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#CriminologyBookClub: The Yellow Room

In times of crisis it is beneficial to occupy yourself with things to do. This helps us to cope with boredom, and to distract us from the bleakness of reality. What better way to help with this than to start a book club? That’s right, whilst some of us were sitting at home twiddling our thumbs, @paulaabowles had sent us all a book that we were to read and discuss in virtual book club meetings. Little did we know that this book club was to be our very own ray of sunshine during such an unprecedented time.

Our first book is The Yellow Room by Mary Robert Rinehart (dubbed the American Agatha Christie by the blurb, which is generous). Set in Maine (USA) during WWII, this is a classic whodunit crime novel. With the wealthy Spencer family finding themselves tangled in a web of evidence that instigates their involvement with a dead woman that is found in the closet of their holiday home. The book is filled with intrigue and the plot thickens with each chapter, with more and more clues being thrown into the mix. Until too much is thrown in, and what is left of the book is quite simply… a mess.

The book consists of 30 chapters, and we think the club is in agreeance that the first 20-24 chapters are pretty great. Rinehart throws a number of spanners in the works, with near misses, burning hillsides, death by frights, illegitimate children and secret marriages. We all had our theories, some boarding on plagiarism (they know who they are!). However as it turns out a few of us were half right, and then so were some of the others. We will not give away any spoilers, but the ending, the answer we were all waiting for was disappointing and quite frankly we are still not 100% sure who did it, and what was actually done. The leading lady of the book Carol Spencer, dubbed drippy Carol by the club, because she is, well… DRIPPY, does nothing but smoke and drink coffee, whilst surrounded by crime and uncertainty. But, alas, when all is righted, she finds herself in the arms of an arrogant moody man, all happily engaged! Possibly a romance (although a bad one) or possible a classic whodunit (a half decent one), who can tell?

Overall the book was a success: it inspired intrigue and discussion! The virtual book club even more so! A bunch of misfits, gathered together (20minutes after the allotted time because one member of the group is late- @manosdaskalou), discussing the book, thinking about the social context, the characters, and how it is received today. It is a fantastic virtual club consisting of familiar suspects: the princess, the athlete, the criminal, the brain, the basket case, the parent and the “carol” (representations may not be literal or accurate). What will the misfits think of the next book? Will they all agree? Will one read ahead and sit silently and sheepishly, without the others knowing? Stay tuned…

@jesjames50 and @haleysread – founding members of the #CriminologyBookClub

Love Film: You Can’t Blame The Youth

Some Like It Hot 1959 (United Artists)

On the basis of a reliable academic study, research by The University’s top senior lecturers on Criminology, I am by their words and definition “the Youth of Today.” However, my younger brother (age 12) is The Youth of Tomorrow. In our group chat, this ongoing conversation (now months old) also includes (not Harvard) references to The Youth of Yesterday (age 30+) or Yesteryear (if you’re ancient, ahem). It’s really quite amusing. Am I The Youth of Today? I hadn’t listened to any Stormzy until he did Glastonbury and our conversations around “Vossi Bop” really are worthy of critical acclaim. Is one’s youth status pigeon-holed to their date of birth?

By the time I was 17, I had watched most of Hitchcock’s catalogue and I think Woody Allen is one of the funniest writers alive (despite his controversy). Is this the point in the blog where I need to mention someone other than a White man? Again, another point of discussion in our chats. Diversity. So, true to form, I have seen the entire filmography of Vivien Leigh. I think Diane Keaton is understated in The Godfather films and Claudine with Diahann Carroll is underrated, and should be on seminal film lists when we talk about working-class life in America. It’s a lesson to us now in Britain, haunted by depressions of austerity and universal credit.

If the conversations around the different levels of Youths could be conflated to a GIF, it would be this one, also the fact @manosdaskalou hadn’t seen Toy Story until lockdown!

