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What are Universities for?

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As we go through another welcome week it becomes quite apparent in conversations with new students that their motivation for coming to University and joining a course is not singular.  Of course there are some very clear objectives that are shared across like the interest for the subject and the employability afterwards for underlying those there are so many different personal motivations and aspirations attached.  

In the eyes of our new cohort, I can see a variety of responses, the eagerness to learn the joy of studying, the expectation of belonging and the anticipation of ordering their lives across the University life, just to name but a few.  

In conversation, I see these attributes in a different light.  “I want to belong but I am shy”, “I wish to learn but I am worried about learning” “I want to engage but I am concern with my writing”. This is the soft underbelly of becoming a student; because in education our own insecurities are playing up.  These little devils, who rest on the back of the head of many people who doubt themselves and worry them.

One of the greatest fears I hear and see been rehearsed before me is that of intellectual ability.  This is one of those issues that becomes a significant barrier to many people’s fear when joining a University course.  Of course the intellectual level of study is high. There are expectations of the degree of knowledge a student will build on and the way they will be able to utilise that level of knowledge.  After all a University is an institution of High Learning. The place where disciplines are explored in totality and subjects are taught holistically. Nevertheless the University is not the end of one’s education but rather the door to a new dimension of learning.  

For myself and many of my colleagues what makes this process incredibly exciting is to see those eyes of the new students across the years brighten up, as they “get it” as the penny drops and they connect different parts of knowledge together.  Once people reach that part of their educational journey realise that coming to University was not simply an means to an end but something beyond that; the joy of lifelong learning.

As this is a early session, I shall address the intellectual fear.  The greatest skills that any student need to bring with them in class is patience and passion.  Passion for the subject; this is so important because it will sustain during the long cold winter days when not feeling 100%.  Patience is equally important; to complete the course, needs plenty of hours out of class and a level of concentration that allows the mind to focus.  Any successful student can testify to the long hours required to be in the library or at home going over the material and making sense of some challenging material.  This ultimately unravels the last of the requirements, that of perseverance. It is through trial and error, rising up to a challenge that each student thrives.

So for those who joined us this year, welcome.  The door to an exciting new world is here, to those returning, we shall pick up from where we left off and those who completed, hopefully University has now opened your eyes to a new world.  

Which mindset are you? This may depend on the sort of week you are having…..

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This blog is inspired by an article posted on our Facebook group by my colleague @paulaabowles, from the work of Dweck (2016), suggesting mindsets can be categorised as either growth or fixed. It is interesting to consider how such a mindset can shape the way your life goes, but for me, any psychological analysis is always just part of the picture. That said, Dweck’s work is interesting and made me reflect on my life up until this week. This is a week where I seem to be waiting patiently (mostly) for acceptance of PhD corrections and to exchange contracts on my new house. Both of these processes are out of my control, require continued patience and a need to accept there is nothing I can do but wait.

For a lot of reasons, I immediately identified with the ‘growth’ mindset, being open to challenges, seeing intelligence as something to be nurtured and developed, worth the effort, understanding the need to learn from mistakes and being inspired by others. The other seems to me a life of stagnation, dismissal of anything new and creating a world which may be low risk, but ultimately unfulfilling. The fixed mindset also presents intelligence and success as something you are born with and therefore little effort is required to fulfil potential – almost as if life is mapped out for you, but it also belies a sense of entitlement, and inability to deal with failure as a challenge to move on from. However, if you are not somehow ‘blessed’ with the tools necessary for success, you must accept your fate. There are obvious social and cultural influences which can reinforce these messages, so perhaps, a fixed mindset leading to a life of success aligns with a life of privilege, but a life without this success identifies someone who cannot see a way to improve, blames others for their misfortune and doesn’t value their own ability to change. My parents always taught me the value of education (well, a lecturer and a teacher – of course they would!), and I never felt any limits were placed on me. But a big part of this must be attributed to me not facing the limits placed on individuals facing poverty, loss, psychological trauma or physical disabilities – my life, so far has largely been the outcomes of my decisions, and I count myself lucky to be able to say that.

