James Crawford as a Research Mentor: A Personal Tribute

James Crawford as a Research Mentor: A Personal Tribute

[Ralph Wilde is a member of the Faculty of Law at University College London, University of London.]

Photo: James Crawford and four of his former doctoral students, from left to right: the author, Karen Knop, Christine Chinkin, and Susan Marks (photo reproduced with permission).

This is the text of a presentation given at the American Society of International Law event, March 2022, In memoriam James Crawford: International Lawyer.

It was an immense privilege, pleasure and honour to be supervised as a doctoral student by James over two decades ago. The passage of time since has deepened the sense of great fortune I feel at having had the opportunity of sustained and deep contact, at a particularly formative time, with someone capable of having such a positive personal impact. I’m reminded by the inevitable ups and downs of life that things could easily have been very different, and so how precious the experience was.

James was frank, honest, unsparing in criticism, unwaveringly supportive, fair and sensible.  Emails arrived at all times, from around the world. Often responses were instant. Given all that he had to attend to, it seemed magical that there was one person doing everything that he did, and too good to be true that there was time in all this for a doctoral student.  I remember being with him once in his office as he tapped out something on his computer keyboard, and realized that he couldn’t touch type.  I wondered whether this remarkably labour-intensive writing mode somehow pushed the already exceptional Crawford cognitive process to an even more intensive level, as the time costs involved in verbosity, and revisions, were so high. Certainly, his missives and comments on drafts constituted acutely pithy remarks conveying a depth of authority, significance and merit.  James could only do everything he did by always getting straight to the point, and distilling things to their essence. And doing this as quickly as possible.  His intellect was so rare, it had to be deployed to the maximum effect.

Something I took for granted at the time, and have come to realize is not necessarily universally followed, is that James’s approach to supervision was to support the student in their own intellectual project, from topic choice, to method and approach.  Although everything I came up with was put under intense scrutiny, this was always and only on the basis of challenging the ideas in order to make them better.  Never did I feel there was even the mildest expectation, let alone suggestion or pressure, to follow a particular path.  His only concern was quality, significance, originality, and rigour.  This is difficult, time-consuming, and high-risk—it is easier to be more directive.  But if supervisor and student pull it off, the result is a work that is the student’s own.  This is a rare, precious gift for the student, in and of itself, and in how it serves as an apprenticeship for a vocation as a scholar. 

James’ own intellectual career challenges the banal generalist/specialist distinction that has arisen in the context of the massive increase in the range and depth of international law since he graduated from Adelaide in 1971. James, the quintessential ‘generalist’, made seminal contributions in every ‘specialist’ area of law he engaged with- and surely the lesson here is that one cannot hope to appreciate the specific without a complete, authoritative understanding of the general.

This breadth of subject-matter was then taken to another level by the remarkably rich and diverse range of approaches enabled through the work of his students.  This was only possible because of James’ open approach to supervision, allied to an open-minded, ecumenical approach to the field and its possibilities.  James may not have adopted all these approaches in his own work. Indeed, some of them constituted direct challenges to his own intellectual orientation. But, crucially, he was never threatened by this.  Some people said James was arrogant, but the impression I got from the comments he would make about his own abilities was that this was not reflective of a desire to be better than other people, or to put them down.  I got the impression that James would have been very happy had everyone been as good as, or better, than him.

The remarkable effect of James’ ecumenical approach was that his students, and here I talk about the others only, not also including myself, have produced works of international law that are not only path-breaking and of the highest quality, but also incredibly diverse—in subject-matter, approach, and method. There is a ‘Crawford’ school of international law in terms of the people who studied under him—but this is not a school of a single approach.  It is a school that makes a virtue out of diversity, comprising individuals enabled to realize their own intellectual projects.  What great fortune to have been admitted to that school!

Finally, and more personally, for me as a British person from a working class family in the North West of England, whose parents grew up in a two up-two down terraced house with no bathroom, where no one in my family had previously stayed at school beyond the age of sixteen, and with a father who was only partially literate, James’s lack of pretention and absence of grandness, and his exclusive focus on aspirations to merit and excellence, were of immense significance. To have a Cambridge experience that enabled someone of my background, riddled with class-related insecurities and associated behavioural awkwardness and gaucheness, to thrive, is a mark of the positive significance of James’s personal character and the especially beneficial impact of that on the university, his students and colleagues.  

The atmosphere at the Lauterpacht Centre under his tenure was a model of collegiality, with people working in very different roles in an atmosphere marked by a remarkably unhierarchical, friendly and mutually supportive tone. My memories of that time combine stimulating work challenges and inspiring lectures and discussions with the warmth, fun and friendship of the regular morning coffee meetings, lunches, dinners, barbecues and parties.

Thank you, James.

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