Thoughts from the criminology team

Home » Pandemic

Category Archives: Pandemic

Criminology First Week Activity (2020)

Winning posters 2020, from L to R: Year 1, Year 2 and Year 3

As we prepare to start the new academic year, it is worth reflecting on the beginning of the last one. In 2020 we began the academic year with a whole cohort activity designed to explore visual criminology and inspire the criminological imagination. Students were placed into small (socially distanced) groups, provided with a very short prompt and limited guidance as to how best to tackle the project. The prompts were as follows:

Year 1: Knife Crime

Year 2: Policing Protest (e.g. Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion and so on)

Year 3: Creating Criminals: the CJS during the Covid-19 pandemic

Many of the students had never physically met, yet managed to come together in the midst of a pandemic, negotiate a strategy, carry out the work and produce well designed and thoughtful, criminological posters.

As can be seen from the collage below, everyone involved embraced the challenge and created some remarkable posters. Some of these have been shared previously across social media but this is the first time they have all appeared together in one place.

I am sure everyone will agree our students demonstrated knowledge, understanding, resilience and stamina. We will be running a similar activity for the first week of the academic year 2021-2022, with different prompts to provoke thought and encourage dialogue and team work. Who knows what exciting ideas and posters will be demonstrated this time, but one thing is for sure Criminology students have the opportunity to campaign for social justice becoming real #Changemakers.

Prison education: why it matters?

Five year ago, Dame Sally Coates released an independent report on prison education. Recently the Chief Inspector for Ofsted, Amanda Spielman and The HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, made a joint statement reflecting on that report.  Their reflections are critical on the lack of implementation of the original report, but also of the difficulties of managing education in prison especially at a time of a global pandemic.  The lack of developing meaningful educational provision and delivering remote teaching led to many prisoners without sufficient opportunity to engage with learning.   

In a situation of crisis such as the global pandemic one must wonder if this is an issue that can be left to one side for now, to be reviewed at a later stage.  At the University of Northampton, as an educational institution we are passionate about learning opportunities for all including those incarcerated.  We have already developed an educational partnership with a local prison, and we are committed to offer Higher Education to prisoners.  Apart from the educational, I would add that there is a profound criminological approach to this issue.  Firstly, I would like to separate what Dame Coates refers to as education, which is focused on the basic skills and training as opposed to a university’s mandate for education designed to explore more advanced ideas. 

The main point to both however is the necessity for education for those incarcerated and why it should be offered or not.  In everyday conversations, people accept that “bad” people go to prison.  They have done something so horrible that it has crossed the custody threshold and therefore, society sends them to jail.  This is not a simple game of Monopoly, but an entire criminal justice process that explores evidence and decides to take away their freedom.  This is the highest punishment our society can bestow on a person found guilty of serious crimes.  For many people this is appropriate and the punishment a fitting end to criminality.  In criminology however we recognise that criminality is socially constructed and those who end up in prisons may be only but a specific section of those deemed “deviant” in our society.  The combination of wrongdoing and socioeconomic situations dictate if a person is more or less likely to go to prison.  This indicates that prison is not a punishment for all bad people, but some.  Dame Coates for example recognises the overrepresentation of particular ethnic minorities in the prison system. 

This raises the first criminological issue regarding education, and it relates to fairness and access to education.  We sometimes tend to forget that education is not a privilege but a fundamental human right.  Sometimes people forget that we live in a society that requires a level of educational sophistication that people with below basic levels of literacy and numeracy will struggle.  From online applications to job hunting or even banking, the internet has become an environment that has no place for the illiterate.  Consider those who have been in prison since the late 1990s and were released in the late 2010s.  People who entered the prison before the advancement of e-commerce and smart phones suddenly released to a world that feels like it is out of a sci-fi movie. 

The second criminological issue is to give all people, regardless of their crimes, the opportunity to change.  The opportunity of people to change, is always incumbent on their ability to change which in turn is dependent on their circumstances.  Education, among other things, requires the commitment of the learner to engage with the learning process.  For those in prison, education can offer an opportunity to gain some insight that their environment or personal circumstances have denied them.      

