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Thank F**k it’s Easter!

A number of years ago I wrote a blog entitled: ‘Thank F**k it’s Christmas!’. In it, I had a general moan (nothing new there) about how exhausted the staff and students were in the first term of the new academic year: Christmas break felt desperately needed. At the time, I was still an Associate Lecturer but had just begun my MSc at Leicester as well as supporting my partner on the weekends. I felt burned out, overwhelmed, and ridiculously grateful that the Christmas break had arrived. I also commented on the importance and need for work-life balance for both staff and students, something which many of us have still not managed to achieve and something which appeared increasingly challenging during the various Lockdowns. Yes; a number of us have worked/studied from home, but that has blurred what used to be clear working hours (in theory), and home life. I honestly do not know where one ends and the other begins. Therefore, I find myself back in a head space which is screaming: ‘Thank F**k it’s Easter!’.

This term has been challenging, term 2 always is. We have navigated another lockdown, assessments, lectures, workshops, all sorts. Now, throw into the mix a cyber attack on the University and ‘Thank F**k it’s Easter’ rings louder. Staff and students have persevered in the name of education and demonstrated resilience. Something I think we should all be proud off. But the anxiety, frustrations and exasperation which the lack of IT services has generated, feels like it might take some time to overcome. I am cautious to advise us to consider work-life balance as we go into the Easter Break, as I fear I will sound hypocritical. I advised the need to take time to ourselves before, and to organise some kind of work-life balance, and in all fairness that went straight out the window once we returned from Christmas break (maybe a week of two after, I am sure I attempted a balance to begin with).

Nevertheless, I do think it is important to recognise our strengths, our achievements and to take time to breathe! For many of us, we have been without our families and friends for months. Lockdown is easing, and I am naively hopeful that this will mean we can see those who are dear to us again soon: safely and sensibly. But until we reach that point, I am also exceptionally grateful that the Easter weekend is upon us. Whether we celebrate the bringing of chocolate by the Easter Bunny, or the death and resurrection of Christ: we should all celebrate that we have made it to the end of term 2. Celebrate our achievements no matter how big or small, timetable some time to yourselves: read, run, drink gin, watch films, cross-stitch, do whatever brings you some kind of peace and most importantly: breathe. The University is closed from Friday 2nd April  and re-opens on Wednesday 7th April. Lets all take some time for ourselves and breathe. Happy Easter Everyone!

Helpfully unhelpful: The pathology of being too supportive

When I first arrived in London, I needed to find my way across the city to the now former site of the Home Office at St Anne’s Gate.  I didn’t have a clue about how to get there so I asked a member of staff at St Pancras railway station. He helpfully pointed me in the direction of the London Underground.  I was swept along by a torrent of people, all going about their business with a purpose, I however, didn’t have a clue where I was going.  Finding sanctuary in a quiet eddy and desperately looking around I spotted a member of staff across the concourse. Fighting against the current I scrambled to where the member of staff was and implored upon them to rescue me. Thankfully the underground staff had all been briefed, not specifically about me, I should hasten to add, but about how by being super helpful they could increase customer satisfaction, reduce complaints and attract even more customers.  And having explained my dilemma, I was very helpfully led through the ticket barriers, now struggling to hold back the surge, and down the escalator to the platform below. I was told to get on the next train and to get off at St James’ Park. Having arrived at my destination I became confused as to which exit to use and once again found a very helpful staff member who led me part way to the exit, where I spilled out into the sunlight a matter of yards away from my destination.

The following week I once again plunged into the torrent and confident that I knew which underground line to take I allowed myself to be swept along to the barriers and through, and then panic.  Which platform and am I sure that was the right line? Once again, a beacon of hope shone across the dark morass, a member of underground staff. Once again, I was led to the platform in a super helpful way and got on the first train. But this time I didn’t arrive at my destination for some, I have to say, traumatic hours. The problem was the first train was not the train to catch, it was the second that I needed; I will most definitely have to complain about that member of staff being unhelpful.

This pattern of visits to London and assistance rendered by sometimes grumpy but always super helpful members of underground staff continued for some weeks. Often, I would stay in London for a week at a time before returning home outside of the metropolis at the weekend.  During my stays I visited numerous police stations as part of my work and every time I used the underground, I sought out a helpful member of staff to assist me.  Sometimes, if they rather unhelpfully simply pointed me in the right direction, I would set off and then return to them explaining that I didn’t understand their instructions.  Armed with more information I would again purposefully set off and then duly return until the succumbed and rather reluctantly but helpfully led me to the correct platform. 

