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My Academic Journey
Two weeks ago, I attended a university reunion. My cohort are now in our late 40s or early 50s but it is remarkable how little we had all changed. Being back in the place where we all studied together put me in reflective mood and that (combined with some timely prompting from Paula) inspired me to share my academic journey.
I was one of those annoying kids who did well at school and knew exactly what they wanted to do. As a small child, I wanted to be a nurse but I later developed an aversion to bodily fluids which made that career choice untenable. I briefly flirted with the idea of being an English teacher, but both of my parents were in education and strenuously tried to dissuade me. So, at the age of about 14, I decided that I wanted to be a prison psychologist. I was in a careers lesson at school, and we had a big green plastic box filled with cards on which were written descriptions of different jobs. I announced that I wanted to be a psychiatrist (I think I was just being provocative) but I couldn’t find “psychiatrist” in the box, so I picked the closest one that I could find: “psychologist”. I read the card and it sounded really interesting, so I decided to find out more about psychology. The more I read, the more interesting I found it, and when I looked into the sorts of settings where I could work as a psychologist, prisons called out to me.
I was very lucky to secure a place to read Experimental Psychology at University College, Oxford in 1990. People have an image of ancient universities as being elitist, but what struck me was the huge diversity of people who were there. They were all clever and had studied hard to achieve their places, but beyond that they came from an enormous range of backgrounds – a far greater variety than I had encountered in my Shropshire comprehensive school. Our tutors worked us extremely hard. We had weekly tutorials, either in pairs or one-to-one, in two modules every term and we had to prepare an essay for each tutorial (two essays a week). In tutorials, we read out, discussed and analysed our essays and the reading on which they were based. There were lectures and practical classes on top of that and we had exams at the beginning of each term to make sure that we hadn’t forgotten anything over the vacations! That’s why I’m sometimes not very sympathetic to students who struggle to read one paper in preparation for a seminar!
At the end of my undergraduate studies, I still wanted to work in prisons but I knew very little about them. My degree had given me an excellent grounding in psychology but I knew little about the study of crime. So I applied to do an M.Phil. at the Institute of Criminology in Cambridge. This gave me an extra year as a full-time student and I thoroughly enjoyed it! I was privileged to be taught by such eminent criminologists as Loraine Gelsthorpe, Alison Liebling and David Farrington. I particularly enjoyed the penology seminars with Nigel West, which I attended just out of interest – I wasn’t taking the assessment in that module! The assessments were all coursework (extended essays and a dissertation) and had to be submitted at the start of each term, so I studied hard in the vacations, and I attended my seminars in term time, but there was also plenty of time for sport and socialising and making the most of my last year as a student!
At that time, HM Prison Service recruited new psychologists once a year through a national assessment centre. I applied in 1994, just after I had submitted my M.Phil. dissertation but I was unsuccessful. I got a job instead at the University of Wales, Swansea, as a research assistant in the Department of Social Policy and Applied Social Studies. I was involved in an evaluation of drug and alcohol treatment centres, funded by the Welsh Office, which employed both quantitative measures and participant observation. When that contract ended, I obtained another contract with Swansea City Council to compile a community profile of a “problem” estate. This required knocking on doors to interview residents, and participant observation in community settings such as the youth club, old people’s bingo sessions and the local pub. It was considered a rather intimidating environment to drop a well-educated 24-year-old English girl into, but I found the residents to be remarkably warm and welcoming and it was a highly rewarding piece of work.
By the time I finished the community profile, I had re-applied to the Prison Service and passed the assessment centre – the interpersonal skills I had developed through my action research had served me well. I had, however, joined the Prison Service at an unfortunate time. There was a recruitment ban in force which meant that although I had passed the psychologist assessment centre, I couldn’t actually secure a job. I was eventually given a temporary contract to collect data at HMP Littlehey for a large-scale research project analysing effective prison regimes. After 10 months of doing this, the recruitment ban was lifted and I was taken on as a prison psychologist, sharing my time between HMP Littlehey and HMP Wellingborough. The Prison Service used to fund a part-time M.Sc. at Birkbeck University, which all newly recruited psychologists undertook. Obtaining a suitably accredited M.Sc., along with completing a satisfactory period of supervised practice, is an essential requirement of becoming a fully qualified “Chartered” psychologist. In another piece of unfortunate timing, the Birkbeck M.Sc. ceased to run just as I joined the service. At first, there was nothing to take its place. However, other universities soon noticed the gap in the market. I, and others in my prison psychology cohort, were relieved when the University of Leicester set up an M.Sc. in Forensic and Legal Psychology by Distance Learning. The Prison Service agreed to pay my fees and my manager allowed a small amount of study leave when assignments were due. Completing a post-graduate degree while working full-time in a demanding job was hard work and I vowed I would never do it again!
