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It was at the start of a new millennium that people worried about what the so-called millennium will do to our lives. The fear was that the bug will usher a new dark age where technology will be lost. Whilst the impending Armageddon never happened, the University College Northampton, as the University of Northampton was called then, was preparing to welcome the first cohort of Criminology students.
The first cohort of students joined us in September 2000 and since then 20 years of cohorts have joined since. During these years we have seen the rise of University fees, the expansion of the internet and google search and of course the emergence of social media. The original award was focused on sociolegal aspects, predominantly the sociology of deviance, whilst in the years since the changes demonstrate the departmental and the disciplinary changes that have happened.
Early on, as criminology was beginning to find its voice institutionally, the team developed two rules that have since defined the focus of the discipline. The first is that the subject will be taught in a multi-disciplinary approach, widely inclusive of all the main disciplines involved in the study of crime; so alongside sociology, you will find psychology, law, history, philosophy to name but a few. The impetus was to present these disciplines on an equal footing and providing opportunity to those joining the course, to discover their own voice in criminology. The second rule was to give the students the opportunity to explore contentious topics and draw their own perspective. Since the first year of running it, these rules have become the bedrock of UoN Criminology.
The course since the early years has grown and gone through all those developmental stages, childhood, adolescence and now eventually we have reached adulthood. During these stages, we managed to forge a distinctiveness of what criminology looks like; introducing for example a research placement to allow the students to explore the theory in practice. In later years we created courses that reflect Criminology in the 21st Century always relating to the big questions and forever arming learners with the skills to ask the impossible questions.
Through all these years students join with an interest in studying crime and by the time they leave us, to move onto the next chapter of their lives, they have become hard core criminologists. This is always something that we consider one of the course’s greatest contribution to the local community.
In an ordinary day, like any other day in the local court one may see an usher, next to a probation officer, next to a police officer, next to a drugs rehabilitation officer, all of them our graduates making up the local criminal justice system. A demonstration of the reach and the importance of the university as an institution and the services it provides to the local community. More recently we developed a module that we teach in prison comprised by university and prison students. This is a clear sign of the maturity and the journey we have done so far…
As the 21st century entered, twin towers fell, bus and tube trains exploded, consequent wars were made, riots in the capital, the banking crisis, the austerity, bridge attacks, Brexit, extinction rebellion, buildings burning, planes coming down, forest fires and #metoo, and we just barely cover 20 years. These and many more events keep criminological discourse relevant, increase the profile of the subject and most importantly further the conversation we are having in our society as to where we are heading.
As I raise my glass to salute the first 20 years of Criminology at the University of Northampton, I am confident that the next 20 years will be even more exciting. For those who have been with us so far a massive thank you, for those to come we are looking forward to discussing some of the many issues with you. We are passionate about criminology and we want you to infect you with our passion.
As they say in prison, the first 20 years are difficult the rest you just glide through…
A few years ago, probably about three or four, I found myself appointed as some form of school liaison person for criminology. I’m still trying to conjure up a title for my office worthy of consideration as grand poohbah. As I understood my role, the university marketing department would arrange for schools to visit the university or for me to visit schools to promote the university and talk about criminology.
In the beginning, I stumbled around the talks, trying to find my feet and a formula of presentation that worked. As with most things, it’s trial and error and in those earlier days some of it felt like a trial, and there were certainly a few errors (nothing major, just stuff that didn’t work). The presentations became workshops, the ideas morphed from standing up and talking and asking a few questions, with very limited replies, to asking students to think about ideas and concepts and then discussing them, introducing theoretical concepts along the way. These days we try to disentangle scenarios and try to make sense of them, exploring the ideas around definitions of crime, victims and offenders.
