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When I first arrived in London, I needed to find my way across the city to the now former site of the Home Office at St Anne’s Gate. I didn’t have a clue about how to get there so I asked a member of staff at St Pancras railway station. He helpfully pointed me in the direction of the London Underground. I was swept along by a torrent of people, all going about their business with a purpose, I however, didn’t have a clue where I was going. Finding sanctuary in a quiet eddy and desperately looking around I spotted a member of staff across the concourse. Fighting against the current I scrambled to where the member of staff was and implored upon them to rescue me. Thankfully the underground staff had all been briefed, not specifically about me, I should hasten to add, but about how by being super helpful they could increase customer satisfaction, reduce complaints and attract even more customers. And having explained my dilemma, I was very helpfully led through the ticket barriers, now struggling to hold back the surge, and down the escalator to the platform below. I was told to get on the next train and to get off at St James’ Park. Having arrived at my destination I became confused as to which exit to use and once again found a very helpful staff member who led me part way to the exit, where I spilled out into the sunlight a matter of yards away from my destination.
The following week I once again plunged into the torrent and confident that I knew which underground line to take I allowed myself to be swept along to the barriers and through, and then panic. Which platform and am I sure that was the right line? Once again, a beacon of hope shone across the dark morass, a member of underground staff. Once again, I was led to the platform in a super helpful way and got on the first train. But this time I didn’t arrive at my destination for some, I have to say, traumatic hours. The problem was the first train was not the train to catch, it was the second that I needed; I will most definitely have to complain about that member of staff being unhelpful.
This pattern of visits to London and assistance rendered by sometimes grumpy but always super helpful members of underground staff continued for some weeks. Often, I would stay in London for a week at a time before returning home outside of the metropolis at the weekend. During my stays I visited numerous police stations as part of my work and every time I used the underground, I sought out a helpful member of staff to assist me. Sometimes, if they rather unhelpfully simply pointed me in the right direction, I would set off and then return to them explaining that I didn’t understand their instructions. Armed with more information I would again purposefully set off and then duly return until the succumbed and rather reluctantly but helpfully led me to the correct platform.
Then in a fortnight, two things happened. Firstly, the underground staff went on strike and on arriving at the gates of St James’ Park underground station I found the gates closed. There were a couple of members of staff there, but they weren’t very helpful. ‘What should I’ do I asked, ‘Dunno’, was the reply. Now that was not very helpful, complaint forthcoming I feel. I didn’t make my appointments that day and the following day had to use taxis to get around. Much easier to use taxis you might say, yes but not really justifiable in terms of cost, my boss told me when I suggested I would forego using the underground altogether. After three days the underground opened up again but for some reason there were no staff around to ask for help. I became increasingly anxious and found myself avoiding the underground, using taxis at my own expense, and walking long distances. I was exhausted I can tell you.
The next week I ventured into the underground again, I couldn’t avoid it forever. I found a member of staff and duly asked them, in an almost ritualistic fashion, how to get across London to another underground station near yet another police station. Instead of pointing me in the right direction, which we all know by now is a rather fruitless, time wasting and unhelpful exercise, or super helpfully taking me to the correct platform, they took me to a rather large underground map on the wall. ‘This is where we are’, the very nice lady said, ‘and this is where you want to be’, she added. She then continued to explain how to use the map, how to follow the signs dotted around the stations, how to look for the signs before entering the platforms so as to work out which platform to be on and how to ensure I get on the correct train. I was nervous following her instructions as I made my way to the platform, but I got to my destination and I made my own way back, with help of the wall map of course. From that point onwards, I made my way around London on the underground with increased confidence, I wouldn’t say with consummate ease, but confidently. I made mistakes but because I knew how to read the map, I was able to rectify them and if I couldn’t I knew that I could ask. Of course, now that I drive, I use maps, I would probably have been pestering police officers and random members of the public otherwise and we know how the rare the sight of the former are on our streets. Anyway, I don’t think they’ve had the ‘super helpful’ briefing. Lately though I’ve been using my satnav, and sometimes getting into a right pickle. It seems you can’t beat good old-fashioned map reading.
What’s the point of this nonsensical tale? Well the clue is in the title. As educators we need to consider the purpose of what we are doing and how this will add value to students’ learning and knowledge. We can give students the answers to the essay questions, how to structure a particular essay, what arguments to include, what books and journal articles to read. We can supply them with reading lists that contain links to the books and journal articles, we can coach them to such an extent that their journey is in fact our journey, just as my journey to the underground platform was the staff member’s journey. We can repeat this many times over so that students are capable of completing that essay, but like me on my journey through the underground, they will need the same coaching for every piece of assessment and whilst they may complete each journey as I did, they have learnt very little and become increasingly disempowered and crippled by our helpfulness and their increasing reliance on it. Our jobs as educators is not to provide answers but to equip students with the tools to find the answers themselves. That process requires a willingness to learn, to discover and to take risks. Super helpfulness should not be an organisational strategy to ensure each part of the journey is easily manoeuvred and completed, it should be about ensuring that people can complete any journey independently and confidently. Sometimes by appearing to be super helpful we are simply being very unhelpful and disempowering people at the same time.