Yet, this blog isn’t about group chats, but generalisations. Are today’s youth beyond the grasp of Old Hollywood or even films made before the 2000s that aren’t franchise, or nostalgia pictures like Jumanji? I aim this question at The Youth of Tomorrow too (born post-7/7). Is it true? Maybe, maybe not. The idea remains that many people despite age are still dismissive of Old Hollywood in general, and the classic films made before the 1990s.

Criminology senior lecturer @paulaabowles has an affinity for Agatha Christie but seldom do I hear young people talk about Agatha when thinking crime stories, be it literature or not. I hear much love for Idris Elba as DI John Luther. Yet, it is arguable to say there would be no modern whodunnit without the massive contributions of crime writer Agatha Christie, who a century ago was defining the things we now we would call clichés. These people are seriously missing out by dismissing “The Old”. All it takes is the right story to alter perceptions, changing minds forever.

I do love to read, but film / the moving-image is more my thing. One of my favourite films is Mr Smith Goes to Washington. I’m of that generation that some of the boomer generation are talking about when they say “kids today” in relation to not enjoying the films that were around in their youth. I watched this film when I was 19 and I still am surprised by how complex yet simple it is. Audiences who have watched things like Veep, Netflix’s House of Cards or Thick of It will get on with James Stewart as Mr Smith.

Agatha Christie was the author of many crime novels, including: Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile and the ABC Murders; for more info, @paulaabowles

Its searing portrayal of how systems of power crush good people just wanting to do the right thing can still be seen in society today; from politics to policing, exploring corruption and greed in the deeply flawed human imagination whilst simultaneously acting as a commentary for humanity’s blitz spirit in a film, which I would not be surprised influenced Stan Lee in creating the character of Captain America in 1941. No matter how hard you try, what keeps human beings going is their determination to fight on.

I could be offended at people that say my generation “wouldn’t know a good film if it was staring at them in the face” because “Hollywood only now makes films for sixteen year-olds and China” (both real quotes) but I’m not, because in my experience outside of online film groups on Facebook, and Film Twitter, I have seen this to be true. I will never forget the time when a former-colleague refused to watch Ridley Scott’s Alien because it was old.

When people ask me for recommendations, I need to get a notion of that person’s likes first in case I get a repeat Alien situation (I am still salty about this) Nonetheless, I think everyone should watch classic cinema, including black and white films, as they are some of the best films ever made.

In a time now where sex sells, another in for classic cinema would be to introduce them to Old Hollywood through pictures like Some Like It Hot. Most people have heard of Marilyn Monroe, and the Youth of Today or Yesterday may in fact be seduced by the “crude” title and its star, only then to get mesmerised by a God-ordained masterpiece of American cinema, mixing film noir with banter and action, a film that is certainly not boring.

Woody Allen and Diane Keaton (Annie Hall 1977, United Artists)

Though, very much a product of the late 1960s, To Sir with Love hasn’t aged a day. Growing up in a household where education and learning were core values, watching this film at 20 was a homecoming for me. Only to then screen it at the Students’ Union as part of Black History Month 2019. It reminds me of today in how we are in a sector where many students don’t want to learn and many teachers don’t want to teach, before we even get to issues of disparities of outcomes between different student groups.

Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier) is the teacher we all wish we had, and certainly an entrance into Old Hollywood for The Youth of Tomorrow, let alone the wonderful song by Lu Lu. To Sir, with Love is optimistic while still commenting on social issues, including race and class. It’s pure of heart in its ideas about British education but also access to education for poor working-class communities in the East End of London. Moreover, how teaching back then was a noble profession and a pillar of the community.

If “kids today” are to have access to these films, it will often be how I had access to them. Through a clunky VHS system at school watching things for English class like Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire. I will never forget the time my brother asked me what a VHS was. And I then thought I had failed my duties. Or am I just passed it? Does he think I’m ancient? I think we’re at DVD now, or even BluRay? Who decides what a classic is? That’s another question and that debate will have to wait for another time.