Then in a fortnight, two things happened. Firstly, the underground staff went on strike and on arriving at the gates of St James’ Park underground station I found the gates closed. There were a couple of members of staff there, but they weren’t very helpful.  ‘What should I’ do I asked, ‘Dunno’, was the reply.  Now that was not very helpful, complaint forthcoming I feel. I didn’t make my appointments that day and the following day had to use taxis to get around.  Much easier to use taxis you might say, yes but not really justifiable in terms of cost, my boss told me when I suggested I would forego using the underground altogether.  After three days the underground opened up again but for some reason there were no staff around to ask for help. I became increasingly anxious and found myself avoiding the underground, using taxis at my own expense, and walking long distances. I was exhausted I can tell you.

The next week I ventured into the underground again, I couldn’t avoid it forever.  I found a member of staff and duly asked them, in an almost ritualistic fashion, how to get across London to another underground station near yet another police station.  Instead of pointing me in the right direction, which we all know by now is a rather fruitless, time wasting and unhelpful exercise, or super helpfully taking me to the correct platform, they took me to a rather large underground map on the wall. ‘This is where we are’, the very nice lady said, ‘and this is where you want to be’, she added. She then continued to explain how to use the map, how to follow the signs dotted around the stations, how to look for the signs before entering the platforms so as to work out which platform to be on and how to ensure I get on the correct train. I was nervous following her instructions as I made my way to the platform, but I got to my destination and I made my own way back, with help of the wall map of course.  From that point onwards, I made my way around London on the underground with increased confidence, I wouldn’t say with consummate ease, but confidently. I made mistakes but because I knew how to read the map, I was able to rectify them and if I couldn’t I knew that I could ask. Of course, now that I drive, I use maps, I would probably have been pestering police officers and random members of the public otherwise and we know how the rare the sight of the former are on our streets. Anyway, I don’t think they’ve had the ‘super helpful’ briefing. Lately though I’ve been using my satnav, and sometimes getting into a right pickle. It seems you can’t beat good old-fashioned map reading.

What’s the point of this nonsensical tale? Well the clue is in the title. As educators we need to consider the purpose of what we are doing and how this will add value to students’ learning and knowledge.  We can give students the answers to the essay questions, how to structure a particular essay, what arguments to include, what books and journal articles to read.  We can supply them with reading lists that contain links to the books and journal articles, we can coach them to such an extent that their journey is in fact our journey, just as my journey to the underground platform was the staff member’s journey. We can repeat this many times over so that students are capable of completing that essay, but like me on my journey through the underground, they will need the same coaching for every piece of assessment and whilst they may complete each journey as I did, they have learnt very little and become increasingly disempowered and crippled by our helpfulness and their increasing reliance on it. Our jobs as educators is not to provide answers but to equip students with the tools to find the answers themselves. That process requires a willingness to learn, to discover and to take risks. Super helpfulness should not be an organisational strategy to ensure each part of the journey is easily manoeuvred and completed, it should be about ensuring that people can complete any journey independently and confidently.  Sometimes by appearing to be super helpful we are simply being very unhelpful and disempowering people at the same time.

Education, education, education: We’ve lost the plot

Some of you might remember Tony Blair’s speech introducing the Labour party’s education manifesto in 2001. In it he proclaimed that education was at the forefront of government policy.  Education is often high on government’s agenda even if it is only to berate previous administrations for failing our youngsters. I have watched with interest the current government’s farcical approach to education and in particular the attainment of qualifications during the first period of Covid lockdown and to some extent even felt sorry for them as they grappled with what were not insignificant problems.  My benevolence, however, has long been drained as I watch the news more recently only to see the same farce emerging.  But what really intrigues me is the conflation of the notion of qualifications and education.  It seems to me the clamber to get children back into school is only right given that they are missing out on education and other social aspects. However, I cannot see how the dealing with the qualifications issue can ignore the fact that the students have not received all of their education.

In a previous blog I have used the analogy of a driving instructor giving lessons to a pupil.  In that blog the point being made was that the education of the pupil was a two-way enterprise.  If the pupil didn’t engage or didn’t turn up for their lessons, then the instructor could not be held responsible for the pupil’s failure in the driving test.  But what of the test itself, what is that designed to achieve? It is not simply to provide a person with a driving licence, what would be the point of that? It is to ensure that the person taking the test can drive to a satisfactory standard that would help ensure the roads were safe for all users. So, the point of the driving lessons is to provide the education in ‘road craft’ and the point of the driving test is to test knowledge and ability in that ‘road craft’ to ensure it meets satisfactory standards.  The driving licence is a form of certificate that states the driver has achieved the knowledge and skills required.

So, what of education?  Surely GCSEs, A levels, BTec and so on are a test of the knowledge and skills acquired.  A degree is the same, is it not?  How then could we reasonably expect students to pass any of these tests if they have lost significant periods of tutorship or teaching?  The suggestion, dumb down the tests in some way by only testing what they have been taught, or as in the case of university students suggestions, be more lenient with the marking.  Now as I understand it, that would be akin to saying to a learner driver that because through no fault of their own, they could not engage in all of their lessons, they will only be tested on their ability to park and not on their ability to carry out an emergency stop as they hadn’t been taught the latter. How ridiculous would that be? Imagine then that the very same driver, who now has a driving licence, goes onto some advanced motoring course.  A course that starts with the premise that they have all the skills tested in a ‘full’ driving test. 