That’s not to say I haven’t doubted my abilities, suffered ‘impostor syndrome’ and come up against challenges which have tested my resolve. It seems having a ‘growth’ mindset perhaps enables individuals to strive despite what life throws at you, and also despite how others may perceive you.

So, back to my week of waiting patiently and trying not to let anxieties come to the fore. Being able to call myself Dr Atherton and having my own house in the town I also work in is something I am really looking forward to, for obvious reasons. Years of work on the thesis and years of commuting from Birmingham to various parts of the Midlands (I know the M6 far too well) are about to lead to significant rewards. However, it also occurred to me none of this would be happening if I had given up on the PhD, stayed in a job which was not right for me, decided to carry on commuting and not made this decision to buy a house. It also occurred to me perhaps having a fixed mindset would be less stressful – you have to admit, my timing is spot on – but I don’t think that is the case. I chose the PhD and new job path because I was not happy, I chose to buy a house as M6 commuting is just not something I want to do anymore, and I want to feel more settled in my new post. As for the PhD, I knew I needed time away from a full-time job to complete it, and while it was risky to leave a permanent post, it seems my mindset pushed me to strive for something which was a better fit for me. My mindset helped me believe this was all possible, crucially it was down to me to do this and also, support from friends, family, ex and current colleagues have helped get me here. But, my social and economic circumstances also enabled all of this – we cannot just assume that psychological tools can overcome disadvantage, discrimination and a lack of opportunity.

Dweck suggests that these mindsets are a ‘view you adopt for yourself’. Fixed mindsets can impede development and the belief in change, and they also seem to create people whose concerns about others’ perceptions of them can be all-consuming, and no doubt lead to them avoiding situations where they will be judged. Those with the growth mindset see their traits as a starting point, from which anything can happen and they value the unknowable – the opportunities ahead, the hurdles and rewards. The fixed mindset creates a different kind of stress, a constant need for affirmation of beliefs, disregard of the need to adapt to changing circumstances, and god forbid, simply go with the flow. As much as I identify with the growth mindset, I can empathise with those who simply are unable to take risks, accept failure and manage the unknowable – there are times I have wanted to give up, take the easy path and feel more in control.

A day after starting this blog, the clouds parted and the sun shone down as the much-awaited email from the De Montfort University Doctoral College came to confirm my PhD corrections were accepted and I was to be awarded my doctorate. Suddenly after weeks of anxiety, the reward was certainly worth the wait. There will be plenty of days ahead to bask in the glory and enjoy this moment, and just for now, it is making me worry less about the house exchange, it will happen, I will be settled in my new home soon and enjoy a short drive to work for the first time in years.  So, I will continue to strive, develop and take risks – not doing this may have meant a less anxious time this week, but they also lead to great rewards, and hopefully, even better things to come.

 

Dr. Susie Atherton

Senior Lecturer in Criminology

 

University? At my age? You had better believe it!

Sam Cooling

It was whist working a shift at Tesco that the thought of doing that job for the next 35 years dawned on me. So, I took the decision that day to apply to university and start on a new career path. My career history is mainly within healthcare so I fancied something completely different. I have always been fascinated by crime and punishment, and would love to work within that field, that’s why I chose criminology to study.

When the acceptance email came through to say I would be starting university in October 2017 I went through every emotion possible, although I was really excited about it, I thought Jesus what have I done. I attended some of the activities that took place in welcome week which really helped to settle some of the nerves. This is where I met two very special mature (like me) ladies, the friendship blossomed from there and the support provided between the three of us has seen us all finish the first year. Making friends is a really important aspect of uni life, it provides a support network that can get you through tough and stressful times. The initial friendship group of three has grown throughout the year to include some amazing ladies from age 18 through to ** (I daren’t say), and as we have all discovered ‘age is just a number’, let’s just say it isn’t the young ones being told to keep their voices down in the library (ha ha).