Claudine 1974 (20th Century Fox)

Do kids today know who Steven Spielberg is? He has had a defining film for every decade of his career. Surely, they know who he is? They must have watched Jaws? Sometimes, I want to despair but I was in their position once, possibly when I was in nappies. I think I might have had grey hair then too. As we all sit in lockdown, there is no better time to watch the epics. Whilst many of us will be bingeing the likes of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, what about the epics of the silver screens of Old Hollywood?

When talking to young people, we do often look at how accessible a film is, and whether it’s in high definition? Those are two selling points. Gone with the Wind, Giant, Lawrence of Arabia, Cleopatra, Doctor Zhivago, Spartacus, Ben-Hur – these are some of my favourite epics. Cleopatra sits at a wholesome 5hrs 20mins. These were event films in the same way we court Lord of the Rings today. We don’t get many event films anymore but you can’t blame the youth for not knowing what they do not know.

And with a massive diversity of content across streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime as well, do the Youth of Today (and Tomorrow) need older films, or am I locked in the time trap of nostalgia and golden age thinking?

Hate crime in The Period Drama fanbase is endemic

Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie always brings truth to power!

After reading a blog by History’s Drew Grey on ‘Racism, Diversity and Contested Histories: Some Reflection on Christmas Just Past’, I began to think about my favourite television genre (by some distance), the Period Costume Drama. Reading his post took me back to when I saw David Olusoga presenting Black and British for the first time on the BBC, but more specifically his monologues about mixed-race families in Georgian Britain. Whilst Drew’s post boasts diversity in the latest adaptation of A Christmas Carol (based on the Charles Dickens story) by Peaky Blinders‘ Stephen Knight, diversity in the Period Drama fanbase is a contentious discussion.

David Oyelowo is my favourite British actor

His post reminded me of my dissertation where I was looking at my roots. Finding myself. Lost in my race-identity politics, it feels like a decade ago reading Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talk to White People About Race for the first time. A text that colleague and blogger @paulaabowles calls “a machine gun,” (with a smirk). It’s simply relentless. However, it was David Oyelowo’s quote in the Radio Times that’s stayed with me ever since.

“We make period dramas [in Britain], but there are almost never any black people in them, even though we’ve been on these shores for hundreds of years. I remember taking a historical drama with a black figure at its centre to a British executive with greenlight power, and what they said was if it’s not Jane Austen or Dickens, the audience do not understand.” – David Oyelowo (in Eddo-Lodge, p55)

Oyelowo goes on to say “I thought – OK – you are stopping people having a context for the country they live in and you are marginalising me.” So, is it any wonder why so many of our Black actors have gone to Hollywood and made it big? Idris Elba made it as Stringer Bell in The Wire before we knew him as DCI John Luther. Oyelowo was Martin Luther King in Selma (as well as his British co-star Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King), and has had roles in The Help, Queen of Katwe and Disney’s Star Wars Rebels. John Boyega was in Star Wars and Daniel Kaluuya slayed as Chris Washington in Get Out.

Whilst many of these works aren’t all costume pieces, the fact that Black actors have to go overseas bothers me. Yet, Black History to British audiences has always been African-American history. To find Black British history, you really have to look for it. So, when we see characters like Kitty Despard (Poldark) or Miss Lambe (Sanditon) or even Dev Patel as David in the upcoming The Personal History of David Copperfield, it’s in opposition to the histories we think we know, the histories we were taught at school.

So, why is there such a backlash to non-White people in this genre? Is it one more example of Black and brown people being where they shouldn’t? You know Black faces in White spaces? From the streets of Georgian London to Walter Tull mobbed by 20,000 Bristol fans in 1909. Or is it a consequence of a population bludgeoned by historical misinformation? After all, isn’t the best way to have complacent people, to cut them off from knowledge? And if you don’t know your own history, do you know who you really are?