Whilst, I can understand students’ preoccupation with tests and qualifications, I somehow think that government and teaching establishments should be more concerned with education and the knowledge gap. How will they ensure that students have the requisite skills and knowledge? Tony Blair may have said ‘Education, Education, Education’ and subsequent governments might well nod in agreement, but somehow I think they’ve all lost the plot. 

Technology and Learning: A baby and the bathwater moment

I recently shared some thoughts about the problems with technology and working from home. I suppose the nub of the matter was twofold firstly, if I have problems with technology, why would this not also impact some of my colleagues and students, thus limiting what can be delivered online. Secondly, whatever is delivered online does not suit everyone and whilst as educators we need to adapt to circumstances and new ways of working, we should be cognisant that simply imposing the new ways on students does not always suit what they want or more importantly, what they need. If we acknowledge that everyone learns in different ways at different times, then a one size fits all approach is not delivering anything like a premium learning environment.

In writing my previous blog, I also started to think about how difficult it is to be motivated whilst working from home and how my experiences have at least partially prepared me for this. I say partially because past experiences did not encompass being in lockdown.

When I was 15, I returned from overseas and went to the local college to study for my ‘O’ levels (GCSE now) rather than a school. It was far more relaxed in respect of attending classes. This was a time when at 16 people could leave school, so the college was full of students who were 16 and essentially independent from the school regime. I turned 16 whilst at college.  I remember not going to every class, sometimes perhaps because I preferred to spend time playing football in the sunshine and at other times because there was some casual work somewhere that would earn me a bit of money. There were no distractions such as computers and mobile phones so actually attending college was in the main better than being bored outside of it. That was one incentive to engage in my education, I had others such as friends being at college but probably above all I recognised I needed some qualifications. I think my parents might also have been a little peeved if I’d not done anything.  I had a structure to my life and a major part of it was getting up in the morning and attending college on my bicycle; rain or shine, for the most part I was there. 

At an early point in my policing career, I decided I would like to take the promotion exam to sergeant.  An annual exam which incorporated, as I recall, three two-hour papers, one relating to crime, one traffic and one general police duties.  An awful lot of legislation and procedure was to be tested and all of it could be found in the regularly updated promotion manual. A tome, if ever there was one, divided into various sections that covered everything a would-be sergeant needed to know and in addition, legislation for the inspector’s exam.  Years went by with well intentioned attempts to study, followed by a lack of action.  I just couldn’t get my head round how to do this, despite trying to answer the questions in the promotion section of the Police Review magazine.

I can’t remember exactly when it was but there was an announcement that the promotion process was to change, the exam which gave you a ticket to a promotion board, was to be replaced with an assessment centre.  This new way involved not only an exam, but scenario based assessments.  That year I decided I really needed to pass the promotion exam to avoid the new process, so I purchased access to a correspondence course. It wasn’t cheap, and it was before computers as we know them.  I received a plethora of books each divided up into various chapters and each requiring me to answer questions that were then sent by mail to someone to mark and provide feedback.  What this required was organisation and commitment. I was lucky, I was working in a very disciplined job, organisation and commitment were to some extent, if I set my mind to it, second nature. And two added incentives, an easier passage to promotion as I saw it, and I’d paid out a lot of money that I wasn’t going to waste.  That year I passed the sergeants and the inspector’s exam, two in the bank although it was still some time before I was promoted.

When I embarked on my degree, I had to apply the same self-discipline.  Despite it being part-time, attendance for lectures and seminars was difficult, there was no way I could attend everything whilst doing shift work, but I tried my best. I even had to take time out because I was involved in a major investigation that took me away from home for 6 months. By this time, I had a very young family, so every assignment was a challenge to complete and there was no online Google access to papers and blogs and the like. It was library based work, sometimes the university library, other times local libraries and often late nights in the office at work.  What it needed was self-discipline, commitment and a structure to each day, well as best as possible given the demands of shift work, major enquiries and long working hours. Every time I faltered I reminded myself that I’d done a lot of work, put a lot into this and I wasn’t about to throw all of that away.

When I embarked on my Ph.D. my commitment and self-discipline was sorely tested at times.  Tragedy and life altering events pushed me to the limits, but I managed to maintain that commitment and self-discipline, sometimes aided by others at work who tried to make things a little easier. The office at work provided space for both my day job and my Ph.D. The two morphing into one at times.