I moved to HMP Woodhill in 1998, completed my M.Sc. in 1999 and became a Chartered Psychologist in 2001. At some point after that, I remember receiving a phone call at work from someone called “@manosdaskalou” at, what was then, University College Northampton! I don’t know where he got my number from, but he wanted someone to talk to his third year Forensic Psychology students about the work that psychologists do in prisons. My parents had not completely succeeded in knocking a desire to teach out of me (in fact I probably inherited my urge to educate from them), and my Dad had taught at Northampton when it was Nene College, so I was keen to fulfil the request. The talk became a regular fixture and, after a few years (by which time I was Head of Psychology at HMP Woodhill), we extended it from a single guest lecture to a series of four, to allow me to cover topics such as risk assessment and offending behaviour interventions in more detail.
My son was born in 2008 and I took 12 months maternity leave from the Prison Service. At the end of that time, I didn’t feel ready to go back, so I negotiated a further 12 months career break. I wasn’t ready to return to the full intensity of managing a team in a high security prison, but I did want to keep my brain active. I asked Manos if there were any opportunities to expand my teaching commitments. The University was in the process of setting up a foundation degree in Offender Management, which was aimed primarily at custodial officers at HMP Rye Hill but was also delivered to a small cohort of full-time students. They were short of lecturers to deliver the modules and my offer to help out was eagerly accepted. The terms of my career break meant that I couldn’t earn money from another employer, but a couple of hours a week teaching suited me very well, so I gave my services for free and taught a module on Professional Practice alongside a lecturer with a background in probation, from another university, called Keith Davies.
After a year of this arrangement, HMP Woodhill were unwilling to have me back part-time, so I resigned from the Prison Service and joined the Parole Board as a part-time psychologist member. This allowed me to work much more flexibly and, with a toddler in the family, it suited me well. It also meant that I could have a proper contract with the University of Northampton and I became an associate lecturer in September 2010. Keith had moved to a different job but I continued to teach Professional Practice on the Offender Management degree. There was also a module in Offender Management on “The Psychology of Crime and Criminal Behaviour”. The person who taught this left after a couple of years and I took it over. Returning to basic psychology and teaching it every week was daunting at first, but I really enjoyed going back to what I had learned as an undergraduate and re-discovering how relevant it was to real-life criminal justice.
The arrangement with HMP Rye Hill had never really taken off and the Offender Management degree only ever attracted small numbers of full-time students, so in 2014 the course closed. Manos was keen, however, to incorporate more psychology into the B.A. Criminology course, so we adapted “The Psychology of Crime and Criminal Behaviour” into a first-year criminology module and I’ve been teaching it ever since! I’ve also taught a module on violence and I’ve covered maternity leave and sickness absence in other modules too. My students will have heard me banging on about forensic psychologists being “scientist-practitioners” and I feel that teaching at the University of Northampton has allowed me to fulfil this role. As a practitioner, I have lots of interesting real-life examples to use to illustrate points to my students, but teaching also keeps me up-to-date with research and theory which I can use to inform my practice.
My academic journey continues to take me to new places. My position on the Parole Board was a public appointment with a fixed tenure that came to an end in September 2020. I decided at that point to start a part-time Ph.D. with the University of Birmingham. I had not wanted to go into research straight from my M.Phil. because I felt that, in order to understand people who committed offences, I really needed some direct experience of working with them, but after 24 years as a practitioner, the time seemed right. I am now 18 months into a 6-year part-time degree. I am exploring the role of empathy deficits in violent and sexual offending. Trying to undertake research (which ideally requires access to prisoners) has not been easy during a pandemic and I have faced a number of obstacles but nothing insurmountable yet.
I am still keen to maintain a scientist-practitioner balance, and I need to pay my university fees and make a contribution to the family income, so in February of last year I started working as a Forensic Psychologist at St Andrew’s hospital. I am primarily based on a medium-secure ward for men with learning disabilities. Forensic mental health is a new area of practice for me and, although I have plenty of transferable skills from my previous roles, I have had to adapt to a different approach to the people we work with and a completely new set of jargon.
Reflecting on my academic journey, it is the people that stand out. I think that the most profound learning has taken place when I have been able to engage with experts who have shared their enthusiasm. In this respect, my undergraduate tutorials and M.Phil. seminars contrast with my distance learning M.Sc., which was a means of obtaining a qualification rather than an immersive learning experience. I hope that, as a practitioner who also teaches, I have been able to share some of my enthusiasm for forensic psychology with my own students. In order to benefit from this, however, students need to take up the opportunity to engage fully with teaching and not just see their university experience as a means to a qualification. Of course, COVID has not helped this, and the university’s penchant for remote learning placed it in a good position to maintain teaching when the pandemic struck. But it is very difficult to engage students when they are just names on a screen. I hope that, as we return to more face-to-face teaching, I can once again inspire my students, not just to pass their exams but to develop a life-long fascination for understanding criminal behaviour and the people that perpetrate it.
