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Higher education, students, the strikes and me*

It was somewhat disappointing to read some of the comments purportedly from a university student in our local newspaper the other week. Critical of the current UCU industrial action and its impact on students, the student suggested that lecturers knew what they were signing up for and should just get on with it. I found it interesting and somewhat incongruent with what the national student union stance is (actually, I was livid).  I know there has been a response to the article from the local union representative and other comments perhaps suggesting that my previous blog should be read (I wouldn’t think anyone in their right mind would have signed up for what I described). But just to be clear, I signed (or my union did on my behalf) a contract that states I am required to work 37 hours a week with the occasional evening or weekend work and that the normal working week is Monday to Friday.  I take the meaning of ‘occasional’ as the definition found in the English dictionary (take your pick as to which one you’d like to use), which is not ‘permanently’ or ‘all of the time’ or ‘ad infinitum’.  I can only speak for myself and not for my colleagues, but I don’t mind working a little longer at times and working the weekend to do marking or open days, but I didn’t sign up to be working all of the time.  So, for me the industrial action is not just about my working conditions but about a contract, a legal obligation, which I am fulfilling but my employer seems to suggest that I am not because I am not working far in excess of my contracted hours.  That to me, is illogical.  

I remember a discussion where a senior manager stated that bullying included giving someone excessive workloads. I wonder whether that means that most lecturers are being bullied by management, isn’t there a policy against that? And then I seem to recall that there is some legislation against inequality, would that not include paying lower wages to women, disabled staff and people from minority ethnic groups? Systemic bullying and discrimination, not a pretty picture in higher education.  

But perhaps the most important point is that as lecturers we don’t want to impact our student’s education, and this shouldn’t be about us versus the students.  It’s what management would like because it detracts from so many issues that plague our higher education system.  Students should quite rightly be unhappy with their lot.  A system that plunges students into a lifetime of debt that they will rarely if ever be able to repay and at the same time lines the pockets of private companies seems to me to be immoral.  A system that requires students to pay extortionate fees for accommodation is completely bonkers especially when it means the less affluent students have to work to afford to live.  A system that requires students to study for approximately 46 hours per week in semester time (If we accept that they are entitled to holiday time) seems overly punitive. Couple this with the need to work to afford to live and it becomes unsustainable.  Add to that any caring responsibilities or anything else that complicates their lives, and it starts to look impossible.  I and my colleagues are not really surprised that so many fail to properly engage, if at all, and that there are so many stressed students and students with mental health issues.  Of course, if we add to that individual capabilities, think unconditional offers and low school grades and let’s be honest widening participation becomes simply a euphemism for widening deBt, misery and, more importantly establishment profit. 

The students were on strike for one day the other week, someone asked me why, well I rest my case.  Whilst I understand student anger about the strikes, that anger is directed at the wrong people.  We all signed up for something different and it’s simply not being delivered.    

*The first part of this entry can be found here.

Complaint! (For Sara Ahmed)

This poem comes inspired from the recent UCU strikes, and also the underpinning arguements of Complaint by Sara Ahmed. The institution protects itself, while removing those who complain (or in many cases, they remove themselves). It is also inspired by ‘Testimony’ by Irish poet Seamus Heaney.


As higher education burns,
they blame white lecturers who picket,
and the Black and Brown lecturers
no longer willing to be ‘paid in exposure’
to the hull of slave ships. Colonialism’s hot mouth
at the nucleus of HE’s epistemes,
so senior leaders blame lecturers
for neglect. Meanwhile, the upper echelons
play Monopoly with staff pay checks
students left to grieve assignment
work revolving around conveyer belts
like undead corpses between indenture and slavery

it’s a Tuesday morning
a fever of claret runs riot
across picketing lines
turn cloaks to justice and equality,
there’s just ice behind the scab
where hearts used to beat. Back in the 80s,
gay and lesbian activists stood in solidarity
with the miners; and Arthur Scargill
and co scurried to Jayaben Desai at Grunwick
from the main road, you can still hear the screams
of comradery, and ‘we see yous’ …

yet behind picket tea and biscuits,
there are teary smiles –
death behind the bags,
and behind the pyre …
smoke could be seen for miles.

