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The start of my criminology journey is not very exciting. I am not fully sure of how or why I ended up studying the subject. I was advised to study hairdressing at school as my predicted grades were not good enough for university, but the idea of trusting myself with a pair of scissors was very unnerving. I had a dilemma at college as I was unable to decide whether I wanted to study healthcare or construction – two courses which bore no similarity. In the end I give up trying to make decisions and studied A Levels because that was what my friends were doing.
University may as well have been on Mars at this point, as it was completely mysterious and unknown to me. Whilst at college, I was asked by my tutor to go to an open day at Oxford University. I saw this as an opportunity to unmask this university ‘thing’ for what it really was, so I agreed to go. I felt completely out of place throughout the day and found myself gobsmacked by the sheer privilege of the place, the culture and the students etc. At the same time, I was fascinated by the available courses, so I decided to continue my studies into higher education.
My first attempt at university did not go as well as I had intended it to. I had other issues to contend with at the time, so I dropped out after two weeks. However, in 2010 I enrolled at the UoN and never really left. I had a great time studying criminology at UoN as I thought that my course was very interesting and the teaching staff (aka @paulaabowles and @manosdaskalou) were spectacular.
I did not realise this it at the time but I was well prepared for critical criminological discussions because I came from a background where people would be demonized for a whole host of social problems – it was clear to me at the time that this was unfair. Whilst enjoying the course content I did have to make a considered effort to improve on my writing skills, but it was worth the effort as this improvement worked wonders on my grades. As an undergraduate, I used my overdraft and savings from working part-time jobs to go travelling at the end of each academic year, this was beneficial for helping me to understand criminological issues outside of the UK.
In 2015 I began teaching as an associate lecturer at UoN and I really enjoyed it. I also completed an MA degree in Social Research. To fast-forward to today, I now work as a lecturer in criminology – and this really is, beyond my wildest dreams!
Studying is not always a smooth ride for some, but if you work hard, you never know where you might end up.
A good few years ago a senior colleague asked me that very question. It was more of a statement, than a question and it was designed to make me think about how I approached work and perhaps more importantly how others saw me in the workplace. It fits very nicely with another saying, ‘if you want the job done, give it to a busy person’. It seems there are those in the workplace that get the job done and those that don’t. There are those that always say ‘yes’ and others that often say ‘no’. There are those that solve problems and those that don’t. Another saying from a senior manager, ‘don’t bring me problems, just bring me solutions’ sums up the majority of relationships in organisations.
My experience of managers (both middle and upper) has been varied, but unfortunately most have fallen into the category of poor, bordering on awful. Perhaps that colours my judgement, but I do know that I’ve also had some very good managers. The good managers always made me feel like I was working in partnership with them and, yet I knew who was the boss. I always tried to find a solution to a problem but if I couldn’t then the boss knew that it was a problem he or she needed to deal with, they trusted my judgement. Often what appears to be the most trivial of problems can be a show stopper, a good boss knows this. If I said ‘no’ to a piece of work, then the boss negotiated which other piece of work would be set to one side for now. Sometimes everything is a priority, and everything is important, it is for those at the most senior level to make the decisions about what will or will not get done. Making no choice is an abrogation of responsibility, suggesting it is another person’s problem is just as bad if not worse.
Good managers understand how much work people are doing and trust their workers to get on with the job in hand. A good manager knows that even the most menial of tasks takes more time than might be imagined and that things rarely go exactly to plan. There is always an element of redundancy. When someone says ‘no’ to a piece of work they understand that there is a reason for that ‘no’ and rather than simply seeing that person as being difficult or lazy, they listen and seek solutions. More importantly, they take responsibility for the problem, ‘bring me the problem and I’ll help you find the solution’.
As we move into a summer of uncertainty where the ‘new normal’ is an anxious time for most, where the ‘yes’ people are needed more than ever, and the managers need to lead from the front, if you are a manager, what will you response be when your undervalued ‘yes’ person says ‘no’?
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’.
I am annoyed that our apartment-building manager told my husband that a two-bedroom had recently become available, and that we should move in because we would be “more comfortable.” My husband always takes such statements at face value, then performs his own cost/benefits analysis. Did the manager offer a discount, I asked? I mean, if he’s genuinely concerned about our comfort, shouldn’t he put his money where his mouth is? That’s probably just the American in me talking: He was either upselling the property or probing us to see what the deal was – not at all concerned about our comfort. I speak code, too.
