I sat through Stephen Toope’s one hour panopto lecture: Here’s my review

Academic rigour put to the test

Stephen Toope’s frequent email updates have not only become a staple of Cambridge life, but also produced some of the best Camfess memes of 2020. With all the “unprecedented circumstances” in the air, it can be easy to forget that the Vice-Chancellor is also a professor of law.

On Wednesday 20th January, the Part II Geographers taking the Legal Geographies paper put down their crayons to listen to their guest lecturer, the VC himself on International Law and Legitimacy. I’m sure you can imagine how excited I was when I heard that the episode would be coming to Panopto (my favourite streaming service). I couldn’t wait to see for myself exactly how academic rigour ought to be done.

I think I’ve found my soulmate (Image Credit: Camfess via Facebook)

As I clicked play, I was met not by Toope’s smiling face or even a PowerPoint, but by a Zoom call full of early-morning faces. (Given that it was technically still Week zero, I dread to think what those faces would look like on a Week five early morning!) I spent a few moments examining the mini faces on my screen and waved to my college’s JCR President who was looking very studious. I realised that I, too, must be in an early-morning state of mind when I felt offended by the fact that she didn’t wave back.

Eventually, I found the Vice-Chancellor wearing a wonderfully stylish baby blue sweater and his signature glasses. Sat in front of a book-shelf, not over-filled but by no means sparse, Toope was looking studious. Dr Alex Jeffrey’s preamble was very impressive: apparently Toope is a very influential man in the world of law. I couldn’t give you many examples as most of it went over my head – in my degree I read poems and look at pretty buildings so law isn’t really my forté. I have, however, heard of the UN – apparently, he has done things with them.

But when Toope finally began speaking at 1m50s (though admittedly I was watching at x2 speed), I felt seen: “And I do want to just say that I understand that this is a really hard year for all of you. And I’m really grateful for your forbearance and for sticking with your education as strongly as I know that you have. So thank you very much for that.” You’re welcome, professor, you’re welcome. 

Trying to understand my own degree is hard enough… (Image Credit: Zac Copeland-Greene)

I was a little bit shocked to hear this comment early on: ”I think it’s always hard when you’re studying a subject that’s really a bit different in a way from your own intellectual background. It’s like breaking into a kind of charmed circle.”

It was almost as if the Vice-Chancellor knew I was sat listening in, infiltrating a tripos that wasn’t my own. It turns out he was just preparing the geographers for some philosophical bombshells. And boy, was I blown away!

As a common definition of international law was sought, the most abstract of theories became relevant to everyday life. When Toope casually mentions A.V. Dicey (I hadn’t heard of him either), the point is made that no man is above the law: “The Prime Minister and you have the same legal status”. How poignant in a time of national crisis. 

Perhaps what surprised me most throughout the lecture were the hints that 62-year-old Toope is unexpectedly ‘progressive’, for want of a better word. Without batting an eyelid, Toope describes marriage as the partnership of husband/wife, husband/husband, wife/wife (I would have interrupted to offer the term ‘spouse’, arguably more gender-inclusive, but Panopto offers no such privilege). One of Toope’s first examples of how Law shapes our lives was the legal process of changing one’s gender. The bar may be on the floor, but I was pleasantly surprised that the issue is on the VC’s brain nonetheless. 

Academic Rigour has been inspired.  Image Credit: Zac Copeland-Greene

I managed to catch up with one of the students lucky enough to be in the Zoom call during the lecture. Their main point of feedback was that Toope is “more Canadian than I realised”. I couldn’t help but agree. He does have a wonderful voice, even at double speed. 

The real star of the show, however, was not Toope, but the controversial Panopto Automated Subtitles. For a while I didn’t realise they were automated until they rendered Foucault as Fu-ko and Immanuel Kant as Emmanuel Cante (how dare they!) Evidently, Toope is just too clever for them. 

In all seriousness, my experience of that lecture has changed my view on being at Cambridge. It is somewhat daunting that I’m part of an institution with a man at the helm who can casually drop a theory of international Law that he invented with another well-renowned scholar. He truly is academic rigour at its finest. The real lesson? Be more Toope.

Stephen Toope: International Law & Legitimacy, Streaming Now, Only on Panopto.

Feature Image Credit: Zac Copeland-Greene

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