Why tell you all of this, well its simply this. I ask myself what makes a student engage in their course and more importantly, what inhibits them? Firstly, they need self-discipline.  When I went to college, there were a number of things that ensured I would turn up; my parents wouldn’t have countenanced my staying in bed or around the house all day; day time telly was rubbish (only three channels) and there wasn’t an awful lot else to do.  My friends were either at school, at college or working and there were no mobile phones, so contact was either at college or in the evenings and weekends.  Learning could only be done at college, no recorded lectures or Collaborate or e-books. I also recognised I needed qualifications to get on in life.

When I embarked on my promotion exams I recognised the need to have a structure to my learning.  This was partly provided by the correspondence course and the way it was set up and partly provided by discipline I learnt in my work. It did though need a structure provided by the course and an incentive to do it at that moment in time.

My degree also needed self-discipline, nobody chased me to turn up and nobody chased me for assignments. Not being there, meant missing out on discussions and learning from other students, not just the lecturers.  I’d paid for this as well so another incentive to succeed, this was not some loan to be possibly paid in the future, this was real money, my money up front. And the more I did the more determined I became that I wasn’t going to waste my efforts.

Anyone will tell you that a Ph.D. is challenging and that for the most part, the achievement is not about knowledge or brilliance but about gritted determination to complete it.  That determination requires self-discipline and that self-discipline for me was aided by tagging the Ph.D. onto my job. My office at work was my sanctuary, it was easier to stop working on one thing and then seamlessly move onto writing up the Ph.D.  I had a structure to my studying and my work.

So, I begin to wonder, do recorded lectures, Collaborate, ebooks, the internet, social media and a plethora of other advances really help students? Why get up in the morning to attend lectures if you can watch a recorded version of it later, ‘a must get round to it moment’? Why bother to go to the library when you can Google stuff and read, well at least skim’ e-books? Why bother with classes when you can chat with your mates and so called ‘friends’ on Facebook or the plethora of other social media apps.  There is no financial incentive when the payment for the course is made on your behalf and whilst you have a massive debt on paper, the reality is that you will never pay it back (If you don’t believe me, have a look at the Martin Lewis website).  There are no parents to get you up in the morning or to scorn your lethargy, at worst any failure will be chided sometime in the misty future.  All that students can rely on is self-discipline and their own belief in commitment. A hard ask when you don’t have all the anchors you had at school and college. I was lucky, I grew up in an era of much fewer distractions.  I was employed in a job that required a high degree of disciple, so self-discipline was much easier. I was also a mature student so could call on a vast amount of experience.

I’ll leave you with a thought.  The year 1840 saw the introduction of the first stamp, the Penny Black.  Despite the advent of emails, texts and the internet, nearly two hundred years later, Royal Mail are still delivering letters and packages.  Whilst you can get your bank statements online, you can still have paper copies. Whilst you can read books on Kindle and other contraptions, book stores still exist, and hard copy books are still sold by the millions.  Whilst, music can now be delivered in so many different electronic formats, there is still a clamour for vinyl records.  Whilst films are available at home in so many different ways, people still go to see films at the cinema.

Technology is wonderful and is a great enabler in so many ways. That doesn’t give us licence though to ignore the value of what by some may be seen as ‘old fashioned, stick in the mud’ structures, processes and transactions. Sometimes things are the way they are for a reason, change them and there are at times problematic unintended consequences. Making changes through the use of technology and ignoring tried and trusted methods might actually be akin to ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater’.

Teaching, Technology, and reality

I’m not a fan of technology used for communication for the most part, I’d rather do things face to face. But, I have to admit that at this time of enforced lockdown technology has been to a large extent our saviour. It is a case of needs must and if we want to engage with students at all, we have to use technology and if we want to communicate with the outside world, well in the main, its technology.

However, this is forced upon us, it is not a choice.  Why raise this, well let me tell you about my experiences of using technology and being shut at home!  Most, if not all my problems, probably relate to broadband.  It keeps dropping out, sometimes I don’t notice, that is until I go to save my work or try to add the final comment to my marking. I know other colleagues have had the same problem.  Try marking on Turnitin only to find that nearly all of your feedback has just disappeared in a flash.  Try talking to colleagues on Webex and watch some of them disappearing and reappearing. Sometimes you can hear them, sometimes you can’t. And isn’t it funny when there is a time lag, a Two Ronnies moment when the question before the last is answered. ‘You go, no you go’, we say as we all talk over each other because the social cues relied on in face to face meetings just aren’t there. I’ve tried discussion boards with students, it’s not like WhatsApp or Messenger or even text. It is far more staid than that. Some students take part, but most don’t and that in a module where attendance in class before the shutdown was running at over seventy per cent. I’m lucky to get 20% involved in the discussion board.  Colleagues using Collaborate tell me a similar tale, a tale of woe where only a few students, if any appear.  Six hours of emptiness, thumb twiddling and reading, that’s the lecturer, not the students.