The final criminological issue is the prison itself.  What do we want people to do in them?  If prison is to become a human storage facility, then it will do nothing more than to pause a person’s life until they are to be released.  When they come out the process of decarceration is long and difficult.  People struggle to cope and the return to prison becomes a process known as “revolving doors”.  This prison system helps no one and does nothing to resolve criminality.  A prison that attempts to help the prisoners by offering them the tools to learn, helps with the process of deinstitutionalisation.  The prisoner is informed and aware of the society they are to re-join and prepares accordingly.  This is something that should work in theory, but we are nowhere there yet.  If anything, it is far from it, as read in Spielman and Taylor’s recent commentary.  Their observations identify poor quality education that is delivered in unacceptable conditions.  This is the crux of the matter, the institution is not really delivering what it claims that is does.  The side-effect of such as approach is the missed opportunity to use the institution as a place of reform and change. 

Of course, in criminological discourse the focus is on an abolitionist agenda that sees beyond the institution to a society less punitive that offers opportunities to all its citizens without discrimination or prejudice.  This is perhaps a different topic of conversation.  At this stage, one thing is for sure; education may not rehabilitate but it can allow people to self-improve and that is a process that needs to be embraced.  

 

References

Coates, S. (2016), Unlocking Potential: A review of education in prisons, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/unlocking-potential-a-review-of-education-in-prison

Spielman, A. and Taylor, C. (2021), Launching our Prison Education Reviewhttps://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/launching-our-prison-education-review

Originally published here

Taking a short break….back soon

https://www.flickr.com/photos/53558245@N02/4978362207

The Covid-19 pandemic has taken its toll on everyone in a myriad of different ways. Nobody has escaped the impact of the last 16 months and we’re not out of the woods yet. Here at the Thoughts From the Criminology Team we’re no different. All of us are beginning to run out of steam and need a little break. Never fear, we’ll be back with lots of interesting entries from September. In the meantime, there’s plenty on the site to explore.

Enjoy your August whatever you are up to!

Vaccine day

I had my first Covid-19 vaccine recently and the day was emotional, to say the least. I am 99% compliant with Covid-19 restrictions, partly because it is the law but primarily because I believe it is the right thing to do to protect others. In fact, there have been many times over the last 15 months where I have avoided the news for my own sanity so half the time, I do not exactly know what the latest rules are. I am guided by my own risk assessments and am probably more restrictive than the law in most scenarios. Up until vaccine day I thought that I wasn’t scared of contracting Covid-19, that I was complying as an act of altruism and that I would not be able to live with myself if I unwittingly passed the virus on to somebody vulnerable to severe illness and death.

Back in March 2020 when infections then the death toll started to rise, and the NHS became increasingly overwhelmed I would watch what my daughter and I called ‘the Boris show’ where the Prime Minister and the scientists would recall the daily death data, hospitalisations and cases. Each ‘next slide please’ bringing more bad news. Each day I would think about the families of every single one of those people who had died. It was quite overwhelming, and I eventually had to limit the information I ingested, living in both a physical and informational bubble. I recall the death toll announcements were met with responses from the covid-deniers, ‘but they’re old or ill anyway’, and ‘but they could have been hit by a bus and still counted as a covid death’. As a victimologist, this infuriated me. Who were these people to flippantly dismiss right to life based on age or health? It frustrated me that people with no knowledge of statistics, medicine or science were making assumptions based on anecdotal evidence from Bob on Facebook. But then again perhaps these are the tales people told themselves to get through. If they deny it, they have nothing to fear.

A few months later in June 2020, my somebody close to me contracted Covid-19. I was told they were doing well and seemed to be recovering from the virus. They died more than 28 days after having first being diagnosed with Covid-19, but it was Covid-19 that killed them. I know because I saw them to say goodbye a couple of hours before they died. This person who was always so full of life, love and who saw the good in everyone and everything, was now fading away. But what haunts me to this day was the sound of their lungs. The sound I’d heard people talk about on the news. Crisp packet lungs. And it was that sound that was like an earworm in my head on my way to the vaccination centre.