Helen Trinder, M.A., M.Phil., M.Sc., C.Psychol.
Forensic Psychologist and Associate Lecturer
In my blog post about My favourite Things I mentioned that Jane Eyre was somebody who inspires me. Upon reflection, she is somebody who inspired me a lot when I was younger, and still today, but not with the same force. Over the past 9 years there have been 4 women who at various points over these years have inspired me in one way or another and remain inspirational to this very day. These four wise, wonderful women have had a humongous impact on my life and in my character development. This blog post is a sort of thank you letter to these fabulous women, as well as an outline of how and why they inspire me. They will remain unnamed to protect myself against certain death!
The first woman I have known the longest, and whilst I would class them as a close friend now, we did not start out as such. Neither did we dislike each other (I HOPE)! This person has had a direct impact on my identity as a criminologist but also as a feminist: something I will always be grateful for. They inspire me daily to be more understanding, empathetic and kind to myself. To challenge the status quo and to think critically at all times! For me they represent whom I want to be in the future. They are hard-working, generous, morally impeccable and a fan of Toy Story (massive plus points in my book). They have overcome a number of academic obstacles and inspire me to persevere with academia and its frustrations on the toughest of days. If I turn out to be half the woman they are; I feel like I will have succeeded in life.
The second woman is one of my closest friends. They are the perfect combination of weird and wonderful. We have had similar journeys in academia, but arguably they went first, and seeing them succeed inspired me to do similar! This woman has the patience of an actual real-life saint (although it has been tested on occasion-possibly by myself)! They inspire me to let the little things go and to recognise and check my own privilege. When I feel myself wobble, I think to this person and know that we can do this together! They might not know this: but I am continuously looking up to them.
The third woman has had a very recent inspirational impact on my life. I’ve known them for a number of years, but the last few years has changed the dynamic of our relationship to a beautiful friendship: one where they kick my backside at the Switch, but share my love for cheeseboards! This woman, other than keeping me sane, has inspired me to stand up for my own self-worth and to generate a backbone (metaphorically speaking). Our challenging discussions around race and gender, her open-mindedness and critical thinking all encourage me to follow suit. Life has thrown a number of obstacles her way, and whilst she may get a little knocked, she brushes it off and continues to smash her goals! All of this leaves me in awe: not to mention their stamina when it comes to shopping!
The final, and by no means least, woman is the most recent addition to the inspirational gang of fabulous women, who bless my life and keep me grounded. They keep me motivated in things I am passionate about outside of academia, are always there as a sounding board for me to air out my frustrations, and totally gets my need for doughnuts! They balance a ridiculous work-life balance as a single parent, and do so with flare, generosity and hard-work! Her non-traditional route into academia serves as inspiration to all, that if you are passionate about something; pursue it!
All four of these women manage ridiculous work/life/study loads, are empathetic, caring and always make time for me. All of them inspire me to be a better academic, friend and human being. They have had an impact on me as a student (Undergraduate and Postgraduate) as an academic (Associate Lecturer and Lecturer) and most importantly as a person. I cannot thank them enough. But if they are reading this, which they should be as I’ll be sharing it on social media; THANK YOU WISE, WONDERFUL WOMEN!
Making that choice…
As semester two is now upon us, I thought it would be a nice time to introduce myself to you all.
My name is Hannah Smith and I started at UoN in 2015, although I began my degree in Criminology in 2014. I completed my first year at Sheffield Hallam University and then transferred to UoN to complete my final two years and graduated in 2017.
To be honest, when I graduated, I was not ready to give up studying. I enjoyed reading, analysing topics, and debating for hours in seminars. I really enjoyed Criminology as it gave me the passion to ask why and look deeper into issues. Because of this, I carried on my studies and completed a Master’s degree in International Criminal Law and Security at UoN, as I wanted to learn more about the legal aspects of certain areas such as migration and I felt this was a sensible step with my knowledge from Criminology.
Since graduating from my Master’s degree, I began an internship at a local anti-poverty charity where I learned lots about voluntary sector working, governance, as well as working on some of the matters we talked about a lot in Criminology. After a year, I decided to take a leap into the world of migration and began working for a regional organisation who works in partnership with the Home Office and local authorities. I spend my days challenging practices, influencing policy, and working to try and help people who experience isolation, victimisation, discrimination and much more resettle and integrate into the UK. I also joined the UoN Criminology team at the end of 2020 and support the team as an Associate Lecturer.
