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For much of the year, the campus is busy. Full of people, movement and voice. But now, it is quiet… the term is over, the marking almost complete and students and staff are taking much needed breaks. After next week’s graduations, it will be even quieter. For those still working and/or studying, the campus is a very different place.
This time of year is traditionally a time of reflection. Weighing up what went well, what could have gone better and what was a disaster. This year is no different, although the move to a new campus understandably features heavily. Some of the reflection is personal, some professional, some academic and in many ways, it is difficult to differentiate between the three. After all, each aspect is an intrinsic part of my identity.
Over the year I have met lots of new people, both inside and outside the university. I have spent many hours in classrooms discussing all sorts of different criminological ideas, social problems and potential solutions, trying always to keep an open mind, to encourage academic discourse and avoid closing down conversation. I have spent hour upon hour reading student submissions, thinking how best to write feedback in a way that makes sense to the reader, that is critical, constructive and encouraging, but couched in such a way that the recipient is not left crushed. I listened to individuals talking about their personal and academic worries, concerns and challenges. In addition, I have spent days dealing with suspected academic misconduct and disciplinary hearings.
In all of these different activities I constantly attempt to allow space for everyone’s view to be heard, always with a focus on the individual, their dignity, human rights and social justice. After more than a decade in academia (and even more decades on earth!) it is clear to me that as humans we don’t make life easy for ourselves or others. The intense individual and societal challenges many of us face on an ongoing basis are too often brushed aside as unimportant or irrelevant. In this way, profound issues such as mental and/or physical ill health, social deprivation, racism, misogyny, disablism, homophobia, ageism and many others, are simply swept aside, as inconsequential, to the matters at hand.
Despite long standing attempts by politicians, the media and other commentators to present these serious and damaging challenges as individual failings, it is evident that structural and institutional forces are at play. When social problems are continually presented as poor management and failure on the part of individuals, blame soon follows and people turn on each other. Here’s some examples:
Q. “You can’t get a job?”
A “You must be lazy?”
Q. “You’ve got a job but can’t afford to feed your family?
A. “You must be a poor parent who wastes money”
Q. “You’ve been excluded from school?”
A. “You need to learn how to behave?”
Q. “You can’t find a job or housing since you came out of prison?”
A. “You should have thought of that before you did the crime”
Each of these questions and answers sees individuals as the problem. There is no acknowledgement that in twenty-first century Britain, there is clear evidence that even those with jobs may struggle to pay their rent and feed their families. That those who are looking for work may struggle with the forces of racism, sexism, disablism and so on. That the reasons for criminality are complex and multi-faceted, but it is much easier to parrot the line “you’ve done the crime, now do the time” than try and resolve them.
This entry has been rather rambling, but my concluding thought is, if we want to make better society for all, then we have to work together on these immense social problems. Rather than focus on blame, time to focus on collective solutions.
Every student has a different experience in their studies, be it through what they have studied, who they studied with or even where they studied. “Team Cops and Robbers” studied the same degree, the same modules at UON, yet we had different experiences. However what we share (and are all very fond of) is how positive the experience was, tackling the stresses (and joys) of the degree as a trio. We each offer a brief overview of our experience as a member of “Team Cops and Robbers”, who graduated in 2015 and still remain very involved in each other’s lives…
Jes: I was a late comer to Team Cops and Robbers, as Emma and Leona had already bonded without me (rude I know!). We were thrown together in Drew’s 2nd year History module, where there were only a few Crim students – so they didn’t get much of a choice with regards to me joining, the then, duo. And the rest as they say is history! What stemmed from there is quite remarkable; we all had own our strengths when it came to Crim. My recollection is Emma knew everything about everything, Leona kept us all motivated and on top of our seminar preparation and I kept us glued to the library and bossed us around -especially with group work (my car Geoffrey was an unofficial member of the gang taking us to and from Park campus). Although we took the same modules, due to our differing interests, we all did different assignment questions and had very different ways of writing and tackling assessments. In my third year, I distinctly remember Emma and Leona reminding me to take time to myself and to not live 24/7 in the library; and had they not been there to encourage me to breathe, it is likely I would have burned out! They were not afraid to question my views, or understanding, or challenge my bossy attitude when it came to group work, for which I am very grateful! And still today, even though we are no longer studying together, they keep me motivated with the MSc, sending me motivational gifts as a reminder that even though they are not studying with me, I am not alone! My academic journey would have been very different had it not been for our trio, and likely would not have been as successful.
