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The true message of Christmas

Xmas Card

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

 

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

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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 Paula 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

Leave my country

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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.

 

Welcome Week

 

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Every year in late autumn, all universities prepare to welcome new students onto their campuses.  In the media, we know this as “Freshers week”, a period when new students become familiar with university life.  Throughout the years this particular week has grown in importance for the students’ social life, activities and other out of classroom activities.  Students can taste the nightlife of the campus and that of the nearby town, engage in group activities, join a society and of course have, in many cases, their first taste of independence away from home.  For the University, it is the first opportunity to engage students and get them involved in societies, volunteering and other after hours activities.  

Year by year, this week is becoming increasingly important for the student calendar.  

Returning students participate and graduating students remember when they were involved.  A clear watershed moment in the student diary, so much so that special wristbands are produced and different special events are organised, only for this week.  There is clearly some attraction, into being part of “freshers” so strong, that is now recorded into our collective vernacular.  Finally, the freshers apart from the commercial, cultural attractions, is even connected with health, the infamous “freshers flu” is presented as the scourge for many students who will suffer some ill-health in their first term at Uni/life.      

For an academic welcome week is interpreted differently.  It is definitely an important week because it signifies the start to another form of education.  It is transitional in terms of age for those who just crossed the 18 year old threshold marking the first part of adult education.  It is a declaration of independence for many students and the time to make one of the many transitions into the world of academia.  

This is why, instead of wristbands, I was frantically preparing my plenary lecture last week.  Every year, I dig deep inside to find something that will signal to our newest cohort why I feel so passionate about criminology.  This year, using the 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality, I considered the importance of criminology, as a discipline.  The main points focused on the multidisciplinary nature of criminology, the ability of criminology to holistically explore complex phenomena and the immense service, criminology offers to understanding crime from a dynamic/ever changing standpoint.  The reason for going through the “pains” of delivering a plenary is clear to me: welcome week is the first week of the next three years of academic study.  The start of a wider conversation that allows lay people to embrace those skills that will allow them to understand, evaluate, critique and argue with evidence and knowledge.  Unfortunately there is no wristband for that, only a certificate at the end of the road, that will just about quell the thirst for knowledge.  For many, this thirst will grow further and whilst the wristband may fade and the band attended may break-up, the knowledge that our students will acquire will be with them forever.  This is the tool we offer and this is the beginning of how we do it.  

To all of our new students, Welcome!

The Criminology of the Future

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As we are gleefully coming towards the start of yet another academic year, we tend to go through a number of perpetual motions; reflect on the year past, prepare material for the upcoming year and make adjustments on current educational expectations.  Academics can be creatures of habit, even if their habit is to change things over.  Nonetheless, there are always milestones that we all observe no matter the institution or discipline.  The graduation, for example brings to an end the degree aspirations of a cohort, whilst Clearing and Welcome Week offer an opportunity of a new group of applicants to join a cohort and begin the process again.  Academia like a pendulum swings constantly, replenishing itself with new generations of learners who carry with them the imprint of their social circumstance.

It was in the hectic days at Clearing that my mind began to wonder about the future of education and more importantly about criminology.  A discipline that emerged at an unsettled time when urban life and modernity began to dominate the Western landscape.  Young people (both in age and/or in spirit) began to question traditional notions about the establishment and its significance.  The boundaries that protect the individual from the whim of the authorities was one of those fundamental concerns on criminological discourses.  A 19th century colleague questions the notion of policing as an established institution, thus challenging its authority and necessity.  An end of 20th century colleague may be involved in the training of those involved in policing.  Changing times, arguably.  Quite; but what is the implications for the discipline?

My random example can be challenged on many different fronts; the contested nature of a colleague as a singular entity that sees the world in a singular gaze; or the ability to diversify on the perspectives each discipline observes.  It does nonetheless, raises a key question: what expectations can we place on the discipline for the 21st century.

If we and our students are the participants of social change as it happens in our society then our impressions and experiences can help us formulate a projective perspective of the future.  Our knowledge of the past is key to supplying an understanding of what we have done before, so that we can comprehend the reality in a way that will allow us to give it the vocabulary it deserves.  A colleague recently posted on twitter her agony about “vehicles being the new terrorist weapon,” asking what is the answer.  The answer to violence is exactly the same; whether a person gets in a van, or goes home and uses a bread knife to harm their partner.  Everyday objects that can be utilised to harm.  A projection in the future could assert that this phenomenon is likely to continue.  The Romans called it Alea iacta est and it was the moment you decide to act.  In my heart this is precisely the debate about the future of criminology; is it crime with or without free will?

