Thoughts from the criminology team

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Thinking “outside the box”

@alisonhodson3

Having recently done a session on criminal records with @paulaabowles to a group of voluntary, 3rd sector and other practitioners I started thinking of the wider implications of taking knowledge out of the traditional classroom and introducing it to an audience, that is not necessarily academic.  When we prepare for class the usual concern is the levelness of the material used and the way we pitch the information.  In anything we do as part of consultancy or outside of the standard educational framework we have a different challenge.  That of presenting information that corresponds to expertise in a language and tone that is neither exclusive nor condescending to the participants. 

In the designing stages we considered the information we had to include, and the session started by introducing criminology.  Audience participation was encouraged, and group discussion became a tool to promote the flow of information.  Once that process started and people became more able to exchange information then we started moving from information to knowledge exchange.  This is a more profound interaction that allows the audience to engage with information that they may not be familiar with and it is designed to achieve one of the prime quests of any social science, to challenge established views. 

The process itself indicates the level of skill involved in academic reasoning and the complexity associated with presenting people with new knowledge in an understandable form.  It is that apparent simplicity that allows participants to scaffold their understanding, taking different elements from the same content.  It is easy to say to any audience for example that “every person has an opinion on crime” however to be able to accept this statement indicates a level of proficiency on receiving views of the other and then accommodating it to your own understanding.  This is the basis of the philosophy of knowledge, and it happens to all engaged in academia whatever level, albeit consciously or unconsciously.

As per usual the session overran, testament that people do have opinions on crime and how society should respond to them. The intriguing part of this session was the ability of participants to negotiate different roles and identities, whilst offering an explanation or interpretation of a situation.  When this was pointed out they were surprised by the level of knowledge they possessed and its complexity.  The role of the academic is not simply to advance knowledge, which is clearly expected, but also to take subjects and contextualise them.  In recent weeks, colleagues from our University, were able to discuss issues relating to health, psychology, work, human rights and consumer rights to national and local media, informing the public on the issues concerned. 

This is what got me thinking about our role in society more generally.  We are not merely providing education for adults who wish to acquire knowledge and become part of the professional classes, but we are also engaging in a continuous dialogue with our local community, sharing knowledge beyond the classroom and expanding education beyond the campus.  These are reasons which make a University, as an institution, an invaluable link to society that governments need to nurture and support.  The success of the University is not in the students within but also on the reach it has to the people around.

At the end of the session we talked about a number of campaigns to help ex-offenders to get forward with work and education by “banning the box”.  This was a fitting end to a session where we all thought “outside the box”. 

The Bride of Frankenstein

The classic novel by Mary Shelley back in the early 19th century was an apocalyptic piece of work that imagined the future in a world where technology appeared to be a marvel that professes to make everyday people into gods.  The creation of a man by a man (deliberately gendered) in accordance to his wishes, and morals.  The metaphysical constraints of the soul seemingly absent, until all comes to head.  This was dystopic, but at the same time philosophical, of the future of humanity.    

In the 20th century John B. Watson believed that he could shape the behaviour of anyone, mostly children in any possible way.  Some of his ideas even made it into popular psychology where he offered advice to parents of how to raise their children.  Although no monster is mentioned, there is still the view that a man can shape a child in whatever way he chooses.  A creationist and most importantly, arrogant view of the world.

Decades later Robert Martinson, a sociologist will look at all these wonderful and great programmes designed to challenge behaviours and change people, so they can rehabilitate leaving criminality behind.  He found the results to be disappointing.  In the meantime, child psychologists could not achieve this leap that Watson seem to think they could make in changing people. 

In the 21st century we began to realise at a discipline level that forcing change upon people is rather impossible.  How about a man creating a man?  Can you develop a new human that will be developed espousing the creator’s desired attributes and thus become a model citizen?  In recent years we have been talking about designer babies, gene harvesting and genetic modification.  Such a surprising concept considering the Lebensborn experience during the Nazi regime.  That super-man concept was shattered in thousands little pieces, and for many relegated to history books.  Therefore, designer babies are such a cautionary tale. 

As a society we are still curious on what can technology can achieve, how far can we go and what can we develop.  Still in science there are seeds of creationism proposing ideas of that we can develop; a world of people without illness, disorder and deviance.  Pure, healthy and potentially exceptional individuals who may be physiologically right but sadly devoid of humanity.  Why devoid?  Because what makes a person?  Our imperfections, deviances and foibles.  These add to, rather than substract from, our uniqueness and individuality. 

In a recent twitter discussion one of my colleagues engaged in a discussion about the repatriation of one of those women called “Isis brides”.  The colleague posed the question, why not allow her to return, only to receive in response, because these are no humans.  As I read it I thought, well this is a new interpretation of the monster.  A 21st century monster that we can chase out of the proverbial village with torches because its alive and it shouldn’t be.  We can wish for people to be good to us, open armed and happy all the time, but that is not necessarily how it is.  We know that this is the case and of course we want to be reminded of our humanity, not for the positives but for the negatives.  Not what we can be but what the others are not.  So, we can always be the villagers and never the monster.   

Mary Shelley (1888) Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, London, George Routledge and Sons.  

Student support

JR blog

I recently read Melanie Reynolds’s article in The Guardian ‘Working-class lecturers should come out of the closet,’ and it resonated with me. I was the first generation in my family to go to university and it was difficult. I grew up in a poor socio-economic position, received government allowances, there was a stigma to this, and unspoken expectation that you kept this hidden. When I turned 18 I moved out of home and went to university, from the start I was supporting myself. I worked in a pizza shop, a convenience store, a sandwich shop, and a call centre. I lived pay day to pay day. Starting university felt like learning a new language to me, it was a shock.

I remember one of my first assignments I handed in. I had to print it on lined foolscap paper because I didn’t have any printer paper and I couldn’t afford to buy any. It is all well and good to tell a student to be prepared – trust me I would’ve been if I had the money. This meant I couldn’t afford to print at university either (before the days of online submission!). But I also didn’t know how to print at the university at that stage and I didn’t want to let on to anyone that I didn’t know how, I already felt like I stood out. It seemed that everyone around me had this innate understanding of how everything worked. It seemed like a simple thing, but it was hard to ask for help.

Another time I lost my student card on the train and when I got on the bus to go to university the bus driver asked for it. He stayed at the stop while I literally went through every compartment in my bag looking for it, with everyone watching it just brought feelings of shame. I had to pay an adult fare in addition to the three-zone student fare I had already paid, and those couple of dollars extra made a big difference to me, considering I knew I would also need to replace my student card.

I didn’t feel like I belonged, I didn’t know anyone at university, I didn’t know what services were available, even if I did I would have felt like I was wasting their time – taking away time for ‘real’ students. It was difficult to watch other students be involved in activities and wonder how they found the time and the money. Being in law school made me feel like I didn’t dress right, didn’t talk properly, that I was not connected to the legal profession because no one in my family was a lawyer or judge, I was an impostor. It was very isolating.

What can I say to help – it will get better? That you’ll get over the feelings of impostor syndrome? It does get a little better, for me it took time, realising that I was not alone in these feelings, that many students had the same questions, and to build the confidence to speak up. There was a lot of pressure to succeed and this is something you need to manage.

I try to be open about my experiences with my students so that they may feel more comfortable approaching me with their issues. To me there are no stupid questions. One of my most disliked words is ‘just’ – ‘well you just do this’ the expectation that you’ll ‘just’ know. I don’t expect my students to ‘just’ know. When I ask students to tell me when they are having difficulties I truly mean it. This is my job and it is the university’s job to support you. Starting university can be overwhelming. So, remember students ALWAYS ask me for help, email, phone or in-person.

What can we do as educators? Universities and their staff need to be pro-active in connecting with students and providing assistance – not ‘do you need help?’ but ‘what can I do to help?’ We need to seek to bridge the gap and bring equity to our students, not just equality.

For all students there are support services available to you at the University of Northampton, please take advantage of them.

Jessica Ritchie

(Very soon to be) Lecturer in Criminology

 

 

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