Leona: Sometimes being in class with friends can be detrimental as you end up spending so much time having fun, you end up forgetting the work side of uni. However when you meet friends who are so determined to do well and hard-working, it can really motivate you to push yourself. Myself, Jes and Emma became a power trio; encouraging each other, motivating each other and always making sure we were working together for group projects. We are all completely different when it comes to learning but I think these differences really helped us. Learning from them really helped me to improve my own standard of work, and having the girls’ input and guidance throughout, really encouraged me and helped me gain confidence in my own voice. Plus it made doing all the studying we did much more bearable. I’m sure sometimes it took us longer to get through everything as we would be half working, half chatting, but as a trio it meant we could help each other if we got stuck or go for coffee breaks if we were bored or unmotivated. Having Jes and Emma there with me meant there was always someone there to go through notes with, always someone to explain something in a different way if I didn’t fully understand something, always someone to motivate me when I was exhausted and didn’t feel like working any more. It meant that my viewpoint expanded as I learned from their experiences and that once we had all finished writing our essays we could share them with each other to check, critique and make suggestions for improvement. But more than all that, it meant there was always someone there to help you balance the workload, someone to tell you when to take a break, and to “day drink” in the SU, explore winter wonderland, or have a Disney film day. During my time at uni these girls inspired me to work harder, and to really challenge myself to improve on everything I was doing. Without them there to encourage me and spur me on, I don’t think I would have come out with the grade I did, and I am certain that my uni experience wouldn’t have been half as memorable.
Emma: Meeting Jes and Leona was one of the best things about university. Not just because they are now two very dear friends of mine, but because we were vital to each other’s sanity at uni. I met Leona first in welcome week with a very interesting exchange asking if I was at the right seminar and proceeding to tell her my name, that I was from the south west and that I liked reading about serial killers. Leona reciprocated with the main difference being that she was from the north and from there our friendship blossomed. Jes was some girl who sat with another group of people. It wasn’t until 2nd year that Jes really came into our friendship group and “Cops and Robbers” was formed. We all had strengths and weaknesses that helped us when it came to group work. Jes was always super, super organised, having her essays completed with weeks to go. Leona was always bubbly and would follow Jes with completing her essay with time to spare. Me… I would research and collect quotes and references and then write my essays with 48-24hrs to go, as I liked the time pressure. This changed in my 3rd year though as being around Leona and Jes, they moulded me and proof read my concepts and challenged me back on things. Any time we had group work, I knew we would do well because as a trio we kicked ass! We did not always have the same views in our seminars and would often debate but we would always leave as friends. Best advice for getting through university sane, is to find people who are fun, you get on with and drive you to be the best.
Hopefully what is clear from each of our perspectives is how important we were to keeping each other (relatively) sane! Your friendship groups during your studies are essential to keeping you happy, but also keeping you motivated! Whilst it is independent studies, and at the end of the day is YOUR degree; the input from friends and family will shape your own ability and attitude. If you find the right group, hopefully you will find that they push you, support you and challenge you!
There’s the saying ‘Find your passion and you’ll never work a day in your life,’ however I much prefer the updated version ‘Find your passion and you’ll work every day of your life’ BUT you’ll love it. Criminology and the law are everything to me and I enjoy my profession and my ability to work in a field that allows me to direct my interests. It is a very special position to be in and not something I take for granted. I am fortunate to be starting at The University of Northampton this coming semester as a criminology lecturer and I’m looking forward to meeting and getting to know all my colleagues and students.
As a student you may not always want to study, and it is also important to take time off. You may feel guilty if you’re not studying as there is always more reading or research to do for your assignment – it is a veritable rabbit hole. I highly recommend that you undertake ‘Productive Procrastination.’ Productive Procrastination is not working on the task you should be working on, but it is still related closely enough to your work that you don’t feel guilt. (Yes, maybe some mental gymnastics to get to this point!)
It is very important to stay up to date with the current news and research in criminology and criminal justice. To achieve this I use Twitter, read books, and listen to so many podcasts. Apart from being entertaining and educational, the best thing about listening and reading is it often gives your mind to think about what you’re learning differently.