If you’re anything like me, the last few weeks you’ve probably found yourself fighting your way through a tsunami of information that’s coming from all directions. Notifications are going into overdrive with social media apps, news apps and browsers desperate to deliver more and more content, at ever increasing frequencies. Add to this all the stories, videos and memes friends and family are also sharing and it’s hard to know where to look first. The sheer volume of content makes it harder than ever to know what is fact, fake or opinion. In honesty, it can all be a bit overwhelming.
How do you even begin sorting the information that’s being thrown at you when you can’t keep up with how quickly your news feeds are moving
1. Sort the fact from the fiction
There’s nothing like a pandemic to send the fake news mills into overdrive. Many are easy to spot, the 2020 version of an urban myth (My neighbour’s, brother’s dog is a top civil servant and says….) others are much more sophisticated and purport to be from trusted sources. The Guardian (Mercier, 2020) reports on the danger of these stories and the tragic consequences that can occur when people believe them.
Why are we so susceptible to fake news stories though? They use “truthiness” to play on our fears and biases. If it sounds like something we think could be true, if it confirms our prejudices or worries, we’re more likely to believe it.
Fact checking is more important than ever. Take a moment to think before you share – what is the source? where are their sources? For more tips on spotting fake news check out this guide (IFLA, 2020) or use an independent reputable fact checking site such as Full Fact. This blog article from the Information Literacy Group (Bedford, 2020) pulls together a selection of reliable information sources related to Covid-19.
2. Bursting your bubble
Personalised content from news feeds can be useful, but we often don’t even realise the news stories and content we’re seeing in apps has been chosen by an algorithm. Their purpose is to feed us stories they think we will like, to keep us reading longer. This can be convenient, but it can also be misleading. We get trapped in a filter bubble that feeds us the type of content we like and usually from a perspective that agrees with our own way of thinking.
Sometimes we need to know what else is going on in the world outside our specific areas of interest though and sometimes we need to consider viewpoints we don’t necessarily agree with, so we can make an informed judgement.
These algorithms can also get things wrong. My own Google news feed weirdly seems to think I’m interested in anything vaguely related to British Airways, Coventry City Football Club and Meghan Markle (I’d like to state for the record I’m not particularly interested in any of these things). This is without considering the inherent biases they have built into them, before they even start their work (algorithm bias is a whole other blog article in itself).
It’s human nature to want to hear things that agree with our way of thinking and reinforce our own world view, we follow people we like and admire, we choose news sources that confirm our way of thinking, but there is a risk of missing the bigger picture when sat in our bubble. Rather than letting the news come to you, go direct to several news sources (maybe even some that have a different political leaning to you, if you feel like being challenged). Be active in seeking news stories, rather than passively consuming them.
3. Step away from the news feed (when you need to)
It’s a bit of a balancing act, we need to know enough to be informed and stay safe without spending 24/7 plugged in. We’re not superhuman though and sometimes we need to accept that just because it’s on our feed, we’re not obliged to engage. Give yourself permission to skip stories, mute notifications and be selective when you need to. We all have different saturation points, mine will vary day to day, but listen to yourself and know when it’s time to switch off. If it helps, set reminders on your apps to give you a nudge when you’ve spent a certain amount of time on them. The Mental Health Foundation (2020) have some tips for looking after your mental health in relation to news coverage of Covid-19.
If you need help finding information or want support evaluating sources the Academic Librarian team are offering online tutorials and an online drop-in service. You can also contact us by emailing email@example.com
Academic Liaison Manager, LLS
Bedford, D. (2020) Covid-19: Seeking reliable information in difficult times. Information Literacy Group [online]. Available from: https://infolit.org.uk/covid-19-seeking-reliable-information-in-difficult-times/ [Accessed 31/03/2020].
IFLA (2020) How to spot fake news. IFLA [online]. Available from: https://www.ifla.org/publications/node/11174 [Accessed 31/03/2020].
Mental Health Foundation (2020) Looking after your mental health during the Coronavirus outbreak. Mental Health Foundation [online]. Available from: https://mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/looking-after-your-mental-health-during-coronavirus-outbreak [Accessed 31/03/2020]
Mercier, H. (2020) Fake news in the time of coronavirus: how big is the threat? The Guardian [online]. 30th March. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/30/fake-news-coronavirus-false-information [Accessed 31/03/2020].
