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Witches and warlocks

Time and time again we revisit previous times of our lives, especially when trying to come to terms with unprecedented realities.  Society works with precedent and continuity that allows people to negotiate their own individual identities.  We live in a society that fostered the culture of the one, and played down the importance of the collective, especially when people in positions of power declared that they can do more with less. 

One pandemic later, and we clapped at the heroes those we regarded as needy money-grabbers previously, those we acknowledge now, that we previously cast aside as low skilled workers.  One pandemic later, and social movements came to prominence, asking big questions about the criminal justice system and the way it interacts with those numerous people, that are not perceived as “mainstream”.  Across Western countries, people are registering the way the system is operating to maintain social order, through social injustice.  Each case that appears in the news is not an individual story as before, but are becoming evidence of something wider, systemic and institutional. 

Covid-19 affects people, and so we must maintain social distancing, cover our faces and clean our hands.  Clear advice from WHO about the pandemic, but people also die when they drown as refugees crossing troubled waters.  People also die when someone puts a knee on their throat (who knew?), people die when they have to deal with abject poverty and have no means to cover their basic subsistence.  People die, and we record their deaths but officially some of those are normalised to the point that they become expected.  Every year I pose the question about good and evil to a group of young adults who seem uncertain about the answer.   

I was recently reminded of a statement made a long time ago by Manos Xatzidakis in relation to the normalisation of evil: “If you are not afraid of the face of evil it means that you have become accustomed to it.  Then you accept the horror and you are frightened by beauty”.  When we are expecting death for seemingly preventable causes, we have crossed that Rubicon according to Xatzidakis. 

As a kid, one of my favourite stories was Hansel and Gretel.  Like all fairy-tales it has a moral signature and is a cautionary lesson.  In my mind it contracted the first image of evil, that of a witch.  The illustration made it very real, but also quite specific.  An oversized, badly dressed witch, with an unsatisfiable taste for children’s flesh.  It was the embodiment of true evil.  In later years, reading The Witches by Roald Dahl exacerbated the fear of this creature, seemingly normal but with layers of ugly under their skin.  The evil that was on the face of the beholder, their intentions clear and their behaviour manipulative but clear on their objectives.  This, I learn as an adult, is an evil that only exists in stories. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TrjLNpfDTi0

This kind of witch, is a demonstration of the social vilification of women and especially those who actively try to challenge the status quo, but not the evil that runs in our societies.  The construction of social demons is a convenient invention to evoke fears and maintain order; well that is something a sceptic may say…but social scientists ought to question everything and be a bit of a sceptic.  In my version of the fairytale the wicked witch is pushed into the oven by Hansel and Gretel, the image of her oversized bottom sticking out, whilst the rest of her body is consumed by the flames. 

Admittedly, I was too old to get into the Harry Potter genre and read the books but the image of his opposition made it to popular culture. The “He who cannot be named” became another convenient, albeit complex, evil capable of unspeakable evils. An icon in its own right of the corruptive nature of evil.

 The reality of course is slightly different.  The big evils do not get extinguished with flames or other means.  They do not cease and there is not necessarily happy ever after; social injustice and unfairness is continuous and so is the struggle to fight them.  The victories are not complete, but gradual and small.  If the pandemic shows us something other than death and heartache, it is the brittleness of life and the need to ask for more in a society that is geared to prime individualism over social solidarity.  It is perhaps a good time, for those who never did, to engage with social movements, for those who left them to return and all find their passion of sharing human experience, that is predicated on equality and fairness.

Fairytales, are interesting insomuch of giving us some moral direction but they do not help us to understand the wider social issues and the actions people have to take. The witches out there may not carry brooms and mix spells in cauldrons but evil carries indifference, apathy and lack of empathy. As Edmund Burke said “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”, now that is true evil. After all, is there such a thing called evil or are we content with finding easy answers?

  

We are Spartacus: the publishing industry and race

As one of only a handful of non-white authors on the British crime fiction map, I thought it might be worthwhile spending a moment reflecting on the worldwide rebalancing touched off by the George Floyd killing in America. Fear not. There’s no need to put on your tin hats and dive for the trenches. My purpose isn’t to haul anyone over the coals. But there’s little doubt that some of what I say might make for uncomfortable reading. More importantly, I will ask you to reflect, at a personal level, on what we mean by systemic inequality, particularly as it applies to the publishing industry.

Screenshot 2020-06-30 16.14.40

First, some background. My parents are from the subcontinent. They came to the UK in the early seventies, lured by the immigrant dream. The streets of London may not have been paved with gold, but they were paved with opportunity. My father, who was not literate, spent his life in honest labour, in an industrial bakery, while my mother raised children, demonstrating the much-lauded immigrant work ethic by slaving away at her sewing machine every hour she wasn’t feeding us or stopping us from poking each other’s eyes out with eraser-tipped pencils. She instilled in us the need, above all else, to study, to educate ourselves, to progress.

So far, so good.

But what if I were to tell you that my parents were, in a broad sense, xenophobes, too? Not overtly. They didn’t oppress anyone; or traffic slaves across the oceans; or pillage defenceless communities for profit. But their attitude towards black people – cultivated by the insular world they had grown up in – was, at best, indifferent, or, at worst, mistrustful.

Here’s a simple, unpalatable truth. Racism, in its most basic form, is a feature of most societies. It shouldn’t be. But it is. A simple example illustrates my point.

The outpouring of angst and handwringing currently gripping the world has seen celebrities across the globe express their views on racism (rightly so), only for some to discover that a seat on this particular bandwagon can be an uncomfortable one. In India, numerous Bollywood stars were called out for the disparity between their #blacklivesmatter tweets and the fact that they had fronted campaigns for skin-lightening creams. Across the subcontinent, lighter skin has traditionally been valued (usually alluded to in matrimonial ads by the rainbow-bending adjective “wheatish”), so much so that white foreigners, especially Brits, are treated with overt deference, while black people are routinely afforded a lesser welcome. An odd perversity, given that it was the whites that pillaged the subcontinent for three centuries while, with those of Afro-Caribbean descent, one might assume Indians would evince a colonial-era solidarity.

Let me be clear: this idea of a sort of universal xenophobic instinct does not in any way excuse or mitigate the horrors of the slave trade, or the enormous, long-term damage done to black people because of that terrible practice. Nor does it justify the entrenched, systemic prejudice that continues to colour western societies, prejudice that culminates in overt racism of the kind that permits white American policemen to routinely kill black men with little fear of reprisal, and prejudice of the less obvious kind that serves to keep black people ‘in their place’. My point was merely to demonstrate that, in the wider, global race equality agenda now under discussion, we all have a part to play.