I’ve been looking forward to getting vaccinated since vaccines were on the horizon so I was excited when I received the text invitation. I booked to attend the Greater Manchester vaccination centre at the Etihad stadium, the home of Manchester City Football Club. It was well organised, despite the large numbers of people coming through. First, I was required to check in and was allocated the Moderna vaccine and a green sticker which ensured staff could direct me to the correct queue. Then I checked in at another desk where I was given some information, asked some health questions and, most importantly, I was asked, ‘do you want the vaccine?’. Those who have sat one of the research methods modules I have taught this year will have heard me discuss the importance of informed consent and this also applies to real life situations such as this. After this I joined another queue and finally reached the vaccination point, had the jab, waited for 15 minutes and left. Just like that. The whole thing took about an hour and given the volume of people being vaccinated (the site is a mass vaccination hub for a large area), I found it to be incredibly efficient. Every staff member I met was informative and did what they could to put people at ease.

From the moment I left home to go to the vaccination centre, to the moment my head hit the pillow that evening, I couldn’t help reflecting on the last 15 months. I felt a wave of emotions. I felt extreme sadness and sorrow at all the lives lost and all the families and friends left behind. It has been a traumatic time for so many of us. Getting the vaccine, I felt some sort of release from this, like it was nearly over. I have worked from home throughout and have had little social interaction, except when the gyms have been open or I have undertaken caring responsibilities for various friends and family. There were also a few weeks towards the end of lockdown 1 where my sister came to stay after returning from India. Overall, I have been alone with a teenager at a desk in my living room. It’s been awful. I’m tired and I need a break. I am well overdue a mum-cation. I felt some hope that sometime soon I might be able to get a parenting break and that my daughter can also get a break from me. I said earlier how I believed I had not feared contracting covid but having the vaccine and the relief I felt made me realise that I was more scared than I would care to admit. I am young(ish) and extremely healthy and I would probably be at low risk of developing serious symptoms but what if I was an unlucky one?

Aside from my personal experiences, I felt a collective relief. The global pandemic has created global trauma. There are still countries being ravished by the virus without the resources to operate mass vaccination of entire populations. I worry for the world and wonder what borders will look like after, if there ever is an after but I’ll ponder this further in another blog later. Getting vaccinated and being part of a mass vaccination programme made me feel cautiously optimistic. However, a few weeks on and we are now in a situation where the Delta variant is spreading like wildfire. Deaths have risen by 42.5% in the last week and hospital admissions by 44.7%. The numbers are still incredibly low in comparison to the first and second wave but every one of those deaths and hospitalisations matter. They are not a number on a presentation slide. They are people who have families and friends, who are cared for by the NHS. Every one of the deaths is a loss to these people, and has a butterfly effect in terms of the impact each death has.

Restrictions are set to lift imminently I believe (still avoiding the news) and it makes me feel uneasy to say the least. I’ve seen experts whom I trust argue on both sides of the fence. Some say this is dangerous, others suggest summer is the best opportunity to lift restrictions. It sometimes feels like we are living in some kind of twisted experiment. Regardless, I will continue to assess and manage the risk to myself and those around me. I’ll probably wear masks way after it is legal to do so and expect I will still be cautious about who I am physically close to and how I socialise. There’s things that I love and miss such as the theatre, cinema and the occasional gig but I don’t feel ready. I have a feeling this pandemic is far from over.

A smorgasbord of thought (AKA a head full of magic)

https://www.flickr.com/photos/charlesfred/2823810363https://www.flickr.com/photos/charlesfred/2823810363

Its been a few weeks since I’ve written a blog and whilst there are plenty of topics to pick from, I never quite got my head round writing about anything in depth. I’ve thought about a lot, I never stop thinking about a lot, some it meaningful and some of it not. I like to think that some of the stuff is quite profound but that’s just in my imagination, I think. Anyway, rather than trying to put together some deep and meaningful narrative about the state of the world I thought I’d provide a few highlights.