Meet the Team: Dan Petrosian, Lecturer in Criminology

Hi all! My name is Dan Petrosian and I have recently joined the Criminology team as a Lecturer. I also teach at The Open University where I am a member of the Harm & Evidence Research Collaborative, and have previously taught at Croydon University Centre and University of Westminster, where I am part of the Convict Criminology Research Group. Currently I am still working on my PhD with the aim of submitting later this year.

Having thought initially about studying law for my undergraduate degree, I couldn’t imagine the prospect of spending 3-4 years of my life trawling through pages on Corporate and Tort Law to eventually specialise in an area I was really interested in. Just as well…studying Criminology from a critical and holistic angle, it became clear to me that Law was never really my area of interest at all. Almost instantly, I knew Criminology was where life would take me for the long-haul. The ‘common-sense’ and ‘taken-for-granted’ narrative about crime/criminality that I had long been accustomed to suddenly looked flawed…and, in many ways, deliberately tilted towards those who had the power to set the narrative. Over the years, I became particularly interested in how this power manifests itself in different areas of society, how it is exercised through the use of ‘video activism’ and the media in general, and how language and discourse is used in order to shape collective stereotypes about some groups but not others.

My PhD focusses specifically on racial (in)justice; how dominant mainstream media and political discourse is used to ‘frame’ immigration, how this is then challenged by the broader anti-racist movement in the UK through the use of ‘video activism’, and what types of knowledge are produced from this process which can help us understand the complex power interplay between the state and those within its borders. It would be amazing to meet and work with other academics interested in these areas of research!

Although I still have deeply-rooted Imposter Syndrome from having migrated to the UK in the 90s without speaking a word of English and trying to ‘fit in’, studying and working in higher education has taught me that there is always a gap that can be filled at the right time in the right place…a gap that can flip every self-critical flaw into momentary virtue. Joining the Criminology team at Northampton has become part of my learning curve, and I am very much looking forward to working closely with the team and meeting all our students when teaching starts this semester!

Striking is a criminological matter

You may have noticed that the University and College Union [UCU] recently voted for industrial action. A strike was called from 1-3 December, to be followed by Action Short of a Strike [ASOS], in essence a call for university workers to down tools for 3 days, followed by a strict working to contract. For many outside of academia, it is surprising to find how many hours academics actually work. People often assume that the only work undertaken by academics is in the classroom and that they spend great chunks of the year, when students are on breaks, doing very little. This is far from the lived experience, academics undertake a wide range of activities, including reading, writing, researching, preparing for classes, supervising dissertation students, attending meetings, answering emails (to name but a few) and of course, teaching.

UCU’s industrial action is focused on the “Four Fights“: Pay, Workload, Equality and Casualisation and this campaign holds a special place in many academic hearts. The campaign is not just about improving conditions for academics but also for students and perhaps more importantly, those who follow us all in the future. What kind of academia will we leave in our wake? Will we have done our best to ensure that academia is a safe and welcoming space for all who want to occupy it?

In Criminology we spend a great deal of time imagining what a society based on fairness, equity and social justice might look like. We read, we study, we research, we think, and we write about inequality, racism, misogyny, disablism, homophobia, Islamophobia and all of the other blights evident in our society. We know that these cause harm to individuals, families, communities and our society, impacting on every aspect of living and well-being.  We consider the roles of individuals, institutions and government in perpetuating inequality and disadvantage. As a theoretical discipline, this runs the risk of viewing the world in abstract terms, distancing ourselves from what is going on around us. Thus it is really important to bring our theoretical perspectives to bear on real world problems. After all there would be little point in studying criminology, if it is only to see what has happened in the past.

Criminology is a critique, a question not only of what is but might be, what could be, what ought to be. Individuals’ behaviours, motivations and reactions and institutional and societal responses and actions, combine to provide a holistic overview of crime from all perspectives. It involves passion and an intense desire to make the world a little better. Therefore it follows that striking must be a criminological matter. It would be crass hypocrisy to teach social justice, whilst not also striving to achieve such in our professional and personal lives. History tells us that when people stand up for themselves and others, their rights and their future, things can change, things can improve. It might be annoying or inconvenient to be impacted by industrial action, it certainly is chilly on the picket line in December, but in the grand scheme of things, this is a short period of time and holds the promise of better times to come.

Thank F**k it’s Easter!