Part of the issue is that many well-meaning efforts to redress the balance are hampered by a profound lack of insight into how unconscious bias can affect the lives of people of colour, in a million different, small, but, ultimately, debilitating ways. The problem is further hampered by an education system that often fails to properly tackle the ‘race issue’.

Yet, the problem must be addressed. Because the world has become a smaller place. The goldfish bowl has shrunk and we are now all swimming in the same seas. It behoves us to make the effort, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is also the most effective means of progressing humanity towards a more equitable, more meritocratic, global society. If the Covid-19 pandemic has proven anything, it is how interdependent we are.

Coming, now, to the publishing industry. Cards on the table. Since my first book was published six years ago, I have received tremendous support from my agent, publisher, critics, bloggers, readers, event organisers, and crime writers. My experience is not typical. A simple look at the statistics tells us what we already know. Any way you slice it and dice it – diversity of publishing staff, published writers of colour, books featuring characters of colour – the industry is dominated by white thought and enterprise. Some of this can be ascribed to the fact that, in terms of population, BAME communities, by definition, are a minority. You wouldn’t expect there to be a 50:50 split along these dimensions. That isn’t the issue. The problem is the entrenched attitudes that make it so damned difficult for writers of colour to break into the industry and then to enjoy the same rewards and freedom of expression that is accorded to their white counterparts.

The world’s most successful crime writer, James Patterson, became famous with a series about a streetwise black detective, Alex Cross. James Patterson is not black. Nothing wrong with that scenario, in my opinion. Authors should not be constrained by artificial constructions of propriety. But, if the industry is being honest with itself, it will acknowledge that a writer of colour attempting to do something similar – trying, as it were, to write outside of their cultural straightjacket – is rarely accorded the same privilege. Questions of ‘authenticity’, ‘voice’ and ‘cultural appropriation’ suddenly come racing to the fore, like Cinderella’s ugly sisters questioning our right to go to the ball. Asian writers, for instance, are often expected to pen literary tomes about colonialism or exposes of the immigrant experience. Again, nothing wrong with that, and, indeed, brilliant writing is regularly published exploring those themes. But there are so many other stories that we would like to tell. White writers can be published writing about matters far outside their experience – wizards, serial killers, aliens. But for non-white writers, the same consideration is much harder to find. A lot of this is not the result of overt racism, but rather the mindset that accepts as perceived wisdom the idea that profitability comes almost entirely from white authors writing white stories, or writers of colour writing stories suited to their ethnic background. This thought is so prevalent in the industry that it may as well be an eleventh commandment.

A terrific article by Laura B. McGrath, associate director of the Stanford University Literary Lab, in a Jan 2019 issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books, entitled “Comping White” identifies the true nature of the problem. Paraphrasing her research, it goes like this: publishers buy new books by comparing them to books that have been successful. Is this the new Harry Potter? Is this the next Gone Girl? Given that the majority of books are white, the process becomes a closed loop, a vicious cycle. The industry buys and promotes white books because they sell. White books sell because they’re the only books the industry buys and promotes. Do you see the problem?

Making the gatekeepers more diverse, McGrath argues, will have only a marginal impact. It’s the system that’s at fault. The same applies to practically any walk of life that you might care to name – hence the reason so few people of colour in boardrooms, or lecturing at top universities, or opening Michelin-starred restaurants. White people have done all those things successfully before, so why take a chance on the unproven?

Until we change this structural, often unconscious, bias, all the current furore around race will do little to improve the prospects of the average BAME person.

Can readers help? Of course! By voting with their feet. By buying books written by authors of colour, readers signal to publishers that they won’t be put off by a ‘funny-sounding’ name on the cover, or a protagonist who doesn’t share their own cultural background. The only bar should be quality.

In an ideal world, a good story, well told, should stand on its own merits.

What else can we do? In my opinion, people shape people. If we want better, more thoughtful attitudes in the industry, we must all stand up and be counted. Solidarity is the name of the game. A solidarity of thought that acknowledges that a genuine change of perspective is needed. From agent to reader, all along the chain. What we need, in other words, is for all of us to stand up and say: ‘We are Spartacus.’

Vaseem Khan, author, Midnight at Malabar House and Baby Ganesh series

London, June 2020

Parole in Lockdown

Photo by Jayakumar Attoor from FreeImages

It’s a sad fact of life in and after lockdown that everything is a bit rubbish. We have called groups of friends a few times to chat via Zoom. It’s nice to see everyone but the conversation doesn’t flow. You can’t pick up the cues to detect who wants to speak next and if everyone talks at once you can’t hear anything. Zoom quizzes are fun, but, for the same reasons, they lack the banter of a real pub quiz and are therefore focussed and functional. A couple of times we have sat down as a family to watch streamed theatre performances. They were very good but it’s not the same as a night at the theatre and, without the atmosphere of a live performance, you might as well watch a TV drama which has been written for the medium through which it is presented. Things which were once simple are now complicated – you need an appointment to go to the tip for heaven’s sake! And while Peter Crouch: Save Our Summer is quite amusing, it is no substitute for the live international football that the Euros were promising.

On 23rd March 2020, the Parole Board made the decision to postpone all face to face hearings with immediate effect. The decision was inevitable – prisons had closed their gates to visitors and it was no longer possible for members and witnesses to travel the country for hearings. A couple of weeks of frenzied activity followed as cases were reviewed. Some were deferred, some were decided on the papers, others were converted to telephone or video hearings. Since then, I have participated in 20 remote Parole hearings, all conducted by Skype / telephone. So, has the Parole process, like so many other things, become a bit rubbish?

The simple answer to that is, surprisingly, no. Remote technology has been available to the Parole Board since I was appointed ten years ago. A new “Parole Hub” had just been established and its virtues were extolled at my initial training. The idea was that the panel would convene in a suite in London while the prisoner and witnesses would join via video link. It was to be the future. In reality, hub hearings never took off in the way that was hoped. While the Parole Hub has been running continuously, only a few prisons have the necessary technology. Most cases were considered too complex to risk making a decision without seeing the prisoner. Any suggestions of learning difficulties, mental health problems, serious or unusual offending meant that cases were deemed unsuitable to be heard remotely. Despite expressing a willingness to conduct hub hearings, I have only done two in ten years.

All that changed on 23rd March. If we had deferred every “complex” case, we would have a massive backlog by now. Instead, after the initial confusion of the first couple of weeks, the Parole system has adjusted. We are now hearing just as many cases as we would have expected in normal times and the backlog is reducing rather than increasing. Telephone hearings are by no means perfect. Sometimes the line crackles and you have to ask people to repeat themselves. Sometimes participants disappear altogether. In one of my hearings, the chair vanished for 10 minutes but after a few frantic e-mails he was able to re-join. Sometimes witnesses don’t pick up the non-verbal cues that they have answered the question and ramble on for longer than they may otherwise. As a result, remote hearings tend to take slightly longer than face to face hearings.