One thing I have learnt along my short career journey so far is that it is not always about having the bit of paper that counts. Don’t get me wrong, it helps to have it written down on your CV, but it ultimately is about what you do with it and what you do with the skills you develop along the way. I never thought that a Criminology degree would lead me to a career in migration, but each and every day I use the skills I gained. Being analytical, being able to have the confidence to have a debate, working on my own to deadlines, working in groups, presenting to professionals and lots more.
So, if there is any advice I could give to you, it would be to focus on what you want to get from your degree rather than where you want to be. I remember being asked ‘what do you want to do when you leave university’, which was so much pressure as I just didn’t know! But there is no harm in not knowing. I would say enjoy and embrace the moment you are in and also get stuck in. Try new things, challenge yourself and enjoy learning all the new concepts and ideas that come your way. Keep using those the skills that feel natural to you as these will just strengthen and challenge yourself with the ones that need some extra attention! Because one day it will help out and pay off. You won’t know when that will be until a time of reflection in a few years’, similar to my time of reflection right now.
& When that happens – I would love to see a blog from you on this page!
Look forward to seeing you all on campus this semester!
I have now passed a year of being exiled from my office, separated from people for most of the time. A couple of weeks before the first lockdown I was working in another university and we had just a day or two notice to switch to online teaching. As a doctoral candidate I valued the flexibility of being able to work from home, in the office, and in overpriced coffee shops in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. The weather helped with the first lockdown. I would have virtual office working sessions with my colleagues in the criminology department in my garden. I thought I was coping but the reality was I was masking any fear, sadness and the effects of having no human contact. I was training two or three times per day, counting every calorie I ate. I lost a few pounds, got stronger, fitter and felt physically amazing.
We got some respite in the summer when lockdown restrictions were lessened. However, I lost a family member to Covid-19 and still felt unsure and anxious about going out so I didn’t make the most of it. I did have a couple of work sessions in my local library which was a welcome change of scenery. This was short lived as I currently live in Manchester and we have been in either lockdown or tier 3 restrictions for most of the last year. My saving grace was my gym. We had outdoor sessions, new members joined, and I got to see real people, albeit in socially distanced marked off squares of territory on the gym floor. Life was much better then. I left the house most days.
By December’s lockdown I was starting to struggle. With dark mornings and nights there would be days when I wouldn’t leave the front door. I went from training daily to training once or twice per week and some days I wouldn’t get any more than 2,000 steps in. For my, training is my anti-depressant. It keeps me sane, it keeps be focussed and it keeps me connected to a community of people who value it too. For me, this was a worrying sign.
Fast-forward to today, a year on from lockdown 1. I sit here in front of my laptop day in, day out, trying to concentrate, trying to find the perfect playlist to make me concentrate, taking nootropic supplements (legal, not the drugs), brain vitamins and high caffeine supplements to make me concentrate. I sit here researching symptoms and self-diagnosing ADHD. But really, I just need my office. I need an over-priced lemon and ginger tea, I need a commute, I need people, I need to get out of my living room. But I don’t need it at a cost of losing more lives to Covid-19 so I’ll sit in my living room and wait.
For now, as difficult as it is to focus, I manage. I just have to work harder than ever at it. So for all of our students who are also struggling, I will finish with some of my top tips but bear in mind we all learn differently so find what works for you.
Amy’s top study from home tips:
- Host virtual study sessions with colleagues. I have at least 2 sessions per week with a colleague. We start the session by saying hi and having some human interaction before stating our goals. We keep each other accountable by asking if our goals are achievable within the 2 hour frame and suggesting more specific goals. We then mute and work, coming back at the end of the 2 hours to hold one another accountable and share how we have done. I cannot emphasise enough how much this has helped me!
- Write a to do list each day and week with SMART goals. You’re better off having smaller goals that are achievable than bigger goals that are not
- Use the Pomodoro technique. Ordinarily this is 25 mins work followed by a 5 or 10 minute break. There are online tools and apps or you can set a timer. One of my supervisors recently suggested to me to reduce the working session to 15 minutes to account for my reduced concentration span. This is helping!