A number of years ago I wrote a blog entitled: ‘Thank F**k it’s Christmas!’. In it, I had a general moan (nothing new there) about how exhausted the staff and students were in the first term of the new academic year: Christmas break felt desperately needed. At the time, I was still an Associate Lecturer but had just begun my MSc at Leicester as well as supporting my partner on the weekends. I felt burned out, overwhelmed, and ridiculously grateful that the Christmas break had arrived. I also commented on the importance and need for work-life balance for both staff and students, something which many of us have still not managed to achieve and something which appeared increasingly challenging during the various Lockdowns. Yes; a number of us have worked/studied from home, but that has blurred what used to be clear working hours (in theory), and home life. I honestly do not know where one ends and the other begins. Therefore, I find myself back in a head space which is screaming: ‘Thank F**k it’s Easter!’.

This term has been challenging, term 2 always is. We have navigated another lockdown, assessments, lectures, workshops, all sorts. Now, throw into the mix a cyber attack on the University and ‘Thank F**k it’s Easter’ rings louder. Staff and students have persevered in the name of education and demonstrated resilience. Something I think we should all be proud off. But the anxiety, frustrations and exasperation which the lack of IT services has generated, feels like it might take some time to overcome. I am cautious to advise us to consider work-life balance as we go into the Easter Break, as I fear I will sound hypocritical. I advised the need to take time to ourselves before, and to organise some kind of work-life balance, and in all fairness that went straight out the window once we returned from Christmas break (maybe a week of two after, I am sure I attempted a balance to begin with).

Nevertheless, I do think it is important to recognise our strengths, our achievements and to take time to breathe! For many of us, we have been without our families and friends for months. Lockdown is easing, and I am naively hopeful that this will mean we can see those who are dear to us again soon: safely and sensibly. But until we reach that point, I am also exceptionally grateful that the Easter weekend is upon us. Whether we celebrate the bringing of chocolate by the Easter Bunny, or the death and resurrection of Christ: we should all celebrate that we have made it to the end of term 2. Celebrate our achievements no matter how big or small, timetable some time to yourselves: read, run, drink gin, watch films, cross-stitch, do whatever brings you some kind of peace and most importantly: breathe. The University is closed from Friday 2nd April  and re-opens on Wednesday 7th April. Lets all take some time for ourselves and breathe. Happy Easter Everyone!

A year of many firsts

2020 was a year of many firsts for myself, and therefore in spite of the global pandemic (which brought with it the destruction of lives both figuratively and literally) it was actually quite an interesting personal year. I am exceptionally fortunate to be able to say I still have my health (physical, cannot claim with as much certainty about my mental health), a job, a roof over my head and have not suffered direct loss of loved ones due to COVID. Therefore, I feel a content warning is required: this blog does not look to boast or minimalize all the loss, hardship and destruction that was experienced in 2020. But taking a leaf out of my colleagues’ book, I would like to try and reflect upon 2020 positively where possible: and in all honesty I experienced some really beautiful firsts in 2020.

January 2020 saw the most magical ‘first’ I have experienced in my life: the first (and I am very hopeful my only) day as a bride! The day was filled with so much love, joy, food and laughter: where memories where created which cause me to smile on even my darkest days! And with this magical day came a wonderful honeymoon where my first experiences as a newly-wed were not too shabby at all! The Dominican Republic was beautiful in scenery, activities and people! Again, memories which fill me with warmth.

January also saw me graduate with my first masters, although I did not attend the graduation as was sunning it up with cocktails and novels in the DR!

During the first lockdown, my partner and I moved. This brought with it my first experience of living without a washing machine, along with my first experience of purchasing a washing machine (not that fun and quite expensive!). It was also my first experience of living in a house with my partner, with more than 3 rooms! Which, during a lockdown, proved to be essential in many ways: a luxury I know many could not afford.

The Criminology book club began in lockdown (not my first book club: sorry guys), but it was my first virtual book club which is something! Along with this came the delivery of workshops online, another first, and later in the year the delivery of lectures online, again another first! I also experienced my first online interview (panel, presentation the whole works) which was joyous. And received my first offer of full-time employment.