From the very start of the academic year we were bombarded with assignments and expectations. This was an extremely scary and stressful time. The questions of ‘what am I doing here?’ ‘I am never going to survive first year’ and ‘what do all these long words mean?’ played over and over in my mind. It was only the return of each assignment result that kept me going. The thought that ‘wow I actually passed that’, encouraged me to remain on the course. One really frustrating part of assignments is that you work your butt off completing them, then you have an agonising four week wait for the result (probably more nerve racking than the exams).

The course lecturers came across scary and unhelpful to begin with, giving off a vibe of ‘you are an adult and at university so get on with it’. I was unsure if this was just the personality of the criminology staff, as no question has a simple answer and question everything (haha). This vibe soon changed once I got used to university life and they are in fact very helpful, supportive and want you to be the best you can be.

I have received my confirmation of results email and I have made it through to year two (whoop, whoop). Although the first year of uni has been tough, I am missing the people and mental stimulation and cannot wait to return in October. The new Waterside campus promises great things so here’s to the 2018/19 academic year!

Park Life

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

Park Campus has now been an active part of my life for around 7 years. In 2011 , after an open day and ‘taster session’ and a few months of obsessing over UCAS points and student finance, I stepped foot onto Park Campus, filled with anxiety, excitement and Redbull. It only took me a few weeks to work out, that I really did not know what Criminology was. Years later and the questions keep on coming, I may have a better understanding of theories and have new ideas and opinions, but if there is one thing Criminology at Northampton has ever taught me, is; the more you learn, the more you realise you do not know.

Studying Criminology is not for everyone, it requires a lot of passion for things that some may find tedious, such as reading, research and more reading. For many of us and hopefully those still studying Criminology it is also some of the best bits about Criminology. The rewards of reading something not necessarily to produce an essay but just to feed an interest or challenge your own views is a gift Criminology has given me. From discussions with those at the reunion, it was evident that Criminology never really leaves any of us and it does not matter whether you work in a criminological field or not, there are always moments for us to appreciate our time studying Criminology at Northampton.

Park Campus has meant so many different things to me over the years. Firstly, while I would not yet define myself as a fully grown adult by any means (does anyone?) but Park Campus was the starting point of many learning curves for fundamental skills that I needed to experience before entering the ‘working world’. Park Campus was the place I found a love for learning, a place where I could ask questions without the feeling of dread hanging over me, a place I met my current partner and many lifelong friends. When I graduated in 2014, I was unsure what to do next, luckily, I was not alone in that feeling and for the most part, it was down to losing the routine of working towards a particular goal (usually in the form of an essay or exam date).

Park Campus then took on a new meaning for me, when I joined the Criminology team in 2015. I still have a mixture of feelings when I am on campus, a mixture of familiarity and happiness to walk around as if I were still a student, but also a general sense of pride to be part of such a fantastic team. Luckily, as we move to Waterside I will not only still be surrounded by a great team but also each year brings a new cohort of students with views and ideas that I can witness change, inspire or challenge others around them.

While I’m not much of a Blur fan, but I am a fan of a bit of corny writing (hence the soppy blog post), I leave you with the chorus lyrics to Park Life, which I find enjoyably fitting …

All the people

So Many People

And they all go hand in hand

Hand in hand through their Parklife

The changing face of criminology

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We can profess that those of us in academia get to own a small nugget of knowledge on their chosen subject.  This is how specialism is developed and cultivated.  We start our long journey into knowledge first by learning the discipline as a whole, going through the different theories and issues, becoming aware of the critical debates, before we embrace the next step of in depth understanding.  Little by little knowledge becomes a road full of junctions, intersections and byroads, constantly fueled by one of the most basic but profound parts of human experience, curiosity.  Academia, was originally developed by a person looking up in the wider cosmos and wondering; surely there is more to life than this.  When the recorded experience aligned with imagination it produced results; civilization emerged as a collective testament of being.  Arguably the first ever question, whenever it was posed and however it was phrased, philosophy was born; any attempt to answer it generated reason and logic.