To navigate means to travel along a desired path, one which has been planned and prepared for, one which you have intended to travel along; and if you deviate from that path then you prepare the necessary tools to get back on the right track. In terms of our Mental Health something which I consider to be an extremely delicate aspect of human beings that must be nurtured and cared for just like any other part of our body and yet many of us do not place value in it or ignore it to the point of crisis.
I would like to share some very raw and personal stories throughout this blog to inform you on the value of managing a mental health crisis whether it be for yourself or someone you know, the following accounts will reflect upon the importance of caring for our mental health and what happens when we don’t, I hope that this information may prove to be invaluable one day.
From a very young age I was met with difficulties, both parents were heavy drug users and after my arrival on this planet my father left and I wouldn’t meet him again until I was around 10 years old, My mother without a job and 3 children continued to abuse drugs and so me and my brothers lived with my grandparents. Throughout my childhood I experienced panic attacks and zero confidence, I felt unloved and unworthy and so as we all know our childhoods greatly affect our adulthood. At 19 years old I decided I would escape from my reality and travel Australia leaving my dead-end relationship and my wonderful friends and my extremely complicated family. Upon my arrival in Oz land I truly felt free for the first time in my life and I had so much ahead of me. So young, hopeful and slightly naive I travelled to central Australia in my 3rd week where I embarked on a tour with 8 other people to travel further south, this tour however was pivotal in the downward spiral of my Mental Health. It would be on the 3rd day of the tour that all the backpackers enjoyed some beers together whilst watching a truly magical sunset over Uluru and it was later that night that I would be locked in a bathroom with the tour guide leader having been drugged and then raped. Rough I know. For many years I abused my body and my mind and grew an overwhelming addiction to not getting better via drugs and alcohol and bad people. And If I am completely honest it’s not until this new year (2020) that I finally feel free from the clutches of that horrific event. Getting better takes time, and it’s been 5 years since I went to Australia, but the important point I’m trying to make here is that for 5 years I’ve mostly ignored my problems and so they have festered. Some years ago I tried Cognitive Behavioural Therapy/Talk Therapy via the NHS and it really did help me for a small amount of time, but unfortunately the NHS is under a lot of pressure and so I only had these appointments for around 3 months most of it was self-help homework to help me understand my emotions better, and what I call my ‘Brain Doctor’ really cared and made me realise my childhood and being raped was not my fault, and if you can take anything away from this blog post then remember that you are not at fault, you are human, and if you need help then that’s okay.
So fast forward a few years, and I’ve plucked up the courage to come to University, I have the support of my partner who I live with, in our lovely apartment in the town, my wild childhood friends, and a very dysfunctional family, however I now have the added support of those at the University. However let me just say University life is definitely not easy, I’ve been kicked out of my accommodation whilst having to complete a 72hour TCA 3000 word essay, working out of a room with none of my belongings around me trying to revise for exams during exam season whilst extremely ill and massively depressed trying to figure out where I would be living, I’ve had to rush from lectures to get to the hospital to take care of and feed my extremely ill Granda, and just last November I started taking Anti-Depressant medication for the first time and a week later found out I was pregnant, whilst supporting my suicidal friend and repairing my relationship with my mum. Now I’m not going to say that if I can get through that then you can get through what you’re going through because the weight of our issues can be heavier to one person than the other, but the one thing I did differently throughout all of this compared to how I handled childhood problems and the rape, I actually spoke to people, I spoke to my partner, my friends, my family and for the first time I fully opened up to people at the University, it started with a tutor so I could request an extension (oh because of course during all of this I had like 50 essays to complete), then my personal tutor so my non-attendance at lectures could be excused, it was that conversation that led to me writing this blog post! And from that it continued, I then spoke to Assist and the Student Support Team to figure out whether having a baby whilst studying was even a viable option, and it was but I knew in myself I did not have the strength to embark on that particular journey and my choice was supported not just by my friends, family and partner but also by the University via supportive emails from tutors, and being allowed mitigating circumstances on assignments I just couldn’t complete right now. Support comes in many different forms but it’s so important that you open up otherwise how can anyone support you, you don’t even have to say what’s wrong you just need to let someone know something is wrong and when you’re ready and comfortable you can open up and get the help that you might need.
So at Northampton University there is a great deal of support available to us students all it takes is an email or popping by a drop in session, I understand that in itself can be a difficulty trust me I’ve made many appointments and not turned up and if you feel that way also then what I’d recommend is maybe asking a friend to go with you or letting your personal tutor know so they could offer some advice on how to deal with that because there really are people who want to help you become the best you that you can be.
Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but rising every time that we fall – Confucius
- Counsellors – The Counsellors will listen to you and help you respond to the difficulties in your life, they will allow you to develop your abilities to address and resolve issues in your life. https://firstname.lastname@example.org
- Mental Health Advisors – The Mental Health Advisors will provide a private and comfortable space to discuss your mental health difficulties and work with you to develop coping strategies whilst studying. https://www.northampton.ac.uk/student-life/support/counselling-and-mental-health-team/
- Assist – Assist can give you advice and guidance for managing your disability whilst studying, for me they helped with a DSA application regarding my Anti-Depressant medication, the DSA application will give me the opportunity to have 6 appointments with the counselling team who can further help me work through my issues by providing me with a safe and comfortable space to talk. https://www.northampton.ac.uk/student-life/support/about-assist/ ASSIST@northampton.ac.uk
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;
- Speak to your GP, they can refer you to the NHS Mental Health Services.
If you have been affected by sexual assault;.
https://www.northamptonshirerapecrisis.co.uk/ (Northampton Local Centre).
https://www.nhs.uk/service-search/other-services/Rape-and-sexual-assault-referral-centres/LocationSearch/364 (Find sexual assault referral centre in your home town/local area).
Other helpful support (local and national)
This week saw the appointment of a new minister for suicide prevention announced on world mental health day (BBC), and an article in The Guardian observing that mental health resources are woefully underfunded.
My thoughts first turned to the fact that the appointment of a minister to address the problem was reminiscent of New Labour’s previous attempts to address issues with the appointment of various czars, none of which were very successful (BBC). Allied to the appointments were the inevitable plethora of new policies, many failing at the first hurdle. Nonetheless their longevity and to some extent durability lay in ministers’ and state agency managers’ egos, and inability to see beyond fantasy and media pleasing rhetoric. However, it would be disingenuous to fail to acknowledge that some policies and strategies are conceived and implemented with the best of intentions, both at the macro and micro.
The old saying that ‘no plan last[s] beyond the first encounter with the enemy’ (Hughes, 1993:14) probably explains why so many policies fail, not because the essence of the policy is wrong but because politicians and those in charge fail to take into account or to rationalise that at the very core of the policy intentions, lay people. People are unpredictable, people do not conform to ideals or preconceived ideas and, yet policies are formulated to address ideal situations and an ideal homogenous population. No one member of the public is the same, whether they are a victim of crime, an offender, a person in need of medical care or mental health services, a worker, a student or a user of a service. They can be one of these things or a combination of them, they are a product of so many differing socioeconomic influences that any one policy cannot ever hope to deal with the multitude of issues they bring. People are both complex and complicated. A plan or policy needs to be adapted and changed as it progresses, or it will inevitably fail.
That brings me very nicely to one of my favourite authors Michael Lipsky. Lipsky presents those working at the coal face of public services as street-level bureaucrats. Attempting to navigate policy and strategy implementation whilst dealing with predominately less than ideal clients. Lipsky observes that in doing so the street-level bureaucrats are faced with a number of different issues:
- Resources are chronically inadequate relative to the tasks workers are asked to perform.
- The demand for services tends to increase to meet the supply.
- Goal expectations for the agencies in which they work tend to be ambiguous, vague, or conflicting.
- Performance oriented goal achievement tends to be difficult if not impossible to measure.
- Clients are typically nonvoluntary; partly as a result, clients for the most part do not serve as primary bureaucratic reference groups.
(Lipsky 1983, 27:28)
Policies and strategies are difficult to implement, if they are formulated purely on ideals without ever having recourse to those, i.e. the street level bureaucrats, that are required to implement them, they will inevitably fail. If plans rarely survive the first contact, then they need to be adapted or ditched, those best placed to advise on changes are of course those at the coal face. Herein lies the rub, politicians and managers do not like to be told their policy is failing or that it will not work in the first place. They inevitably place the failure of policies, or reluctance to implement them, on those at the coal face with little or no knowledge of the issues that are encountered. The raising of such issues are simply seen as an excuse, laziness or a reluctance to change. More often than not, the opposite is true, street level bureaucrats want change, but for the better not for the sake of it or to be seen to be doing something.
It is difficult to see how the appointment of a new czar will make a difference to suicide rates without fundamental changes in the way that policies and strategies are conceived. Those thinking of writing policy whether at the macro or micro, would do well to get a hold of Lipsky’s book and to reimagine the ‘real’ world.
Lipsky, M (1983) Street-Level Bureaucracy: dilemmas of the individual in public services, New York: Russell Foundation.
Hughes, D (ed) (1993) Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings, Random House, (ebook)