When I read Jes’ blog the other week about graffiti, I couldn’t help thinking that we do far too much to try to justify and somehow nullify the effects of criminality. For all our theorising and empathising as criminologists, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that crime results in victims and being a victim of crime is at best an unpleasant experience.  So, I have to disagree with Jes on one point, grafitti is not art, its criminal damage, vandalism if you like. Very rarely have I ever gazed upon a graffiti covered bridge, wall, shop front, shutter, railway station siding or railway carriage and thought to myself, wow that’s nice. Let’s call it what it is.

I think it was the same week that I read a post on ‘LinkedIn’ about the silence surrounding the murder of Julia James, a 53-year-old Police Community Support Officer.  The silence the author of the post was referring to was the contrast between the public response to Julia James’ death and that of Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive.  No vigil, no public outrage, no ‘claim the streets back’.  I wondered what dictates the public response to such horrific events.  Is it age, occupation, circumstance or just timing?

I watched the news this week somewhat bemused by the response of some industry chiefs and business owners.  The airline industry is less than pleased with the government’s approach to relaxing of restrictions around travel and some business owners are apoplectic about the fact that the removal of restrictions might be delayed. It might be a bit simplistic to state this, but it seems that they value business more than lives.

As for those that went on holiday abroad, thinking they wouldn’t need to quarantine when they came back only to find that the rules changed, and they now have to.  More fool you, maybe I’ve missed a trick here, but I don’t think the Covid virus and its mutations will wait for you to enjoy the rest of your holiday before spreading a little more. Don’t complain about quarantine nor the cost of testing, you put yourself in that position, now take some responsibility and suck it up instead of blaming someone else.

In a conversation, a friend of mine told me ‘the problem is people don’t like being told what to do’. This was said in the context of Covid and our discussion about the idiots that think any rules or guidance just doesn’t apply to them. The comment did however make me think about a paper I read some time ago by Storch (1975).  When the new police were introduced into this country in 1829, there were few who looked upon them favourably.  One of the main issues was simply that the populace did not like being restricted in their ‘immoral or illegal’ pastimes. We can have a debate about who makes the rules but it seems to me the most pressing point is that little has changed. Take off the rose-tinted glasses, there never was a golden era of policing, the police have never been liked and never will be.  I wonder how the population would act if there were no police though?

I’m a little weary now, all of this thinking and writing has worn me out. Time for a lie down in a darkened room.

The ‘Dangers’ of Travelling

This month, during the brief lull between the teaching and marking season, I had allocated myself a bit more free-time than usual. I have not been able to indulge in my hobby of travelling for a while, so instead of this, I have been watching travel related-television programmes with the hope that these will provide me with some kind of joy.    

This attempt has been a partial success; an influx of comedy travel shows have worked wonders to uplift my spirits whilst simultaneously reminding me about the beauty of nature; animals, plants, sea, land…(and even humans).    

Covid has taken over travel related news at the moment, but in ‘usual’ times it does not require much effort to come across travel documentaries or news reports that seem to encourage prejudice by depicting other countries and travelling as being strange or dangerous. I do worry that this type of coverage might discourage people from wanting to explore the world.  

It is difficult to assess the extent to which the television influences our opinions, but when I was a bit younger and discussing my travel plans with others, sometimes I would be met with the following comments:  

Response: I would love to travel but I can’t  

Me: Why can’t you?   

Response: It is dangerous!    

Me: How do you know this?  

Response: …It said so on the television  

There are many genuine reasons that prevent people from travelling, such as, money, responsibilities, health, conflict, misogyny and racism etc. But I find the above reason to be such a shame.   

I have encountered many myths over the years which seem to have been gained from watching the television. Here are some of my favorites:   

Myth 1: If you see a [insert wild animal here], it will eat you alive  

My experience: Take crocodiles for example, these are not as bad as they seem. Yes, arguably crocodiles are death machines but I have seen many in the wild and I am still alive.  