The process of learning is painstaking because education is a process and as such it requires us to grow as we absorb it.  This process is never ending because “The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing” to quote Ecclesiastes and therefore learning is lifelong.  In academia, in particular, this thirst for knowledge is unquenchable and because of it we progress our respective disciplines further, constantly expanding the boundaries.  Anyone of us who had a discussion in or out of a classroom will testify that even on the same topic, with the same material, a seminar is never the same.  The main reason for this is, education is active and as a learner I gain from whatever I can relate to and comprehend.  Time and time again, I go back to my own learning as I adapt my pedagogy, because to teach is a dialectic; we impart an idea and we let it flourish to those who shall be taking it further.

There is a reason why I am so reflecting of education on this entry; recently we had a reunion of our alumni and in preparation of the event, I was looking back at the way we taught criminology, what changed and how things have progressed.  Colleagues, moved on as expected and the student demographics may have changed but the subject is still taught.  It is this ongoing process that fascinated me in that reflection.  The curriculum and the ideas behind it.  As an institution we offer a number of subject areas, criminology included, that other institutions around the world do, but no other institution will have the unique blend of what we offer.  This part is quite astounding that in the reproduction of ideas and across the continuity of disciplinary knowledge, there is always a place for originality.

On the day, I could hear the stories from some of our alumni with a latent sense of pride as they spoke with some confidence about their life plans, work commitments and ideas.  These were the same people who some years ago, blushed in a seminar from shyness, were anxious about their exam results and worried about their degree classification.  Now with confidence, they embrace their education with the realisation that they have just made the first step into a terra incognita… their journey into learning continues.  During the next weeks (and hopefully, months), a number of our alumni (and current students) will put pen to paper of their thoughts, on our blog and talk about their experiences and their criminology.  We thank them in advance and are looking forward to read their thoughts.

How to stay motivated in a de-motivating environment

Motivation

I’m afraid to say that this week’s entry lacks both criminological insight and positivity but in the absence of a more engaging and topical issue to debate I offer a reflective piece on staying motivated in a de-motivating environment.

Working in academia can be challenging, it’s certainly not a place to work if you have no passion for learning and engaging in healthy debate but of late I’ve found myself asking why I bother. We all know people who hate their jobs, who live for that Friday night escape and the freedom that a weekend affords and I’m thankful for the fact that I don’t feel that way…or I haven’t until recently. I’ve never hated Monday’s, possibly because academia doesn’t work on a 9 – 5, Monday to Friday basis but still, what I do has not felt like a chore until now. This term, as classroom engagement and attendance has dropped so too has my motivation and with each new pressure, training course, despondent student, stressed colleague and pointless meeting I’ve found myself wondering why I continue to hit my head against a brick wall. The future currently facing me and my colleagues is not one full of hope and prosperity but rather increased classroom time, even less hours in a day, increased pressure from those who have no understanding of what we actually do, more paperwork, more blame when things don’t work and even less time with those we love. This isn’t what any of us signed up for and it certainly isn’t enhancing our careers. So, what are my options and how do I stay motivated in this de-motivating environment?

I suppose the first thing to consider is whether or not I want to stay in this environment, I could simply walk away and do something else but deep down I know that my passion lies in this type of work so this isn’t a feasible option. I could change university but is the grass really greener on the other side? We are all acutely aware of the difficulties facing the sector and there is no shortage of stories in the news about campus closures and staff redundancies, not to mention the increasingly competitive nature of the job that demands more and more of us as researchers and income generators, so maybe the challenges we face pale in comparison to our colleagues’ experiences elsewhere. In eliminating these options I’m forced to look inward for organisational support mechanisms which take the form of courses such as ‘SMART working’, ‘Personal Effectiveness’ and ‘thriving in a changing environment’. However, while these options appear on the surface to be supportive they focus on us changing as individuals without any recognition of institutional pressures that we have no control over, such as staffing or resources. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against self-help approaches but in reality, it doesn’t matter how SMART or effective I am as a worker, there are only so many hours in a day and only so much I, or my colleagues can do without the very real danger of burnout. As such I’m left with only one, rather sad option and that is to embrace my selfish side and withdraw from anything which is not a contractual necessity. In practice this means the students will no longer get the above and beyond support they have come to expect, the university will no longer get my enthusiasm for helping to shape future policy and practice, and my colleagues will lose an active member of the team. In theory, I shouldn’t care about the impact that this might have on others, but in reality it pains me to think that this might be the only way to survive in the de-motivating environment.