- Don’t have the same expectations on yourself as you ordinarily would. These are not ordinary times
- Work with your own mind. My brain works well early in the morning so sometimes I have my laptop open at 5.30am. I have friends that work late in the night. I also know I read well in the afternoon and I do my best thinking when I am on a solitary walk in nature
- Set yourself little goals with rewards. Currently, if I finish editing 5 pages I get an episode of Grey’s Anatomy or a cookie (bad idea) or a 10 minute browse on Instagram
- Lean on the resources available to you. At UoN our students are lucky to have a tonne of informative resources on Skills Hub (see the section on ‘How to Study’), our Learning Development team to help with academic skills, a mental health team who can help support mental wellbeing, and a whole host of other services. Ask for help and accept it when it is offered (this I need to work on)
- Listen to a focus playlist. My go to Spotify playlists are here and here
You may have probably heard of the title before and you may or may not be able to place it. It is a quote from the bible! It is profoundly creationist proclaiming the world created in days; from the 1st for the light and the 6th for the people and animals. A seemingly busy week for an almighty being who needed a day of rest afterwards. The contribution of organised religion to everyday life, the realisation that people need rest and recuperation from the labours of work. This however is not the reason I chose this dive into scriptures. I am not a theologian so I will not examine the religious content.
Instead there are two different reasons I have chosen to start with this quote; the first is the positive affirming message it conveys, the second is its immediacy. What we have here is light and brightness that is instant gratification. This message feels like a piece of chocolate melting in your mouth, releasing sweet sensations, as a flooding of smooth cocoa disintegrates, releasing its sensual solids. Therefore, the command on creating light resonates; we rejoice because unlike reality we find pleasure in immediate gratification.
Would we care that light was not created but emerged after the Big Bang and took billions of years to form in the way we now recognise it as our sun? Does it matter that progress is long and arduous and not immediate as the command suggests? Our sense of time dwarfs in the time required for events to happen. It is astonishing that we still try to comprehend the vastness of time through human lifetime. The command is also palatable because it happens without virtually any real effort. It does not represent the labours, pains of creation and development. In short, evolution is painful, long but here is presented as something immediate and effortless. In that a series of commands completing complex processes seems preferable to the reality of evolution. Maybe it is pertinent to point out that the command reveals the “majestic totalitarianism” of the divine against the great equalizer of nature and progression.
In life however, big creations cannot happen by command. “Let it be Baby!” I wonder how many mothers would favour this one, or in our line of work “let it be knowledge” how many will choose this option. This is when we realise that this pleasant message is shielding us from the reality of the process and the nature of reality itself. We may want things to happen immediately, but this is not necessarily the best option. In parenting, if you could more forward into having a baby, why not move further past the terrible twos or even further into the dreadful adolescent years of having your authority challenged. Essentially have a child created fully functioning and obedient to parental will. Maybe because this is not parenting. The stories that remain are those of growing pains; without growth there is no parenting. Let’s explore it in knowledge; can we find shortcuts in the way we learn a trade, an education, a professional identity? Maybe skipping the first parts on getting to know how to write in the appropriate conventions; perhaps we can skip on the tedious referencing process that only anally retentive individuals apparently enjoy. What if instead of books and hours of reading different texts we got laminated sheets with terms and conditions and whenever we embark on writing we are told step by step what we write. Because this will not be knowledge. The slow and arduous process has an exceptional trait within it; insight! After reading my books, making notes on my articles, going over my notes and trying to make sense of what it the point I am trying to make; in a moment after hours and hours of studying, suddenly and unexpectedly, the “penny drops”! This moment of insight is like a lightbulb moment…and that is light! A light, not by magic or immediate gratification, but the sustained understanding that comes from knowledge. It has been a difficult year for all of us but please remember that light comes from inside and to quote a great teacher Goethe, “more light”.
A number of years ago I wrote a blog entitled: ‘Thank F**k it’s Christmas!’. In it, I had a general moan (nothing new there) about how exhausted the staff and students were in the first term of the new academic year: Christmas break felt desperately needed. At the time, I was still an Associate Lecturer but had just begun my MSc at Leicester as well as supporting my partner on the weekends. I felt burned out, overwhelmed, and ridiculously grateful that the Christmas break had arrived. I also commented on the importance and need for work-life balance for both staff and students, something which many of us have still not managed to achieve and something which appeared increasingly challenging during the various Lockdowns. Yes; a number of us have worked/studied from home, but that has blurred what used to be clear working hours (in theory), and home life. I honestly do not know where one ends and the other begins. Therefore, I find myself back in a head space which is screaming: ‘Thank F**k it’s Easter!’.
This term has been challenging, term 2 always is. We have navigated another lockdown, assessments, lectures, workshops, all sorts. Now, throw into the mix a cyber attack on the University and ‘Thank F**k it’s Easter’ rings louder. Staff and students have persevered in the name of education and demonstrated resilience. Something I think we should all be proud off. But the anxiety, frustrations and exasperation which the lack of IT services has generated, feels like it might take some time to overcome. I am cautious to advise us to consider work-life balance as we go into the Easter Break, as I fear I will sound hypocritical. I advised the need to take time to ourselves before, and to organise some kind of work-life balance, and in all fairness that went straight out the window once we returned from Christmas break (maybe a week of two after, I am sure I attempted a balance to begin with).