The holiday season brought with it the odd few firsts as well. It was the first holiday season my partner did not work in all the years I have known them (not through choice unfortunately), it was the first time we both drank on Christmas day (partner is usually driving or conscious of work on Boxing day). And it was the first time I did not feel the ‘lull’ in between Christmas and New Years, which was more scary than anything else.

2020 started out with such promise and hope, and threw some serious ‘end of the world’ vibes at us, and for some these were more than just vibes. It has been hard for all and catastrophic for many, but there have been glimmers throughout the year which have kept us going when it did not seem possible. For me 2020 will always be the year of destruction but also a year of firsts: some of which are currently up there as the best days, experiences and moments of my life 😊

Meet the team – Amy Cortvriend, Lecturer in Criminology

I am one of the new members of the criminology team at UoN and have joined from the University of Manchester where I have been a teaching assistant (probably the equivalent of associate lecturer at UoN) for the last couple of years while I’ve been working on my PhD. I’m looking forward to my new role as lecturer in criminology and hopefully at some point meeting students in real life, face to face. It’s a bit strange starting a new job in a new town when I’m still sat in my living room in Manchester, but the rest of the team have made me feel welcome regardless.

My journey into criminology is a funny one. I did life the opposite to many people, having my first child at 16. When my second child went to school I decided to return to education and as I didn’t have A-levels I has to undertake an Access diploma to get into university. I was required to choose three subjects and at first, I opted for English literature because I love(d) reading (I’m sure I still love reading but I’ve not read anything non-work related for a long time). I picked sociology because it sounded interesting and the same with history. At the last minute I swapped history to criminology and never looked back. From my first lesson I knew this was my future, although at that point I wasn’t sure how.

I always had imposter syndrome and never thought my work was good enough (still do today but we’ll save that for another blog post), but my Access tutor believed in me and suggested I apply to the University of Manchester. As I was a mature student, I had to attend an interview with two of the lecturers. I was super nervous, but I got a place and never left. The undergraduate degree was difficult at times because there were only a couple of mature students and they eventually dropped out. I wasn’t in halls and had kids at home, so I didn’t have the same student experience as many of my cohort, however I made some great friends particularly those who stayed to undertake our MRes.

I finished my undergraduate degree with a first and was awarded a scholarship for my research Masters’ then luckily got another studentship for my PhD which is near completion and here I am. Since I’m teaching research methods modules this year my students will be pleased to know that my BA (Hons) and MRes were heavily focussed on research methods and my PhD has given me three years of real-life research experience. My dissertations and thesis have all followed my research interests in the psychology of victimisation and border criminology. My PhD thesis explores the victimisation of refugees and how they cope. That’s all I will say about my research right now, but I will write another blog about it at some point. Probably when I’ve finished writing it and the hard work is a distant memory.

On a personal note, the daughter I had at 16 is now grown up and lives on her own and my youngest is a sassy 14-year-old girl. We have also just got our Pomeranian puppy Prince. In my free time I’m usually doing something active. I’m a Crossfitter and many of my closest friends are gym friends so the gym is both my mental health crutch and my social life. When I do eventually sit down, I love a good box set. I’m currently watching The Morning Show with Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. Recommendations via email are welcome.

Now you know a little bit about me. I’ll look forward to getting to know all the criminology students soon, either virtually or face to face. Hopefully some of you will put your cameras on at least for a day so that when we eventually meet, I’ll know who you are.

Time to meet our newest colleague: Jessica James

It is quite difficult to write an introductory blog, introducing yourself to new, current and Alumni Criminology students at UoN when you have been there for the past 8 years as either a student or member of staff. What is particularly difficult is figuring out where to start: how do I (re)introduce myself to students, both past and present? What do students want to know? What am I willing to share? What follows is a brief overview of my own journey as a student and with the UoN, as well as a some ‘fun’ (I use this term very lightly) facts about me.

I began my criminological journey in 2012 at the UON. I lived in halls, and had no previous knowledge of anything criminological (or so I thought). I had studied Philosophy and Ethics at A-level which proved helpful throughout my degree (and life in all honesty), but I had not studied psychology or sociology before. I don’t have the fondest memories of year 1; it was all quite overwhelming and A LOT of information to absorb and try to make sense of. And in all truthfulness my grades for the first year were not great (by my standards at least). I think I had feedback from every assessment throughout that first year telling me to check the Harvard Reference Guide! And thankfully in the summer between year 1 and 2, I did check the Guide, in fact I studied the full 100 odd page guide, and never looked back (well occasionally).