Myth 2: The local ‘criminals’ are dangerous   

My experience: On very rare occasions I have witnessed crime being committed whilst abroad. I once sat on a coach full of people who were attempting to smuggle cocaine to Brazil. I have also stumbled upon situations which the media described as ‘riots’ and I have also witnessed a few thefts. In these situations, the locals were not a danger to myself, but crime seemed to be a way of being able to afford to live or the result of the occasional angry outburst amongst crowds of protesters, motivated by frustrations with the state.  

Myth 3: If you accept the hospitality of strangers you will be murdered in your sleep  

My experience: The chances of this happening are very slim. Travelling tends to restore my faith in humanity, the people that I meet whilst travelling can be incredibly kind and helpful.   

I found that whilst I was a student, I was able to travel to many places on relatively limited over-draft funds. I hope that the students that I teach are able to do the same, as travel really can broaden the mind. Although, maybe I am wrong for encouraging others to travel, as travelling also makes you very aware of the damage that has been caused to the world, and my own part with in it.    

Whose rights are they anyway?

“Human Rights Now – Refugee Children in Immigration Detention Protest Broadmeadows” by John Englart (Takver) is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

I’m a great believer in human rights and when the topic comes up, I make it clear to my students that you either buy into human rights wholeheartedly or you don’t buy into it at all. There is no halfway house.  You cannot pick and choose which bits you like, or decide that there is a time limited offer, a bit like a sale, on one month but not the next, and then on again. Nor can you decide that such rights only apply to some and not others (Home Office take note regarding refugees and asylum seekers).  But the more I think about human rights the more I question how rights can work on an individual level without impacting on others’ rights.

A good example is the protests over the last year or so, particularly during ‘lockdown’. I ought to hasten to add before someone protests vociferously, that this blog is not about the validity of the subject matter being protested about. The blog is simply about how the exercise of rights that we hold so dear, can and do impact on other’s rights.

The government and its agents have a duty to ensure that human rights are facilitated as best as possible. Whilst there are some caveats, this duty extends to taking positive steps to ensure that we have a right to protest, a right to associate with whom we like, a right to express what we want to express and I would suggest above all else a right to life.  I have prioritised the right to life but, in the arguments about the rights to protest, few if any question the impact that such protests have on that one fundamental right.  

And I can hear the arguments now, what the people are protesting about is far bigger, too important not to be allowed to protest.  The argument can even be extended to the fact that the protests are about the right to life, a valid argument.  So, it is ironic that protesting about the right to life impacts on others’ right to life.  If you don’t agree then please tell me what the purpose of ‘lockdown’ was if it wasn’t at least in part to save lives.  The problem with protests, peaceful or not is that they do not suddenly happen in one place, people are not just beamed in.  Would be protesters have to get to the venue thereby creating multiple opportunities for the spread of Covid.  But even when we are not in ‘lockdown’, many protests have a detrimental impact on the rights of other members of the public through the disruption caused.  In exercising fundamental rights, we trample on the rights of others.  Whilst we may agree with the sentiments of the protests, it is and should not always be the case.  Protests are not always about what we hold or ought to hold dear, in fact sometimes the opposite.#

I cannot say I am in favour of the new proposals to regulate protests, but I do understand the rationale, at least in part.  I also understand the concern and the possible impact on our freedoms. But I find it somewhat bemusing that so many are quick to criticise and yet so few offer solutions. One day, when I am particularly annoyed about something and decide to join a protest, I wonder whether I will think about other people and the rights I am depriving them of?

#CriminologyBookClub: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

As you know from our regular #CriminologyBookClub entries a small group of us decided the best way to thrive in lockdown was to seek solace in reading and talking about books. Building on on what has quickly become standard practice, we’ve decided to continue with all eight bloggers contributing! Our tenth book was chosen by @amycortvriend As can be seen from below, this text gave us plenty to think and talk about.

This was an interesting choice. Having lived through 2001, it was interesting to reflect on events almost two decades ago. I’ve read quite a lot of material around the area, so the content of The Reluctant Fundamentalist didn’t really have any surprises. The use of just one voice to tell the story was interesting and left you wondering what (if anything) the other person in the conversation was saying. I found the sex scenes with Erica rather disturbing, primarily recognising that this was a vulnerable women, regardless of Changez’ motivations. Overall an interesting read, with many unanswered questions left hanging. I know I’ve filled in the blanks, but equally I recognise that other members of the criminology book club may have very different answers….