Some of my top podcast recommendations are:
- My Favorite Murder
- Once Upon a Crime
- Hidden Brain
- They Walk Among Us
- Death in Ice Valley
Some book recommendations from my reading over the last couple of months are:
- Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer – Michael Mansfield
- All that Remains: A life in Death – Sue Black
- Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie
- Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell
- Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge
- In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
- The Secret Barrister
- Women & Power: A Manifesto – Mary Beard
If you like any of these podcasts or books, please let me know as I can make a lot more recommendations. Alternatively, please provide me suggestions! Happy Productive Procrastination!
I have a personal blog Academic Traveller if you would like to read more about my experiences.
Image is inspired by New Yorker Cartoon: Sipress, D. (2014). The New Yorker Daily Cartoon: Friday, December 5th [Online image]. Retrieved from <https://www.newyorker.com/cartoons/daily-cartoon/daily-cartoon-friday-december-5th?mbid=social_twitter> Image created by Glen Holman.
As we go through another welcome week it becomes quite apparent in conversations with new students that their motivation for coming to University and joining a course is not singular. Of course there are some very clear objectives that are shared across like the interest for the subject and the employability afterwards for underlying those there are so many different personal motivations and aspirations attached.
In the eyes of our new cohort, I can see a variety of responses, the eagerness to learn the joy of studying, the expectation of belonging and the anticipation of ordering their lives across the University life, just to name but a few.
In conversation, I see these attributes in a different light. “I want to belong but I am shy”, “I wish to learn but I am worried about learning” “I want to engage but I am concern with my writing”. This is the soft underbelly of becoming a student; because in education our own insecurities are playing up. These little devils, who rest on the back of the head of many people who doubt themselves and worry them.
One of the greatest fears I hear and see been rehearsed before me is that of intellectual ability. This is one of those issues that becomes a significant barrier to many people’s fear when joining a University course. Of course the intellectual level of study is high. There are expectations of the degree of knowledge a student will build on and the way they will be able to utilise that level of knowledge. After all a University is an institution of High Learning. The place where disciplines are explored in totality and subjects are taught holistically. Nevertheless the University is not the end of one’s education but rather the door to a new dimension of learning.
For myself and many of my colleagues what makes this process incredibly exciting is to see those eyes of the new students across the years brighten up, as they “get it” as the penny drops and they connect different parts of knowledge together. Once people reach that part of their educational journey realise that coming to University was not simply an means to an end but something beyond that; the joy of lifelong learning.
As this is a early session, I shall address the intellectual fear. The greatest skills that any student need to bring with them in class is patience and passion. Passion for the subject; this is so important because it will sustain during the long cold winter days when not feeling 100%. Patience is equally important; to complete the course, needs plenty of hours out of class and a level of concentration that allows the mind to focus. Any successful student can testify to the long hours required to be in the library or at home going over the material and making sense of some challenging material. This ultimately unravels the last of the requirements, that of perseverance. It is through trial and error, rising up to a challenge that each student thrives.
So for those who joined us this year, welcome. The door to an exciting new world is here, to those returning, we shall pick up from where we left off and those who completed, hopefully University has now opened your eyes to a new world.
It was whist working a shift at Tesco that the thought of doing that job for the next 35 years dawned on me. So, I took the decision that day to apply to university and start on a new career path. My career history is mainly within healthcare so I fancied something completely different. I have always been fascinated by crime and punishment, and would love to work within that field, that’s why I chose criminology to study.
When the acceptance email came through to say I would be starting university in October 2017 I went through every emotion possible, although I was really excited about it, I thought Jesus what have I done. I attended some of the activities that took place in welcome week which really helped to settle some of the nerves. This is where I met two very special mature (like me) ladies, the friendship blossomed from there and the support provided between the three of us has seen us all finish the first year. Making friends is a really important aspect of uni life, it provides a support network that can get you through tough and stressful times. The initial friendship group of three has grown throughout the year to include some amazing ladies from age 18 through to ** (I daren’t say), and as we have all discovered ‘age is just a number’, let’s just say it isn’t the young ones being told to keep their voices down in the library (ha ha).
From the very start of the academic year we were bombarded with assignments and expectations. This was an extremely scary and stressful time. The questions of ‘what am I doing here?’ ‘I am never going to survive first year’ and ‘what do all these long words mean?’ played over and over in my mind. It was only the return of each assignment result that kept me going. The thought that ‘wow I actually passed that’, encouraged me to remain on the course. One really frustrating part of assignments is that you work your butt off completing them, then you have an agonising four week wait for the result (probably more nerve racking than the exams).