Year 2 I decided I was going to get serious about my studies, and serious I got! I didn’t miss a session, I read pretty much everything on the reading lists for my modules and found my voice in a number of seminars. I would say that in comparison to year 1, I really enjoyed my second year of Criminology, especially the placement (yes: even I have completed the placement report and presentation). And my grades reflected the commitment, passion and seriousness which I had applied.

Year 3 was pretty similar to year 2, although the stress levels were heightened. I loved my dissertation, which was an empirical piece on single parenthood and fears around juvenile delinquency. I also loved all the modules I took in year 3, which I cannot say the same for the previous years (sorry team)! Year 3 is when I realised that I would never be bored in Criminology. That is not to say that I do not find some topic areas less interesting than others, or that there are not some theories or perspectives that I do not agree with. But they are not boring (although some topics areas are pushing it). So in one way or another I had decided that my academic journey in Criminology would not end after graduation. And it didn’t.

I became an Associate Lecturer the September after I graduated, and have been on True Crime and Other Fictions and The Science of Crime and Criminals since that first year. I have also led seminars in Research Methods for Criminology, and taken lectures for Violence: From Domestic to Institutional. And basically I never left!

Alongside my AL role, I have completed my MSc in Criminology from the University of Leicester (would have done it at UON but they do not run one: cough cough). I had assumed I would continue my focus on juvenile offending in some capacity, but no I took an entirely different route to one I was familiar with and completed an empirical dissertation on The Prevalence of Rape Myths. Going forward I will hopefully do a PhD, and I currently envisage it being within the realm of Violence Against Women (VAW): but who knows?

In terms of ‘fun’ facts about me, you can know the following:

  • I have two house rabbits who are both 6 years old, and have chewed every note book/pad I have ever owned. If the connection goes via online teaching, they might be responsible
  • I adore pretty much all of the Disney animations, yes even the outright racist and misogynistic ones
  • I eat chocolate every day without fail: pretty sure my body would just stop without it. The same goes for coffee
  • And shocker: I love to read!

So to all new Criminology students, I look forward to meeting you (albeit virtually for the time being) and to all returning students (most of whom I shall have met in some capacity) I look forward to meeting you again! And finally I look forward to the next stage in my academic journey as a Lecturer in Criminology.

Covid-Universities and what if

https://blackadderquotes.com/final-scene-blackadder-goes-forth

Over the past week or so there have been some mutterings about whether it is safe to open up universities. There is the advice from the scientific advisors (Universities get some Indie SAGE advice on reopening campuses in September)  and some thoughts from academics ‘Why universities must move all teaching online this autumn’.

As we move closer to the start of term, so my dread of what is ahead comes into sharper focus. I try to imagine what it would be like and try to reassure myself that the risk assessments have been done and the reassurances that the universities are Covid safe are true rather than simply fantasy and wishful thinking.

In this safe environment I imagine that the number of students and staff on campuses will be carefully managed as it is with many large stores.

I imagine that all staff and students will be wearing face coverings. This is not for protection of themselves, as the use of coverings is a somewhat altruistic venture, I cover my face and protect you and you cover yours and protect me.

I imagine that all thoroughfares will be marked and monitored. Social distancing is important, and we need to be at least a metre apart.

I imagine that the classrooms will be laid out in such a way that social distancing can be maintained and that the classrooms will be well ventilated, even in the middle of winter. I imagine all the chairs and desks and any other equipment will be wiped down after each session.

I imagine that face to face teaching will be limited and interactions with multiple groups of students will be severely curtailed to ensure lecturers are not put at unnecessary risk.  I imagine each class will comprise only a few students to minimise risk.

I imagine that anyone who is symptomatic will not attend a university and will after being tested self-isolate.  I imagine that all the people they have been in contact with will do the same for a whole, boring, 14 days.

I imagine that the universities’ management will be at each university, leading from the front.  They will be checking to ensure the safety of students and staff.  They will be mixing with staff and students, receiving feedback and continuously monitoring. I imagine the safety of the students and staff is paramount.

And then I think, what if…

What if campuses are a free for all.  Students can come and go as they please, there is no monitoring of volumes.  Or what if there is, but it is impossible to enforce with limited staff to do so. And those staff tasked with this endeavour are at greater risk due to the proximity with large volumes of students.

