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Higher education, students, the strikes and me*
It was somewhat disappointing to read some of the comments purportedly from a university student in our local newspaper the other week. Critical of the current UCU industrial action and its impact on students, the student suggested that lecturers knew what they were signing up for and should just get on with it. I found it interesting and somewhat incongruent with what the national student union stance is (actually, I was livid). I know there has been a response to the article from the local union representative and other comments perhaps suggesting that my previous blog should be read (I wouldn’t think anyone in their right mind would have signed up for what I described). But just to be clear, I signed (or my union did on my behalf) a contract that states I am required to work 37 hours a week with the occasional evening or weekend work and that the normal working week is Monday to Friday. I take the meaning of ‘occasional’ as the definition found in the English dictionary (take your pick as to which one you’d like to use), which is not ‘permanently’ or ‘all of the time’ or ‘ad infinitum’. I can only speak for myself and not for my colleagues, but I don’t mind working a little longer at times and working the weekend to do marking or open days, but I didn’t sign up to be working all of the time. So, for me the industrial action is not just about my working conditions but about a contract, a legal obligation, which I am fulfilling but my employer seems to suggest that I am not because I am not working far in excess of my contracted hours. That to me, is illogical.
I remember a discussion where a senior manager stated that bullying included giving someone excessive workloads. I wonder whether that means that most lecturers are being bullied by management, isn’t there a policy against that? And then I seem to recall that there is some legislation against inequality, would that not include paying lower wages to women, disabled staff and people from minority ethnic groups? Systemic bullying and discrimination, not a pretty picture in higher education.
But perhaps the most important point is that as lecturers we don’t want to impact our student’s education, and this shouldn’t be about us versus the students. It’s what management would like because it detracts from so many issues that plague our higher education system. Students should quite rightly be unhappy with their lot. A system that plunges students into a lifetime of debt that they will rarely if ever be able to repay and at the same time lines the pockets of private companies seems to me to be immoral. A system that requires students to pay extortionate fees for accommodation is completely bonkers especially when it means the less affluent students have to work to afford to live. A system that requires students to study for approximately 46 hours per week in semester time (If we accept that they are entitled to holiday time) seems overly punitive. Couple this with the need to work to afford to live and it becomes unsustainable. Add to that any caring responsibilities or anything else that complicates their lives, and it starts to look impossible. I and my colleagues are not really surprised that so many fail to properly engage, if at all, and that there are so many stressed students and students with mental health issues. Of course, if we add to that individual capabilities, think unconditional offers and low school grades and let’s be honest widening participation becomes simply a euphemism for widening deBt, misery and, more importantly establishment profit.
The students were on strike for one day the other week, someone asked me why, well I rest my case. Whilst I understand student anger about the strikes, that anger is directed at the wrong people. We all signed up for something different and it’s simply not being delivered.
*The first part of this entry can be found here.
A Love Letter: in praise of the blog
This is my fourth “love letter”, it follows on from personal dedications to art, poetry and the writing of Agatha Christie. This one is the newest of my “loves” and also marks a celebration.
Yesterday marked the 5th birthday of the Thoughts From the Criminology Team blog. I’ve documented our history before, so don’t want to go over the same ground. However, it is worth mentioning that very soon we will have reached over 50,000 views across 129 countries. (Interesting fact, after the UK and the USA, our next biggest group of readers is based in Hong Kong). We’ve come a very long way from our first cautious forays into the blogsphere and today I want to celebrate the things that I love most about our blog.
First, it provides accountability, it means that even in the most difficult times when writers’ block hits, I have to write. It may not be my best writing, at times it is very loosely structured and when I look back I do wonder what was in my mind. Nevertheless, something was written, which means that something else can be written. It means my ideas are captured and can be explored further, combined with other ideas or even abandoned. Over time it has also enabled me to see what reoccurs enabling me to develop my academic and personal passions.