Sarah Forbes Bonnetta
Photo Credit: Camille Silvy (September 1862)

In the same century Charles Dickens was writing about Jacob Marley, Scrooge and Tiny Tim, Queen Victoria’s African goddaughter Sarah Forbes Bonnetta was growing up in England wondering the streets of London, as “part of Britain’s imperial project.” It’s the story of Black Victorians, many of which could “only be told through the words of others” (Olusoga, p331).

Whilst these discussion forums, are majorly female, they are some of the most misogynistic places I’ve seen on the internet. There’s one Facebook group where I have been labelled a “troublemaker” for calling out racism and homophobia, as many members are also American, card-carrying Republicans who voted for Donald Trump. And feminism is only White. They see intersectionality as an inconvenient myth and the stories of non-White women in history an afterthought. That’s how White Privilege works.

This culture of hate against non-normative voices is dominant in the Fandom Menace, as I like to call it. The online forums are infested with racism, misogyny and homophobia: from Gentleman Jack to Beecham House, Drew’s descriptions of the backlash to the mixed-race Cratchit family act as a metaphor for a toxic fanbase, and contesting these histories can often be a homophobic act, a racist act, even if it’s born from ignorance.

There is an endemic problem within society, where we allow older generations, including “sweet old ladies” in The Period Drama fanbase to get away with hate speech because that’s “how they are” and they “don’t really know any different.”

What’s more, and what was great about A Christmas Carol was how unapologetic the makers were about their diversity. This family were Black and they were White. This was mixed-race Britain in the 19th century. Moreover, Mary Cratchit and how Black women take on everyone’s emotional labour. Be it modern times or Victorian times, Black women are in the business of saving grown-ass men from their own emotional work!

Mixed-race inclusion is a testament to our history and a thumb bite to Englishness as a synonym for whiteness, and the colonised imperatives that continue to dominant storytelling, as said (but not so bluntly) by Darren Chetty in ‘You Can’t Say That! Stories Have to be About White People‘. Due to the inherent whiteness of institutions, they recruit in their own image, and history is no different. What’s that saying about apples and trees?

Mary Cratchit in A Christmas Carol

Certain members of the Period Drama community would like to believe Britain was only White before the 1950s. No, it’s simply the establishment has done a grand job of writing us out of British history books, but Black people have been part of every era of British history. I can tell you that.

BBC’s A Christmas Carol shows why representation matters and that history is not only the responsibility of historians. Artists also carry the load of telling these social histories (that’s what Dickens is) accurately and they can do better when it comes to the spectrum of diversity in the Period Drama.

And due to how History has been taught to every generation at all levels of education, is it surprising I encounter “sweet old ladies” using “historical (in)accuracy,” as a conduit to enable their racist, homophobic and misogynistic views?

Works Mentioned

Chetty, D. (2017). You Can’t Say That! Stories Have to Be About White People. In: Shukla, N (ed). The Good Immigrant. London: Unbound Publishing, pp. 96 – 107.

Kwakye, C and Ogunbiyi, O. (2019). Taking Up Space. London: Merky Books.

Lodge-Eddo, R. (2017). Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury.

Olusoga, D. (2017). Black and British. London: Macmillan.

Thinking “outside the box”

@alisonhodson3

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ignorance to curiosity

My name is Sean, I started  studying Criminology at the University of Northampton in 2012, graduating in July 2016.

I started University as a switched off young man. I was very much in tune with media and social attitudes as wearing them cost very little and seemed to reap gratification. Studying was always enjoyable as it sparked my brain in ways television and games, or at least my choices in such, didn’t. Appreciating the concept and the opportunity however was always lacking in my 18 year old self. Coming to University and experiencing the electricity of passion mixed with contempt was very perplexing time. Not for long had I decided to think freely or passionately; choosing to study Criminology was a start. Meeting peers and idols of simultaneous do-good and work little nature, was an intense influence. Gratification ultimately came from within and this was the basis to which I began to restructure myself.

