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On doing a Masters degree in a year that felt like the last level of Jumanji

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For the short time I have been writing on this blog (thanks @paulaabowles and @manosdaskalou for the first invite), I am certain I have said before that I never expected to go to university. At school, I was not particularly academically gifted and I was treated differently to the other children. Not only because I was a Black child in an almost homogenously white mass, but also because I was neurodivergent. Back then, I did not know terms like ‘neurodiversity’ or ‘disability‘ but I knew I was different because the teachers went out of the way to treat me differently (and not in the best way). It was only recently that I saw my school experience was intersectional, and how I was treated was traumatisingly ableist. At sixteen, I was forced to go to college to retake my GCSEs (or the equivalent), where I retook English and Maths while doing a BTEC Level 2 qualifiaction. Going on to do A-Levels at seventeen years old, I realised I did not exam well.

There, I saw I did well in coursework which I could do at home in an environment I was comfortable in, with time to mull things over and think. I also relaised I did well in things I enjoyed. When it came to coursework, I almost sailed through it all, but exams that relied on memory tests … here, I struggled exponentially. Particularly as dyspraxia impacts memory. As part of a longer thread on children’s education, Professor David Bowles tweeted

“Do you want kids to learn?

Here’s something we’ve discovered.

Kids learn things that matter to them, either because the knowledge and skills are “cool,” or because …

… they give the kids tools to liberate themselves and their communities.

Maintaining the status quo? Nope.”

@DavidOBowles (2020)

When people talk to me now, they have this belief that I have always been collected and together. When people come to my sessions, or even came to see me when I was an SU sabbatical officer, they did not believe that I got into my undergraduate course (Creative Writing) via clearing. The fact I struggle (and still struggle) with exams is unbelievable to them. To them, I do not fit the picture (built on media-made stereotypes) of what is now called Special Educational Needs. As a child, I had a Maths and English tutor in school (Mrs Thomas) and outside of school (JJ, who I’m still in contact with now … great human). It’s only now that I’m seeing that due to the institutionalisation of education, seeing students as individual learners is a challenge for many. One size does not fit all, and now I’m imagining that if autistic children, for example, were able to learn in the system via our special interests, how different things would be for those of us that learn in different less conventional ways.

Doing my undergraduate degree, then graduating in July 2019 (mere months prior to the outbreak of COVID in March 2020), I am seeing I did well because I was in a discipline I liked. But more than that, because I was writing about things that really mattered to me. The university’s creative writing course did not show me anything about Black British writing, so just as I recommend to all students I meet now (particularly those from historically excluded backgrounds), do your own reading as well as those your lecturer gives you. From late summer of 2019, I was in conversation with Criminology’s Stephanie Richards @svr2727 about masters programmes and she of course had solutions! Off the back of years of being interested in issues pertaining to racial inequalities and like-issues, I signed on to Leeds Beckett University’s MA in Race, Education, and Decolonial Thought.

Since then, my life has not been the same. Unknown at the point of signing up in the January/February of 2020 for the coming autumn, that we would be in intermittent lockdowns during my study time, I guess this worked out in the end. Yet, following Bowles’ points about learning, I was in an academic discipline that mattered to me (Critical Race/Whiteness Studies) and my final grades reflected both the passion I have for these subjects and how courses like mine give students some of the tools to liberate themselves and their communities. My modules were in Research Methods; Decolonial Thought and Critical Race Theory; Race, Identity, and Culture in the Black Atlantic; Children’s Cultural Worlds (elective); Diverse Childhoods (elective), and Critical Whiteness Studies. They also offered Critical Ethnic Studies and Critical Discourses as electives. These modules (minus Research Methods) gave students free reign to write what they wanted as long as it tied into the topic in some way. For example, in Children’s Cultural Worlds I wrote a postcolonial analysis of the classic C.S Lewis Narnia text The Horse and His Boy, with further comments on how the implementation of canonical texts on the English curriculum is not the problem, the issue is our gaze (later turning the essay into an online talk, which helped teachers inside and outside of my community).