Nevertheless, I do think it is important to recognise our strengths, our achievements and to take time to breathe! For many of us, we have been without our families and friends for months. Lockdown is easing, and I am naively hopeful that this will mean we can see those who are dear to us again soon: safely and sensibly. But until we reach that point, I am also exceptionally grateful that the Easter weekend is upon us. Whether we celebrate the bringing of chocolate by the Easter Bunny, or the death and resurrection of Christ: we should all celebrate that we have made it to the end of term 2. Celebrate our achievements no matter how big or small, timetable some time to yourselves: read, run, drink gin, watch films, cross-stitch, do whatever brings you some kind of peace and most importantly: breathe. The University is closed from Friday 2nd April and re-opens on Wednesday 7th April. Lets all take some time for ourselves and breathe. Happy Easter Everyone!
Corona is liminal, this crisis stage of the pandemic will pass. Corona upended so much of our lives. Humanism suggests that we will grow from this experience if we forge a solidarity and vigilance, like with HIV/AIDS, a pandemic that initially attacked, as diseases do, the vulnerable. Now with Covit, you have people in my ole Kentucky home, storming the state capitol with guns, to un-peacefully protest wearing masks. They act in solidarity with no one but themselves, a key cue to empathy erosion.
Along with several of my cousins, I am a teacher, and have been teaching online for over a year now. Whether online or face-to-face, I know that I need to demonstrate the sort of behaviour I expect students to bring to the class. I am fortunate to have learned this first hand, having had years of positive classroom experiences from a litany of mentor-teachers. Along with my family and religious/spiritual community, educators showed me the power of giving one’s full attention – it creates the conditions that cultivate compassion. Therefore, I am acutely aware that I need to ‘look’ at my students, and listen without prejudice. I want to; I want us all to connect. Yet, most refuse to turn on their cameras. I’m often looking at the green light above my screen.
Despite my urging, most students have not even bothered to upload a profile picture so that the icon sitting on the screen during class would at least display a human. Therefore, on the occasions when they do speak, their voices are visualized by a bland, neutral, grey-scale silhouette. This virtual space dehumanizes us. Sometimes it does feel like “Hanging on to hope, when there is no hope to speak of,” so I keep an uplifting musical playlist synced to every device.
In reflecting on several of her own dehumanizing experiences in the classroom, bell hooks asks readers: “Imagine what it is like to be taught by a teacher who does not believe you are fully human.” Like bell hooks, I have spent years “Listening to students talk about the myriad ways that they feel diminished when teachers refuse to acknowledge their presence or extend to them basic courtesy in the classroom” (hooks, TCC, 61). Further, we know that interfacing through screens lends itself to the old banking model of education, where “teachers present the material and students passively receive it” (hooks, TCC, 10). This, too, risks further dehumanization. I believe one purpose of my role as teacher/role-model is to treat students as human, some arriving so wounded that this all feels brand new.
I believe that turning on my camera signals that I am actively engaged and focused on the matter at hand. It’s even been fed back to me through co-teachers that students appreciate that I take the first few minutes of each session to chit-chat. I call this time “mic check,” and simply inquire about their well-being and share my own. I then segue into each lesson by asking each mic-checker about their own experiences or thoughts related to the topic. I hardly think they’d actively participate if I began by lecturing from slides, thereby fixing them in the passenger seats.
I have worked in the classroom since the 90’s, through the early days of social media and concurrent normalization of smartphone addiction. In this time, many have grown accustomed to phubbing- snubbing people IRL for the sake of the phone, which dramatically screws up kids. I have also observed a variety of negative implications from students’ own reliance on technology, e.g. anxiety and depression fueled by the fear of missing out (FOMO), poor impulse control, attention deficit, eroded self- esteem and awareness. This first led me back to Engaged Pedagogy (hooks’ teaching Trilogy), then further research on empathy erosion (Baron Cohen’s Zero Degrees of Empathy), and ultimately the role of technology therein. That led me to MIT Professor Sherry Turkle, who has been using her interdisciplinary research for years to sound the alarm around our growing individual disconnectedness, alongside our growing mass tech-addiction.“Empathy cannot be performed,” she’s consistently said. Empathy can, however, be cultivated.
Commenting on a year of online education, Sherry Turkle recently appeared on one of the radio talk-shows I’ve been able to closely follow during Corona’s solitude. She reflects: “To make my students feel that I’m…making eye-contact, I have to look at the little green light at the top of the computer, which means I’m not looking at anything at all. So, in order to give the illusion of connection, I have to basically look at nothing…and that doesn’t give me a feeling of empathy, I’m performing. That’s a very empathy draining thing to be doing.”