Personally, the highest credit should be placed with my course leaders and the content provided. Never in an academical setting  had I experienced someone ask me so many questions, yet rather than make me feel stupid; made me feel unprepared. Rather than build themselves up to be superior and towering; made them feel wise and welcoming. It was this, paired with the already enticingly dark yet morally complex content of Criminology that lead to me to free many barriers and much ignorance. This is when the real questions followed and the search for real answers began. Never before had I truly questioned what I had read, seen, heard, even felt or experienced and wholly  questioned myself.

This change truly opened a new way of living for me. I am fully aware that such reasoning and ways of thinking could been explored previously, however it was my ignorance and choices, rebellion and ego,  that locked these gates. In reference to the timeless ‘Nature vs Nurture’ topic; it was within my path that University, Criminology, @paulaabowles and @manosdaskalou were to be the ones to trigger the break in the lock. Now, admittedly, this was not just an overnight spawning of a butterfly from a larva. I still, like many in life, held onto what was familiar with a tight grasp as for an ignorant; change is to admit defeat. Furthermore, to change, to really change, requires dedication and belief. But once logically thinking, questioning and reasoning, alongside giving in to pure curiosity; it is extremely hard not to follow the exciting direction within a moral compass.

From here I can genuinely say I have enjoyed life more and all of its experiences. I have appreciated people more, and taken much more time to try and understand exactly where they stand and come from. I have spent a long time questioning everything, looking for answers or options wherever I can, trying to better myself as a human and continuing to do so. I am honestly far from where I would like to ideally be, but I am truly proud of my experience and change. When I finished University I saw this as the end of my further education, and having worked full time for a few years I could feel my curiosity shift towards less academic interests and the passion begin to fade. However it was not long before a shift back began. This is where I came to a conclusion, which fills me with a happy heart when taken with a positive perspective, that we are all students; students of life. The stronger my curiosity is, the more passionately I will study. So thank you, Criminology Team, for igniting mine. I intend to try and share this passion wherever I go.

Which mindset are you? This may depend on the sort of week you are having…..

foucault

 

This blog is inspired by an article posted on our Facebook group by my colleague @paulaabowles, from the work of Dweck (2016), suggesting mindsets can be categorised as either growth or fixed. It is interesting to consider how such a mindset can shape the way your life goes, but for me, any psychological analysis is always just part of the picture. That said, Dweck’s work is interesting and made me reflect on my life up until this week. This is a week where I seem to be waiting patiently (mostly) for acceptance of PhD corrections and to exchange contracts on my new house. Both of these processes are out of my control, require continued patience and a need to accept there is nothing I can do but wait.

For a lot of reasons, I immediately identified with the ‘growth’ mindset, being open to challenges, seeing intelligence as something to be nurtured and developed, worth the effort, understanding the need to learn from mistakes and being inspired by others. The other seems to me a life of stagnation, dismissal of anything new and creating a world which may be low risk, but ultimately unfulfilling. The fixed mindset also presents intelligence and success as something you are born with and therefore little effort is required to fulfil potential – almost as if life is mapped out for you, but it also belies a sense of entitlement, and inability to deal with failure as a challenge to move on from. However, if you are not somehow ‘blessed’ with the tools necessary for success, you must accept your fate. There are obvious social and cultural influences which can reinforce these messages, so perhaps, a fixed mindset leading to a life of success aligns with a life of privilege, but a life without this success identifies someone who cannot see a way to improve, blames others for their misfortune and doesn’t value their own ability to change. My parents always taught me the value of education (well, a lecturer and a teacher – of course they would!), and I never felt any limits were placed on me. But a big part of this must be attributed to me not facing the limits placed on individuals facing poverty, loss, psychological trauma or physical disabilities – my life, so far has largely been the outcomes of my decisions, and I count myself lucky to be able to say that.

That’s not to say I haven’t doubted my abilities, suffered ‘impostor syndrome’ and come up against challenges which have tested my resolve. It seems having a ‘growth’ mindset perhaps enables individuals to strive despite what life throws at you, and also despite how others may perceive you.

