Paula Bowles has taught Criminology at the University of Northampton since 2010. Her research interests focus on historical criminology, zemiology, state and institutional violence.
In childhood, I loved numbers, the ability to manipulate, rearrange, reorder, substitute one for another, to create symmetry and yet always end up with an answer. Numbers were as abstract as a jigsaw puzzle, lots of meaningless pieces that, if assembled in the right way, meant that eventually the whole picture would emerge. Along the way the process could go awry, but there was always certainty, always an answer: a solution to the problem. Importantly, that puzzle or equation could be tackled again and again, and provided all the pieces were in order, the solution would be rendered visible once more.
In adult life, my love of numbers has dissipated, primarily because of their application to people. With a global population inexorably heading toward 8 billion…
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As I am outside the prison walls on another visit I look at the high walls that keep people inside incarcerated. This is an institution designed to keep people in and it is obvious from the outside. This made me wonder what is a University designed for? Are we equally obvious to the communities in which we live as to what we are there for? These questions have been posed before but as we embark in a new educational environment I begin to wonder.
There are city universities, campuses in towns and the countryside, new universities and of course old, even, medieval universities. All these institutions have an educational purpose in common at a high level but that is more or less it. Traditionally, academia had a specific mandate of what they were meant to be doing but this original focus was coming from a era when computers, the electronic revolution and the knowledge explosion were unheard of. I still amuse my students by my recollections of going through an old library, looking at their card catalogue in order to find the books I wanted for my essay.
Since then, email has become the main tool for communication and blackboard or other virtual learning environments are growing into becoming an alternative learning tool in the arsenal of each academic. In this technologically advanced, modern world it is pertinent to ask if the University is the environment that it once was. The introduction of fees, and the subsequent political debates on whether to raise the fees or get rid of them altogether. This debate has also introduced an consumerist dimension to higher education that previous learners did not encounter. For some colleagues this was a watershed moment in the mandate of higher education and the relationship between tutor and tutee. Recently, a well respected colleague told me how inspired she was to pursue a career in academia when she watched Willy Russell’s theatrical masterpiece Educating Rita. It seems likely that this cultural reference will be lost to current students and academics. A clear sign of things moving on.
So what is a University for in the 21st century? In my mind, the university is an institution of education that is open to its community and accessible to all people, even those who never thought that Higher Education is for them. Physically, there may not be walls around but for many people who never had the opportunity to enjoy a higher education, there may be barriers. It is perhaps the purpose of the new university to engage with the community and invite the people to embrace it as their community space. Our University’s relocation to the heart of the town will make our presence more visible in town and it is a great opportunity for the University to be reintroduced to the local community. As one of the few Changemaker universities in the country, a title that focuses on social change and entrepreneurship, connecting with the community is definitely a fundamental objective. In this way it will offer its space up for meaningful discussions on a variety of issues, academic or not, to the community saying we are a public institution for all. After all, this is part of how we understand criminology’s role. In a recent discussion we have been talking about criminology in the community; a public criminology. One of the many reasons why we work so hard to teach criminology in prisons.
One of the seasonal discussions we have at social fora is how early the Christmas celebrations start in the streets, shops and the media. An image of snowy landscapes and joyful renditions of festive themes that appear sometime in October and intensify as the weeks unforld. It seems that every year the preparations for the festive season start a little bit earlier, making some of us to wonder why make this fuss? Employees in shops wearing festive antlers and jumpers add to the general merriment and fun usually “enforced” by insistent management whose only wish is to enhance our celebratory mood. Even in my classes some of the students decided to chip in the holiday fun wearing oversized festive jumpers (you know who you are!). In one of those classes I pointed out that this phenomenon panders to the commercialisation of festivals only to be called a “grinch” by one of the gobby ones. Of course all in good humour, I thought.
Nonetheless it was strange considering that we live in a consumerist society that the festive season is marred with the pressure to buy as much food as possible so much so, that those who cannot (according to a number of charities) feel embarrassed to go shopping; or the promotion of new toys, cosmetics and other trendy items that people have to have badly wrapped ready for the big day. The emphasis on consumption is not something that happened overnight. There have been years of making the special season into a family event of Olympic proportions. Personal and family budgets will dwindle in the need to buy parcels of goods, consume volumes of food and alcohol so that we can rejoice.
Many of us by the end of the festive season will look back with regret, for the pounds we put on, the pounds we spent and the things we wanted to do but deferred them until next Christmas. Which poses the question; What is the point of the holiday or even better, why celebrate Christmas anymore? Maybe a secular society needs to move away from religious festivities and instead concentrate on civic matters alone. Why does religion get to dictate the “season to be jolly” and not people’s own desire to be with the ones they want to be with? If there is a message within the religious symbolism this is not reflected in the shop-windows that promote a round-shaped old man in red, non-existent (pagan) creatures and polar animals.
According to the religious message about 2000 years ago a refugee family gave birth to a child on their way to exile. The child would live for about 33 years but will change the face of modern religion. He promised to come back and millions of people still wait for his second coming but in the meantime millions of refugee children are piling up in detention centers and hundreds of others are dying in the journey of the damned. “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, because her children are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15). This is the true message of Christmas today.
Happy Holidays to our students and colleagues.
FYI: Ramah is a town in war torn Middle East
One image, one word, one report can generate so much emotion and discussion. The image of the naked girl running away from a napalm bombed village, the word “paedo” used in tabloids to signal particular cases and reports such as the Hillsborough or the Lamy reports which brought centre stage major social issues that we dare not talk about.*
Regardless of the source, it is those media that make a cultural statement making an impact that in some cases transcends their time and forms our collective consciousness. There are numerous images, words and reports, and we choose to make some of these symbols that explain our theory of the world around us.
It was in the news that I saw a picture of a broken window, a stone and a sign next to it: “Leave my country”. The sign was held by an 11 year old refugee with big brown eyes asking why. This is not the only image that made it to the news this week; some days ago following the fatal car crash in New York the image of a 29 year old suspect from Uzbekistan appeared everywhere. These two images are of course unconnected across continents and time but there is some semiology worth noting.
We make sense of the world around us by observing. It is the media that are our eyes helping us to explore this wider world and witness relationships, events and situations that we may never considered possible. It must have been a very different world when over a century ago news of the sinking of the Titanic came through. We store images and words that help us define the way our world functions. In criminology, words are always attached to emotion and prejudice.
I deliberately chose two images: a victimised child and an adult suspect of an act of terror. They have nothing in common other than both appear foreign in the way I understand those who are not like me. Of course neither of these images is personally relatable to me but their story is compelling for different reasons. Then of course as I explore both stories and images, I wonder what is that remains of my understanding of the foreigner?
Last year, the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo produced a caricature of what would little Aylan would have done if he was to grow up, presented as a sex pest. The caricature caused public outcry but at the time, like this week, I started considering the images and their meanings. Do we put stories together based on the images we see around us? If that is a way of defining and explaining our social world then the imagery of good and bad foreigners, young and old, victims and villains may merge in a deconstruction of social reality that defines the foreigner. In that case and at that point the sign next to the 11 year old may not be voiced but it can become an implicit collective objective.
*At this stage I would like to mention that I was considering to write about the media’s “surprise” over the abuse allegations following revelations for a Hollywood producer but decide not to, due to the media’s attempt to saturate one of the most significant social issues of our times with other studies with varying levels of credibility. We observed a similar situation after the Jimmy Saville case.