It is draining. I continually try a range of tactics to get students to share in creating an engaging and worthwhile classroom, and periodically receive positive feedback from both colleagues and students. I urge them to see the power in more fully cultivating the human connection, in spite of this virtual reality. I also remind students that I don’t do lectures, but facilitate classroom discussions around appropriate, well-curated materials. Every so often, there are students who are easily attuned to this new working rhythm. Most struggle.
Reality. Virtuality. Fictionality.
Notably, our students here in Vietnam more easily cooperate with using their cameras and, perhaps subsequently, more actively engaging. My husband – who is teaching Vietnamese students online at this very moment – has suggested that this comes from the local cultural significance, and subsequent authority teachers hold here as compared to the west. He also believes that students here are more willing to be vulnerable. Turkle also affirms that: “We become accustomed to enjoying that lack of vulnerability by doing so much of our personal business and our business business hidden behind a screen.” The grey-silhouette is a like a superhero’s mask that displays invulnerability within that virtual world.
“You have reasons to not like Zoom,” Turkle continues, “… the better you are at Zoom, the less of a real connection you’re making.” In the face of much resistance, I try my best to hold steady to the idea that learning is social. While it remains true that facts can be studied, remembered and regurgitated on command – even met with great accolade – true understanding relies on the ability to think critically. “Thinking critically is at the heart of anybody transforming their life,” hooks says emphatically. Critical thinking relies on empathy. Empathy relies on human connection. In order to take best advantage of the virtual classroom, we must be about the business of creating the conditions and expectations for real human connectedness.
Some of you might remember Tony Blair’s speech introducing the Labour party’s education manifesto in 2001. In it he proclaimed that education was at the forefront of government policy. Education is often high on government’s agenda even if it is only to berate previous administrations for failing our youngsters. I have watched with interest the current government’s farcical approach to education and in particular the attainment of qualifications during the first period of Covid lockdown and to some extent even felt sorry for them as they grappled with what were not insignificant problems. My benevolence, however, has long been drained as I watch the news more recently only to see the same farce emerging. But what really intrigues me is the conflation of the notion of qualifications and education. It seems to me the clamber to get children back into school is only right given that they are missing out on education and other social aspects. However, I cannot see how the dealing with the qualifications issue can ignore the fact that the students have not received all of their education.
In a previous blog I have used the analogy of a driving instructor giving lessons to a pupil. In that blog the point being made was that the education of the pupil was a two-way enterprise. If the pupil didn’t engage or didn’t turn up for their lessons, then the instructor could not be held responsible for the pupil’s failure in the driving test. But what of the test itself, what is that designed to achieve? It is not simply to provide a person with a driving licence, what would be the point of that? It is to ensure that the person taking the test can drive to a satisfactory standard that would help ensure the roads were safe for all users. So, the point of the driving lessons is to provide the education in ‘road craft’ and the point of the driving test is to test knowledge and ability in that ‘road craft’ to ensure it meets satisfactory standards. The driving licence is a form of certificate that states the driver has achieved the knowledge and skills required.
So, what of education? Surely GCSEs, A levels, BTec and so on are a test of the knowledge and skills acquired. A degree is the same, is it not? How then could we reasonably expect students to pass any of these tests if they have lost significant periods of tutorship or teaching? The suggestion, dumb down the tests in some way by only testing what they have been taught, or as in the case of university students suggestions, be more lenient with the marking. Now as I understand it, that would be akin to saying to a learner driver that because through no fault of their own, they could not engage in all of their lessons, they will only be tested on their ability to park and not on their ability to carry out an emergency stop as they hadn’t been taught the latter. How ridiculous would that be? Imagine then that the very same driver, who now has a driving licence, goes onto some advanced motoring course. A course that starts with the premise that they have all the skills tested in a ‘full’ driving test.
Whilst, I can understand students’ preoccupation with tests and qualifications, I somehow think that government and teaching establishments should be more concerned with education and the knowledge gap. How will they ensure that students have the requisite skills and knowledge? Tony Blair may have said ‘Education, Education, Education’ and subsequent governments might well nod in agreement, but somehow I think they’ve all lost the plot.
In the concept of managerialism, we see that both policy and procedures form part of the techniques employed to enhance productivity and cultural changes. These changes use a ‘calculative and rationalistic knowledge base’ which appears both ‘universalistic’, and [at first sight] ‘seems entirely good sense’ (Gilling, 2014:82).
However, this knowledge base is far from universalistic and to the ‘street level bureaucrat’ (Lipsky, 1980) often falls little short of complete naivety. Lipsky (2010) provides a valuable insight into how individuals in public service adapt unworkable policies and procedures as the idealistic meets the reality of overstretched resources and ever demanding and needy consumers of services.