So, back to my week of waiting patiently and trying not to let anxieties come to the fore. Being able to call myself Dr Atherton and having my own house in the town I also work in is something I am really looking forward to, for obvious reasons. Years of work on the thesis and years of commuting from Birmingham to various parts of the Midlands (I know the M6 far too well) are about to lead to significant rewards. However, it also occurred to me none of this would be happening if I had given up on the PhD, stayed in a job which was not right for me, decided to carry on commuting and not made this decision to buy a house. It also occurred to me perhaps having a fixed mindset would be less stressful – you have to admit, my timing is spot on – but I don’t think that is the case. I chose the PhD and new job path because I was not happy, I chose to buy a house as M6 commuting is just not something I want to do anymore, and I want to feel more settled in my new post. As for the PhD, I knew I needed time away from a full-time job to complete it, and while it was risky to leave a permanent post, it seems my mindset pushed me to strive for something which was a better fit for me. My mindset helped me believe this was all possible, crucially it was down to me to do this and also, support from friends, family, ex and current colleagues have helped get me here. But, my social and economic circumstances also enabled all of this – we cannot just assume that psychological tools can overcome disadvantage, discrimination and a lack of opportunity.

Dweck suggests that these mindsets are a ‘view you adopt for yourself’. Fixed mindsets can impede development and the belief in change, and they also seem to create people whose concerns about others’ perceptions of them can be all-consuming, and no doubt lead to them avoiding situations where they will be judged. Those with the growth mindset see their traits as a starting point, from which anything can happen and they value the unknowable – the opportunities ahead, the hurdles and rewards. The fixed mindset creates a different kind of stress, a constant need for affirmation of beliefs, disregard of the need to adapt to changing circumstances, and god forbid, simply go with the flow. As much as I identify with the growth mindset, I can empathise with those who simply are unable to take risks, accept failure and manage the unknowable – there are times I have wanted to give up, take the easy path and feel more in control.

A day after starting this blog, the clouds parted and the sun shone down as the much-awaited email from the De Montfort University Doctoral College came to confirm my PhD corrections were accepted and I was to be awarded my doctorate. Suddenly after weeks of anxiety, the reward was certainly worth the wait. There will be plenty of days ahead to bask in the glory and enjoy this moment, and just for now, it is making me worry less about the house exchange, it will happen, I will be settled in my new home soon and enjoy a short drive to work for the first time in years.  So, I will continue to strive, develop and take risks – not doing this may have meant a less anxious time this week, but they also lead to great rewards, and hopefully, even better things to come.

 

Dr. Susie Atherton

Senior Lecturer in Criminology

 

Why you should trust your work

design, desk, display

Bethany Davies is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first year.

It is only human to doubt yourself in certain situations; however, academia can be a problematic situation to doubt your ideas and abilities. It can lead you to change your standpoint unnecessarily and also create so much stress that you give up on an idea or project entirely.

I deal with this less so now since my university experience but still regularly and I felt it may provide comfort to those currently studying or recently graduated, these examples are personal and are only two of many. In particular I want to address doubting your own ideas and work and how important it is to keep challenging those thoughts.

Upon starting university, my first ‘big essay’ (I describe this with humour as it was 3000 words, but as a first year that can seem like quite the ask) was a biographical assignment. This assignment required an interview with a family member or anyone who would be willing to talk to you and to apply that to research by highlighting some key events/accomplishments. I feared writing that essay as I had many friends with parents who were lawyers or grandparents who had been in the war or immigrants. These stories surely would be so interesting and my essay on my dad who worked in a warehouse would be seen as boring, perhaps. This was my first experience with fear and doubt over my work, but then I did the interview, wrote the essay, took a deep breath and submitted. Turns out it was one of my favourite pieces of work and the programme leaders liked it. It was an honest essay and while not glamorous, it was personal to me and that made the approval and grade that more rewarding.