The course lecturers came across scary and unhelpful to begin with, giving off a vibe of ‘you are an adult and at university so get on with it’. I was unsure if this was just the personality of the criminology staff, as no question has a simple answer and question everything (haha). This vibe soon changed once I got used to university life and they are in fact very helpful, supportive and want you to be the best you can be.
I have received my confirmation of results email and I have made it through to year two (whoop, whoop). Although the first year of uni has been tough, I am missing the people and mental stimulation and cannot wait to return in October. The new Waterside campus promises great things so here’s to the 2018/19 academic year!
I read a report the other week about concern over the number of 1st degrees that are being achieved within higher education in the UK (Richmond, 2018) and the fact that the volume of such achievements is devaluing university degrees. I juxtapose this with another report that states that 32% of students do not think they get value for money (Neves and Hillman, 2018) and the result is some soul searching about what it is I’m trying to achieve as a lecturer, aside from survival, and what higher education (HE) is about. A conversation with a friend who works in Information Technology muddies the water even more. He’s a high flyer, jetting backwards and forwards to the USA, solving problems, advising on, and implementing major change projects within large corporations and generally making a lot of money along the way. For him a degree is not as important as the ability to ‘think outside the box’, find solutions to problems and show leadership that enables change or fixes. If you have a degree then you ought to be able to do all these things to some extent, experience will then build on it. He lets on that his company will not touch graduates from certain universities, simply because they do not have the requisite skills or abilities, their degrees are effectively meaningless. A sad generalisation but one that is becoming increasingly prominent amongst employers. One other thing that he was quick to point out is that the ‘real world’ is highly competitive and his company are looking for the best potential.
So, what is higher education all about, higher than what? What is the benchmark and what is the end goal? I have always believed that higher education is about taking students beyond what can be read in books or can be followed in manuals. It is about enhancing the understanding of the world in which we operate, either professionally or socially and being able to redesign or reimagine that world. It is about leadership in its many guises, problem solving and the ability to use initiative and autonomy. It is about moving a student from being able to paint by numbers under supervision to a student that can paint free hand, understanding light and colours, understanding how to capture moods or how to be evocative, a student who uses materials that they want to use, and they are not frightened to do so. It stands to reason that not every student can achieve excellence. If the starting point is the ability to paint by numbers, then some will move only slightly beyond this and some will excel, but only a few will warrant a 1st degree. What is clear though is that the students really ought to be able to paint by numbers before they enter HE otherwise they will need to be taught that skill before they can move on. That then is no longer higher education but further education (FE) and more importantly, it sets students up to fail, if they are being measured against HE standards. An alternative to avoid this potential failure requires HE standards to be lowered to those of FE. In which case what is the point of HE?
So why would I be confused about HE? Well, when students are seen as cash cows, each being worth £9250 a year to an institution, being able to paint by numbers becomes a barrier to recruitment in a highly competitive market. Institutions can help students that do not have the requisite skills, but this requires either extra time before joining the HE course, this has funding implications, or a lot of extra work by the student during the HE course, and this means that students with limited academic ability struggle. A need to retain students over the three-year period of a degree, to ensure institutional financial stability or even viability, becomes problematic. Struggling students have a double whammy, they have to catch up to the starting point for each year, whilst also progressing through the year. The choices are stark for HE institutions, progress students by lowering standards or lose them.
HE institutions are measured on the number of good degrees and it makes for good advertising. There is enough literature around to suggest that such unsophisticated quantitative measures are never a good thing. The complexity of higher education, where there is a heavy reliance on students engaging in their studies (there is something to be said about reading for a degree), puts much of the achievement of grades beyond the control of lecturers or even institutions. The resultant solution appears to be the lowering of assessment standards and teaching to assessments. In effect, HE is falling in line with FE and teaching students to paint by numbers. It is easy to see why there is disquiet then about an increase in 1st degrees and more importantly, in a competitive world, why employers are becoming increasingly concerned about the value of a degree. As for value for money for students, for many, it’s a bit like being charged a fortune to race a Maserati round a track for a day but not being able to drive.
Neves, J. and Hillman, N. (2018) Student Academic Experience Survey report 2018 [online] available at https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/student-academic-experience-survey-report-2018 [accessed 20 June 2018]
Richmond, T. (2018) A degree of uncertainty: An investigation into grade inflation in universities. [online] available at, http://www.reform.uk/publication/a-degree-of-uncertainty-an-investigation-into-grade-inflation-in-universities/ [accessed 20 June 2018].