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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!

At what point do we act? There is plastic in the Mariana Trench!

I do not usually write about environmental issues, but I have reflected and read recently on zemiological perspectives with regard to social harms caused by excessive consumerism, and those in powerful positions who are determined to deny the impact of this on the planet. I examine this to some degree in my year two module on ‘Outsiders’, to ask students to think about their own consumer habits, perceived needs and also, the admiration and aspirations associated with wealth. I try to do my bit – I recycle, I am eating more vegetarian meals, but I also drive pretty much everywhere, and it is clear I could do more. However, I really do sympathise with those who ask whether concerned individuals can actually make a difference. This seems impossible in light of the scale of CO2 emissions from industrialised countries with high productivity and an unrelenting focus on increasing GDP. We also see football field sized areas of trees being cut from the Amazon rainforest on a daily basis, plastic in our oceans and food chains, and just recently, found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. As consumers, we can perhaps demand change, shift our consumer habits to use more recycled materials, move towards using sustainable resources where we have the choice and contribute to broader campaigns for change.

 

But this can feel insignificant in the light of world leaders denying there is a problem, refusing to invest in alternative energy resources and therefore, enabling the plundering of Earth’s resources. I am not sure what it will take to change our behaviour – I am hopeful younger generations, groups like Extinction Rebellion and campaigners such as Greta Thunberg mean governments who refuse to engage with the need for change will find themselves consigned to the past, with a legacy of being very much on the wrong side of history. I hope in 10 years time we can talk about being taken to the brink and pulling back, recognising the harms being caused, meaning we focus more on the welfare of the planet and less on accruing wealth and goods. Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand recently spoke out about changing the priorities of her government in a pre-budget speech, which demanded a focus on environmental change through developing a low emissions economy and considering the welfare of citizens alongside economic growth. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who serves as the U.S. Representative for New York’s 14th congressional district presented her Green New Deal’, to the US Congress, receiving both criticism and praise for the bold ideas – the central premise being the need to ‘reject economic orthodoxy to confront climate change’ (Guardian, 2019). Those facing harms of climate change have been and still are disproportionally represented by developing countries, less powerful states who struggle to get their voice heard, compared to world leaders who still focus on GDP and their own interests. Now that climate change is affecting North America and Europe more consistently, with rising temperatures and extreme weather patterns, we might start to see a response to these calls for change.

 

It is serendipitous that I write this during the British Society of Criminology conference at the University of Lincoln, where green criminology has a clear presence and profile. By following the twitter feeds @BscGreenCrim and @BSCLincs_19, we can see a range of issues being explored under the remit of #greencriminology, which has sparked my interest further and made me regret not going this year – there is always next year at the University of Liverpool! The papers include an examination by John E. McDonnell (2017) on Genocide and Green Criminology, looking at the case of the ‘Merauke integrated food and energy estate’ – a quick search reveals a project billed as increasing self-sufficiency and wealth for Indonesia is actually a ‘land grab’ and displacement of indigenous populations, alongside deforestation and numerous other impacts, all to produce food for export. Rowland Atkinson reiterates this theme examining the impact of the over consumption of the global rich on urban life – at the conference and in an extensive list of research studies. Angus Nurse examines environmental crimes committed by corporations (Nurse, 2017), who are no doubt propped up by consumer habits which demand choice and value, at the expense of creating pollution and waste which poisons our air, oceans and rivers and, as with climate change, disproportionately affects the less powerful. Finally, a shift to another fascinating area of research was presented by Tanya Wyatt, exploring the link between wildlife and drug trafficking, the former being cited as a leading cause of animal extinction (Wyatt, 2016).

 

Another article which then caught my eye, came from the Guardian, by Chris Packham, detailing the plans for companies who want to mine the ocean floor, the largest ecosystem on the planet, which Packham describes as ‘quite clearly an awful idea’. It amazes me that this is even been discussed as a possibility, but in light of the behaviour of some of our world leaders, perhaps this displays my own naivety as to just how far some will go to create wealth. There has to be a tipping point, a point at which we simply ask, what is more important to us? The stuff we buy? The acceptance of states enabling the use of the Earth’s resources, no matter the cost to us?  The article describes oceans as the last ‘industrial frontier’, but it is also clear that more us of need to fully understand how vital they are to the health of our planet – they regulate our climate, provide food and an ecosystem which if damaged or even lost, would have serious consequences for all of us. The signs of change are there, and it is clear alongside the small efforts we make ourselves, we also need to start holding governments to account on this issue.

 

References

Atkinson R (2019) Necrotecture: lifeless dwellings and London’s super-rich. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.

Guardian Editorial (2019) The Guardian view on a Green New Deal: we need it now, The Guardian.

Kenner, D. (2015) Inequality of overconsumption: The ecological footprint of the richest, Working Paper: 2015/2, Global Sustainability Institute

McDonnell, J.E. (2017) Can a genocide lens be of use in our understanding of the effects of the Indonesian Transmigration Program on the Indigenous People of West Papua?, Unpublished essay written for MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

Nurse, Angus (2017) Green criminology: shining a critical lens on environmental harm. Palgrave Communications, 3, pp. 1-4. ISSN 2055-1045

Packham, C. (2019) In too deep: why the seabed should be off-limits to mining companies, The Guardian.

Wyatt, Tanya (2016) A comparative analysis of wildlife trafficking in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Journal of Trafficking, Organized Crime and Security, 2 (1). pp. 62-81. ISSN 2374-118X

Halloween Prison Tourism

Haley 2

 

Haley Read is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first and third years.