 

The number’s up for quantitative research! Or is it?

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As my colleagues will no doubt confirm, I’m not a fan of numbers. Although, I always enjoyed maths, particularly algebra, my distaste for numbers comes when they are applied to people. Whilst I appreciate there are a lot of us, somewhere around 7.6 billion on the planet, the reduction of a human to a number doesn’t sit comfortably. This aversion to numbering people partly stems from academic study of the Holocaust, which was facilitated by the Nazi’s determination to reduce individual human lives first to digits and then to ashes. It also comes from my own lived experience, particularly in education, of knowing that individuals can and do change.

Criminologists such as Stanley Cohen (1988), Nils Christie (1997) and Jock Young (2011) have long recognised the fundamental flaws inherent in much quantitative criminology. They recognise that numbers are often used to obfuscate and confuse, taking readers down a route whereby they are presented as having their own intrinsic meaning, entirely distinct from the people whose data is being manipulated. Furthermore, those numbers are deemed scientific and authoritative, having far more sway than qualitative research predicated on finding meaning in individual lives.

Despite my antipathy to numbers, I have spent the last few months studying attempts to quantify a particular prison population; ex-servicemen. Much of this research is flawed in the same way as recognised by the eminent criminologists above. Instead, of answering what appears on the surface to be a straightforward question, many of these reports struggle to even define what they are trying to measure, let alone make sense of the measurements.

All this has made me think about the way we measure “engagement”. Last week, as you may have noticed from Manos’ entry, was the blog’s first birthday. Underneath, the professional front page lies, what WordPress rather hopefully describes, as ‘Stats’. From here, it is possible to identify the number of visitors per day, month and year, as well as the number of views. There is also a detailed map of the world, displaying all the countries from which these visitors are drawn. In essence, I have enough data to tell you that in our first year we have had 3,748 visitors and 5,124 views from 65 countries.

All of this sounds very encouraging and the team can make statements about how views are up on the period before, or make claims that we have attracted visitors from countries for the first time. If, so inclined, we could even have a leader board of the most popular contributor or entry; thankfully that doesn’t seem appeal to the team. If I wanted to write a report, I could include some lovely, bar or pie charts, even some infographics; certainly if you look below you will see a rather splendid Wordle which displays 233 different categories, used a total of 781 times.

Blog birthday wordle

However, what exactly do we know? I would argue, not a lot. We have some evidence that some people have visited the blog at least once, but as to how many are regular readers; we have no clue. Do they read the entries and do they enjoy them? Again, no idea. Maybe they’re just attracted by particular pictures (the evidence would suggest that the Yellow Submarine, Kermit, the Pink Panther and tattoos do exceedingly well).[i] There is some evidence that many of the visitors come via Facebook and Twitter and these offer their own illusion of measurable activity. Certainly, Twitter offers its own ‘Analytics’ which advises me that my tweet containing Manos’ latest blog entry earned an impressive 907 ‘Impressions’, and 45 ‘Engagements’ which equals an ‘Engagement Rate’ of 5%! What any of that means; your guess is good as mine! Does scrolling mindlessly on your newsfeed whilst waiting for the kettle to boil count as an impression or an engagement? Should I be impressed or embarrassed by a 5% engagement rate – who knows? If I add it to my imaginary report, at least I’ll be able to add some more colourful charts to accompany my authoritative narrative. Of course, it will still be largely meaningless but it should look splendid!

More concerning are the repercussions to any such report, which would seem to imply that I had total control over improving such metrics and if they didn’t improve, that would ultimately be down to my inertia, inability or incompetence. Of course, the blog is a voluntary labour of love, created and curated by a group of like-minded individuals… However, if we consider this in relation to criminology and criminal justice, things take a more sinister turn….the numbers may indicate something, but at the end of the day those numbers represent people with their own ideas, concerns and behaviours. Discussions around payment by results seem to miss this vital point, but of course it means that failure to achieve these results can be blamed on individuals and companies. Of course, none of the above denies quantitative data a place within Criminology, but it has to be meaningful and not just a series of statements and charts.

Now, I’ve got my anti-quantitative rant of my chest, I’ll leave the final words to Nils Christie (1997) and his command to make criminology exciting and passionate as befits its subject matter. In his words, avoid ‘[l]ong reports of the obvious. Repetitions. Elaborate calculations leading to what we all know’ (Christie, 1997: 13).

Instead we should always consider:

[h]ow can it be like this? How come that so much criminology is that dull, tedious and intensely empty as to new insights? It ought to be just the opposite, in a science based on material from the core areas of drama. Our theories are based on situations of conflict and heroism, danger and catastrophe, abuses and sacrifices – just those areas where most of our literary heroes find their material. And still so trivial! (Christie, 1997: 13).

Rather than mindlessly churning out quantitative data that looks and is perceived as sophisticated, as criminologists we need to be far more critical. If you don’t believe Christie, what about taking heed of Green Day’s command to ‘question everything? Or shut up and be a victim of authority’ (Armstrong et al., 2000).

References:

Armstrong, Billie Joe, Dirnt, Mike and Cool, Tre, (2000), Warning [LP]. Recorded by Green Day in Warning, Reprise: Studio 880

Christie, Nils, (1997), ‘Four Blocks Against Insight: Notes on the Oversocialization of Criminologists,’ Theoretical Criminology, 1, 1: 13-23

Cohen, Stanley, (1988), Against Criminology, (Oxford: Transaction Books)

Young, Jock, (2011), The Criminological Imagination, (London: Polity Press)

A revised and reworked submission of this entry was published on the British Society of Criminology blog on 1 June 2018.

[i] This point will be “tested under experimental conditions” by the gratuitous inclusion of a picture showing teddy bears “reading”.

Anniversaries and Festivities

HMPAbout a year ago, as a team we started  this blog in order to relate criminological ideas into everyday life.  News, events and markers on our social calendar became sources of inspiration and inquiry.  Within a year, we have managed somehow to reflect on the academic cycle, some pretty heavy social issues that evoked our passions and interests. Those of you who read our entries, thank you for taking the time, especially those who left comments with your own experiences and ideas.  

For us as a contributing team, the opportunity to talk outside the usual spaces about things that we regard as interesting is a real pleasure.  A colleague of mine, tends to say that criminology is a subject made for discussions.  These discussions usually grow in classrooms but they are restricted of time.  In some way, our blog is an extension of that environment but we are also cognisant that we want to talk beyond the parochial “ivory towers” of academia.

The first blog entry was about running a pilot then, for a new module delivered entirely in prison with students from the university and the prison.  This week, we celebrated the first cohort who completed the module.  I have been an observer of social conventions all my life and to see the way people in the celebration connected with each other was great.  For all of us in the module, it makes perfect sense because we have done that journey together but for anyone coming for the first time in prison this must have been an astounding experience.  

This is what we commemorate in a celebration.  Not necessarily the end result whatever that is, but the journey.  As people consumed with speed in a modern society, we very rarely take the time to look back and reflect.  It can be argued that we can do so when we reach our ever expanding retiring age; reflect on our life’s work.  Nonetheless, it is important now and then to look back and see how we get here.  For example, I am proud that I serve a university that offers opportunities to students from the wider society without barriers or obstacles.  Some of our students are first in their family to go to University.  This is an amazing opportunity that leaves the doors of social mobility open.  A number of our graduates are now my colleagues or work in the wider criminal justice system.  

So what is a celebration? A moment in time to look back and say, “hey I have a journey ahead but look how far I have come”.  This is why these little moments are so watershed to all; whether we celebrate a year in the blog, a year on a module or a year in a job, marriage etc.  Some celebrations are small reminders of time, other of events and some other of accomplishments.  In a world where the news should be accompanied with health warnings, as people feel insignificant as individuals to bring about change, a celebration is a mark that things can happen.  A person who decides to be an agent of change, whether it is a message against racism (#blacklivesmatter) sexual abuse (#metoo), or gun violence (#enoughisenough), they can do so without realising that one day when they will look back things will be very different for all; a possible cause for another celebration then.  It matters to look back when you want to change the future.  Life is experiential journey and marking these experiences is our way of leaving a trace on a large social wall.  

In a couple of months (May 14) we shall be celebrating 18 years of Criminology at the University of Northampton.  Another moment in time to reflect of the impact and the effects this programme has had on the students and the community.  

Cheers

Out early on good behaviour

prison wing

Dr Stephen O’Brien is the Dean for the Faculty of Health and Society at the University of Northampton

The other week I had the opportunity to visit one of our local prisons with academic colleagues from our Criminology team within the Faculty of Health and Society at the University of Northampton. The prison in question is a category C closed facility and it was my very first visit to such an institution. The context for my visit was to follow up and review the work completed by students, prisoners and staff in the joint delivery of an academic module which forms part of our undergraduate Criminology course. The module entitled “Beyond Justice” explores key philosophical, social and political issues associated with the concept of justice and the journeys that individuals travel within the criminal justice system in the UK. This innovative approach to collaborative education involving the delivery of the module to students of the university and prisoners was long in its gestation. The module itself had been delivered over several weeks in the Autumn term of 2017. What was very apparent from the start of this planned visit was how successful the venture had been; ground-breaking in many respects with clear impact for all involved. Indeed, it has been way more successful than anyone could have imagined when the staff embarked on the planning process. The project is an excellent example of the University’s Changemaker agenda with its emphasis upon mobilising University assets to address real life social challenges.

 

My particular visit was more than a simple review and celebration of good Changemaker work well done. It was to advance the working relationship with the Prison in the signing of a memorandum of understanding which outlined further work that would be developed on the back of this successful project. This will include; future classes for university/prison students, academic advancement of prison staff, the use of prison staff expertise in the university, research and consultancy. My visit was therefore a fruitful one. In the run up to the visit I had to endure all the usual jokes one would expect. Would they let me in? More importantly would they let me out? Clearly there was an absolute need to be on my best behaviour, keep my nose clean and certainly mind my Ps and Qs especially if I was to be “released”. Despite this ribbing I approached the visit with anticipation and an open mind. To be honest I was unsure what to expect. My only previous conceptual experience of this aspect of the criminal justice system was many years ago when I was working as a mental health nurse in a traditional NHS psychiatric hospital. This was in the early 1980s with its throwback to a period of mental health care based on primarily protecting the public from the mad in society. Whilst there had been some shifts in thinking there was still a strong element of the “custodial” in the treatment and care regimen adopted. Public safety was paramount and many patients had been in the hospital for tens of years with an ensuing sense of incarceration and institutionalisation. These concepts are well described in the seminal work of Barton (1976) who described the consequences of long term incarceration as a form of neurosis; a psychiatric disorder in which a person confined for a long period in a hospital, mental hospital, or prison assumes a dependent role, passively accepts the paternalist approach of those in charge, and develops symptoms and signs associated with restricted horizons, such as increasing passivity and lack of motivation. To be fair mental health services had been transitioning slowly since the 1960s with a move from the custodial to the therapeutic. The associated strategy of rehabilitation and the decant of patients from what was an old asylum to a more community based services were well underway. In many respects the speed of this change was proving problematic with community support struggling to catch up and cope with the numbers moving out of the institutions.