The most homophobic thing that anyone has ever said to me is not any slur, but that gay people should not “flaunt it.” As if concealing our identities would magically erase homophobia. This reveals that the speaker either doesn’t know – or doesn’t care to know – how readily people everywhere speak about our personal lives. There are random people I have met in every single part of the world, that ask my marital status. It comes shortly after asking my name and where I’m from. The words used are revealing – just ask any divorced person who has engaged with any society’s traditions. Is it deceptive to say that they are “single,” instead? What’s more, regardless of language, preferred terms like “unmarried” reveal the value conferred upon this status. You’re not a whole person until you’re married, and a parent. It is only then that one is genuinely conferred what we sociologists call ‘personhood’. Also, are married lesbians called two Mrs.?
In many parts of the world, being ‘out’ carries the death penalty, including parts of my father’s homeland, Nigeria. I’ve literally avoided visiting Nigeria because of the media-fueled fear of coming out. I hate the distance it’s wedged between my people, our culture and I. There was a time when coming out was literally the hardest thing I ever had to do. Now, l must come out daily.
Back in the UK, many educators would like to believe that they don’t discuss their personal lives with students. But who hasn’t been casually asked how one spent the weekend? Do I not say “My husband and I…” just as anyone else might? Abroad, do I correct co-workers when they refer to us as ‘friends’? Yesterday, I attended an academic conference. All the usual small talk. I came out a dozen times by lunch.
In teaching English here in Asia, isn’t it unfair for me to conceal from my students the gender of my “life-partner,” which is actually our formal legal status? Am I politicising my classroom by simply teaching gender-neutral terms like ‘spouse’ or ‘partner’? Or, do I simply use the term ‘husband’ and skim over their baffled faces as they try to figure out if they have understood me properly? Am I denying them the opportunity to prepare for the sought-after life in the west? Further, what about the inevitability of that one ‘questioning’ student in my classroom searching for signs of their existence!
I was recently cornered in the hallway by the choreographer hired by our department to support our contribution to the university’s staff talent competition (see picture below*). She spoke with me in German, explaining that she’d lived several years in the former GDR. There are many Vietnamese who’d been ‘repatriated’ from the GDR upon reunification. So, given the historical ties to Communism, it’s commonplace to meet German (and Russian) speakers here. Naturally, folks ask how/why I speak (basic) German. My spouse of seventeen years is German, so it’d be weird if I hadn’t picked up any of the language. It’s really deceptive to conceal gender in German, which has three. I speak German almost every day here in Hanoi.
In Delhi, we lived in the same 2-bedroom flat for over 7 years. It became clear to our landlady very early on that we slept in one bedroom. Neighbours, we’re told, also noticed that we only ever had one vehicle between us and went most places together. Neither the landlady nor any neighbour ever confronted us, so we never had to formally come out. Yet, the chatter always got back to us.
As a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Mali in the late 90’s, I learned to speak Bambara. Bambara greetings are quite intimate: One normally asks about spouses, parents and/or children, just as Black-Americans traditionally would say “How yo’ momma doin?’” In Mali, village people make it their business to get single folks hitched. Between the Americans, then, it became commonplace to fake a spouse, just so one would be left in peace. Some women wore wedding bands for added protection, as a single woman living alone was unconscionable. The official advice for gays was to stay closeted L. While I pretended to be the husband of several volunteers, I could never really get the gist of it in my village. Besides, at 23 years old, being a single man wasn’t as damning as it is for women. I only needed excuses to reject the young women villagers presented to me. Anyhow, as soon as city migrants poured back to the village for Ramadan, I quickly discovered that there are plenty of LGBTQ+ folks in Mali! This was decades before Grindr.
Here in Hanoi, guys regularly, casually make gestures serving up females, as if to say: ‘Look, she’s available, have her’. I’ve never bothered to learn the expected response, nor paid enough attention to how straight men handle such scenarios. Recently, as we left a local beer hall with another (gay) couple, one waiter rather cheekily made such gestures at a hostess. In response, I made the same gestures towards him; he then served himself up as if to say ‘OK’. That’s what’s different about NOW as opposed to any earlier period: Millennials everywhere are aware of gay people.
A group of lads I sat with recently at a local tea stall made the same gestures to the one girl in their group. After coming out, the main instigator seamlessly gestured towards the most handsome in his clique. When I press Nigerian youth about the issue, the response is often the same: We don’t have a problem with gay people, we know gay people, it’s the old folk’s problem. Our building manager may be such a relic.
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’.
The other week, I went for a meal with a friend. The food was lovely, the staff and environment welcoming and friendly and company, fabulous. A couple of days later I was thinking about that evening and I wondered why I had not felt the need to write some positive feedback on google, or similar. The answer was because I felt that I and my dining companion, had expressed our pleasure both in word and deed (the plates were clean!). Thus, the relationship between diners and restaurant staff had been overwhelmingly positive and this had been expressed by both.