But there are advantages too. In my experience, telephone hearings start on time – everyone logs on when they are supposed to, no one gets stuck in traffic. From a personal point of view, I can wear what I like, I can get up and stretch, I can drink coffee and eat snacks during the hearing, all without looking unprofessional. Hearings may take a little longer but I don’t have a long drive home afterwards, so they are less tiring. If one of my hearings is cancelled, it is relatively easy to find another one to take its place because I’m no longer restricted by geography – I can pick up a vacancy anywhere in the country. And remote hearings cost the tax payer a lot less in travel expenses and hotel costs. As long as solicitors are able to consult with their clients by telephone prior to hearings, they are able to represent their interests effectively. Several of my remote hearings have involved vulnerable prisoners, with learning difficulties, mental health problems, physical health problems and dementia. Prior to 23rd March, none of these would have been considered for remote hearings but in most cases, despite these challenges, the prisoners were able to participate just as effectively as they would have been in face to face hearings.

The crucial issue, however, is whether the quality of our decisions is affected by our new way of working. That remains to be seen. We will have to wait for the statistics to see whether we are more risk averse and reluctant to release from remote hearings. Time will tell whether serious further offences by prisoners on Parole increase. In theory, the fact that we don’t know what the prisoners we are dealing with look like, may help to reduce unconscious bias and make our decisions fairer. It is very difficult to tell whether someone is lying to you, whether you can see them or not. Not being able to see the “whites of their eyes” is unlikely to make much difference to whether or not we are fooled by prisoners who present themselves well but have made little genuine change to the risk they present.

So remote Parole hearings are probably here to stay. While face to face hearings will return for the most complex and vulnerable prisoners, the majority will continue on the telephone or video link. COVID-19 has forced technological change on the Board in a way that the Parole Hub did not. This may be a good thing or it may not – we will have to wait and see.

Zombie Apocalypse

In post-war cinema, movies became part of political propaganda, especially when the creators did not want to tackle directly on a particular issue.*  The use of metaphors and euphemisms became part of the story telling especially when the creators tried to avoid strong opposition from censors and political groups. This allowed social commentary to be made under the nose of “puritan” critics! Visual semiotics in modern cinema revealed a new reality in social symbolism.   

One of those symbolisms was the living dead, later known as zombies!  Zombies appear on the screens in the late 40s and 50s but predominately appear with the name in the 70s.  The critics show in their representation of apathetic citizens who are not alert to the dangers of communism.  Originally the zombie and the alien body-snatcher became metaphors of the red danger in the US at the time of McCarthyism. The fear of communist expansion was fertile ground to play with public fears.  It became evident that a good citizen in order to avoid zombification has to take up arms and resist the menace.  Inaction is accessory to the crime of overthrowing the social order. 

As the paranoia leading to the red danger subsided, the zombie metaphor began to lose it potency and it become a cult population for those who love watching “B-movies.” In the 80s and 90s, zombie movies became aligned with the impeding doom of the millennium and technological bug that allegedly was coming to wipe out civilisation as we know it.    

In the new century, zombie became a representation of those who succumb to technology and become its blind users.  Generations Y and Z were accused of spending more time than before on game consoles, surfing the web and becoming “couch potatoes.” The gamers who binge on games for days, losing all other engagements with life until the game is completed.  The motionless body of the gamer sitting in the same spot, non-engaging in conversation, was likened to the brainless zombie who slowly moves in space with no volition and conscience. 

More recently, the zombie movie genre promoted the idea of a global medical pandemic, mostly caused by a virus that mutates people and turn them into flesh eating abominations!  The virus breakout of the zombie disease became so convincing that a concerned member of the public back in 2011 asked Leicester City Council about their preparation in case of an invasion. Of course, at the time, cultural sociologists argued how zombies are a representation of “the other” in terms of race, nationality, and of course gender.  Whilst others saw them as a representation of end of days, an eschatological message that bring an end to life as we know it. 

Therefore, in the situation of Covid-19 the contagion of the potent virus that can kill some whilst others carry it without even realising it, brings to the surface the zombie fears Hollywood warn us about.  In a recent survey a third of US believe that the virus was created in a lab, and whilst most people according to WHO acknowledge the seriousness of the pandemic there are those who question its existence. With opinions divided about the causes of covid19, life in 2020 appears to be a prequel to a post-apocalyptic reality.

Back in zombie movies and we are coming out of a lockdown when cities and towns feel deserted like 28 Days Later, people came out with protective masks like in Resident Evil and became frightened of the invisible threat like in every movie in the genre.  Back in 2011, we laughed at the question “how ready are we for a zombie apocalypse?” Maybe if we asked is there a likelihood for a pandemic we could have planned and prepared for now, slightly better.  There are great lessons to be learned here and possibly we can establish that when we are looking at healthcare and services, we cannot do more with less!  Just whatever what you do, do not take lessons from Hollywood!   

Until the next time! 

*At this stage, I would like to apologise to my younger colleague and blog comrade @treventoursu who is far more knowledgeable than myself on movies!

Deniable racism: ‘I’m alright Jack’

‘No coloureds need apply’: a black man reads a racist sign in a UK boarding house window in 1964.
Photograph: Bill Orchard/Rex/Shutterstock

I heard on the news a week or so ago that an investigation by ITV news had found that the majority of NHS Trusts have not completed full risk assessments on BAME staff. Considering that BAME groups are impacted disproportionately by COVID-19 I have to ask why? And, probably more importantly, now that the issue has been raised, what are the government doing to make sure that the risk assessments are carried out? Since I heard about it I’ve seen no response, so I guess I can answer my own question ‘nothing’.

But then maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, I read an article on Racism and the Rule of Law and you can’t but be appalled by the number of recommendations from various inquiries and reviews that have failed to be acted upon.  The problem is that the action requires more than just the eloquently spoken or written word; to put it very bluntly and maybe crudely, ‘put your money where your mouth is’.  It is easy to state that this is wrong or that is wrong in our institutions, the term ‘institutional racism’ trots off the tongue, seized upon by the wronged and more worryingly banded about by the societal racists of the elite who are only too willing to blame someone else.  In thinking about this I wonder whether when we use the term racism, we are all talking the same language. The ‘deniable’ racism is easy to identify, ‘we don’t use that sort of language anymore’, ‘we no longer put those signs in our windows’, we have laws that say you can’t act in that way.  ‘Actually, I’m not a racist’.  But the statistics don’t lie, they can be bent, manipulated to some extent to favour one argument or another but there are some very basic inescapable facts, BAME groups are over represented in the wrong areas of our society and under represented in the right areas.  And most of this I dare say does not owe itself to ‘deniable’ racism, it’s more than that, it’s embedded in our society, it’s not institutional racism, it’s societal racism and it’s hidden.  The problem with societal racism is that we only see the positive attributes of people that are like us and we promote those that excel in showing those attributes. Hence, we have the elite in business and government that are not ‘deniable’ racists but nonetheless are the epitome of, and lead a racist society.

I want to return to the idea of ‘putting your money where your mouth is’ mantra.  They say money makes the world go around, I’m not sure that is entirely true, but it certainly goes a long way to getting things done and conversely the lack of it ensures that nothing happens or in some cases that good things come to an end.  A prime example is the austerity measures put in place in 2010 that saw budgets to government agencies and funding to councils cut significantly.  Those that suffered were the most deprived. Even worse, was the fact that funding for youth projects in inner cities suffered and those initiatives that were aimed at reducing violent crime amongst young people ground to a halt. Policing saw huge cuts and with it the withdrawal of neighbourhood policing.  This link to communities was severed and any good work that was going on was quickly undone.  That doesn’t explain all that is wrong with policing, but it certainly doesn’t help in building bridges. Who in their right mind would embark upon fiscal policies with no regard to such outcomes, our elected government did. If we think now about the so-called return to normality post the Covid-19 pandemic, which caring company or institution would suggest that the most impacted by the virus should continue or return to work, or study, or any other activity, without considering their specific risks and needs? Probably those that have more concern for the bottom line than peoples’ lives. ‘I’m alright Jack’ comes to mind or at least I want to make sure I am.

In thinking about policies, procedures, risk assessments or recommendations, managers have an eye to finance. In the NHS, the day to day business still has to happen, in policing, incidents still need to be attended to, so where is the money to do the extra?  Everything comes at a cost and every recommendation in every review will cost something.  The NHS risk assessments will cost money. The question is whether government and all of us in society really believe that ‘black lives matter’.  If we do, then then it’s time to acknowledge the type of society we live in and who we really are and for government to ‘put the money where its mouth is’ so that the recommendations can be acted on.  Or of course, we could just have another review and ‘Jack’ will do very nicely out of that as well thank you.

The pandemic and me – Paula


Portrait de Dora Maar, Pablo Picasso, 1937

The last time I physically went to work was Thursday 19 March, over 12 weeks ago. Within days, I blogged about the panic and fear that risked overwhelming us all in the light of a pandemic. Some of that entry was based on observation and the media, other parts, my own feelings and emotions.

Prior to the pandemic, I had been the kind of person that felt the need to be at work, often for 10-12 hours a day This was partly to kid myself that there was a clear delineation between the personal and the professional (something, I’ve never managed to achieve since joining academia). Part of it was due to my previous career in retail; when there are customers there must be staff, so there is a necessity to presence. Part of it was tied up with notions of work ethic and fear of missing out, dropping out, losing connection. The regularity of the Monday to Friday (and sometimes, Saturdays for events) commute there and back, the same familiar route, the same familiar timetable, the same familiar faces. Even prosaic matters, like my wardrobe, is primarily designed for my professional life, however, #lockdown life requires something different than formal suit, dresses and court shoes. Similarly, make-up seems out of place, why paint your face or nails, without the rest of the professional apparatus, deemed so necessary to what Goffman (1969/1990) identified as The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

In his play Huis Clos (No Exit) Jean-Paul Sarte famously claimed that ‘Hell is—other people’ (1947/1989: 45). This is often interpreted as if the company of others is hellish, but that is a misreading. Sartre, like Mead (1934) before him recognised the role of the other, in our own understanding of ourselves. In essence, we can only ever see ourselves through the lens of others. In lockdown that lens dissipates or even disappears entirely, even with technology, which although we appreciate as an enabler of communication, I’ve yet to hear anyone say it is a complete replacement for human interaction.

Nevertheless, lockdown has forced us to look again and not only at our wardrobes. Once the panic and the novelty of not going to work, socialising and all the other activities, that are part and parcel of our lived experience passed, a new normality replaced this. Introspection is often missing in twenty-first century life, even among those of us that spend considerable amounts of time, professionally, if not personally, reflecting on what we’ve said, what we’ve done and how we can change, amend and ultimately improve as human beings. It’s also provided space to consider what we can’t wait to get back to, what we’re glad to have a break from and what we are looking for ways to avoid in the future.

For me, part of that introspection has focused on my need to be present at work. After all, in academia there is less pressure to be on campus, particularly on one which has been designed with the future in mind. There is no office, where I need to water plants, (most of) my academic books are here and I also have a work laptop, as well as my own pc. At home, I can have silence, or music while I work. If I am hungry or thirsty I can satisfy those needs. If I am overwhelmed, I can simply walk away for a little while, without explanation. If I am lonely, confused or need advice, I can pick up the phone, message, video call and everything else that technology can offer. My professional life can pretty much continue without too much interruption.

So what happens when things return to normal, should I throw myself back into the same patterns as before? I am hoping the answer is no, that I will do things differently, not least for my own wellbeing. Although I love the look and feel of the campus, I have always struggled with what, criminologists will understand as the panoptic gaze (Foucault, 1977). The sense that wherever you are, the threat of observation is ever present. The panoptic gaze does not differentiate between deviant or pro-social activity, it simply retains its disciplinary function designed to constrain and control For many, it is an open welcoming space, however, as a person who thrives on quietness, on privacy, on spending time away from human contact, it can have the opposite effect. Not all of the time, but at least some of it, I wouldn’t want to abandon campus life completely. The lockdown has shown me that it is possible to have the best of both worlds

References

Foucault, Michel, (1977), Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, tr. from the French by Alan Sheridan, (London: Penguin Books)

Goffman, Erving, (1959/1990), The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, (London: Penguin)

Mead, George Herbert. (1934). Mind, Self and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. (Ed. Charles W. Morris). (Chicago: Chicago University Press)

Sartre, Jean-Paul, (1947/1989), No Exit and Three Other Plays, (New York: Vintage International)

A weekend in London…. It’s not what you think

The weekend just gone has mirrored many weekends we have experienced in lockdown: glorious sunshine, hot temperatures, and longing to spend time with family and friends! However this weekend marked the beginning of an attempt at normalcy for our household, as we spent the weekend in London serving hotdogs, burgers, ice creams and cold drinks to park visitors. Something we have done year on year, summer after summer, weekend after weekend: yet this weekend was remarkably different. Therefore the notion that we can return to normalcy soon, doesn’t seem to be ringing true.

For some context: my partner works in/runs a takeaway kiosk by a park in London. It has been closed during lockdown, but re-opened this weekend. This time last year, there were 3, sometimes 4 members of staff (including myself in the summer and on weekends when an extra pair of hands are required), serving customers and giving directions to residents, visitors and tourists of London. This year, there is my partner and I: in a 4metre kiosk it is not possible to safely maintain a 2metre distance so the other members of staff are left waiting until it is safe and viable for them to come to work. They know this, and are happy with the decision as in times like these, safety should be at the forefront of all decisions.

And the added safety precautions are what makes this weekend so unrecognisable at the little kiosk in London (albeit rightly so). It is and has always been a cash business: cash is quicker to process, easier to return should it be required and safer with regards to checking for counterfeit (no issues of hacking machines or someone using stolen cards). In line with the current climate, the decision was made to try and move to contactless payments in order to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. This in itself was hassle and problematic, but I shall not bore you with those details. Alas the machine is here, and off we go. But it requires a steady 4G signal, which by a park is hit and miss, it also disconnects when it has not been used for periods of 30minutes, which happened frequently over the weekend, and there is a minimum spend in order to make the interest rate/payment of the machine justifiable. It is also slow when customer’s contactless does not work, in which case they have to hold and touch the machine, which then results in us having to clean down the machine after this has happened before we can move on to the next transaction, which is certainly not quicker than cash. And whilst most customers I must say have been patient and understanding, this has resulted in several getting quite verbal at the time it is taking to serve them (we are talking a matter of minutes instead of what used to be seconds with cash).

The differences are not just with the use of card, but also how the hot food is done (my area of expertise). Usually customers could apply their own sauces, but now in order to prevent lots of people touching the various sauces on offer and potentially spreading anything, it is left to me to apply. This has resulted in a whole host of comments relating to being stingy with sauces: ‘I know times are hard but come on’, or ‘I actually want to be able to taste the mustard’. I, personally, like to drown food in sauce, no actually mayo, not that fussed about other sauces. However my partner is the complete opposite, the smallest most pathetic amount of sauce you could imagine: that is what he applies to his food! But it is safer and easier to apply too little and add more than the other way, so I am justified in using a little amount of sauce! It has nothing to do with what the sauce costs! Grrrrrr! Cold drinks used to be placed on the top counter, which customers could take themselves, and then once all their selected items have been placed on top, we would charge them and handle the money. Now at the risk of people touching and then returning the item (which results in us having to clean down the bottle or can, slowing everything down), we are asking for money first: which people apparently are not pleased about. They want to feel how cold the drink is: it has come out of the fridge, which it has been in overnight and business is so slow the drinks are not being re-stocked: so trust me it is cold! (Face hitting emoji!)

All in all, it was a stressful weekend, when the amount of customers we served should not have meant it was stressful. I do not mind change and I appreciate that the changes in place are needed to keep everyone safer, which is fine. But things will be slower, things will be different. The media has pushed at the 15th June to resemble something we recognise as ‘normal’: but I do not think this is the case. ‘Normal’ whatever that really means, will not return and maybe this is not such a bad thing. But I will be grateful when it is safe again for customers to apply their own blooming sauces!

The pandemic and me – Lessons I’ve learnt from the #lockdown

This lockdown has certainly given us time to think and perhaps reflect on a variety of topics and situations. I’ve shared a few thoughts below and I wonder just how many are universal in some way.

I need to ensure I have a structure to my day and week.  I think we all need some sort of structure to our lives and that structure is often given to us by work and perhaps other sociable events such as going to the gym or going to a coffee shop.  It may be that the weekly shopping provides us with an anchor, Saturday may be a shopping day or religion might dictate a visit to a place of worship on a particular day.  At times I’ve found myself getting confused about what day it is, Groundhog Day, I think.  However, for the most part, I think I’ve got it sorted out.  My wife and I discuss our schedule every morning over a cup of coffee.  We have sorted out a routine of work, daily chores, fun bits and exercise.

My willpower is tested but I can be determined.  I have never been a heavy drinker, the occasional binge, yes but then who hasn’t?  It is however, quite easy to slip into the habit of having a glass or two of wine in the evening, every evening and perhaps a gin and tonic or two.  I can’t go anywhere so thinking about having to drive the next day is not an issue. It’s not until you start totting up the consumption that you realise maybe you might have to reign this in.  ‘School nights’ are back again, no drinking in the week.  I make up for it at the weekend though.

I’m not risk adverse, I just like to think I’m logical.  I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist or in fact any scientist to work out that the government (particularly a Conservative government) would not enforce the cessation of most business in the country without a very, very, very good reason.  Stay in has been the mantra and of course we all know how difficult it is and we all know that as usual, the most vulnerable in society have been hit the hardest by this pandemic. Logic dictates, well at least to me, that going out to any store anywhere carries a risk.  Some risks are necessary, for instance a trip to the chemist to pick up a prescription, but a trip to a DIY store, really?  I’m sorry but given the risks, I think it’s a no brainer. Not only do I not want to catch the virus, but I would be distraught if I thought that through my own selfishness I had passed it onto someone else.

I never really thought about all those people that are truly special.  We clap every week for the carers and the NHS and all those involved who are truly remarkable. I do ask myself though, would I want to turn up to work in a supermarket? Would I want to be out delivering parcels or the post? Would I be a NHS volunteer?  Would I be happy working on public transport or emptying dust bins? There are so many people doing ordinary, even mundane jobs and volunteering roles that I now appreciate more than ever.  And I would go far as to say I am humbled by what they do and continue to do despite the risks.

I appreciate the world around me. Not being able to go out and socialise in some way, be that work, or friends or family has provided more time for other activities.  Our walks to the next village and back on roads devoid of most traffic has revealed an astonishing array of wildlife to be gazed upon and appreciated.   That is of course if you’re not gasping for breath following a walk up a steep hill (well I call it steep but in a car its barely noticeable).

Some things don’t change.  I’ve also noticed the gate to the footpath across the fields near our house has gone. A heavy wooden gate which, apparently has been stolen.  On our walks we have noticed the increased number of cyclists whizzing along the road.  Most give a wide birth, but some don’t seem to have a care for others, one nearly colliding with us as he flew around the corner. It seems with the reduction of cars; the idiotic driver has now given way to the idiotic cyclist.

What will a ‘new normal’ look like.  At some stage we will get back to normal but its difficult to contemplate when that will be and what it will look like.  Maybe getting back to the old normal is not what is needed.  I’m trying to envisage how I will make changes in consideration of what I have learnt during this lockdown.  What changes will you make? 

Navigating your mental health whilst studying at university during a worldwide health pandemic

Image rights: Polly Vadasz; https://www.sighh.co/

Nearly a month has passed since I told @paulaabowles that I would be writing another blog post, one that would act as a continuance of the last, thus a part 2 of ‘Navigating Mental Health at University’, I can’t deny it has been frustrating that I haven’t allowed myself the time to write this post because although it helps me in some small way to share and create, my goal is to help anyone else who may be struggling with similar issues. Hopefully there will be some helpful information in this blog post that will inform and guide you on how to take control of any mental health issues you may be dealing with right now, and so I truly hope that you enjoy the blog and that it may help you in some small way. Thus, I present…

Navigating your mental health whilst studying at university during a worldwide health pandemic’

I hope to make you feel at ease with your mind by knowing that you are not alone in how you feel, it is then, that you may be able to realise that ‘well if it works for her then maybe it will work for me’, and when you get to that realisation it is important to thank yourself because you are allowing your mind and body to try something that may ease that strain on your mental health.

Firstly, I want to begin by discussing what has happened to me during these past two months and how I have handled the issues that have faced me during this extremely difficult time. If you have read my other post ‘Navigating Mental Health at University’ then you will have a little insight into my story of which I’d like to start with the topic of the Anti-Depressants that I have been taking since Christmas time.

(Please note that the following is not recommended and please take advice from your GP)

Just three weeks ago I decided that I finally felt so uncomfortable with the pills that I decided to stop taking the Fluoxetine (20mg – a relatively low dosage), I never felt that I truly needed them despite my PTSD, Anxiety and Depression but I gave them a go because I felt that it was the push in the right direction of allowing my mind to heal. I can’t deny that I feel they certainly have had a positive effect on me, especially when dark moment’s come to pass, throughout my life I have regularly had moments where I would completely give up and felt that absolutely nothing could be done to feel better (these were usually my very lowest moments of thoughts of suicide) and these have haunted me ever since I was little, but now they come and they pass within seconds. If you’re wondering how it is possible that now I react completely different then I would say that it comes down to varying factors such as maturation and life events but one key difference that I do now is I try to remain as present in the moment as possible and when that thought passes through my mind I don’t let it consume me, instead I question it and once I’m finished detangling that thought I actually speak to myself via my internal dialogue, I’d say something like ‘thanks for your input’, ‘I appreciate your emotions but suicide is not the right response’, by physically or mentally responding in such a way you are actually training your mind to disperse those negative thoughts and allowing them to pass through you, whilst you are simultaneously acknowledging and digesting how you feel then you work through why you feel that way and then you let it go. So maybe my responses have changed because the Fluoxetine raised my serotonin levels enough to be able to respond differently, but I feel that is naive to put down such a great feat to only a tablet, Instead I’m giving myself a little pat on the back because it’s the fact that I choose to be conscious and aware in that moment that allows the change in mindset and these are the very small difference’s you can make to take that step in the right direction of healing your pain.

The physical-mental space connection

One thing that works greatly for me is keeping my space tidy, fresh and full of houseplants I own around 70 plants because I am fortunate enough to have the space however all you need to do is own just one and allow yourself a few minutes every couple of days to take care of it because it is during this time that you allow moments of calmness and mindfulness whilst proving to yourself that you can have the responsibility to take care of a living thing which will in turn allow you to realise that you have the ability to take care of yourself. However please don’t limit yourself to a houseplant! Maybe take a moment right now to consider what has been lacking your attention recently? Does the bathroom need a good scrub? or is there a huge pile of clothes that need to be sorted? Well start small and work your way up, allow yourself the time to clear and take care of your space because it will truly work wonders on raising your low mood but remind yourself to aim for done not for perfect! For me I spend a great deal of time on developing and bettering my physical space although it certainly feels like an urban jungle I cannot deny that the positive effects are numerous, I walk into my study room and I smile because I have filled that room with things I love, books and paintings and personal trinkets and by doing this It makes me want to stay in that space and study! I don’t force it; I just wonder into that room and feel so comfortable that I don’t want to leave!

TIP: Must of us students don’t have a great deal of money (I certainly do not), and if you want to add something new to your bedroom or home on a budget whilst a lot of shops are closed look to places like Facebook Marketplace or try to shop at local and independent business such as found on Depop and Etsy! However, if you are decluttering your space, then use your social media outlets to sell your items or even to pass them along to someone who may use them!

And on that note…

Declutter your mental space


And let me tell you why… When your mind is constantly filled with information, things to do, people to message, essays to write, what to cook for dinner … if your mind is consistently focusing on these little (granted important) tasks then you are not allowing yourself to be totally present and totally focused on the task at hand, even if the task is watching Netflix then you are not allowing yourself to truly relax because you are concerning your mind with so many other things. De-cluttering your mind applies to when you are suffering from anxiety and depression too, for me when I have a particularly negative thought pass through my mind or maybe where it’s one of those days that I cannot help but to think negatively of myself, I use the tools I’ve learnt such as being present and focused on this moment that I am in and this moment that I feel right now which essentially grounds you in that moment, combined with watching my breath I allow myself to think the thoughts (you know, the nasty negative ones) and then I imagine a windscreen wiper just wiping them out of my mind… and it really is those small moments that once you’ve tackled them, leads to much bigger and much more positive changes in your mental health overall. Don’t deny your emotions and certainly don’t bury them but allow yourself to fully immerse in the emotions and those thoughts that weigh you down and then just let them go.

TIP: Another way to declutter your mind is to simply write down all of your thoughts, whether it’s a to do list or perhaps just lots of thoughts running around your mind, then just write them down, as it is the act of taking them from your mind and putting them onto paper that will allow you to work on them because your mental space is free.

So, what about my studies?

In all 8 weeks of lockdown do you know I have spent barely a handful of those days studying and yet I don’t feel guilty for it, I did feel bit guilty at first and I was beating myself up a-bit because I was adamant that I would be a failure if I didn’t study. So I kept in mind that I was capable of putting more effort into my studies, and for the past few weeks I stopped feeling guilty and I stopped putting pressure on myself, If I had a good idea for an essay that is due then I’d jot the idea down and stick it on the wall or if I had a tiny bit of admin to do I’d space it throughout a couple of days or do a power hour. Overall I have stopped forcing myself to study and I’ve stopped guilt tripping myself because it only creates negativity and negative thoughts that make us feel even worse, it is these bad habits that feed our mental health issues and it is these habits that need to stop.

So I am in my second year right now and I still have 4 essays and 1 exam to complete, I pressured myself so much into believing that I could complete them for their primary due dates but those dates have passed, so for a while I stayed in a kind of limbo state on how to tackle these outstanding assessments but we are fortunate enough to have the freedom to rely on the no detriment policy which personally for me has been undeniably helpful and so I am choosing to take the time I need and remember that not only am I trying to complete assignments but also focus on my mental health, take care of my home and myself and partner, maintain my friendships, support my grandparents, but that I am doing this during a time where the present and the future doesn’t make sense and offers a whole new world of difficulties to overcome. So next time when you are internally beating yourself up for not reading that extra journal article please go easy on yourself, take a breath and return back to studying when you feel mentally able to, it is then that you will produce great work!