There is nothing special about what I do but the response seems magical, there is real engagement and enthusiasm. I can see students thinking, I can see the eyes light up when I touch on topics and question society’s ideas and values. Criminology is a fascinating subject and I want everyone to know that, but most importantly I want young minds to think for themselves and to question the accepted norms. To that extent, criminology is a bit of a side show, the main gig is the notion that university is about stretching minds, seeking and acquiring knowledge and never being satisfied with what is supposedly known. I suppose criminology is the vehicle, but the driver decides how far they go and how fast.
As well as changing my style of presentation, I have also become a little more discerning in choosing what I do. I do not want to turn up to a school simply to tell pupils this is what the course looks like, these are the modules and here are a few examples of the sorts of things we teach at the university. That does nothing to build enthusiasm, it says nothing about our teaching and quite frankly, its boring, both for me and the audience.
Whilst I will turn up to a school to take a session for pupils who have been told that they have a class taken by a visitor, I much prefer those sessions where the pupils have volunteered to attend. Non-compulsory classes such as after school events are filled with students who are there because they have an interest and the enthusiasm shines through.
Whilst recognising marketing have a place in arranging school visits, particularly new ones, I have found that more of my time is taken up revisiting schools at their request. My visits have extended outside of the county into neighbouring counties and even as far as Norfolk. Students can go to university anywhere so why not spread the word about criminology anywhere. And just to prove that students are never too young to learn, primary school visits for a bit of practical fingerprinting have been carried out for a second time. Science day is great fun, although I’m not sure parents or carers are that keen on trying to clean little inky hands (I keep telling them its only supposed to be the fingers), I really must remember not to use indelible ink!
The classic novel by Mary Shelley back in the early 19th century was an apocalyptic piece of work that imagined the future in a world where technology appeared to be a marvel that professes to make everyday people into gods. The creation of a man by a man (deliberately gendered) in accordance to his wishes, and morals. The metaphysical constraints of the soul seemingly absent, until all comes to head. This was dystopic, but at the same time philosophical, of the future of humanity.
In the 20th century John B. Watson believed that he could shape the behaviour of anyone, mostly children in any possible way. Some of his ideas even made it into popular psychology where he offered advice to parents of how to raise their children. Although no monster is mentioned, there is still the view that a man can shape a child in whatever way he chooses. A creationist and most importantly, arrogant view of the world.
Decades later Robert Martinson, a sociologist will look at all these wonderful and great programmes designed to challenge behaviours and change people, so they can rehabilitate leaving criminality behind. He found the results to be disappointing. In the meantime, child psychologists could not achieve this leap that Watson seem to think they could make in changing people.
In the 21st century we began to realise at a discipline level that forcing change upon people is rather impossible. How about a man creating a man? Can you develop a new human that will be developed espousing the creator’s desired attributes and thus become a model citizen? In recent years we have been talking about designer babies, gene harvesting and genetic modification. Such a surprising concept considering the Lebensborn experience during the Nazi regime. That super-man concept was shattered in thousands little pieces, and for many relegated to history books. Therefore, designer babies are such a cautionary tale.
As a society we are still curious on what can technology can achieve, how far can we go and what can we develop. Still in science there are seeds of creationism proposing ideas of that we can develop; a world of people without illness, disorder and deviance. Pure, healthy and potentially exceptional individuals who may be physiologically right but sadly devoid of humanity. Why devoid? Because what makes a person? Our imperfections, deviances and foibles. These add to, rather than substract from, our uniqueness and individuality.
In a recent twitter discussion one of my colleagues engaged in a discussion about the repatriation of one of those women called “Isis brides”. The colleague posed the question, why not allow her to return, only to receive in response, because these are no humans. As I read it I thought, well this is a new interpretation of the monster. A 21st century monster that we can chase out of the proverbial village with torches because its alive and it shouldn’t be. We can wish for people to be good to us, open armed and happy all the time, but that is not necessarily how it is. We know that this is the case and of course we want to be reminded of our humanity, not for the positives but for the negatives. Not what we can be but what the others are not. So, we can always be the villagers and never the monster.
Mary Shelley (1888) Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, London, George Routledge and Sons.