Now I don’t know whether my problems with the internet are resultant of the increased usage across the country, or just in my area.  I suspect not because I had problems before the lockdown. I live in a village and whilst my broadband package promises me, and delivers brilliant broadband speed at times, it is inconsistent, frequently inexplicably dropping out for a minute or two. It is frustrating at times, even demoralising.  I have a very good laptop (supplied by the university) and it is hardwired in, so not reliant on Wi-Fi, but it makes little difference.  I suspect the problems could be anywhere in the broadband ether.  It could be at the other end, the university, it could be at Turnitin for instance or maybe its somewhere in a black hole in the middle.  Who knows, and I increasingly think, who cares? When my broadband disappeared for a whole day, a colleague suggested that I could tether my phone.  A brilliant idea I thought as our discussion became distorted and it sounded like he was talking to me from a goldfish bowl. I guess the satellite overhead moved and my signal gradually disappeared. I can tell you now that my mobile phone operator is the only one that provides decent coverage in my area. Tethered to a goldfish bowl, probably not a solution, but thanks anyway.

If I suffer from IT issues, then what about students? We are assured that those that live on campus have brilliant Wi-Fi but does this represent the majority of our student body? Not usually and certainly not now. Do they all have good laptops; do they all have a decent Wi-Fi package? I hazard a guess, probably not. But even if what they have is on par with what I have available to me could they not also be encumbered with the same problems? We push technology as the way forward in education but don’t bother to ask the end user about their experience in using it. I can tell you from student feedback that many don’t like Collaborate, find the discussion boards difficult to engage with and some are completely demotivated if they cannot attend physical classes. That’s not to say that all students feel this way, some like recorded lectures as it gives them the opportunity to watch it at their leisure, but many don’t take that final step of actually watching it. They intend to, but don’t for whatever reason. Some like the fact that they can get books electronically, but many don’t, preferring to read from a hard copy. Even browsing the shelves in the library has for some, a mystical pleasure.

I’ll go back to the beginning, technology has undoubtedly been our saviour at this time of lockdown, but wouldn’t it be a real opportunity to think about teaching and technology after this enforced lockdown? Instead of assuming all students are technology savvy or indeed, want to engage with technology regardless of what it is, should we not ask them what works for them.  Instead of telling staff what they can do with technology, e.g. you can even remotely mark students’ work on a Caribbean island, should we not ask staff what works?  Let’s change the negative narrative, “you’re not engaging with technology”, to the positive what works in teaching our students and how might technology help in that.  Note I say our students, not other students at other universities or some pseudo student in a theoretical vacuum.  We should simply be asking what is best for our students and a starting point might be to ask them and those that actually teach them.

RTFQ and the real world

“365 Math” by MrWoodnz is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The other day I had occasion to contact Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and I did this via a web chat. My query was simply about seeking an explanation regarding tax relief. I compiled my question starting off with ‘good morning, I’ve had my tax code updated and am a little confused.’ I then went on to explain in a few short words where the confusion lay.

The response back was quite familiar, it would be to those that use web chat and quite expected, ‘Thank you for your patience, the next available advisor will be with you shortly. You are 7 in the queue’. Little was I to know at this stage, that my patience was about to be severely tested, not by the waiting time but by the advisor who, to avoid any embarrassment to the real person, we will simply call ‘Jo’. After eight minutes of waiting (not a particularly long time) I was through to Jo and greeted with a request for my details for security.

Once supplied, I was told that Jo would be looking at my record. Jo then responded by telling me that the adjustment in my tax code was due to an underpayment from the 18/19 tax year, explained how much it was and the fact it would be collected through the tax code. Now I should point out, this was not the question I was asking, RTFQ, I wanted to know about an aspect of tax relief and just to add to the confusion, the HMRC website tells me I do not owe any tax from the 18/19 year. The latter makes sense to me because I paid off the amount owed in 19/20. A little agitated I responded with my question again trying to make it a little clearer, as if it wasn’t clear enough. I added to this by asking if my assumptions were perhaps incorrect and if so could Jo tell me when the rules had changed. The response was ‘one moment’. Four minutes later I asked, ‘are you still there?’, the terse response was, ‘yeah, i (sic) am looking through the guidance for you’. This does not bode well!

Trying to be helpful, I responded by explaining the tax relief I received last year, and the fact that I ought to receive it this year, unless of course the rules have changed the response, ‘one moment please’. To be followed by ‘the 480 is from 480.00/40% = 1200 so its at 40%’.  Now I’m no Trigger (see Only Fools and Horses) but this mathematical genius has me somewhat perplexed, so I pushed a little further to see if I could get an explanation of this.  I ended up with ‘480.00/40% =1200 which is 40% of the 480’.   

