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When I first arrived in London, I needed to find my way across the city to the now former site of the Home Office at St Anne’s Gate. I didn’t have a clue about how to get there so I asked a member of staff at St Pancras railway station. He helpfully pointed me in the direction of the London Underground. I was swept along by a torrent of people, all going about their business with a purpose, I however, didn’t have a clue where I was going. Finding sanctuary in a quiet eddy and desperately looking around I spotted a member of staff across the concourse. Fighting against the current I scrambled to where the member of staff was and implored upon them to rescue me. Thankfully the underground staff had all been briefed, not specifically about me, I should hasten to add, but about how by being super helpful they could increase customer satisfaction, reduce complaints and attract even more customers. And having explained my dilemma, I was very helpfully led through the ticket barriers, now struggling to hold back the surge, and down the escalator to the platform below. I was told to get on the next train and to get off at St James’ Park. Having arrived at my destination I became confused as to which exit to use and once again found a very helpful staff member who led me part way to the exit, where I spilled out into the sunlight a matter of yards away from my destination.
The following week I once again plunged into the torrent and confident that I knew which underground line to take I allowed myself to be swept along to the barriers and through, and then panic. Which platform and am I sure that was the right line? Once again, a beacon of hope shone across the dark morass, a member of underground staff. Once again, I was led to the platform in a super helpful way and got on the first train. But this time I didn’t arrive at my destination for some, I have to say, traumatic hours. The problem was the first train was not the train to catch, it was the second that I needed; I will most definitely have to complain about that member of staff being unhelpful.
This pattern of visits to London and assistance rendered by sometimes grumpy but always super helpful members of underground staff continued for some weeks. Often, I would stay in London for a week at a time before returning home outside of the metropolis at the weekend. During my stays I visited numerous police stations as part of my work and every time I used the underground, I sought out a helpful member of staff to assist me. Sometimes, if they rather unhelpfully simply pointed me in the right direction, I would set off and then return to them explaining that I didn’t understand their instructions. Armed with more information I would again purposefully set off and then duly return until the succumbed and rather reluctantly but helpfully led me to the correct platform.
Then in a fortnight, two things happened. Firstly, the underground staff went on strike and on arriving at the gates of St James’ Park underground station I found the gates closed. There were a couple of members of staff there, but they weren’t very helpful. ‘What should I’ do I asked, ‘Dunno’, was the reply. Now that was not very helpful, complaint forthcoming I feel. I didn’t make my appointments that day and the following day had to use taxis to get around. Much easier to use taxis you might say, yes but not really justifiable in terms of cost, my boss told me when I suggested I would forego using the underground altogether. After three days the underground opened up again but for some reason there were no staff around to ask for help. I became increasingly anxious and found myself avoiding the underground, using taxis at my own expense, and walking long distances. I was exhausted I can tell you.
The next week I ventured into the underground again, I couldn’t avoid it forever. I found a member of staff and duly asked them, in an almost ritualistic fashion, how to get across London to another underground station near yet another police station. Instead of pointing me in the right direction, which we all know by now is a rather fruitless, time wasting and unhelpful exercise, or super helpfully taking me to the correct platform, they took me to a rather large underground map on the wall. ‘This is where we are’, the very nice lady said, ‘and this is where you want to be’, she added. She then continued to explain how to use the map, how to follow the signs dotted around the stations, how to look for the signs before entering the platforms so as to work out which platform to be on and how to ensure I get on the correct train. I was nervous following her instructions as I made my way to the platform, but I got to my destination and I made my own way back, with help of the wall map of course. From that point onwards, I made my way around London on the underground with increased confidence, I wouldn’t say with consummate ease, but confidently. I made mistakes but because I knew how to read the map, I was able to rectify them and if I couldn’t I knew that I could ask. Of course, now that I drive, I use maps, I would probably have been pestering police officers and random members of the public otherwise and we know how the rare the sight of the former are on our streets. Anyway, I don’t think they’ve had the ‘super helpful’ briefing. Lately though I’ve been using my satnav, and sometimes getting into a right pickle. It seems you can’t beat good old-fashioned map reading.
What’s the point of this nonsensical tale? Well the clue is in the title. As educators we need to consider the purpose of what we are doing and how this will add value to students’ learning and knowledge. We can give students the answers to the essay questions, how to structure a particular essay, what arguments to include, what books and journal articles to read. We can supply them with reading lists that contain links to the books and journal articles, we can coach them to such an extent that their journey is in fact our journey, just as my journey to the underground platform was the staff member’s journey. We can repeat this many times over so that students are capable of completing that essay, but like me on my journey through the underground, they will need the same coaching for every piece of assessment and whilst they may complete each journey as I did, they have learnt very little and become increasingly disempowered and crippled by our helpfulness and their increasing reliance on it. Our jobs as educators is not to provide answers but to equip students with the tools to find the answers themselves. That process requires a willingness to learn, to discover and to take risks. Super helpfulness should not be an organisational strategy to ensure each part of the journey is easily manoeuvred and completed, it should be about ensuring that people can complete any journey independently and confidently. Sometimes by appearing to be super helpful we are simply being very unhelpful and disempowering people at the same time.