Second, it provides a refuge and solace for writers (and hopefully readers). This was most obvious during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic when we were rapidly releasing entries, sometimes on a daily basis. In total in 2020, the blog published 222 separate entries containing 190,226 words. To put that into context, in an “ordinary” year, we generally manage around 90 entries a year. It is fair to say our bloggers have explored this unprecedented time in many different way. This place of refuge and solace has also been very apparent in entries centred on Black Lives Matter. Most recently in can be observed in entries around the recent UCU industrial action, see here, here, here. here and here.*
In August 2011, following soon after the police shooting of Mark Duggan, riots broke out in many of our inner cities. I desperately wanted to discuss what was happening with my colleagues and students, but alas it was peak summer and everyone was away. This brings me to my third point, the blog allows writers to respond quickly to events happening, both in the UK and globally, in a way that isn’t always possible in the classroom (timing, constraints of the timetable and curriculum). For instance, responses to the sexual allegations against Prince Andrew, the Windrush scandal, the murder of George Floyd, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to name but a few. It also allows us to take part in national and global initiatives such as Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month and Amplify Melanated Voices giving more space to those too often excluded.
Fourth, it allows writers to focus on issues that are very close to them. For instance, the Hillsborough and Grenfell disasters and Black history. These are extremely difficult to address in a single blog entry, hence they are discussed by a variety of different authors approaching them in diverse ways. What is more important than answers is the space to explore these issues, without censorship and with room for others to also contribute an alternative perspective.
Fifth, the blog provides a place to showcase student and graduate excellence outside of institutional paremeters. For example our now annual ‘First Week Activity‘ offers the opportunity for students to work together to create posters on very current issues. in 2020/21 the criminological issues discussed were Knife Crime, Policing Protest and Creating Covid Criminals and our students demonstrated their criminological knowledge and understanding to a very high standard. The blog also provide a space for our newest (or soon to be) graduates to write about their dissertations as well as students and graduates to write about the things that excite their criminological imagination.
Sixth, it provides space for debate, discussion and most importantly, disagreement. A beautiful example of this is the two entries focusing on policing and racism, here and here. Similarly, discussions around misogyny, femicide and the murders of Sarah Everard and so many other women, here, here and here. Only through thoughtful and empathetic dialogue and exposure to different standpoints can we hope to gain the holistic understanding so imperative to criminology.
Seventh, there are no rules around blog writing, only the constraints provided by the medium. Those that write for the blog are provided with very generic guidance to allow them to decide how best to explore their subject, maybe through a short essay, complete with references, maybe in the style of a news article with lots of images, or perhaps through poetry. The choice is down to the individual blogger and very little in the way of copy editing, beyond the occasional correction of typo goes on behind the scenes.
By now it should be clear that my love for the blog is strong and unwavering. From the smallest of ideas, the blog has grown into something beautiful and inspiring, beyond my imagination in 2017. It has attracted a wonderful collective of very different people coming from all different standpoints and perspectives. Equally important there is space for many more voices to contribute. For sure, there is plenty more we can do, to provide space for more subjects, more bloggers, more perspectives, more initiatives and we will keep striving to offer this. Nevertheless, I am incredibly proud to have played a part and to continue to be involved in this joint enterprise as partners in criminology. Our blog is definitely something worth celebrating and not just on its birthday. To my fellow bloggers, I raise a glass, may we never lose the desire to argue, debate, discuss and continue to learn from each other.
*It is worth noting that in discussions around what constituted Action Short of a Strike [ASOS], the Criminology Team decided that the blog was too important to each of us to consider abandoning it, even for a short period time while industrial action is ongoing.
Poetry on prisons
Recently in CRI3001 Crime and Punishment we’ve been exploring prison poetry drawn from the volumes published by the fantastic Koestler Arts (some examples and inspiration can be found here). Students were inspired by this to write their own poems on prison and you will find some excellent examples below.