My patience wearing a little thin now, I asked to speak to a supervisor only to be told there was no supervisor available and ‘They will be telling you the same thing, you can call in to speak to someone else if you want’. So, I can hang up on the web chat, start another and in the lottery of numpties, I will take my chance that I might not get another Jo to answer my query, I think not. To add insult to injury, Jo had just previous to this provided me with an answer that was in fact the basis of my question, we seemed to have gone full circle (RTFQ). In desperation and trying to prevent my blood pressure rising further I tried to draw this to a close by pointing out the problem as I see it, prefixing this with, ‘I’m not trying to be difficult. I just want an explanation as to why …’. I followed this up with, ‘If you cannot answer that, then please just say so’. The response, ‘I have explained to you the best way i (sic) can Stephen’. Now that’s me told! Best not push it further.

I recall first hearing the term RTFQ when I was about to sit a promotion exam. RTFQ the invigilator shouted, before gazing upon my quizzical expression, ‘read the f*** question’ he explained. I frequently remind my students of this mantra before they sit exams, it is one that serves us well, not just at university when sitting exams or completing assignments, but in life. Although I’m not sure that RTFQ is something that Jo needs to prioritise whilst tripping through the wonderment of mathematical equations.

Or maybe, just maybe, it is a new tactic by HMRC to limit enquiries. I certainly won’t be calling back in a hurry.

“What do you want to do?”

I was twenty-five when I first applied for university, studying BA Criminology. When I first told my family and friends, they were unsure. They did not understand why I wanted to change my career and study a subject without having a ‘plan’. I had accomplished many things since leaving school, such as buying a house with my partner, buying a dog and at the time I was a supervisor in a nursery. However, I was not satisfied, I wanted to be challenged and wanted to try something new. In all honesty when family and friends asked me what I wanted to do, I did not know.

Growing up, I was told I was not smart enough for university, as a young person you begin to believe it. It wasn’t until I began looking after children when I realised that children should be encouraged and if I was going to reinforce my belief – that you can do whatever you set your mind to – I should believe it in myself.

Choosing criminology was easy for me, crime was something I was sheltered from as a child, I did not experience crime. I only began my fascination, after watching documentaries on Netflix and even then, I was curious about the concept and naively wondered, ‘what makes a criminal?’ After studying for one year, it is now easy to see that it is not an easy question to answer – but don’t take my word for it, study criminology and see for yourself!

Reflecting on my first year, it was a lot of trial and error. Like many students, I was learning how to write essays again and abide by deadlines, work a part time job, balance study, volunteering and home life and try not to consume too much alcohol in the meantime.

As summer comes to an end, I am excited to begin again, the stresses of university become worth it, when you build friendships and have the realisation that you are one step closer to graduating. I will continue to be determined and optimistic in my future, because I believe I can finally be satisfied. The next time someone asks me what I want to do, I can be confident and say, ‘I haven’t decided yet, but you can do anything you set your mind to, and no-one can tell me I am not smart enough for university’.

Are you faking it? : Impostor Syndrome in Academia

Bethany Davies is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first year.

I really enjoyed my time at university but for me it felt almost like I’d got in by some whim of luck, I worked hard to get there but I still felt as though I had got in by chance. Which meant by I had even started; I feared others would think that too and I would become exposed. I’d picture that in class everyone would know something about a really important event in history that I was ignorant to not have heard of. I remember wishing there was a documentary I could watch or a book I could read that gave a brief summary of everything that was meant to be important so I could at least have a basic knowledge of everything and maybe I could fake the rest. 

Impostor syndrome doesn’t go away, it evolves and alters and that doesn’t mean it necessarily grows or decreases in time. But rather it just seems like an annoying person sat in the back of hall that occasionally shouts loud enough that you can hear it.

I think it’s important to talk about it, I’m not even sure what it could be regarded as, I don’t believe it be a disease or a form of anxiety but rather something just in its own class that to a degree I like to think everybody has. It doesn’t have to ruin your university experience, it didn’t ruin mine, but it was certainly a part of it, almost like a step in the process; go to lectures, deal with the feeling that I’m pretending I belong there, go home, revise.

I had really only became aware of it properly further in my studies and it continues when working in academia. The labels of what degree you have or what level you are and how many certificates you have can give you the confidence you need to overcome this, but it can also feed it.

There will be students starting University in the next few weeks who already feel like this, asking questions of themselves or even dreading having to talk in lectures in case they reveal what they most fear – that they are a fake and do not actually know what they think they should know by now. There will be others submitting essays or dissertations who think they have got to where they are by pure luck and chance and that this is the time where it might be made public that they are not worthy of their previous grades. There are individuals who are considered as ‘Experts’ on a particular subject by everyone but themselves as they feel the area is so vast that even they are at the basics of the subject.

Even when I received high grades, or was given positive feedback, it didn’t silence the thoughts that I somehow didn’t earn them. From graduation to working in academia, I thought that would be it, I would prove to myself that I knew enough and that I wasn’t an impostor. To an extent, it did help, mainly because I didn’t have to prove myself in an essay or a test anymore. But I still think it’s there, because I know there is always another step when you are in academia, you can keep going forever and you’ll never truly be done.