Yes, that spooky time of the year is upon us! Excited at the prospect of being free to do something at Halloween but deterred by the considerable amount of effort required to create an average-looking carved pumpkin face, I Google, ‘Things to do for Halloween in the Midlands’.

I find that ‘prison (and cell) ghost tours’ are being advertised for tourists who can spend the night where (in)famous offenders once resided and the ‘condemned souls’ of unusual and dangerous inmates still ‘haunt’ the prison walls today. I do a bit more searching and find that more reputable prison museums are also advertising similar events, which promise a ‘fun’ and ‘action packed’ family days out where gift shops and restaurants are available for all to enjoy.

Of course, the lives of inmates who suffered from harsh and brutal prison regimes are commodified in all prison museums, and not just at Halloween related events. What appears concerning is that these commercial and profit-based events seem to attract visitors through promotional techniques which promise to entertain, reinforce common sensical, and at times fabricated (see Barton and Brown, 2015 for examples) understandings of history, crime and punishment. These also present sensationalistic a-political accounts of the past in order to appeal to popular  fascinations with prison-related gore and horror; all of which aim to attract customers.

The fascination with attending places of punishment is nothing new. Barton and Brown (2015) illustrates this with historical accounts of visitors engaging in the theatrics of public executions and of others who would visit punishment-based institutions out of curiosity or to amuse themselves. And I suppose modern commercial prison tourism could be viewed as an updated way to satisfy morbid curiosities surrounding punishment and the prison.

The reason that this concerns me is that despite having the potential to educate others and challenge prison stereotypes that are reinforced through the media and True Crime books, commercialised prison events aim to entertain as well as inform. This then has the danger of cementing popular and at times fictional views on the prison that could be seen as being historically inaccurate. Barton and Brown (2015) exemplify this idea by noting that prison museums present inmates as being unusual, harsh historical punishments as being necessary and the contemporary prison system as being progressive and less punitive. However, opposing views suggest that offenders are more ordinary than unusual, that historical punishments are brutal rather than necessary and that many contemporary prisons are viewed as being newer versions of punitive discipline rather than progressive.

Perhaps it could be that presenting a simplified, uncritical and stereotyped version of the past as entertainment prevents prison tourists from understanding the true pains experienced by those who have been incarcerated within the prison (see Barton and Brown, 2015, Sim, 2009). Truer prison museum promotions could inform visitors of staff corruption, the detrimental social and psychological effects of the prison, and that inmates (throughout history) are more likely to be those who are poor, disempowered, previously victimised and at risk of violence and self-harm upon entering prison. But perhaps this would attract less visitors/profit…And so for another year I will stick to carving pumpkins.

 

Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com

Barton, A and Brown, A. (2015) Show me the Prison! The Development of Prison Tourism in the UK. Crime Media and Culture. 11(3), pp.237-258. Doi: 10.1177/1741659015592455.

Sim, J. (2009) Punishment and Prisons: Power and the Carceral State. London: Sage.

Painting by numbers: The problem with HE.

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].

The true message of Christmas

Xmas Card

One of the seasonal discussions we have at social fora is how early the Christmas celebrations start in the streets, shops and the media.  An image of snowy landscapes and joyful renditions of festive themes that appear sometime in October and intensify as the weeks unforld.  It seems that every year the preparations for the festive season start a little bit earlier, making some of us to wonder why make this fuss?  Employees in shops wearing festive antlers and jumpers add to the general merriment and fun usually “enforced” by insistent management whose only wish is to enhance our celebratory mood.  Even in my classes some of the students decided to chip in the holiday fun wearing oversized festive jumpers (you know who you are!).  In one of those classes I pointed out that this phenomenon panders to the commercialisation of festivals only to be called a “grinch” by one of the gobby ones.  Of course all in good humour, I thought.  

Nonetheless it was strange considering that we live in a consumerist society that the festive season is marred with the pressure to buy as much food as possible so much so, that those who cannot (according to a number of charities) feel embarrassed to go shopping;  or the promotion of new toys, cosmetics and other trendy items that people have to have badly wrapped ready for the big day.  The emphasis on consumption is not something that happened overnight.  There have been years of making the special season into a family event of Olympic proportions.  Personal and family budgets will dwindle in the need to buy parcels of goods, consume volumes of food and alcohol so that we can rejoice.       

Many of us by the end of the festive season will look back with regret, for the pounds we put on, the pounds we spent and the things we wanted to do but deferred them until next Christmas.  Which poses the question; What is the point of the holiday or even better, why celebrate Christmas anymore?  Maybe a secular society needs to move away from religious festivities and instead concentrate on civic matters alone.  Why does religion get to dictate the “season to be jolly” and not people’s own desire to be with the ones they want to be with?  If there is a message within the religious symbolism this is not reflected in the shop-windows that promote a round-shaped old man in red, non-existent (pagan) creatures and polar animals.  

According to the religious message about 2000 years ago a refugee family gave birth to a child on their way to exile.  The child would live for about 33 years but will change the face of modern religion.  He promised to come back and millions of people still wait for his second coming but in the meantime millions of refugee children are piling up in detention centers and hundreds of others are dying in the journey of the damned.  “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, because her children are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15).  This is the true message of Christmas today.

Happy Holidays to our students and colleagues.  
FYI: Ramah is a town in war torn Middle East

 

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