What if people decide not to wear face coverings or having got into the building decide to take them off or several people are exempt for some reason or another. Altruism has gone out of the window. I’m a criminologist and I know that people break the rules for all sorts of reasons and the only certainty is that some people will break the rules.

What if social distancing becomes all too difficult.  Many of us have experienced it in stores. A one-way system works for most, but a significant number just don’t abide by it, for whatever reason. People break rules.

What if the social distancing in classes is impossible, there just isn’t enough classes to maintain it with the volume of students on the course.  What if ventilation is impossible, other than air conditioning, some classes are in the middle of buildings. Who will clean the chairs and equipment after each class? Go to a restaurant and tables and chairs are wiped down after each use so who will do it at a university?

What if lecturers have to teach multiple groups face to face as there are not enough staff to spread the load. Teaching in a classroom for two hours multiple times in a day with different groups each time must surely expose lecturers to much greater risk.

What if students are of the age group where they are more likely to be asymptomatic?  How many that are infected might be at a university, spreading the virus around campus and around the locality.  Even if they are symptomatic, how likely are they to self-isolate? Judging by the street parties and illegal raves reported on the news, there is a good chance that some will break the rules. Let’s be realistic, if you are only likely to suffer affects akin to a cold, why would you be that bothered about social distancing or self-isolation?

And finally, what if all managers avail themselves of the much-vaunted government advice, work from home if you can. Leadership from the rear, the bottom line is more important than the safety of others.  We can of course dress this up in management psychobabble about what the students need.

Never mind, ‘Tally ho and all of that sort of thing and over the top we go’*.

* For those of you that are lost at this point it might be worth a visit to the last episode of Blackadder Goes Forth.

Things I Miss (and don’t) – 5teveh

I was chatting with my wife the other day about household finances in the current situation.  My wife has lost her two zero hours contract jobs (I’m not sure why they call it a contract when basically it’s a one-way thing; you work when we want you to and if you don’t agree then you don’t work) and adjustments have to be made.  I’m not moaning about our finances, just stating a fact, things have to change.  Anyway, my wife declares that whilst she enjoys visiting coffee shops it’s not something she particularly misses. A bit ironic really as we can’t go out for coffee anyway in the current countrywide shutdown.  Of course, not going out for coffee saves money.  The conversation got me thinking about what I miss, and conversely what I don’t in these unusual circumstances. 

In a previous conversation, a friend and colleague said he missed the chats over coffee that we’d have on a weekly basis. I too miss this, but it wasn’t just the chats but also the venue, where we were able to somehow hide ourselves in our own little sanctuary, away from what at times felt like the madness of the daily machinations of campus life.

I never thought I’d say this, but I miss the classes, lectures, seminars, workshops, call them what you will.  I miss the interaction with the students and that spark that sometimes occurs when you know they’ve got it, they comprehend what it is you are saying.  I don’t miss the frustration felt when students for what ever reason just can’t or won’t engage. I don’t miss travelling into work in all the traffic.  At least my fuel bill has gone down, and the environment is benefitting.

I miss seeing my boys, I get to speak to them or text them all the time but its not quite the same. They are grown men now but, they are still my boys.  I miss being able to see my mum, she’s getting on a bit now.  Sometimes I thought it a bit of a chore having to visit her, a duty to be carried out, but now… well its hard, despite speaking to her everyday on the phone.

I miss being able to pop out with my wife to various antique shops and auction rooms in pursuit of my hobby.  I’m repairing an old clock now and need some parts.  Ebay is useful but its not quite the same as sourcing them elsewhere.

I miss going out to meet my best mate for a beer and a Ruby (calling it a curry just isn’t cool).  We’ve been friends for over forty years now and perhaps only meet up every three or four months.  We text and chat but its not quite the same.

But what I miss most of all, is freedom. Freedom to see who I like and when I like. Freedom to visit where I like and to chat to whom I like, whether that be in a coffee shop with the owner or another customer or at an auction with other bidders and onlookers. It’s funny isn’t it, we take our freedom for granted until it is taken away from us.  All those things that we moan about, all the problems that we see, real or imagined, pale into insignificance against a loss of freedom.

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