If that sounds familiar, it is something you can take some comfort in the number of others with the same feelings. It should give you comfort because it shows the inaccuracy in those intrusive thoughts, as surely, we can’t all be faking it and impostors in our academic journeys? And if we are… then there isn’t really a problem either. 

I’m not a psychologist nor would I be so impostorous to claim to be (do you like what I did there?) but I think we all know that the negative things we say about ourselves are not true, but they are a way to stop ourselves from doing something out of our comfort zone, which in itself is subjective – but that’s starting a philosophical ramble.

This blog post isn’t to make you overly aware of your fears nor do you have to address them right now. But rather, my intention is letting students know you are not alone, it doesn’t go away but it can get better if you separate how you think you feel about yourself from the reality of what you are achieving whether that be good feedback or even achieving a degree. The same way as receiving negative feedback, should not reaffirm your fears. Learn to accept that you will never know everything and that it’s okay to not know something even if everyone makes you feel like you should. Be kind to yourself in your studies, otherwise you might forget to enjoy the process of learning.

Three Tips for Uni:

There are lots of blogs, articles, and Youtube videos which offer some useful tips for going to university, yet it always appears as though students haven’t watched/read them or in the excitement of coming to university they have forgotten what they were. So in the hope that new and existing students might read this, here are my 3 tips for studying at university, and they apply to all levels:

1) READ!!!
At various stages throughout your degree you will be told that you are reading for a degree, and that is the truth. Now reading may not be everybody’s cup of tea, however it is vital to attaining a degree. Lecturers will provide reading lists for your modules, and readings for seminars, however it is vital you go beyond these lists. In first year everything is new, and the likelihood of you being experienced in reading academic journals and textbooks is pretty slim, and therefore there is a good chance you’ll be reading things that don’t appear to make much sense. That is how I remember most of my first year at undergrad! However, perseverance is key: if you didn’t understand it the first time round, take a break and read it again! Still not making sense, then read it again. Variety in source selection and reading is also key, do not feel like you have to read everything off the reading lists, or that those are the only sources you should be engaging with: get creative, mix it up! To change a phrase from a certain, loveable but forgetful blue fish: ‘Just keep reading, just keep reading, just keep reading reading reading, what do we do, we read, read…’.

2) TALK!!
University is a new experience and it is very different from school! There are no teachers who will give you the answers, but rather lecturers who will help you harness the tools in order to pursue answers. Even returning students who are familiar with the university format of being vocal in seminars still feel uncomfortable the first few weeks back as they find their rhythm. Reading is key to acquire knowledge, but so is talking. Share your ideas and understandings with your friends, colleagues and lecturers. Answer the questions put to you by others. Ask questions when you are unsure or curious. Challenge views. Seminars run much smoother for everyone when discussion takes place, and discussion cannot happen without first reading and second talking. It can be uncomfortable and unnerving, even at MSc level when you’ve had 3 years of undergrad experience of talking in front of others and sharing ideas. It is not easy, and there is always fear of being wrong or sounding silly, but that is how we learn. I’m not saying you should go around talking to everyone and anyone about anything and everything, because I most certainly would not do that. But in seminars and lectures where knowledge is the goal, talking is key.

Finally, part of university life is assessments. Now if you are successful with reading and talking, then the assessment part of university should be less scary and more positive than if you otherwise have not read or asked questions/shared ideas. A large part of assessment is writing style, and there are various resources provided by the university at your disposal to help improve your writing, and to tailor your writing depending on the assessment. But a really crucial and essential tool is the feedback given to you by your lecturers. Whilst the feedback given to you on a piece of assessment is specific to that assessment in terms of content covered, it can also be applied to future assignments and therefore should be engaged with. We spend a large amount of time constructing feedback for students, in order to help improve their work and ultimately to help them succeed but very few students engage with it. If we have said you need to engage with more sources, the likelihood is that this needs to be done for all your assessments, similarly if there is a referencing issue or writing style concern. Engaging with your feedback is one of the quickest ways to improve your work, and if you do not understand the feedback, TALK to your lecturer about it.

Studying any level at university is very different to A-levels and college: it is ultimately independent learning where the lecturers will guide you and help you attain the skills required to complete your degree. It is an exciting and challenging time regardless of which stage you are at in your academic journey, and ultimately when you look back it should be something you are proud of. So to new students, welcome, to returning students, welcome back, and to you all: GOOD LUCK! 😊

Empower like Michelle

If you go to Freshers’, you will probably think this is for White people. But you’ve got to occupy your space. Better get used to occupying your space now because you’ll have to fight wherever you go, university or otherwise. Don’t let that deter you from your goals but more vitally, don’t let anybody make you feel bad about yourself. Don’t be silent in the discussions on slavery or the prison system. Use your voice, a sonicboom in the seminar. Don’t be mute to appease the White fragility of your peers, or even your lecturers and personal academic tutors.