I sing to all of the spiders on the wall
They comfort me from my fear of the unknown
All the sounds outside as I lay here petrified
Of the consequences that lay ahead
Time is far behind my state of mindNoran
Deprived myself of the will to fight
For peaceful nights
Longing for the past,
Wanting to go back,
To change our future.
Living with regret,
Feeling sorry for hurting you,
Living in isolation,
Needing to hear from you.
Wondering if you’re doing well,
Do you remember me?
Are you moving on?
Do you like it?
Living on the outside?
Outside of these four walls.
These grey walls entrap me,
Every day I feel smaller.
Unimportant. I’m suffocating.
I hope the world hasn’t changed.
I hope everything stays the same.
So that one day, maybe
I could come back to youDanique
Between four walls for life.
I am but a shadow of my past self.
No amount of WIFI can ever reconnect what was lost.A
Prison is an escape, prison is a relief, prison is warm, prison is secure. Prison is easier than the cold, sleepless, torrid nights. Prison is not a punishment. Prison is a consolation.
Prison is lonely, prison is isolated. Prison does not help; it does not rehabilitate. Prison stops the time. Prison fails us.
Prison is opportunistic, prison allows me to be a leader, prison allows people to live in fear of me. Something I never was in the outside world.
Prison isn’t a one fits all, prison is individualised offender to offender. Does prison work? Is Prison effective? Is prison the way forward?Saiya
I Created This
Pulled up and stopped
Big iron gates spiked with fear and dread
he shouts “Clear” and gates open
with rumbling vibration
Why does this feel like the beginning of the end
Queueing quietly waiting turn for changing clothing
Wishing the view was slightly different
This is my home, the world is now distant
Showers cold and beds so hard
Waiting for the order from the guards
“Dinner served” I hear them shout
Hoping it’s not just bland
Thinking about roast dinners
This is my life, I created this
Given the chance, time and again,
But now this is my life, I created thisSKM
Poetry and other forms of literature offer the opportunity to explore criminological issues in a different medium. They allow for ideas to develop in a more natural way than academic conventions usually allow. As you can see from the poems above, our students rose to the challenge and embraced the opportunity to think differently about Criminology.
The pathology of performance management: obscuration, manipulation and power
My colleague @manosdaskalou’s recent blog Do we have to care prompted me to think about how data is used to inform government, its agencies and other organisations. This in turn led me back to the ideas of New Public Management (NPM), later to morph into what some authors called Administrative Management. For some of you that have read about NPM and its various iterations and for those of you that have lived through it, you will know that the success or failure of organisations was seen through a lens of objectives, targets and performance indicators or Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). In the early 1980s and for a decade or so thereafter, Vision statements, Mission statements, objectives, targets, KPI’s and league tables, both formal and informal became the new lingua franca for public sector bodies, alongside terms such as ‘thinking outside the box’ or ‘blue sky thinking’. Added to this was the media frenzy when data was released showing how organisations were somehow failing.
Policing was a little late joining the party, predominately as many an author has suggested, for political reasons which had something to do with neutering the unions; considered a threat to right wing capitalist ideologies. But policing could not avoid the evidence provided by the data. In the late 1980s and beyond, crime was inexorably on the rise and significant increases in police funding didn’t seem to stem the tide. Any self-respecting criminologist will tell you that the link between crime and policing is tenuous at best. But when politicians decide that there is a link and the police state there definitely is, demonstrated by the misleading and at best naïve mantra, give us more resources and we will control crime, then it is little wonder that the police were made to fall in line with every other public sector body, adopting NPM as the nirvana.
Since crime is so vaguely linked to policing, it was little wonder that the police managed to fail to meet targets on almost every level. At one stage there were over 400 KPIs from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, let alone the rest imposed by government and the now defunct Audit Commission. This resulted in what was described as an audit explosion, a whole industry around collecting, manipulating and publishing data. Chief Constables were held to account for the poor performance and in some cases chief officers started to adopt styles of management akin to COMPSTAT, a tactic born in the New York police department, alongside the much vaunted ‘zero tolerance policing’ style. At first both were seen as progressive. Later, it became clear that COMPSTAT was just another way of bullying in the workplace and zero tolerance policing was totally out of kilter with the ethos of policing in England and Wales, but it certainly left an indelible mark.