Whilst both working in and studying the police as an organisation subjected to and adopting managerialist policies, I witnessed the nonsensical notions of measuring activities and the subjugation of professionalism to management ideals (Hallam, 2009). Perhaps, there could be no better example than the measurement of the length of time a call handler spent dealing with a call. This derived from the need to answer calls within a target time period. It all made sense until you begin to take into account reality – the lack of resources and the nature of calls which demanded that on some occasions operators ought to spend far longer on the phone to deal with more protracted matters, such as someone in crises who really needed help and a comforting voice whilst someone was on their way. The result of the measurements was often counterproductive, officers being sent to incidents that amounted to little more than a waste of time, ‘My Jimmy is missing and I haven’t seen him for three days’ – when the officers turn up, Jimmy turns out to be a cat or, officers being sent to locations where information regarding the incident is scant because little time has been spent on the phone to get sufficient details. In the clinical world of the policy maker, there are ideal call takers, those that have knowledge about every eventuality, and ideal call makers, those that are precise, unemotional and to the point. Nothing of course could be further from reality.
Disappointingly, I find little solace in academia. Policy and procedures abound. Teaching styles are based, not on the nuances of student types but on the ideal student. The student that has the requisite skills to read and write and think critically. The student that is always engaged and always turns up and above all else, teaching is based on idealistic (see Morse and Lewis for tutorial sizes) small student classes. Policies that are well meaning such as catering for additional needs, become unworkable in an environment where class sizes and teaching demands outstrip available resources. Like the call handler, for the lecturer, it becomes impossible to cater for those that need more attention and time. And like the call handler, lecturers are subjected to managerialist idealistic measurements of success and failure. I once heard of a manager that referred to academics as ‘slackademics’, I think is probably just an indication of how far removed from reality managers are. There are two worlds in organisations that provide a service to the public, one is based on reality the other, a fairy tale world of policies and procedures based on the ideal.
Gilling, D. (2014) Reforming police governance in England and Wales: managerialisation and the politics of organisational regime Change, Policing and Society, 24 (1): 81-101.
Lipsky, M. (2010) Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
I am one of the new members of the criminology team at UoN and have joined from the University of Manchester where I have been a teaching assistant (probably the equivalent of associate lecturer at UoN) for the last couple of years while I’ve been working on my PhD. I’m looking forward to my new role as lecturer in criminology and hopefully at some point meeting students in real life, face to face. It’s a bit strange starting a new job in a new town when I’m still sat in my living room in Manchester, but the rest of the team have made me feel welcome regardless.
My journey into criminology is a funny one. I did life the opposite to many people, having my first child at 16. When my second child went to school I decided to return to education and as I didn’t have A-levels I has to undertake an Access diploma to get into university. I was required to choose three subjects and at first, I opted for English literature because I love(d) reading (I’m sure I still love reading but I’ve not read anything non-work related for a long time). I picked sociology because it sounded interesting and the same with history. At the last minute I swapped history to criminology and never looked back. From my first lesson I knew this was my future, although at that point I wasn’t sure how.
I always had imposter syndrome and never thought my work was good enough (still do today but we’ll save that for another blog post), but my Access tutor believed in me and suggested I apply to the University of Manchester. As I was a mature student, I had to attend an interview with two of the lecturers. I was super nervous, but I got a place and never left. The undergraduate degree was difficult at times because there were only a couple of mature students and they eventually dropped out. I wasn’t in halls and had kids at home, so I didn’t have the same student experience as many of my cohort, however I made some great friends particularly those who stayed to undertake our MRes.
I finished my undergraduate degree with a first and was awarded a scholarship for my research Masters’ then luckily got another studentship for my PhD which is near completion and here I am. Since I’m teaching research methods modules this year my students will be pleased to know that my BA (Hons) and MRes were heavily focussed on research methods and my PhD has given me three years of real-life research experience. My dissertations and thesis have all followed my research interests in the psychology of victimisation and border criminology. My PhD thesis explores the victimisation of refugees and how they cope. That’s all I will say about my research right now, but I will write another blog about it at some point. Probably when I’ve finished writing it and the hard work is a distant memory.
On a personal note, the daughter I had at 16 is now grown up and lives on her own and my youngest is a sassy 14-year-old girl. We have also just got our Pomeranian puppy Prince. In my free time I’m usually doing something active. I’m a Crossfitter and many of my closest friends are gym friends so the gym is both my mental health crutch and my social life. When I do eventually sit down, I love a good box set. I’m currently watching The Morning Show with Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. Recommendations via email are welcome.
Now you know a little bit about me. I’ll look forward to getting to know all the criminology students soon, either virtually or face to face. Hopefully some of you will put your cameras on at least for a day so that when we eventually meet, I’ll know who you are.