Terrorism? No thank you

 

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Recent terrorist attacks in Manchester and the capital, like others that happened in Europe in recent years, made the public focus again on commonly posed questions about the rationale and objectives of such seemingly senseless acts.  From some of the earliest texts on Criminology, terrorism has been viewed as one of the most challenging areas to address, including defining it.

There is no denial that acts, such as those seen across the world, often aimed at civilian populations, are highly irrational.  It is partly because of the nature of the act that we become quite emotional.  We tend question the motive and, most importantly, the people who are willing to commit such heinous acts.  Some time ago, Edwin Sutherland, warned about the development of harsh laws as a countermeasure for those we see as repulsive criminals.  In his time it was the sexual deviants; whilst now we have a similar feeling for those who commit acts of terror. We could try to apply his theory of differential association to explain some terrorist behaviours. however it cannot explain why these acts keep happening again and again.  

At this point, it is rather significant to mention that terrorism (and whatever we currently consider acts of terror) is a fairly old phenomenon that dates back to many early organised and expansionist societies.  We are not the first, and unfortunately not the last, to live in an age of terror. Reiner, a decade ago, identified terrorism as a vehicle to declare crime as “public enemy number 1 and a major threat to society” (2007: 124).  In fact, the focus on individualised characteristics of the perpetrator detract from any social responsibility leading to harsher penalties and sacrifices of civil liberties almost completely unopposed.    As White and Haines write, “the concern for the preservation of human rights is replaced by an emphasis on terrorism […] and the necessity to fight them by any means necessary” (1996: 139).

For many old criminologists who forged established concepts in the discipline, to simply and totally condemn terrorism, is not so straightforward.  Consider for example Leon Radzinowicz (1906-1999) who saw the suppression of terror as the State’s attempt to maintain a state of persecution.  After all, many of those who come from countries that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries probably owe their nationhood to groups of people originally described as terrorists.  This of course is the age old debate among criminologists “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”.  Many, of course, question the validity of such a statement at a time when the world has seen an unprecedented number of states make a firm declaration to self-determination.  That is definitely a fair point to make, but at the same time we see age-old phenomena like slavery, exploitation and suppression of individual rights to remain prevalent issues now.  People’s movements away from hotbeds of conflict remain a real problem and Engels’ (1820- 1895) observation about large cities becoming a place of social warfare still relevant.     

Reiner R (2007), Law and Order, an honest citizen’s guide to crime and control, Cambridge, Polity Press

White R and Haines F (1996), Crime and Criminology, Oxford, Oxford University Press  

 

The criminology of real life

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Ever since I joined academia as a criminology lecturer, I found the question asked “what do you do” to be one that is followed by further questions.  The role or rather title of a criminologist is one that is always met with great curiosity.  Being a lecturer is a general title that most people understand as a person who does lectures, seminars, tutorials and workshops, something akin to a teacher.  But what does a criminology lecturer do?  Talks about crime presumably…but do they understand criminals? And more to the point, how do they understand them?

The supposed reading of the criminal mind is something that connects with the collective zeitgeist of our time.  Some of our colleagues have called this the CSI factor or phenomenon.  A media portrayal of criminal investigation into violent crime, usually murder, that seems to follow the old whodunit recipe sprinkled with some forensic science with some “pop” psychology on the side.  The popularity of this phenomenon is well recorded and can easily be demonstrated by the numerous programmes which seemingly proliferate.  I believe that there are even television channels now devoted completely to crime programmes.  Here, it would be good to point out that it is slightly hypocritical to criticise crime related problems when some of us, on occasion, enjoy a good crime dramatisation on paper or in the movies.

Therefore I understand the wider interest and to some degree I expect that in a society dominated with mass and social media, people will try to relate fiction with academic expertise.  In fact, in some cases I find it quite interesting as a contemporary tool of social conversation.  You can have for example, hours of discussion about profiling, killers and other crimes with inquisitive taxi-drivers, border-control officers, hotel managers etc.  They ask profession, you respond “criminologist” and you can end up having a long involving conversation about a programme you may have never seen.

There is however, quite possibly a personal limitation, a point where I draw the line.  This is primarily when I get asked about particular people or current live crime cases.  In the first year I talk to our students about the Soham murders.  A case that happened close to 15 years ago now.  What I have not told the students before, is the reason I talk about the case.

Fifteen years ago I was returning from holiday and I took a taxi home.  The taxi driver, once he heard I was a criminology lecturer, asked me about the case.  I remember this conversation as the academic and the everyday collided.  He could not understand why I could not read the criminal intentions of the “monsters” who did what they did.  To him, it was so clear and straightforward and therefore my inability to give him straight answers was frustrating.  I thought about it since and of course other situations in similar criminal cases that I have been asked about.  Why do people want complete and direct answers to the most complex of human behaviours?