However, wherever we go nowadays, we are regularly confronted by requests for feedback; “how is my driving?”, “did you enjoy your meal?” “would you recommend our services to others”? Often these questions are accompanied by Likert scales, so we can record our opinion on almost everything. Sometimes we might take some time to consider the options, other times we might just tick random boxes, more usually (if I’m anything to go by) I just don’t engage with such requests. Despite their often-jolly appearance, these questions are not harmless, they have an impact, most usually to measure individuals’ performances.
Whether we engage with such requests or not, we do not question whether we are well-placed to judge. So, for instance, as a driver of probably one of the smallest cars on the market (that’s me!), I’m expected to be able to mark the driver of a lorry. Or someone, who has the cooking know-how of a small child (I speak for myself again!) is expected to form an opinion on a dish prepared by a trained chef, these questions are hardly fair. More importantly, my answers are meaningless; whilst I might respond “the lorry appeared to take the corner a bit wide”, I have neither knowledge or understanding of the turning circle of a 32-tonne lorry. Similarly, my thoughts about the heat of a Bangladeshi biryani or the sweetness of a mille-feuille is neither here nor there. Given I can neither drive a lorry nor cook these wonderful dishes, who am I to voice an opinion?
Of course, there are times when it is necessary to voice an opinion, the lorry driver is behaving in a dangerous manner liable to cause an accident, or the restaurant is serving rancid or rotten food; both scenarios likely to involve serious harm. However, these concerns would need to be raised immediately, either by alerting the police (in the case of the lorry) or the management of the restaurant. In the case of the latter, you may also feel it necessary to contact environmental health if you felt that your complaint had not been addressed or you had concerns about the hygiene of the restaurant in general. However, these types of problems are largely outside the feedback requested.
In many of the scenarios/environments we are asked to comment on, we are in a relationship with the other party. Take the restaurant; if I am friendly and polite to the staff, I can expect a reciprocal relationship. If I am rude and aggressive, is it any wonder staff behave in a different way. They are constrained by their professions to focus on customer service, but this should not lay them open to abuse. Whilst the old adage “the customer is always right” might be an excellent baseline, it is not possible for this always to be the case. As someone who has spent a previous lifetime working in retail, sometimes the customer can be obtuse, rude or even downright, ignorant and abusive. Adherence to such an adage, at all costs, can only open the way for abuse.
But what about those feedback forms? On a bad day, in a rash moment, or because I’m bored, I decide to complete one of these forms. The waiter kept me waiting, the food was too spicy, I didn’t like the feedback I was given on my job application, my essay was critiqued, my teeth haven’t been flossed regularly, I didn’t like the book recommended to me by the librarian or the book seller, I can’t believe my line manager has turned down my application for annual leave. I can easily demonstrate my unhappiness with the situation with a few judiciously placed ticks, circles or smiley/sad faces. Can I say the waiter, the chef, the HR professional, the lecturer, the dentist, the librarian, the book seller and my line manager are performing poorly? Can I say they are unprofessional, unprepared, untrained, lacking in knowledge or skills or just plain wrong? And if I do, is that fair or just? Furthermore, am I happy to be subject to the same judgement from people who do not share my experiences; professional or otherwise? Remember too much of this bad feedback, however flippant and lacking in evidence it may be, may lead to disciplinary action, including dismissal.
There is an oft-cited, albeit crude, truth: “Opinions are like arseholes; everyone has one”! Ultimately, whether we choose to share (either) in public is up to us! Think carefully before ticking those boxes and encourage others to do the same. Who knows, someone may well be ticking boxes about you!
I’ve been thinking about Criminology a great deal this summer! Nothing new you might say, given that my career revolves around the discipline. However, my thoughts and reading have focused on the term ‘criminology’ rather than individual studies around crime, criminals, criminal justice and victims. The history of the word itself, is complex, with attempts to identify etymology and attribute ownership, contested (cf. Wilson, 2015). This challenge, however, pales into insignificance, once you wander into the debates about what Criminology is and, by default, what criminology isn’t (cf. Cohen, 1988, Bosworth and Hoyle, 2011, Carlen, 2011, Daly, 2011).
Foucault (1977) infamously described criminology as the embodiment of utilitarianism, suggesting that the discipline both enabled and perpetuated discipline and punishment. That, rather than critical and empathetic, criminology was only ever concerned with finding increasingly sophisticated ways of recording transgression and creating more efficient mechanisms for punishment and control. For a long time, I have resisted and tried to dismiss this description, from my understanding of criminology, perpetually searching for alternative and disruptive narratives, showing that the discipline can be far greater in its search for knowledge, than Foucault (1977) claimed.