@paulaabowles

Set in a Lahore café it is easy to imagine the scene and the changing scenery as day turns to night and a one-sided conversation takes place between the narrator and a stranger. In a story of the clash of two cultures and ideologies, the protagonist explains how he at first embraces the ‘American Dream’, soaking up the capitalist vision and the pathway to riches and success only to turn against these ideas as a result of some inner turmoil that he cannot fully explain. For the reader the explanation may become somewhat clearer as each page is turned but still you are left with the question, what is the purpose of this conversation? All becomes clear at the end or does it? A cleverly written plot that captivates from the start. The storyline takes the reader on a journey that is carefully narrated and beautifully descriptive. I really enjoyed the book and it took me back to some of the academic work around terrorism and fundamentalism. A good read that certainly makes you ponder some western values.

@5teveh

When I think back to The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I remember being swept up in the unique style of writing, the timely and thought-provoking themes and the somewhat questionable characters. I struggled to put it down and I think it navigates some themes well (I’ll be careful of spoilers). However, once I had finished the book I was left with a crucial question: ‘What is the ending?’. I struggled with the ‘love’ relationship depicted, even more so upon reflection. And was rooting for a love interest between the protagonist and his boss, Jim, but that was not to be. All in all, I could not put the book down and thoroughly enjoyed it, however as always when I take time for critical reflection: things become a little unstuck. However, excellent choice @amycortvriend!

@jesjames50

The book mostly consists of a person telling his life-story in a restaurant. For me, the storyteller’s life experiences were at times very sad, and when reflecting on scenes involving the women who he loved…maybe even a little strange. The book includes plenty of themes that are relevant to the field of criminology so I think it’s a book that criminology students would find interesting. I was intrigued by this book as I wanted to know more about the main character’s story, I also wanted to know why he was bothering to tell his story to a stranger in such detail in the first place. Overall, I thought the book was good, despite ambiguous ending!

@haleysread

I did not enjoy this book. I really struggled to get past the style in which it was written which I found at times irritating and at others uncomfortable. The descriptions of the narrator’s ‘relationship’ with Erica were particularly difficult to read. There were too many things left unknown to the reader which made it difficult to feel sympathetic to any of the characters involved and the ambiguous ending was more frustrating than intriguing.

@saffrongarside

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is a novel that we as a society should read. This novel will not give you a manual on how to treat people, but it will hopefully get you to reflect on the implicit ignorance of society and the violence that is legitimised in the name of politics.

Although the backdrop of the novel is set during the 9/11 terror attacks, Mohsin Hamid, does not address the clichés of terrorism, or the morals of individuals. The focus of the novel rests on the problematic treatment  and labels that society pushes onto ‘suspect’ communities, and the power that Western society holds over the rest of the world.

The main character of the story Changez, is not necessarily a likeable or loveable character, he is human, he is flawed he holds the qualities that all humans possess. But being a Pakistani national that is living in the U.S at such a volatile time, creates an atmosphere of angst that is exclusive to him and people that look like him. Throughout the novel I constantly wanted him to comply with the ideals of Western society so that he could fit in to win and be Othered less.

As an individual that is deemed different than the ‘norm’ and part of a suspect community, it is difficult to ignore how hard it is to be completely accepted and given access into a society that only gives you part membership. The blurred boundaries between fiction and nonfiction of this novel, allows for uncomfortable reflection of my own tireless navigation through society and the problematic narratives that has been thrust upon others.

This book will not solve the problems of the world, but it will allow us to reflect on who we are, how we treat each other and how we can do better as humans.