One of the reasons that there is a public expectation to be able to talk about individual cases rests on the same factor that makes crime popular; its media portrayal.  The way we collectively respond to real crime cases reflects a popularised dramatisation.  So, this is not just a clash between academic and lay, but reality and fiction.

Erasmus in the time of Brexit

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There are few things I tend to do when I am on Erasmus in a long running partner.  I get a morning fredo coffee from their refectory, then into the classroom, followed by a brief chat with their administration staff and colleagues. The programme is usually divided between teaching sessions and academic discussions.

My last session was on learning disabilities and empowerment.  The content forms part of a module on people with special needs.  The curriculum in the host institution combines social sciences differently and therefore my hard criminological shell is softened during my visit.  It is also interesting to see how sciences and disciplines are combined together and work in a different institution.    

  In the first two hours we were talking about advocacy and the need for awareness.  The questions posed by the students raised issues of safeguarding, independence and the protection of the people with learning disabilities.  I posed a few dilemmas and the answers demonstrated the difficulties and frustrations we feel beyond academia, shared among practitioners.  This is “part of the issues professionals face on a daily basis”.  Then there were some interesting conversations “how can you separate a mother from her baby even if there are concerns regarding her suitability as a mum”?  “How do we safeguard the rights of people who cannot live an independent life”?  Then we discussed wider educational concerns “we are preparing for our placement but we are not sure what to expect”.  “Interesting”, I thought that is exactly what my second year students feel right about now.  

As I was about to close the session I told them the thought that has been brewing at the back of my head since the start of my visit….”I may not be able to see you next year…today the UK will be starting the process of Brexit.”  One of the students gasped the rest looked perplexed.  

It is the kind of look I am beginning to become accustomed to every time I talk about Brexit to people on the continent.  

After the class the discussion with colleagues and administrative staff was on Brexit.  It seemed that each person had their own version of what will happen next.  Ironically they assumed that I knew more about it.  Thinking about it, the process is now activated but very little is known.  This is because Brexit is actually not a process but a negotiation.  A long or a very long negotiation.  The EU devised a mechanism of exit but not a process that this mechanism needs to follow.  Despite the reasons why we are leaving the EU the order and the issues that this will leave open are numerous.  In HE, we are all still considering what will happen once the dust settles.  From research grants for the underfunded humanities and social sciences to mobility programmes for academics and students.  My visit was part of staff mobility that allows colleagues to teach and exchange knowledge away from their institution.  The idea was to allow the dissemination of different ideas, cooperation and cultural appreciation of different educational systems.  The programme was originally set up in the late 80s when the vision for European integration was alive and kicking.   The question which emerges now, post-Brexit, is what is the wider vision for HE?

Reflections from a Pilot

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Firstly, I would like to apologise for the use of the first person. I have made an entire career of telling my students to use the third person. However, writing a blog is generally informal and a bit more personal.
Throughout my years in academia there are a number of things I continue to find incredibly edifying; transferring research interests into teaching is one of them, even better when that is done outside of the traditional educational environment. The idea of education in prison is definitely not new, with roots in the old reformers (notably in the UK; Elizabeth Fry), with a clear focus on combating illiteracy. This was a product of penal policy that reflected a different social reality. In the 21st century, we  have to re-imagine penal policy, alongside education, which can cater for the changed nature of our world.
Our recent pilot, was designed to explore some new approaches to education in both the prison and the university* . The idea was to bring university students and prisoners together and teach them the same topics encouraging them to engage with each other in discussions. This was envisaged as a process whereby all participants would be equal learners; leaving all other identities behind. The main thinking behind the approach taken was predicated on universal notions; the respect for humanity and the opportunity to express oneself uninhibited among equals. With this in mind, teaching in prisons should not be any different to teaching at University, provided that all learners feel safe and they are ready to engage. In the planning stages, my concerns were primarily on the way equality could be maintained. In addition, the levels of engagement and the material covered were also issues that created some trepidation. The knowledge that this pilot would be the blueprint for the design of a new level 6 module made the undertaking even more exciting.
The pilot involved 9 hours of teaching in prison with additional sessions before and after in order to familiarise all learners with each other, the environment and the learning process. Through the three teaching sessions, we all observed the transformative effect of education. From early suspicion and reluctance among learners  to the confident elaboration of complex arguments. It took one simple statement to get the learning process going. This is when the pilot became a new lens through which I saw education, in prison with all my students, as a thriving learning environment.

 

*Some years ago I told a prison governor of a young offenders’ institution that the commonalities of our institutions were greater than the differences.  Before, you protest at the analogy, consider the points of reference: the age group in a young offenders is 18-21, they are living away from home, have to learn to live with others and are trying, in the process, to better themselves.  The obvious and significant difference is incarceration; the loss of freedom and the criminal identity that sticks onto them like the mark of Cain.
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