However, it is becoming increasingly evident that Foucault (1977) was right; which begs the question how do we move away from this fixation with discipline and punishment? As a consequence, we could then focus on what criminology could be? From my perspective, criminology should be outspoken around what appears to be a culture of misery and suspicion. Instead of focusing on improving fraud detection for peddlers of misery (see the recent collapse of Wonga), or creating ever increasing bureaucracy to enable border control to jostle British citizens from the UK (see the recent Windrush scandal), or ways in which to excuse barbaric and violent processes against passive resistance (see case of Assistant Professor Duff), criminology should demand and inspire something far more profound. A discipline with social justice, civil liberties and human rights at its heart, would see these injustices for what they are, the creation of misery. It would identify, the increasing disproportionality of wealth in the UK and elsewhere and would see food banks, period poverty and homelessness as clearly criminal in intent and symptomatic of an unjust society.
Unless we can move past these law and order narratives and seek a criminology that is focused on making the world a better place, Foucault’s (1977) criticism must stand.
Bosworth, May and Hoyle, Carolyn, (2010), ‘What is Criminology? An Introduction’ in Mary Bosworth and Carolyn Hoyle, (2011), (eds), What is Criminology?, (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 1-12
Carlen, Pat, (2011), ‘Against Evangelism in Academic Criminology: For Criminology as a Scientific Art’ in Mary Bosworth and Carolyn Hoyle, (eds), What is Criminology?, (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 95-110
Cohen, Stanley, (1988), Against Criminology, (Oxford: Transaction Books)
Daly, Kathleen, (2011), ‘Shake It Up Baby: Practising Rock ‘n’ Roll Criminology’ in Mary Bosworth and Carolyn Hoyle, (eds), What is Criminology?, (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 111-24
Foucault, Michel, (1977), Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, tr. from the French by Alan Sheridan, (London: Penguin Books)
Wilson, Jeffrey R., (2015), ‘The Word Criminology: A Philology and a Definition,’ Criminology, Criminal Justice Law, & Society, 16, 3: 61-82
This time of the year, it always feels a bit, well odd! I prepare for the new academic year, in terms of the administrative tasks but most importantly for the academic material. For many years now, I have been returning to the same space, sit on the same chair and talk to the same old people. I am aware that this may demystify the role of the academic, but this is only the obvious side. What I left out from this annual ritual is the most important part of the process; the time used to contemplate content, to reflect on the pedagogies used and to explore new ideas; this is a process whose gestation will commence at the end of the last year and will mature just before the new academic year begins.
This year things are going to be slightly different; the last academic year I was on the old campus and now we have moved to a brand-new campus. Admittedly, this is a very interesting experience so far. In a way, it feels like I have changed employment although I still see the same recognisable faces around. Getting used to the new buildings will take a bit of time, so for those reading this blog, and coming to the campus, please bear with me and of course, if you see me going the wrong direction point me to the right one. This is a year the myself and my colleagues and our students will be discovering the new campus together. This will be a shared experience to remember.
The move to the new campus is also aligned to the way we have developed our institutional pedagogies, although our subject has long been involved in those, either espousing the changemaker ethos or getting involved with local organisations and engaging with the community. We have already been thinking of ways of working with our students to become more civic minded which will help in connecting the academic experience, with a different kind of social learning.
This is a year like all other years, in terms of preparation and planning but at the same time this is a year like no other. It is a year all students and staff will remember beyond their educational experience. Years ago, I told a group of students that the place of study becomes such an important point of reference because as people we combine experiences together. The new campus will shelter the dreams and aspirations of many generations of students and transfigure them into the level of academic maturity that lead our graduates to professional success. The process is so simple and at the same time so incredibly vital. The students who come will progress through their studies, master the importance of becoming independent learners with confidence, who will return to their communities, to enhance them with their knowledge and ability. This is an incredibly satisfying academic process that encouraged myself and many other colleagues to join academia in the first instance.
Let’s have a great new academic year. One of many
Growing up in a small town and having dealt with racism from a young age; I felt as if getting a degree would prove that I deserve to sit with the top dogs and that would be the end of me experiencing racism.
But I was sadly mistaken. I have experienced racism at 3 out of the 4 jobs I have had since graduating. I never dealt with it head on. I would just apply for other jobs and pray that the next job would be different. Thinking of reporting people for the comments they said was never an option for me as they were managers or supervisors.