As chief officers pushed the responsibility for meeting targets downwards through so called Performance and Development Reviews (PDRs), managers at all levels became somewhat creative with the crime figures and manipulating the rules around how crime is both recorded and detected. This working practice was pushed further down the line so that officers on the front line failed to record crime and became more interested in how to increase their own detection rates by choosing to pick what became known in academic circles as’ low hanging fruit’. Easy detections, usually associated with minor crime such as possession of cannabis, and inevitably to the detriment of young people and minority ethnic groups. How else do you produce what is required when you have so little impact on the real problem? Nobody, perhaps save for some enlightened academics, could see what the problem was. If you aren’t too sure let me spell it out, the police were never going to produce pleasing statistics because there was too much about the crime phenomenon that was outside of their control. The only way to do so was to cheat. To borrow a phrase from a recent Inquiry into policing, this was quite simply ‘institutional corruption’.
In the late 1990s the bubble began to burst to some extent. A series of inquiries and inspections showed that the police were manipulating data; queue another media frenzy. The National Crime Recording Standard came to fruition and with it another audit explosion. The auditing stopped and the manipulation increased, old habits die hard, so the auditing started again. In the meantime, the media and politicians and all those that mattered (at least that’s what they think) used crime data and criminal justice statistics as if they were somehow a spotlight on what was really happening. So, accurate when you want to show that the criminal justice system is failing but grossly inaccurate when you can show the data is being manipulated. For the media, they got their cake and were scoffing on it.
But it isn’t just about the data being accurate, it is also about it being politically acceptable at both the macro and micro level. The data at the macro level is very often somehow divorced from the micro. For example, in order for the police to record and carry out enquiries to detect a crime there needs to be sufficient resources to enable officers to attend a reported crime incident in a timely manner. In one police force, previous work around how many officers were required to respond to incidents in any given 24-hour period was carefully researched, triangulating various sources of data. This resulted in a formula that provided the optimum number of officers required, taking into account officers training, days off, sickness, briefings, paperwork and enquiries. It considered volumes and seriousness of incidents at various periods of time and the number of officers required for each incident. It also considered redundant time, that is time that officers are engaged in activities that are not directly related to attending incidents. For example, time to load up and get the patrol car ready for patrol, time to go to the toilet, time to get a drink, time to answer emails and a myriad of other necessary human activities. The end result was that the formula indicated that nearly double the number of officers were required than were available. It really couldn’t have come as any surprise to senior management as the force struggled to attend incidents in a timely fashion on a daily basis. The dilemma though was there was no funding for those additional officers, so the solution, change the formula and obscure and manipulate the data.
With data, it seems, comes power. It doesn’t matter how good the data is, all that matters is that it can be used pejoratively. Politicians can hold organisations to account through the use of data. Managers in organisations can hold their employees to account through the use of data. And those of us that are being held to account, are either told we are failing or made to feel like we are. I think a colleague of mine would call this ‘institutional violence’. How accurate the data is, or what it tells you, or more to the point doesn’t, is irrelevant, it is the power that is derived from the data that matters. The underlying issues and problems that have a significant contribution to the so called ‘poor performance’ are obscured by manipulation of data and facts. How else would managers hold you to account without that data? And whilst you may point to so many other factors that contribute to the data, it is after all just seen as an excuse. Such is the power of the data that if you are not performing badly, you still feel like you are.
The above account is predominantly about policing because that is my background. I was fortunate that I became far more informed about NPM and the unintended consequences of the performance culture and over reliance on data due to my academic endeavours in the latter part of my policing career. Academia it seemed to me, had seen through this nonsense and academics were writing about it. But it seems, somewhat disappointingly, that the very same managerialist ideals and practices pervade academia. You really would have thought they’d know better.
Happy birthday and reflection on the (painful) art of writing
In November 2016, I had an idea that the Criminology team should create and maintain a blog. To that end I set up this account, put out a welcome message and then life (and Christmas, 2016) got in the way…. To cut a long story short, @manosdaskalou, @5teveh and I decided we’d give it a go, and on the 3 March 2017, @manosdaskalou broke our duck with the first post. This, of course, means we are celebrating the blog’s 4th birthday and it seems timely to reflect both on the blog and the (painful) art of writing.
Since that early foray the blog has published almost 500 times and has been read by almost 23,000 people from across the globe. As you can see from the map below, we still have a few areas of the globe to reach, so if you have contacts, be sure to let them know about us 🙂
To date, our most read individual entry comes from a current student @zeechee, followed closely behind by one of @manosdaskalou‘s contributions and then one from @treventoursu. But of course, the most popular page of all is the front page where the most current entries are. That’s not to say that some entries don’t crop up again and again, for instance @manosdaskalou‘s most popular entry went live in May 2017, @zeechee‘s in January 2020 and @treventoursu‘s in February 2020. Sometimes these things take time to find their audience, but it shows you can’t hide excellent writing and content finds a way through.
Over the past 4 years we have had contributions from a wide range of people, some have contributed just one or two, others more frequently and the three founding members (once started) have never stopped blogging. During this time, bloggers have covered an enormous range of different topics, some with more frequency than others. Of course, this year much of the content, whether intended or not, has had connections to the ongoing global pandemic. The blog for both writers and readers has offered some distraction, even if only 5 minutes escape whilst waiting for the kettle to boil, from the devastation wrought by Covid-19.
All of the above gives us much to celebrate, not least our stamina and perseverance, but says nothing about the art of writing which I’d like to reflect on now. By the time it’s live on the blog, the process is forgotten, until the next entry becomes due. For some people writing comes easily, for me, it doesn’t. I find all kinds of writing painful and often like pulling teeth. I know what I want to say, I have a reasonable vocabulary, knowledge of my discipline and a keen eye on current affairs. All of this is true until I start the writing process….
Some of my reluctance relates to my individual personality, some to my social class and some to my gender. It is probably the latter two which create the highest barriers and I find myself in a spiral or internalised argument around who would want to read this, why should they, everyone knows this and on and on ad nauseum until I either write the sodding thing or very rarely, give up in disgust at my own ineptitude. I know this is irrational and I know that I have written many thousands of words in my lifetime, most largely forgotten in the fog of time, but still, every time the barriers shoot up. What makes it worse is that I can generally fulfil what ever writing brief I am confronted with, but only after a gargantuan battle of wills with myself.
Despite this a couple of things have helped considerably. The first is a talk originally give by Virginia Woolf in 1931. In this very short piece, entitled ‘Professions for Women’, Woolf details similar struggles, much more eruditely than I have, in relation to writing as a women.
The obstacles against her are still immensely powerful—and yet they are very difficult to define. Outwardly, what is simpler than to write books? Outwardly, what obstacles are there for a woman rather than for a man? Inwardly, I think, the case is very different; she has still many ghosts to fight, many prejudices to overcome. Indeed it will be a long time still, I think, before a woman can sit down to write a book without finding a phantom to be slain, a rock to be dashed against.Woolf, 1931
She also names the internal conflict the ‘Angel in the House’. For Woolf, this creature has to be murdered in order for the female writer to make progress. For someone, like me committed to non-violence/pacifism, killing, even of an imaginary creature, is challenging, so instead I get in a few nudges, make my ‘angel’ agree to be quiet, even if only for a short time. As Woolf alludes, some days this works well, other times not so much, acknowledging that even when dead, the angel continues to undermine. Nevertheless this short essay helped me to understand that my so-called foibles were actually shared by other women and were formed during our socialisation. Because of this, I have regularly recommended to female students that they have a read and see if it helps them too.
The other thing that has really helped is the blog. The commitment to write regularly, to a deadline, has helped considerably. Although I know that I’m part of a team equally committed to the success of the blog, makes a difference. It ensures accountability. Of course, I could call on anyone of my colleagues to cover my slot, but I would be doing that knowing that I am adding to another person’s workload. Alternatively, I could opt not to write and leave a gapping hole on the blog that day/week, but again that would be letting down everyone on the blogging team, we all have a part to play. So sometimes reluctantly, other times with anger, still more times with passion, the words eventually come. I cannot speak for my fellow bloggers but I can say with some certainty blogging has done wonders for me in terms of accountability, not to mention the pleasure of working with a group of interesting and exciting writers on a regular basis.
Why not join us?
Criminology is everywhere!
When I think back to thinking about choosing a degree, way back when, I remember thinking Criminology would be a good choice because it is specific in terms of a field: mainly the Criminal Justice System (CJS). I remember, naively, thinking once I achieved my degree I could go into the Police (a view I quickly abandoned after my first year of studies), then I thought I could be involved in the Youth Justice System in some capacity (again a position abandoned but this time after year 2). And in third year I remember talking to my partner about the possibility of working in prisons: Crime and Punishment, and Violence: from domestic to institutional (both year 3 modules) kicked that idea to the curb! I remember originally thinking Criminology was quite narrow and specific in terms of its focus and range: and oh my was I wrong!
Whilst the skills acquired through any degree transcend to a number of career paths, what I find most satisfying about Criminology, is how it infiltrates everything! A recent example to prove my point which on the outside may have nothing to do with Criminology, when in actual fact it could be argued it has criminological concepts and ideas at its heart is the 2015 film: Jurassic World. It is no secret that I am a huge lover of Crichton novels but also dinosaurs. But what I hope to illustrate is how this film is excellent, not just in relation to dinosaur content: but also in relation to one of my interests in Criminology.
Jurassic World, for those of you who have not had the pleasure of viewing, focuses on the re-creation of a Jurassic Park, sporting new attractions, rides and dinosaurs in line with the 21st century. The Indominus Rex is a genetically modified hybrid which is ‘cooked-up’ in the lab, and is the focus of this film. Long story short, she escapes, hunts dinosaurs and people for sport, and is finally killed by a joint effort from the Tyrannosaurus, Blue the Velociraptor and the Mosasaurus: YAY! But what is particularly Criminological, in my humble opinion, is the focus and issues associated with the Indominus Rex being raised in isolation with no companionship in a steeled cage. Realistically, she lives her whole life in solitary confinement, and the rangers, scientists and management are then shocked that she has 0 social skills, and goes on a hunting spree. She is portrayed in the film as a villain of sorts, but is she really?
Recently in Violence: from domestic to institutional, we looked at the dangers and harms of placing individuals in solitary confinement or segregation. Jurassic World demonstrates this: albeit with a hybrid dinosaur which is fictitious. The dangers, and behaviours associated with the Indominus Rex are symbolic to the harms caused when we place individuals in prison. The space is too small, there is no interaction, empathy or relationships formed with the dinosaur apart from with the machine that feeds it. The same issues exist when we look at the prison system and it raises questions around why society is shocked when individuals re-offend. The Indominus Rex is a product of her surroundings and lack of relationships: there are some problematic genes thrown in there too but we shall leave that to one side for now.
There are a number of criminological issues evident in Jurassic World, (have a watch and see) and all of the Jurassic Park movies. Criminology is everywhere: in obvious forms and not so obvious forms. The issues with the prison system, segregation specifically, transcend to schools and hospitals, society in general and to dinosaurs in a fictional movie. Criminology, and with it critical thinking, is everywhere: even in the Lego Movie where everything is awesome! Conformity and deviance wrapped up in colourful bricks and catchy tunes: have a watch and see…