@svr2727

The Reluctant Fundamentalist was definitely a fascinating read. It leaves an impression to you. There is something unsettling about the way the story progresses, and you are always on edge about what is likely to happen next. The story is a constant narration as a one-way conversation. At first the novelty of the conversation is interesting and engaging, but in parts it is stretching it, feeling a bit exaggerated. The protagonist is unclear if they are a hero or a villain, friend or foe and this sustains that suspense even further. We are left wondering as we trace different parts of his story through a seemingly random recollection of events. The writing is good and engaging leaving you wanting to know more, but for those who like the certainty of what happens this may not be for you. After I finished the book, I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not, mainly because I wasn’t sure of how I felt about the characters. One thing is for sure the subject matter and the pace of writing will leave you guessing.

@manosdaskalou

Having read another of the author’s novels, I was looking forward to The Reluctant Fundamentalist and it did not disappoint. It took me a chapter or two to get used to the writing style which was almost a one-sided conversation which made you constantly wonder who the other person is, why they are there and what they are saying. Spoiler alert: we never find out. I like that the ending is open, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. I also enjoyed the journey of the protagonist from his desperation of wanting to succeed in his pursuit of the American dream to the realisation, triggered by 9/11, that he never truly would fit in, nor does he want to anymore.

@amycortvriend

Finding focus in office exile

Photo by Ann Nekr on Pexels.com

I have now passed a year of being exiled from my office, separated from people for most of the time. A couple of weeks before the first lockdown I was working in another university and we had just a day or two notice to switch to online teaching. As a doctoral candidate I valued the flexibility of being able to work from home, in the office, and in overpriced coffee shops in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. The weather helped with the first lockdown. I would have virtual office working sessions with my colleagues in the criminology department in my garden. I thought I was coping but the reality was I was masking any fear, sadness and the effects of having no human contact. I was training two or three times per day, counting every calorie I ate. I lost a few pounds, got stronger, fitter and felt physically amazing.

We got some respite in the summer when lockdown restrictions were lessened. However, I lost a family member to Covid-19 and still felt unsure and anxious about going out so I didn’t make the most of it. I did have a couple of work sessions in my local library which was a welcome change of scenery. This was short lived as I currently live in Manchester and we have been in either lockdown or tier 3 restrictions for most of the last year. My saving grace was my gym. We had outdoor sessions, new members joined, and I got to see real people, albeit in socially distanced marked off squares of territory on the gym floor. Life was much better then. I left the house most days.

By December’s lockdown I was starting to struggle. With dark mornings and nights there would be days when I wouldn’t leave the front door. I went from training daily to training once or twice per week and some days I wouldn’t get any more than 2,000 steps in. For my, training is my anti-depressant. It keeps me sane, it keeps be focussed and it keeps me connected to a community of people who value it too. For me, this was a worrying sign.

Fast-forward to today, a year on from lockdown 1. I sit here in front of my laptop day in, day out, trying to concentrate, trying to find the perfect playlist to make me concentrate, taking nootropic supplements (legal, not the drugs), brain vitamins and high caffeine supplements to make me concentrate. I sit here researching symptoms and self-diagnosing ADHD. But really, I just need my office. I need an over-priced lemon and ginger tea, I need a commute, I need people, I need to get out of my living room. But I don’t need it at a cost of losing more lives to Covid-19 so I’ll sit in my living room and wait.

For now, as difficult as it is to focus, I manage. I just have to work harder than ever at it. So for all of our students who are also struggling, I will finish with some of my top tips but bear in mind we all learn differently so find what works for you.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Amy’s top study from home tips:

  • Host virtual study sessions with colleagues. I have at least 2 sessions per week with a colleague. We start the session by saying hi and having some human interaction before stating our goals. We keep each other accountable by asking if our goals are achievable within the 2 hour frame and suggesting more specific goals. We then mute and work, coming back at the end of the 2 hours to hold one another accountable and share how we have done. I cannot emphasise enough how much this has helped me!
  • Write a to do list each day and week with SMART goals. You’re better off having smaller goals that are achievable than bigger goals that are not
  • Use the Pomodoro technique. Ordinarily this is 25 mins work followed by a 5 or 10 minute break. There are online tools and apps or you can set a timer. One of my supervisors recently suggested to me to reduce the working session to 15 minutes to account for my reduced concentration span. This is helping!
  • Don’t have the same expectations on yourself as you ordinarily would. These are not ordinary times
  • Work with your own mind. My brain works well early in the morning so sometimes I have my laptop open at 5.30am. I have friends that work late in the night. I also know I read well in the afternoon and I do my best thinking when I am on a solitary walk in nature
  • Set yourself little goals with rewards. Currently, if I finish editing 5 pages I get an episode of Grey’s Anatomy or a cookie (bad idea) or a 10 minute browse on Instagram
  • Lean on the resources available to you. At UoN our students are lucky to have a tonne of informative resources on Skills Hub (see the section on ‘How to Study’), our Learning Development team to help with academic skills, a mental health team who can help support mental wellbeing, and a whole host of other services. Ask for help and accept it when it is offered (this I need to work on)
  • Listen to a focus playlist. My go to Spotify playlists are here and here

Let it be Light

You may have probably heard of the title before and you may or may not be able to place it.  It is a quote from the bible!  It is profoundly creationist proclaiming the world created in days; from the 1st for the light and the 6th for the people and animals.  A seemingly busy week for an almighty being who needed a day of rest afterwards.  The contribution of organised religion to everyday life, the realisation that people need rest and recuperation from the labours of work.  This however is not the reason I chose this dive into scriptures.  I am not a theologian so I will not examine the religious content. 

Instead there are two different reasons I have chosen to start with this quote; the first is the positive affirming message it conveys, the second is its immediacy.  What we have here is light and brightness that is instant gratification.  This message feels like a piece of chocolate melting in your mouth, releasing sweet sensations, as a flooding of smooth cocoa disintegrates, releasing its sensual solids.  Therefore, the command on creating light resonates; we rejoice because unlike reality we find pleasure in immediate gratification.

Would we care that light was not created but emerged after the Big Bang and took billions of years to form in the way we now recognise it as our sun?  Does it matter that progress is long and arduous and not immediate as the command suggests?  Our sense of time dwarfs in the time required for events to happen.  It is astonishing that we still try to comprehend the vastness of time through human lifetime.  The command is also palatable because it happens without virtually any real effort.  It does not represent the labours, pains of creation and development.  In short, evolution is painful, long but here is presented as something immediate and effortless.  In that a series of commands completing complex processes seems preferable to the reality of evolution. Maybe it is pertinent to point out that the command reveals the “majestic totalitarianism” of the divine against the great equalizer of nature and progression.  

In life however, big creations cannot happen by command.  “Let it be Baby!”  I wonder how many mothers would favour this one, or in our line of work “let it be knowledge” how many will choose this option.  This is when we realise that this pleasant message is shielding us from the reality of the process and the nature of reality itself.  We may want things to happen immediately, but this is not necessarily the best option.  In parenting, if you could more forward into having a baby, why not move further past the terrible twos or even further into the dreadful adolescent years of having your authority challenged.  Essentially have a child created fully functioning and obedient to parental will.  Maybe because this is not parenting.  The stories that remain are those of growing pains; without growth there is no parenting.  Let’s explore it in knowledge; can we find shortcuts in the way we learn a trade, an education, a professional identity?  Maybe skipping the first parts on getting to know how to write in the appropriate conventions; perhaps we can skip on the tedious referencing process that only anally retentive individuals apparently enjoy.  What if instead of books and hours of reading different texts we got laminated sheets with terms and conditions and whenever we embark on writing we are told step by step what we write.  Because this will not be knowledge.  The slow and arduous process has an exceptional trait within it; insight!  After reading my books, making notes on my articles, going over my notes and trying to make sense of what it the point I am trying to make; in a moment after hours and hours of studying, suddenly and unexpectedly, the “penny drops”!  This moment of insight is like a lightbulb moment…and that is light!  A light, not by magic or immediate gratification, but the sustained understanding that comes from knowledge.  It has been a difficult year for all of us but please remember that light comes from inside and to quote a great teacher Goethe, “more light”.  

%d bloggers like this: