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Christmas was a rather sombre time in our household this year, my step dad died a few days before. It wasn’t a surprise, he had been ill for some time, but it still felt like a huge shock. Unlike the time when my dad died, some 12 years ago now, I didn’t have to deal with the all of the aftermath, my step brother did that and as a consequence, I was left with time to think and reflect. The death of someone, particularly as we get older, reminds us of our own mortality. Phrases such as ‘time marches on’ simply remind us of the inevitable fact that our time is finite, unlike time itself, I’m not sure Stephen Hawking would agree with this (see below). The hard part about someone dying is that they cannot give you any more of their time, just as you cannot give them any of yours. It is this use of time that I want to reflect on using an eclectic mix of what may seem random ideas.
Coincidentally, I was given a book at Christmas authored by Stephen Hawking. Most of you will be aware that he wrote A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (Hawking, 1995) and his latest book Brief Answers to the Big Questions (Hawking 2018) revisits some of the ideas. I confess, I do not really understand some of the things he discusses although I do get the general idea. While reading, I started to think about how I would gain a better understanding of some of his key concepts. I decided two things were needed, time and effort. So, the question for me was, simply this, do I want to spend time and effort in gaining this understanding? On reflection, it became rapidly apparent that to understand quantum physics, for example, I would need to start with some basics around mathematics and physics. I think, given enough time and effort, I would be able to crack it. But I must acknowledge that given other priorities, I simply do not have enough time to embark on this endeavour. Consequently, I have to read, somewhat uncritically, Stephen’s ideas and accept them on face value. This is not something that sits comfortably with me because I have always been a ‘I get it, but… person’. I still want to know what was before the ‘big bang’, although Hawking (2018) says this is a pointless question.
Some time ago a colleague complimented another colleague’s writing. It cannot be coincidence that the author of the eloquent piece has over many years, spent an inordinate amount of time reading academic literature. So, time and effort spent doing something seems to produce rewards.
Whilst talking to another colleague, I described how I was renovating a house, much of the work I was doing myself. How did I know how to do all of this, he asked? On reflection, it is through experience which, equates to time and effort put into finding out how to do things and then doing them. That’s not to say that I can plumb a bathroom as quickly as a plumber or do the tiling in the same time as a professional tiler, or lay a floor as quick as someone that does it every day. I have to spend more time thinking about what I want to do and thinking about how I’m going to do it. I have to read and reread the instructions and research how to do certain things. The more I practice, the better I get, the less effort required and perhaps the less time needed. My dad always told me that a half a job is a double job, in other words, do it properly in the first place. The example of my colleague being able to write eloquently, suggests that time spent doing something might also produce better results as well as saving time and effort in the long run.
And so, I reflect on my time, which is finite, and marches on. My time is valuable, just as your time is valuable. I need to use my time wisely, so too should you. Giving people my time requires effort but as recent experience has demonstrated those that are close will not always be around to share time. Time and effort are required to achieve our goals, the more time we spend on something, accompanied by the requisite effort, the more likely we are to achieve what we want. Some things will take more time and effort but there is little that cannot be achieved. ‘Be brave, be curious, be determined, overcome the odds. It can be done’ (Hawking, 2018: 22).
Hawking, S. (1995) A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, London: Bantam Books.
Hawking, S. (2018) Brief Answers to the Big Questions, London: John Murray.
Now that the year is almost over, it’s time to reflect on what’s gone before; the personal, the academic, the national and the global. This year, much like every other, has had its peaks and its troughs. The move to a new campus has offered an opportunity to consider education and research in new ways. Certainly, it has promoted dialogue in academic endeavour and holds out the interesting prospect of cross pollination and interdisciplinarity.
On a personal level, 2018 finally saw the submission of my doctoral thesis. Entitled ‘The Anti-Thesis of Criminological Research: The case of the criminal ex-servicemen,’ I will have my chance to defend this work, so still plenty of work to do.
For the Criminology team, we have greeted a new member; Jessica Ritchie (@academictraveller) and congratulated the newly capped Dr Susie Atherton (@teachingcriminology). Along the way there may have been plenty of challenges, but also many opportunities to embrace and advance individual and team work. In September 2018 we greeted a bumper crop of new apprentice criminologists and welcomed back many familiar faces. The year also saw Criminology’s 18th birthday and our first inaugural “Big Criminology Reunion”. The chance to catch up with graduates was fantastic and we look forward to making this a regular event. Likewise, the fabulous blog entries written by graduates under the banner of “Look who’s 18” reminded us all (if we ever had any doubt) of why we do what we do.
Nationally, we marked the centenaries of the end of WWI and the passing of legislation which allowed some women the right to vote. This included the unveiling of two Suffragette statues; Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst. The country also remembered the murder of Stephen Lawrence 25 years earlier and saw the first arrests in relation to the Hillsborough disaster, All of which offer an opportunity to reflect on the behaviour of the police, the media and the State in the debacles which followed. These events have shaped and continue to shape the world in which we live and momentarily offered a much-needed distraction from more contemporaneous news.
For the UK, 2018 saw the start of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, the Windrush scandal, the continuing rise of the food bank, the closure of refuges, the iniquity of Universal Credit and an increase in homelessness, symptoms of the ideological programmes of “austerity” and maintaining a “hostile environment“. All this against a backdrop of the mystery (or should that be mayhem) of Brexit which continues to rumble on. It looks likely that the concept of institutional violence will continue to offer criminologists a theoretical lens to understand the twenty-first century (cf. Curtin and Litke, 1999, Cooper and Whyte, 2018).
Internationally, we have seen no let-up in global conflict, the situation in Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar, Syria, Yemen (to name but a few) remains fraught with violence. Concerns around the governments of many European countries, China, North Korea and USA heighten fears and the world seems an incredibly dangerous place. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad offers an antidote to such fears and recognises the powerful work that can be undertaken in the name of peace. Likewise the deaths of Professor Stephen Hawking and Harry Leslie Smith, both staunch advocates for the NHS, remind us that individuals can speak out, can make a difference.
To my friends, family, colleagues and students, I raise a glass to the end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019:
‘Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear’ (Lennon and Ono, 1974).
Cooper, Vickie and Whyte, David, (2018), ‘Grenfell, Austerity and Institutional Violence,’ Sociological Research Online, 00, 0: 1-10
Curtin, Deane and Litke, Robert, (1999) (Eds), Institutional Violence, (Amsterdam: Rodopi)
Lennon, John and Ono, Yoko, (1974) Happy Xmas (War is Over), [CD], Recorded by John and Yoko: Plastic Ono Band in Shaved Fish. PCS 7173, [s.l.], Apple
On March 14th 2018, Professor Stephen Hawking died at the age of 76. For many people, his life was as much about his long battle with motor neurone disease as it was about his achievements as a theoretical physicist. The first thing I saw when clicking on news sites was this quote:
‘Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up’.
To me, this reflects the value he placed on the pursuit of knowledge, to see this as an opportunity, not a burden and to strive to make sense of it all. For him, it was the universe, the vast expanse of stars and galaxies to be understood in ways I could not even being to fathom. For those studying social sciences, our world is not out there beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, but it is a world we must also seek to understand and, as lecturers and students to communicate this understanding to others. There is a lot of concern in HE as to how to engage students, to consider what we can do to keep them attending and studying their chosen subject outside the classroom. I am beginning to think this is not just to do with our efforts in lectures and seminars, but also perhaps we don’t emphasise enough the opportunity students have, and the value of being in HE is so much more than the qualification itself.
One thing is clear – we should not be in the business of spoon feeding information, to be repeated in assessments, in order for students to be awarded a degree based on their strategy to work towards assessments, and little else. It may sometimes feel like this, so we do have to consider whether this is to do with the way we teach, or the way students respond to this. I think the latter needs as much attention, in that it needs to be clear that students must take responsibility for their learning, and one obvious way to do this is to make the most of opportunities provided by their university. There are students I have taught in my 14 years in HEIs who have clearly appreciated the opportunity they have been given – they make it all worthwhile. There are those who never seem to engage on any level, not even to pass assessments, and who realise HE is not for them. I have more respect for someone coming to that conclusion and seeking a different type of opportunity than those who muddle through and hope it just gets easier.
By the way, if the tone of this seems judgemental, it is not meant that way. My reflections are based on my experiences as a lecturer, but crucially, also as a student. Here is where I have to confess something. In my BSc I was one of those students who muddled through. Then half way through year 2, I realised I was wasting the opportunity I had been given, got a grip and graduated with a 2:2. I know I could have done so much better. The next stage of my academic journey was a combination of being in the right place at the right time and working in a university as a course administrator where one of the staff benefits was to subsidise the cost of degree programmes. The university was the London School of Economics and Political Science, the degree was an MSc in Criminal Justice Policy, and it was very heavily subsidised. My attitude to this opportunity was so different. I was amazed to be accepted onto the programme and found myself being taught by Professor Janet Foster, Professor Robert Reiner, Professor Andrew Ashworth, Professor Maurice Punch, and Professor Ben Bowling. Sorry for the name dropping, but this was the last thing I expected to happen to me. I came away with a Merit award and it set me on this path to be a criminologist. I engaged with the degree by attending everything, working during evenings and weekends, following advice and making the most of it. Then to find myself undertaking a PhD, well it has been a long and arduous journey at times, but I knew my experiences before had set me up well to take on the challenge. It can feel isolating and lonely sometimes, and it can take over your life, but once again, I value the opportunity not just as the pursuit of knowledge, but also the way it has made me overcome challenges and not give up.
The experience of studying for a degree when I was engaged, interested and committed was so much better, with less anxiety, a sense of achievement and I knew I had done my best. As I said earlier, as academics we can do our bit, and many of us do – we consider how best to communicate theories, concepts, policies, debates, and to empower students to have their say. We offer opportunities for interaction, discussion, challenging ideas and enabling students to think more critically. We do this so that students enjoy their studies, make the most of the opportunity and value this as a pursuit of knowledge, as well as the qualification. However, we can only do this successfully when students engage with this process and understand and then accept their role. My role as a lecturer in criminology is about to change significantly, as the move to a new campus changes teaching methods and provision. I have my anxieties about adapting my modules over summer to fit with this model, IT fails, and the usual issues about going through big changes. I know our students share the same anxieties, it’s natural. But, the one thing we can do is ensure that we, as staff and students alike recognise the important role we have, to embrace this change and make the best of it.
So, my plea to students is this. If we don’t keep seeking to expand our understanding and valuing this process of learning, if we stop being curious, then we don’t advance. That is the legacy of Professor Hawking, to remember to keep asking questions, to value learning and to strive to better understand the world around us. Sometimes it will feel like there are barriers put in your way and you cannot overcome them. At this point, it is worth remembering what Professor Hawking had to deal with on a daily basis and ask yourself what you can do to solve these problems. Not only will you do better in your studies, you will learn important skills for the future and will look back knowing you have done your best and overcame whatever life threw at you. That is a legacy to be proud of.
Susie Atherton, Humanoid, Planet Earth.