in 1996. One of my favourite parts of the job was attending court, where it is fascinating to watch the multiple ways in which various people navigate the legal system.
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
In 1997 I secured a University Scholarship to pursue a PhD in Law. The project was based in the field of Law and Literature and it involved a consideration of the notion of ‘high art’ and whether works that are categorised as high art should be afforded greater legal protection than other more prosaic works. This was quite a drastic step away from legal practice, but it gave me an opportunity to spend lots of time reading and writing and to switch my career from legal practice to legal research and teaching. I took up my first full-time lectureship post in 2005.
What has been your best professional moment?
My most recent research (2014 onwards) has involved the creation of a digital game Adventures with Lex to use as a research tool with children; to assess their understanding of law in their everyday lives (the Law in Children’s Lives project - see www.le.ac.uk/licl). I worked with Dr Effie Law from the Department of Informatics in putting a bid together to the ESRC and finding out that the project had been awarded funding was a brilliant moment.
However, watching a classroom full of children play the game for the first time was even better. At the start of the game we gave children the opportunity to get used to using the microphone; so we asked here two questions entirely unrelated to the project; ‘what is your favourite kind of pet’ and ‘why do you say that’? When we handed out the tablets to the children, there was a lot of chatter and excitement, but as they started playing the game, a hush fell across the room - followed a few seconds later by ‘cat’.. ‘dog’… ‘fish’. That was cool.
In the pilot stages of the Law in Children’s Lives project, we discovered a ‘glitch’ in the game; which meant that potentially the entire project might not work. Happily, the glitch was fixed by the gaming company and I was thankful that the glitch had been discovered at this early stage. Certainly it highlighted for me the importance of building pilot studies into the research design.
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
We employed two research assistants on the Law in Children’s Lives project; Dr Jo Barwick and Dr Elee Kirk. They both made significant contributions to the project and demonstrated for me the considerable advantages of taking an interdisciplinary approach. Elee emphasised the need to pursue a participatory approach from the very start of the project; and in her championing of children’s voices on this project and in her other work, she stands out as a hero to me. Sadly, Elee passed away in 2016 but in the relatively short time that I knew her, she significantly impacted my thinking and my approach to conducting research with children and young people.
Do you have a favourite quote?
I don’t have a single favourite but I have quite a store of little sayings that I say to myself quite often. My favourite at the moment is from Maya Angelou ‘If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude.’
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
Focus on the things that you are passionate about, but obtain training in as broad a range of methods as possible (even the ones that you don’t like as much as the others). Seek out opportunities to work on interdisciplinary projects; and commit yourself to carrying out work of the highest possible standards, regardless of the context.