Until I had the 3rd person who said a racist comment and I broke down. At this point I was done with running. I reporte d it and it was dealt with. But since then I have been dealing with covert racism. Being the only black person in a department of over 100 people has not been easy. I have not always received the same opportunities as my colleagues. But I never gave up. I might have my melt down for a few hours or days. But I knew I had to work twice as hard as a white person to even get recognition. I have a degree that relates to my occupation and have paid over a £1,000 for courses just to be recognised. Yet, my colleagues never had to pay for those courses.
The truth of the matter is, it has taken centuries for prejudicial thoughts to be embedded in people’s heads. And it will take the same amount of time to get rid of it. That does not excuse it or make it right. All, you can do is work hard and never give up. You should not have to accept being mistreated. Stand up for yourself, no matter what. Do not suffer in silence!
I read a report the other week about concern over the number of 1st degrees that are being achieved within higher education in the UK (Richmond, 2018) and the fact that the volume of such achievements is devaluing university degrees. I juxtapose this with another report that states that 32% of students do not think they get value for money (Neves and Hillman, 2018) and the result is some soul searching about what it is I’m trying to achieve as a lecturer, aside from survival, and what higher education (HE) is about. A conversation with a friend who works in Information Technology muddies the water even more. He’s a high flyer, jetting backwards and forwards to the USA, solving problems, advising on, and implementing major change projects within large corporations and generally making a lot of money along the way. For him a degree is not as important as the ability to ‘think outside the box’, find solutions to problems and show leadership that enables change or fixes. If you have a degree then you ought to be able to do all these things to some extent, experience will then build on it. He lets on that his company will not touch graduates from certain universities, simply because they do not have the requisite skills or abilities, their degrees are effectively meaningless. A sad generalisation but one that is becoming increasingly prominent amongst employers. One other thing that he was quick to point out is that the ‘real world’ is highly competitive and his company are looking for the best potential.
So, what is higher education all about, higher than what? What is the benchmark and what is the end goal? I have always believed that higher education is about taking students beyond what can be read in books or can be followed in manuals. It is about enhancing the understanding of the world in which we operate, either professionally or socially and being able to redesign or reimagine that world. It is about leadership in its many guises, problem solving and the ability to use initiative and autonomy. It is about moving a student from being able to paint by numbers under supervision to a student that can paint free hand, understanding light and colours, understanding how to capture moods or how to be evocative, a student who uses materials that they want to use, and they are not frightened to do so. It stands to reason that not every student can achieve excellence. If the starting point is the ability to paint by numbers, then some will move only slightly beyond this and some will excel, but only a few will warrant a 1st degree. What is clear though is that the students really ought to be able to paint by numbers before they enter HE otherwise they will need to be taught that skill before they can move on. That then is no longer higher education but further education (FE) and more importantly, it sets students up to fail, if they are being measured against HE standards. An alternative to avoid this potential failure requires HE standards to be lowered to those of FE. In which case what is the point of HE?
So why would I be confused about HE? Well, when students are seen as cash cows, each being worth £9250 a year to an institution, being able to paint by numbers becomes a barrier to recruitment in a highly competitive market. Institutions can help students that do not have the requisite skills, but this requires either extra time before joining the HE course, this has funding implications, or a lot of extra work by the student during the HE course, and this means that students with limited academic ability struggle. A need to retain students over the three-year period of a degree, to ensure institutional financial stability or even viability, becomes problematic. Struggling students have a double whammy, they have to catch up to the starting point for each year, whilst also progressing through the year. The choices are stark for HE institutions, progress students by lowering standards or lose them.
HE institutions are measured on the number of good degrees and it makes for good advertising. There is enough literature around to suggest that such unsophisticated quantitative measures are never a good thing. The complexity of higher education, where there is a heavy reliance on students engaging in their studies (there is something to be said about reading for a degree), puts much of the achievement of grades beyond the control of lecturers or even institutions. The resultant solution appears to be the lowering of assessment standards and teaching to assessments. In effect, HE is falling in line with FE and teaching students to paint by numbers. It is easy to see why there is disquiet then about an increase in 1st degrees and more importantly, in a competitive world, why employers are becoming increasingly concerned about the value of a degree. As for value for money for students, for many, it’s a bit like being charged a fortune to race a Maserati round a track for a day but not being able to drive.
Neves, J. and Hillman, N. (2018) Student Academic Experience Survey report 2018 [online] available at https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/student-academic-experience-survey-report-2018 [accessed 20 June 2018]
Richmond, T. (2018) A degree of uncertainty: An investigation into grade inflation in universities. [online] available at, http://www.reform.uk/publication/a-degree-of-uncertainty-an-investigation-into-grade-inflation-in-universities/ [accessed 20 June 2018].