How to approach studying?

If you’re like me and have spent maybe a handful of days studying in the past 8 weeks, or maybe none or maybe everyday but feel like you’re stuck in a rut… then don’t ignore how your feel, What I would recommend when you feel like this is to jot down every single thing that you feel needs to be completed, by doing this you are simply transferring all of that information out of your mind and onto paper which frees up your mental space!

In addition to my personal take on how to tackle your mental health I’ve asked a couple of fellow students to share their own take on how they are handling their health during the lockdown and to provide you with a little comfort knowing you are not alone in how you feel…

…“So as you know, my mental health those last few weeks at uni was really bad. Luckily, I managed to get my transfer for work, and I moved back home literally a day before the government announced the lockdown. I believed my mental health was so low because I was lonely, as soppy as that may sound, but the second I stepped through that front door to that new house my parents had bought back in December, in which I had no time to decorate my bedroom (lol), I instantly felt better somehow.

Just being at home, with my parents and my partner, somehow was the one thing that made me feel better about myself and this situation.

I’ve been keeping busy during the lockdown, doing uni assignments and prepping for ‘exams’. I’ve been cleaning and decorating, baking and playing games. I’ve brought a car to finish my driving lessons, so that was a big exciting thing for me the past week. I’m also a key worker, so going to work to support people that can’t do so for themselves really gives you a sense of perspective. In all honesty with you, I haven’t been worried about this pandemic. I have simply been doing want I want to do, when I want to, to the terms of the lockdown of course. I haven’t let uni stress me out, I’ve kept it slow and steady. The closest I’ve come to worried about this pandemic is when my mum told me her workplace, a care home, has had an outbreak of covid-19 and they are thinking of a strategy to deal with it. But like I said, other than that, I’ve actually been great”

“I am finding the current situation with COVID-19 rather difficult as I would usually have a routine and structure for a few weeks so I can plan out my schedule whilst also fitting in things that are non-university related. I know I need to crack on and get my work done however, at the moment I am feeling lethargic and lacking motivation on almost a daily basis which is difficult for me to swallow due to my usual motivated and positive attitude. Waking up and knowing every day is the same is my current biggest struggle. At the moment I am lacking the energy to do some revision for my upcoming exams, even though I have longer to do the exam and its open book I still want to have a good level of understanding for when the questions are released. I have written 2 essays since being in lockdown and I have managed to write these to reasonable standard as they were timed assessments it seemed to provoke the urgency within me that is obviously lacking in other areas. As this situation is unprecedented, I do not know whether the amount of preparation I am doing now is too little or too much which fills me with a touch of anxiety as I am usually comfortable in my normal routine. I would say my overall feeling is seeing that that there is an amazing opportunity to get some great exam results but alongside this is definitely a feeling of anxiety and an overwhelming lack of motivation.”

“I haven’t given much thought into my mental health throughout my later teen years onwards, however, during this recent pandemic it has given me time to really reflect on how (what I guess people call) my mental health is and how I cope with it. I have come to the terms that I am a hypochondriac (constantly worrying about every little thing and making situations 10x worse I’m my head). Therefore, during my studies, I become quite conflicted. I have recently taken a lot of time off from revision and TCAs, by reading or watching Netflix, totally ignoring the fact that I have work to do, so now exams have become almost a week away, the huge wave of stress has come over me that I have done little to no preparation for the past 3 weeks. Therefore, I go into a state to complete adrenaline, doing work throughout all hours of the day while constantly battling with myself that I should have done this sooner.

However, as I stated, during this lockdown, I have had time to reflect on my mental well-being. As before I saw having days off or even the odd few hours as a failure, I now see it as a necessity to be able to switch my brain off and find some calming relief within this crazy world. Being able to engage in things I enjoy and make me happy to bring my stress levels down and relax for a while.”

“I find it very difficult, to say the least. It is very hard to stay disciplined and focus on revising/getting any university work done, because I’ve always struggled with creating a routine for myself. I think it’s not even the fact that you kind of have to figure everything out on your own at home, it’s more the mental state that keeps putting me off. I’ve been dealing with a lot of anxiety because of everything that has happened since the pandemic, e.g. losing my job. For the first work or two i could not get myself to do anything because depression was creeping around the corner. its not easy. I think what has helped me to get out of that mindset is trying my best to find positives rather than negatives. I’ve been doing things i normally don’t have the time to do, things that make my soul happy – reading greats books, painting. In terms of doing my university work – I’m sure everyone is struggling right now, and the main thing is to understand that its normal. I’ve stopped beating myself up if I don’t feel like I’m able to do the work, instead I plan a different time to do it, so it helps me prepare for it mentally. I think it is very, very difficult at the moment, because there is so much going on around, but it’s very important to take care of yourself, physically and mentally. Understanding that life does go on and this will come to an end, therefore not letting yourself drift off. it’s important to remind yourself of your goals. Doing at least one thing everyday that makes you happy, for example buying lots and lots of plants! it is hard and I think all I was trying to say is – it’s okay not to be okay. and celebrating every little thing is key!!”

“The way I have been handling it is basically watching a load of Criminal Minds and Waterloo Road. I also think being in my accommodation has helped a lot, like I’m still with friends so I can have my “me time” but also go and hang out essentially. I feel like my mental health is fine like I’m still the same, I don’t feel depressed at all or anything like that. Pretty lucky I guess but the only thing is i miss my family, like I would go home but with my mum being terminally ill I don’t want to risk it until things are better. But overall, I feel pretty good, I’m doing things that I actually want to do such as binge watching and not worry as much. I’m in my own little bubble, I’m doing what I want and I’m happy with that even if I can’t do outdoor things”

Helpful Contacts

If you have been affected by any of the issues I have discussed during this blog post and your struggling to manage or cope with these issues then you can also use any of the following services;

Other helpful support (local and national)

https://www.mind.org.uk/

http://thelowdown.info/

https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/

Technology and Learning: A baby and the bathwater moment

I recently shared some thoughts about the problems with technology and working from home. I suppose the nub of the matter was twofold firstly, if I have problems with technology, why would this not also impact some of my colleagues and students, thus limiting what can be delivered online. Secondly, whatever is delivered online does not suit everyone and whilst as educators we need to adapt to circumstances and new ways of working, we should be cognisant that simply imposing the new ways on students does not always suit what they want or more importantly, what they need. If we acknowledge that everyone learns in different ways at different times, then a one size fits all approach is not delivering anything like a premium learning environment.

In writing my previous blog, I also started to think about how difficult it is to be motivated whilst working from home and how my experiences have at least partially prepared me for this. I say partially because past experiences did not encompass being in lockdown.