 

My only other personal experience was when I spent a night in the cells of my local police station following an “incident” in the town centre. This was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. (I know everyone says that, but in this case it is a genuine explanation). However, this did give me a sense of what being locked up felt like albeit for a few hours one night. When being shown one of the single occupancy cells at the prison those feelings came flooding back. However, the thought of being there for several months or years would have considerably more impact. The accommodation was in fact worse than I had imagined. I reflected on this afterwards in light of what can sometimes be the prevailing narrative that prison is in some way a cushy number. The roof over your head, access to a TV and a warm bed along with three square meals a day is often dressed up as a comfortable daily life. The reality of incarceration is far from this view. A few days later I watched Trevor MacDonald report from Indiana State Prison in the USA as part of ITV’s crime and punishment season. In comparison to that you could argue the UK version is comfortable but I have no doubt either experience would be, for me, an extreme challenge.

 

There were further echoes of my mental health experiences as I was shown the rehabilitation facilities with opportunities for prisoners to experience real world work as part of their transition back into society. I was impressed with the community engagement and the foresight of some big high street companies to get involved in retraining and education. This aspect of the visit was much better than I imagined and there is evidence that this is working. It is a strict rehabilitation regime where any poor behaviour or departure from the planned activity results in failure and loss of the opportunity. This did make me reflect on our own project and its contribution to prisoner rehabilitation. In education, success and failure are norms and the process engenders much more tolerance of what we see as mistakes along the way. The great thing about this project is the achievement of all in terms of both the learning process and outcome. Those outcomes will be celebrated later this month when we return to the prison for a special celebration event. That will be the moment not only to celebrate success but to look to the future and the further work the University and the Prison can do together. On that occasion as on this I do expect to be released early for good behaviour.

 

Reference

Barton, R., (1976) Institutional Neurosis: 3rd edition, Butterworth-Heinemann, London.

Modern University or New University?

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As I am outside the prison walls on another visit I look at the high walls that keep people inside incarcerated.  This is an institution designed to keep people in and it is obvious from the outside.  This made me wonder what is a University designed for?  Are we equally obvious to the communities in which we live as to what we are there for?  These questions have been posed before but as we embark in a new educational environment I begin to wonder.     

There are city universities, campuses in towns and the countryside, new universities and of course old, even, medieval universities.  All these institutions have an educational purpose in common at a high level but that is more or less it.  Traditionally, academia had a specific mandate of what they were meant to be doing but this original focus was coming from a era when computers, the electronic revolution and the knowledge explosion were unheard of.  I still amuse my students by my recollections of going through an old library, looking at their card catalogue in order to find the books I wanted for my essay.

Since then, email has become the main tool for communication and blackboard or other virtual learning environments are growing into becoming an alternative learning tool in the arsenal of each academic.  In this technologically advanced, modern world it is pertinent to ask if the University is the environment that it once was.  The introduction of fees, and the subsequent political debates on whether to raise the fees or get rid of them altogether.  This debate has also introduced an consumerist dimension to higher education that previous learners did not encounter.  For some colleagues this was a watershed moment in the mandate of higher education and the relationship between tutor and tutee.  Recently, a well respected colleague told me how inspired she was to pursue a career in academia when she watched Willy Russell’s theatrical masterpiece Educating Rita.  It seems likely that this cultural reference will be lost to current students and academics. A clear sign of things moving on.

So what is a University for in the 21st century?  In my mind, the university is an institution of education that is open to its community and accessible to all people, even those who never thought that Higher Education is for them.  Physically, there may not be walls around but for many people who never had the opportunity to enjoy a higher education, there may be barriers.  It is perhaps the purpose of the new university to engage with the community and invite the people to embrace it as their community space.  Our University’s relocation to the heart of the town will make our presence more visible in town and it is a great opportunity for the University to be reintroduced to the local community.  As one of the few Changemaker universities in the country, a title that focuses on social change and entrepreneurship, connecting with the community is definitely a fundamental objective. In this way it will offer its space up for meaningful discussions on a variety of issues, academic or not, to the community saying we are a public institution for all.  After all, this is part of how we understand  criminology’s role.  In a recent discussion we have been talking about criminology in the community; a public criminology.  One of the many reasons why we work so hard to teach criminology in prisons.   

     

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