You worked hard to get here, so occupy your space. Fill these spaces with jollof rice and jerk chicken and calypso and steel drums – the guts, determination and sheer willpower your parents and grandparents had when they arrived all those years ago. Don’t ever feel that you have to dilute your opinions for White consumption, or tell bitesize histories for the masses. In that Business class, talk loud about the Cheshire and Lancashire cotton mills written in the blood of African-American slaves.

Students, you might get lecturers that call you angry, who will have a hard time coming to terms with their own prejudice and White privilege. You will see that within a few weeks of studying. But keep your head down and think about graduation. Come and speak to me at the Students’ Union if you have any worries or just want to vent. Sometimes it’s just about finding solace in someone that gets it. Cry into that cheeky Nando’s. Buy that weave. Write a damn good assignment and prove all the naysayers wrong.

You will also find lecturers that are willing to listen to your experiences of racism and prejudice. They will implore you to write a dissertation that’s personal to you. You will find lecturers that give a shit, and will stand by you to the very end – who will say it’s absolutely fine to lace your dissertation with personal history – roots, rocks, and rebellion – academic staff that are activists in their own right (but will never openly admit it!)

Write about the politics of Black hair. Write about the Windrush Scandal or the legacy of colonialism on the Black body, or even Black men and mental health. Write every assignment for your aunties, who live in headwraps, talking in Twi and give you sound advice. Write in ruthless rebellion to the White Eurocentric reading of your degree, break the colour bar in style!

You will likely not relate to your course content. You will find it reflects the experiences of White people. No Afropean stories. No love for Sarah Forbes on History, or the Slave Trade cases of the 1700s on Law – the cases that helped forge the legal profession into what it is today. Or even the racial theories of the 18th and 19th century that we living in the remnants of – not Edward Long’s History of Jamaica nor the Black writers that top bestsellers lists. Write about a decolonised curriculum and inclusive course content.

When your lecturers make no allusion to American Slavery when you study the Industrial Revolution, give them the evilest evils you can muster. And challenge them on it. Leave them shook. Educate your “woke” White friends on why this is important. And when it comes to race, don’t feel you need to talk about race just because you’re the only non-White person in the class.

When you come to university, you will feel the urge to be someone that you are not just to fit in. BE YOU. You will try studenty things. JUST DO YOU. You’ll go out drinking, even if you don’t normally drink. You will join every society at Union Day and your emails will be chocka block. You’ll change your accent and “be friends” with people you dislike to conform to social norms. You will then admit you hate going out out and prefer a good book, or one of my poetry nights or just a chat with good people in your halls.

Tell yourself “Black is beautiful.” You know it, I know it. But there are people out there that’ll try to make you feel bad about your culture, as is life. Come back to campus in January with that Angela Davis afro, or be a dreadlock rastaman. Play cricket, like Jofra Archer or play football like Raheem Sterling. And, your hair is not an exotic specimen to gawked at and touched like a museum exhibit. Remember, say no. No means no. Always.

Black students, walk with pride. YOU DO YOU. Be united. You’ll see quickly that there are forces that are waiting for you to make a mistake. To fail. To point the finger. You’ll see quickly that failure is racialised and that failure in a White person is not as bad. You’ll see that we live in a society that doesn’t include you in its definition of beauty standards. So girls, when someone says “You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl,” pay them no mind. Find beauty in your melanin. Find your tribe. Sisterhood is paramount.

When someone asks “Where are you from?” – it’s fine to say London or Milton Keynes or any British town or city. You do not need to entertain them when they ask “Where are you really from?” You can be British and African. You can be British and Caribbean. You belong here. You can just be British. And that is also fine. Previously, you’d not have found events that represent Black people or felt inclusive. But my philosophy is “Black History Month is every month, 365 days a year.” October, November forever. See me!

Listen, you might be made to feel conscious of your otherness and not everyone will get your “I Am Proud of My Blackness” mentality. Not everyone will understand the nuanced politics of Blackness at Northampton. That even in inaction, the supposed “woke” White people are still complicit in racism. And remember it isn’t YOUR JOB to explain what is racist and what is not. Do not take on that emotional labour. You are not the mouthpiece for Black people, and you don’t have to be.

You will have days where you will say “I hate this town, I want to go home – there is no culture and nothing to do” but Northampton can work for you. There are other communities of African and Caribbean here where you will be welcomed with rice and stew. You will find family and community.

And you are not alone. There are a lot of us here. Build communities. Join the resident ACS (African-Caribbean Society). Empower yourselves. Come to see me, as your Student Union representative. Look after each other. Be good to yourselves and one another – and above all, enjoy it.


Tré Ventour

Vice President BME

Northampton Students’ Union

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