When I was 15, I returned from overseas and went to the local college to study for my ‘O’ levels (GCSE now) rather than a school. It was far more relaxed in respect of attending classes. This was a time when at 16 people could leave school, so the college was full of students who were 16 and essentially independent from the school regime. I turned 16 whilst at college.  I remember not going to every class, sometimes perhaps because I preferred to spend time playing football in the sunshine and at other times because there was some casual work somewhere that would earn me a bit of money. There were no distractions such as computers and mobile phones so actually attending college was in the main better than being bored outside of it. That was one incentive to engage in my education, I had others such as friends being at college but probably above all I recognised I needed some qualifications. I think my parents might also have been a little peeved if I’d not done anything.  I had a structure to my life and a major part of it was getting up in the morning and attending college on my bicycle; rain or shine, for the most part I was there. 

At an early point in my policing career, I decided I would like to take the promotion exam to sergeant.  An annual exam which incorporated, as I recall, three two-hour papers, one relating to crime, one traffic and one general police duties.  An awful lot of legislation and procedure was to be tested and all of it could be found in the regularly updated promotion manual. A tome, if ever there was one, divided into various sections that covered everything a would-be sergeant needed to know and in addition, legislation for the inspector’s exam.  Years went by with well intentioned attempts to study, followed by a lack of action.  I just couldn’t get my head round how to do this, despite trying to answer the questions in the promotion section of the Police Review magazine.

I can’t remember exactly when it was but there was an announcement that the promotion process was to change, the exam which gave you a ticket to a promotion board, was to be replaced with an assessment centre.  This new way involved not only an exam, but scenario based assessments.  That year I decided I really needed to pass the promotion exam to avoid the new process, so I purchased access to a correspondence course. It wasn’t cheap, and it was before computers as we know them.  I received a plethora of books each divided up into various chapters and each requiring me to answer questions that were then sent by mail to someone to mark and provide feedback.  What this required was organisation and commitment. I was lucky, I was working in a very disciplined job, organisation and commitment were to some extent, if I set my mind to it, second nature. And two added incentives, an easier passage to promotion as I saw it, and I’d paid out a lot of money that I wasn’t going to waste.  That year I passed the sergeants and the inspector’s exam, two in the bank although it was still some time before I was promoted.

When I embarked on my degree, I had to apply the same self-discipline.  Despite it being part-time, attendance for lectures and seminars was difficult, there was no way I could attend everything whilst doing shift work, but I tried my best. I even had to take time out because I was involved in a major investigation that took me away from home for 6 months. By this time, I had a very young family, so every assignment was a challenge to complete and there was no online Google access to papers and blogs and the like. It was library based work, sometimes the university library, other times local libraries and often late nights in the office at work.  What it needed was self-discipline, commitment and a structure to each day, well as best as possible given the demands of shift work, major enquiries and long working hours. Every time I faltered I reminded myself that I’d done a lot of work, put a lot into this and I wasn’t about to throw all of that away.

When I embarked on my Ph.D. my commitment and self-discipline was sorely tested at times.  Tragedy and life altering events pushed me to the limits, but I managed to maintain that commitment and self-discipline, sometimes aided by others at work who tried to make things a little easier. The office at work provided space for both my day job and my Ph.D. The two morphing into one at times.

Why tell you all of this, well its simply this. I ask myself what makes a student engage in their course and more importantly, what inhibits them? Firstly, they need self-discipline.  When I went to college, there were a number of things that ensured I would turn up; my parents wouldn’t have countenanced my staying in bed or around the house all day; day time telly was rubbish (only three channels) and there wasn’t an awful lot else to do.  My friends were either at school, at college or working and there were no mobile phones, so contact was either at college or in the evenings and weekends.  Learning could only be done at college, no recorded lectures or Collaborate or e-books. I also recognised I needed qualifications to get on in life.

When I embarked on my promotion exams I recognised the need to have a structure to my learning.  This was partly provided by the correspondence course and the way it was set up and partly provided by discipline I learnt in my work. It did though need a structure provided by the course and an incentive to do it at that moment in time.

My degree also needed self-discipline, nobody chased me to turn up and nobody chased me for assignments. Not being there, meant missing out on discussions and learning from other students, not just the lecturers.  I’d paid for this as well so another incentive to succeed, this was not some loan to be possibly paid in the future, this was real money, my money up front. And the more I did the more determined I became that I wasn’t going to waste my efforts.

Anyone will tell you that a Ph.D. is challenging and that for the most part, the achievement is not about knowledge or brilliance but about gritted determination to complete it.  That determination requires self-discipline and that self-discipline for me was aided by tagging the Ph.D. onto my job. My office at work was my sanctuary, it was easier to stop working on one thing and then seamlessly move onto writing up the Ph.D.  I had a structure to my studying and my work.

So, I begin to wonder, do recorded lectures, Collaborate, ebooks, the internet, social media and a plethora of other advances really help students? Why get up in the morning to attend lectures if you can watch a recorded version of it later, ‘a must get round to it moment’? Why bother to go to the library when you can Google stuff and read, well at least skim’ e-books? Why bother with classes when you can chat with your mates and so called ‘friends’ on Facebook or the plethora of other social media apps.  There is no financial incentive when the payment for the course is made on your behalf and whilst you have a massive debt on paper, the reality is that you will never pay it back (If you don’t believe me, have a look at the Martin Lewis website).  There are no parents to get you up in the morning or to scorn your lethargy, at worst any failure will be chided sometime in the misty future.  All that students can rely on is self-discipline and their own belief in commitment. A hard ask when you don’t have all the anchors you had at school and college. I was lucky, I grew up in an era of much fewer distractions.  I was employed in a job that required a high degree of disciple, so self-discipline was much easier. I was also a mature student so could call on a vast amount of experience.

I’ll leave you with a thought.  The year 1840 saw the introduction of the first stamp, the Penny Black.  Despite the advent of emails, texts and the internet, nearly two hundred years later, Royal Mail are still delivering letters and packages.  Whilst you can get your bank statements online, you can still have paper copies. Whilst you can read books on Kindle and other contraptions, book stores still exist, and hard copy books are still sold by the millions.  Whilst, music can now be delivered in so many different electronic formats, there is still a clamour for vinyl records.  Whilst films are available at home in so many different ways, people still go to see films at the cinema.

Technology is wonderful and is a great enabler in so many ways. That doesn’t give us licence though to ignore the value of what by some may be seen as ‘old fashioned, stick in the mud’ structures, processes and transactions. Sometimes things are the way they are for a reason, change them and there are at times problematic unintended consequences. Making changes through the use of technology and ignoring tried and trusted methods might actually be akin to ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater’.

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