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Back to school; who would have thought it could be fun?
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 roots of criminology; the past in the service of the future;
In a number of blog posts colleagues and myself (New Beginnings, Modern University or New University? Waterside: What an exciting time to be a student, Park Life, The ever rolling stream rolls on), we talked about the move to a new campus and the pedagogies it will develop for staff and students. Despite being in one of the newest campuses in the country, we also deliver some of our course content in the Sessions House. This is one of the oldest and most historic buildings in town. Sometimes with students we leave the modern to take a plunge in history in a matter of hours. Traditionally the court has been used in education primarily for mooting in the study of law or for reenactment for humanities. On this occasion, criminology occupies the space for learning enhancement that shall go beyond these roles.
The Sessions House is the old court in the centre of Northampton, built 1676 following the great fire of Northampton in 1675. The building was the seat of justice for the town, where the public heard unspeakable crimes from matricide to witchcraft. Justice in the 17th century appear as a drama to be played in public, where all could hear the details of those wicked people, to be judged. Once condemned, their execution at the gallows at the back of the court completed the spectacle of justice. In criminology discourse, at the time this building was founded, Locke was writing about toleration and the constrains of earthy judges. The building for the town became the embodiment of justice and the representation of fairness. How can criminology not be part of this legacy?
There were some of the reasons why we have made this connection with the past but sometimes these connections may not be so apparent or clear. It was in one of those sessions that I began to think of the importance of what we do. This is not just a space; it is a connection to the past that contains part of the history of what we now recognise as criminology. The witch trials of Northampton, among other lessons they can demonstrate, show a society suspicious of those women who are visible. Something that four centuries after we still struggle with, if we were to observe for example the #metoo movement. Furthermore, from the historic trials on those who murdered their partners we can now gain a new understanding, in a room full of students, instead of judges debating the merits of punishment and the boundaries of sentencing.
These are some of the reasons that will take this historic building forward and project it forward reclaiming it for what it was intended to be. A courthouse is a place of arbitration and debate. In the world of pedagogy knowledge is constant and ever evolving but knowing one’s roots allows the exploration of the subject to be anchored in a way that one can identify how debates and issues evolve in the discipline. Academic work can be solitary work, long hours of reading and assignment preparation, but it can also be demonstrative. In this case we a group (or maybe a gang) of criminologists explore how justice and penal policy changes so sitting at the green leather seats of courtroom, whilst tapping notes on a tablet. We are delighted to reclaim this space so that the criminologists of the future to figure out many ethical dilemmas some of whom once may have occupied the mind of the bench and formed legal precedent. History has a lot to teach us and we can project this into the future as new theoretical conventions are to emerge.
Locke J, (1689), A letter Concerning Toleration, assessed 01/11/18 https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/A_Letter_Concerning_Toleration