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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.

3) ENGAGE WITH FEEDBACK!
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.

Yours,

Tré Ventour

Vice President BME

Northampton Students’ Union

How to prepare for a year in University

In our society consumerism seems to rain supreme.  We can buy stuff to make us feel better and we can buy more stuff to express our feeling to others and mark almost most events around us.  Retail and especially all the shops have long been aware of this and so they have developed their seasonal material.  These seasonal promotions may have become consumer events now although they do signify something incredibly important to culture and our collective consciousness.  There is time for Christmas decorations and festive foods, Easter time and chocolate eggs, mother’s day and nauseating cards father’s day for equally grinchworthy cards.  There is valentine’s day to say I love you in full fat chocolates, Halloween to give little kids rotten teeth and a red poppy to remember some of our dead.  To those add the summer season with the disposable BBQs and of course the back to school season! 

The back to school is one of the interesting ones.  Geared to prepare pupils and parents for going back to school and plan ahead.  From ordering the uniforms to getting all the stationery and books required.  I remember this time of the year with some rather mixed emotions.  It was the end of my summer holidays, but it was also the time to get back to school.  Until one day I finished school and I went to university.  Education is seen as part of a continuous process that we are actively involved from the first day at school to the last day in high school and more recently for more people also involve the first day of going to university.  Every year is more challenging than the next, but we move up and continue.  For those of us who enjoy education we continue the journey further to further or high education. 

There is something to said about the preparation process coming to University; it is interesting seeing advertisements on education this time of the year on the tv and social media promoting stuff for this transition; from the got to have smartphone to the best laptop, the fastest printer scanner all in one thingy to the greatest sound system and many more stuff that would get you ready for the year ahead.  Do they really help us out and if not, what do we got to do to prepare for coming to university?

Unfortunately, there is no standard formula here but there is a reason for that.  Higher education is adult education.  This is the first time in our educational journey that we are sitting firmly on the driving seat.  We choose to study (or ought to) what we wish to study.  It is an incredibly liberating process to have choice.  This however is only the beginning.  We make plans of our time.  In higher education the bulk of the time required is independent study, and as such we got to negotiate how we will plan our time.  We got to decide which reading we are going to do first which notes to read what seminar we shall prepare and what assignment we will make a draft of. 

There will be days spent in the library looking for a book, days in a coffee shop talking to fellow students about the seminar reading, days in the learning hub working on an assignment.  There are highs, lows and everything in between.  But regardless of the emotion at every stage thee will be a sense of ownership of knowledge.   

In the first couple of sessions, the bulk of the students keep quiet expecting the correct answer to be given.  One interpretation or one truth that describes all.  It takes a few times before the realisation emerges that the way we analyse, and project knowledge can be different provided we go through the same processes of scrutiny and analysis.  Then conversation emerges and the more reading the better the quality of the ideas that shall emerge. 

The first year at University is definitely a declaration of independence and the realisation that we all have a voice.  Getting on to the road on empowerment.  This is a long journey, and on occasions arduous but incredibly rewarding because it leads to an insight greater than before that removes ignorance and lifts the veil of the unfamiliar. 

To our newest students – Welcome to the University and to our returning 2 and 3 years – Welcome back!

How literature failed me as a black student

My name is Francine Bitalo, I am 21 years old and a Criminology undergraduate at the University of Northampton. Coming from a black African background I have always had a strong interest in the Criminal Justice System and its treatment towards different groups in society.

My dissertation was based on the impact of police practices such as stop and search on young black men and their families. Whilst statistics present the alarming racial disproportionately which exist in many areas in the criminal justice system, it fails to portray the long-lasting effects it has had on Black families. For example, the daily harassment and differential treatment subjected to young Black men has forced black families to reinvent themselves to conform to institutional racism. Coming from a Black family myself and having male family member, the findings in my dissertation quickly became personal to me, as I could constantly relate them to the structuring of my own family. For example, the fact that it would take my father longer to find a job due to institutional racism, making my mother the breadwinner, or when my mother is preparing my brothers for police harassment and discrimination, but not me and sisters.

While conducting my research I was quick to learn that what literature may describe as a phenomenon, for many of us is a reality. If I am honest the writing stage of my dissertation was difficult for me because it was a passionate topic. I experienced a lot of self-doubt regarding my positionality for example, being a Black woman and facing my own forms of discrimination and now having to talk about the experiences of young Black men. I think my dissertation tutor would agree with me on this as I remember emailing her after I submitted my work expressing how I felt like I didn’t effectively capture the effects and the voices of the young Black men I interviewed, despite that being my main goal. I mean who would blame me, as a student, if I am honest I felt like literature really let me down for instance, when writing my literature review I found that literature neglected the subject of racism solely from the perspectives of young Black men, despite statistics showing them to being the largest group to experience institutional racism. At this point I had to laugh at the criminal justice system and its propositions to improving police relations as well as re offending.

With that being said the information I did come across I couldn’t help but sense the notion of white privilege lingering in the perspective of some scholars. I understand this is a strong claim to make however I say this because not only did literature provide little of the work of Black scholars regarding the topic, yet it was evident that most white scholars did not see the issue with stop and search and its discriminate use. Arguments for this were discussed in my dissertation for example, some argued that the process of racial socialisation in Black households were ineffective to police relations and the functioning of their services, which creates the notion that the Black community should submit to discrimination and harassment in favour of procedures and compliance during police encounter. Some tried to justify the disproportionality in stop and search by claiming that young Black men should be harassed because they tend to be out more especially in certain urban areas or the disproportionate targeting of Black minors is due to parental criminality. I felt there was a lack of accountability from white scholar thus, little understanding in the issue of race which is natural because their experiences do not allow them to understand. Yet this led me to ask questions such as why shouldn’t Black mothers have the right to prepare their sons for police discrimination, does it matter what time and area should a person of colour be around for them to be targeted at?

After completing my dissertation and getting a First Class I felt extremely proud of myself, the fact that I did not shy away from the research topic despite it being limited in literature. As a result, it was satisfying to know that I was able to articulate the experiences of others to a First Class standard. I hope this can encourage others to trust in their abilities and put aside any doubts especially when choosing a research topic. As a student writing a dissertation or even an assignment, I believe we should explore the unexplored, open the unopened and always be willing to discover and learn. Do not be afraid of researching something that is limited or has never been done. Lastly as my dissertation was extremely passionate to me I have decided to turn it into a personal project and continue researching the topic

Come Together

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.  

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