In my second year, I conducted my placement at a probation office and based my research around a case study of one male who was doing an English class and aimed to discuss the success of that class. After around 8 weeks of observations and an interview with the male. I went to my seminar leader at the time (@paulaabowles) in a complete panic and almost teary-eyed. I told her how I felt my research was not good enough because the male was lying to me, in fact he was almost lying to the whole probation experience as he was more or less just turning up to tick the boxes he needed but then conducting his behaviour differently to me in certain situations and the interview. I felt I had failed as a researcher and also as a teacher almost, as I was assisting in the teaching of the class he was in. I was then told some of the great truths of research and also why I had not failed and actually I had done very well.  My research was good research and I just had not realised it. The research didn’t find what I wanted it to, in fact it found the opposite, which was still good research. My research which I had titled ‘Playing the system’ had actually proved to not be a failure and my doubts were unnecessary but not anything to be ashamed of.  As in my quest at the time to find answers of why was I such a ‘bad researcher’ and interviewer, I found a plethora of other people online and among peers with the same doubts over some great work they had produced.

Whether it be doubts or fear of speaking up in fear of failure or sounding stupid, I hope others may be able to see not only are they not alone, but actually you are normal because of these doubts. We should just maybe work on believing in our work more and not waiting to get the approval of others for those ideas. With this I feel it is fitting to use one of my favourite quotes from Bertrand Russell:

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”

“Letters from America”: Why do we even bother?

tracy bed

As I sit in one of those busy hotel cafés writing these lines, worrying that someone will spill their double decaf latte with a dash of hazelnut, over my laptop, I wonder.  What is the point to a conference?  Why seemingly normal academics will spend any time in hotels next to noisy honeymooners or loud party people who like to play their tunes at 03:00?

As we finished our first session the other day, in keeping with our own tradition, we overran, we sat and had a long discussion of the key points we got out of the session. The discussion was very interesting to talk to people who may do something similar to you, but so very different.  “Comparing notes” has always been one of those processes in academia that promote understanding and enhance the way we learn.

The conference for any discipline is a mass gathering of professionals that do just that; exchange ideas and engage in discussions about the discipline and its practices away from all the other less academic endeavours of the profession.

Usually conferences carry a theme, our conference the theme this year is “Crime, Legitimacy and Reform”.  I found it interesting, considering the sessions we are presenting, focus on subverting facets of an established penal institution into providing higher education classes and altering ever so slightly some of its founding principles.  Reform?  Perhaps, but definitely an attempt to address a profound disciplinary question what are prisons for?  This is a question that considers if prison is a relevant institution for a 21st century society.  Education in prisons is not a novel idea, but introducing HE education inside a carceral environment provides a new suggestion of what prisons might be for.  Clearly this is something worth debating and this week we have been exploring some of the aspects of our work and research.

In a group discussion after one session, we identified the principle ideas of our approach to HE in prisons.  The notions of mutual respect, equity for all and educational purpose are the things we identify as the most important.  It was interesting to hear the responses from other delegates who seemed to have slightly different views about who ought to participate in such an educational initiative.  Sessions such as these allows me to reflect also on what we do.  One of the thoughts, I have had regarding the educational approach we have taken, is whether we “normalise” incarceration in a way that justifies/legitimises its hold as an established penal institution rather than challenging its authority (as @paulaabowles asks, quite graphically, is it better to be inside the tent and pissing outside than be outside the tent pissing in?!)  Leaving colourful metaphors to one side, the question of what is the obligation/duty of a modern day criminologist regarding criminal justice institutions remains. In essence, should it be different from before; what Liebling calls; a critical friend towards all those institutions of control or not?

Finally the conference is where trends and ideas come to be tested, explored and debated.  I remember being in one session back in 2000, when one colleague said; looking into the new century and predicting that the main concern for criminology will be youth crime and initiatives to control it.  A year later, 9/11 made terrorism an emerging priority and the collective discussion shifted quite dramatically.

What are conferences for? A great deal of academic discourse…and an interaction that reaffirms why we care so deeply for our discipline

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