For some years now students taking the third year Critiquing Criminalistics module on our criminology course at the university have had an assessment relating to a reflective diary. Most educators and those in other professions will be aware of and understand the advantage of reflection and reflective diaries so it is probably not necessary to revisit the well-rehearsed arguments about benefits to learning and personal development. Each year, I have found that over the course of the module, the students have come to recognise this and have intimated how they have enjoyed reflecting on what they have learnt in the class or how reflecting on personal experiences has been beneficial. And they comment on how they have sought out further information to gain additional knowledge or to put what they have learnt in some form of perspective. It is of course what we as educators would want and expect from a reflective diary assessment that after all counts towards their marks for the module.
What has surprised me though is how much reviewing these modules has benefited me. I have learnt from and continue to learn my students. We all recognise or at least should the old saying ‘the more I know, the more I realise I don’t know’ or similar. My students prove that is the case often with each round of diary entries I review. The diaries can provide an insight into students lives and thoughts. For some of them it may be a cathartic release to capture their feelings on paper, for me it is enlightening and provides a greater understanding of some of the challenges they face not only as students but also as predominately young adults in a challenging and at times hostile social and economic environment. Perhaps what is equally as enlightening is the additional knowledge that students provide about the subject area being discussed and taught. It is almost like sending out my own little army of literature reviewers with a challenge to advance their knowledge and ipso facto, mine. I am clear that part of the reflection process is about taking what you have learnt further and as this an assessment, demonstrating this additional knowledge with some academic rigor. And so, I find that in some cases what I have stated in the class (currently online) is challenged and that challenge is supported by academic reading. When I read some of these little gems, I smile but alongside this is the additional work created as I review the journal article they have referenced and then decide whether to revisit my lectures to add in the additional information. Even if I don’t, it all adds to my knowledge and, on reflection as my students are proving, there is plenty of scope to find out more.
Data collection in a pandemic: Discovering what’s up with WhatsApp *or any other instant messaging service
Many of our students will be thinking about or preparing for, their dissertations. Ordinarily this is the fun part of a degree. The part where you have the freedom to research a topic of interest. Two or three years ago, none of us could have predicted we would be in the midst of a global pandemic which limits research opportunities, particularly for undergraduates who have practical and ethical limitations. One thing that I would encourage students – or indeed anyone doing research in the pandemic – to do, is to be innovative and think outside of the box when planning research. Here in the UK we are lucky enough that most of us have access to the internet. The way I communicate with friends, family and colleagues most frequently is using instant messaging services and so I incorporated this technology into my own research. In sharing my own experience of using instant messaging as a data collection tool, I hope to offer some hope that where there are obstacles, there are also ways to overcome them.
I conducted my most recent research prior to the pandemic, however I had other barriers to navigate. I was researching the victimisation of asylum seekers, and wanted to understand if, and how, they coped with these experiences. I was lucky enough to undertake two face to face interviews with most of the participants which helped me to gain an understanding of their life histories and the broader aspects of their experiences but I also wanted to understand the day to day stressors and how they coped with these events. I knew that a diary method would be an appropriate approach to elicit the data I required, however there were some limitations with using traditional written journals. All the asylum seekers who participated in my research spoke some English as a second language and some spoke the language but could not read or write proficiently. In addition to this, traditional journal entries can be time consuming and there were additional practical considerations to consider such as how I would retrieve the journals. To overcome these obstacles I decided to use digital technology to collect diary data, in part because electronic methods have been found to increase response rates, but also because most asylum seekers I have come across own a mobile phone. Mobile phones are essential to enable to contact their family in their country of origin as well as maintaining contact with their solicitor and other agencies working with them.
Once I had decided to use mobile technology, I sent weekly messages to each of the people I interviewed, asking them how they were that day and how their week had gone, what were some of the good and bad things that had happened. I did this for 12 weeks before conducting their follow up interviews. For the purpose of my doctoral thesis, the method provided data that would help me understand the day to day stress of being an asylum seeker, often resulting from structural harms perpetrated by the Home Office. This may be the mother feeling guilty after being late to pick her children up from school because she had to catch three buses to report to the Home Office and fulfil the conditions of her immigration bail; or the feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach when a brown envelope came through the door, fearful that this may be what feels like a death warrant from the Home Office ordering her deportation. Events such as these were often not mentioned during interview, when interviewees would often recall the major life events and forget the moments of everyday life. Using mobile technology meant that participants could write in their first language and either them or I could translate it. It also meant that they could quickly send a message in the moment, while a particular event was fresh in their minds.
Using mobile technology to collect data worked well for me as it helped me to stay in contact with participants and inform my follow up interviews as well as providing the information I required to answer the research questions. As anticipated the response rate was good – even those who could not afford credit were often able to access Wi-Fi and send a message from a public space. The use of mobile technology to collect diary entries overcame more barriers than it presented, and the method proved fit for purpose, gaining the data required to get a fuller picture of those I was researching. For students planning dissertations or other research projects that are to be undertaken soon, I urge you to think creatively about your research methods and modes of data collection. Although a large part of our teaching focuses on traditional methods, I encourage you to be independent thinkers and so solve the problem of doing research in a pandemic.