The Coronavirus pandemic was stated to be ‘unprecedented’ but I would argue otherwise, as many generations before us all experienced pandemics. From the Plague to the Spanish Flu, there is precedent. Yet, when disease has impacted countries in the Global South, countries like Britain have turned the other cheek. Ironically, it is also some of the countries in the Global South that have showed better preparation in fighting COVID-19. Doing my MA, the events of the last 18+ months are also things that lend themselves so appropriately to the course content. In discussions about colonialism and empire, this is not a conversation one can have without thinking about disease historically nor current climate change or capitalism. The nature of my masters was not only relevant to COVID, disproportionality, and others, but also the events in society following the Murder of George Floyd and the subsequent discourses around race equity/equality and anti-racism. One cannot pioneer anti-racism whilst ignoring the destructive nature of capitalism and how racial capitalism functions in our society.

Between September 2020 and September 2021, I did this degree online without setting foot in Leeds. Our lectures were pre-recorded and, our seminars were on Microsoft Teams. There was something lost online, but the nature of the discussions was excellent. The fact I was the youngest in my cohort (25) was also welcome, so I was happy to learn from those often over ten years older than me, with many of them doing this course whilst also working in schools as teachers and senior leaders. Listening to their lives and stories was as sombre as they were enlightening. Teachers doing this degree whilst being treated ambominably in schools, we must consider how personal experience is also researchable (as I found doing an autoethnographic dissertation)

Photo by Clint Patterson on Unsplash

As someone that is neurodivergent, my ability to hyperfocus on subjects that interest me (even to the point where I forget to eat/sleep … quite typical of many neurodivergents I know), whilst previously was stigmatised in school, with Leeds it was actually encouraged. Not the not sleeping/eating part, but the critical analysis and taking those ideas further part. To overanalyse in my essays and take it that step further was a real boost for my confidence, to then be invited to make contributions to the primary education teacher training course as well. With lots of my colleagues being based in the North of England, it struck me when I also visited Manchester and Lancaster this year to meet two of my new friends, that there’s something in the northern air that quite agrees with me. It’s something that does not exist in the Midlands or the South. I cannot place it, but I want to inquire! My lockdown experience is very different to most students as my course was previously designed to be mixed-mode. Furthermore, my introverted nature means I can also be happy in my own space for long periods. Whilst my extroverted friends get their dopamine from being around others, those encounters when I do have them require me to be alone for long periods to get the same feelings.

What I do miss is the feeling of being on campus, while simultaneously being in a solitary corner of the library. However, our MA WhatsApp chat has bee invaluable, further to #AcademicTwitter. Whilst my undergrad often positioned lecturers as a bit more ‘us and them’ (almost like the schoolteacher-student relationship), my MA lecturers positioned themselves as mentors and more human who also love to tweet. Frequently, particularly Shona, would be tagging us in things useful to our interests which I still greatly enjoy. On my MA, I also got the opportunity to write a book chapter on racism, whiteness, and COVID for an upcoming anthology (to be published by June next year) in addition to be part of Leeds Beckett’s CRED paper series where I wrote an article on how we can better teacher Black history as something that is multidisciplinary. Not looking at history through a tunnel.

In a year or nearly two years, that has felt like fourth level of Jumanji, my masters experience has been invaluable in keeping me grounded. Leeds Beckett gave me something that Northamptonshire (the place I grew up in) has not, and is still unable to give me, and it did so without even having to go there. I have still never been to Leeds, but hopefully I get to visit for graduation next year.

As this level of Jumanji continues, who knows what the future holds? Both COVID-19 and the reinterest in Black Lives Matter have shown us that society needs to be redesigned in a way that benefits the many not the few. The lockdowns have shown that those of us with disabilities were needlessly suffering under institutional violence from employers and education providors, and post-lockdown many employers are shifting back to those ableist ways of functioning. And doing my MA in one of the most interesting (yet bleak) years since 1919 is a reminder what I am capable of, I just needed some coaxing into it!


2 Comments

  1. Beautiful story and lovely writing. Thanks for sharing this and looking forward to reading more from you as you move along. Glad there are thoughtful creative souls like you now coming through the education system, and hoping that the changes that needed to be made continue to get implemented more widely so that we can get some very much needed refreshment into the UK higher Ed sector and the opportunities that are still available opened up to everyone, not just the few who ‘ fit’, as was the case in the past.

    Like

  2. manosdaskalou says:

    What an apt reminder the education is not a process but a journey. We evolve through it and we learn things that become part of our worldview; it is open to all are willing to travel. Just remember from time to time to reflect as you did and then you will see how far you have done!

    Liked by 1 person

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