Early 2017 the University of the Third Age (U3A) in Market Harborough asked me to give a talk to retired and semi-retired people on ‘The state of the prison system today’. Obviously this is a huge topic and they hoped that I’d include sentencing, courses, attitudes of people, lives and challenges faced, family connections, rehabilitation, demographics and more, in short everything I knew. Making this more of a challenge I was only given 30-40 minutes to talk, rather than a whole day which might have been more feasible. Anyway, I accepted the challenge and on 13 April 2017 I addressed a small group from a range of backgrounds. Unlike a classroom, it is difficult to predict the response you might get, I knew some would challenge my opinion on the prison system and I was not disappointed. At first the group sat quietly and simply absorbed my brief history of the prison system, nodding in places and jotting down a couple of notes. This changed dramatically when I challenged media constructed images of ‘prison being a holiday camp’ and the appropriateness of prison as punishment. Clearly some in the group had been victims so the discussion quickly turned to a punitive knee jerk reaction to all offenders. Underpinning this was a sense of fear, social unrest, and helplessness where crime was concerned. As you might expect comments like ‘in my day a bobby would have clipped you around the ear and taken you home to your parents for a good talking to’, closely followed by ‘parents of today have no control over their children’ or ‘where has the respect and discipline gone, bring back national service’. Whatever the tone, the group was clearly passionate about issues of crime and the ‘state of the prison system’, actively contributing to the discussion. When I led them towards issue of socio-economic conditions, a lack of opportunities, and the impact that prison had on these problems their empathy started to emerge. At this point I was asked the most difficult question of all ‘what is the answer, what can we do? My response was a simple one; try not to judge, put yourself in others shoes, consider carefully who you vote for, and most importantly don’t believe everything the media tells you. In essence I left them with more questions than answers but also a spark in their eye. They were hungry for more, they were hungry for action, and they wanted to be part of the solution. This led me to reflect on two things; firstly the pure joy I felt discussing prisons with a group of people who were fully engaged and curious about the topic area, and why most of our own students don’t exhibit the same level of enthusiasm. Secondly, the lack of fear I experienced in both the preparation and delivery of this talk. This made me think back to my own student years and a conversation I had with a lecturer who said that he’d put together his lecture on the train. At the time I thought this reflected his lack of interest in what he was delivery and I’m ashamed to say, a degree of laziness, however this experience has led me to reconsider my judgement. For instance, had I been asked to do this talk a few years ago I would have probably spent days, maybe weeks agonising over what I would say, writing copious notes, and shaking all through the delivery. The reality is that I spent a couple of hours that morning putting some points together and experienced no nerves at all. In short, I realised that I know a lot more than I thought I did, and my nerves are somewhat a result of not knowing my audience. I knew this audience would be engaged rather than sitting there stone faced or playing on their phones. This leads me to surmise that while I agreed with New Labour’s idea that education should be open to everyone, I no longer believe that that should include university. Too often I’m faced with people who do not want to be at university, or those that simply see it as logical progression, rather than the eager faces of those who want to learn, who are curious and passionate about the world, and make you leave a class with a feeling of elation rather than despondency. In short, the more enthusiastic the audience, the more enthusiastic the lecturer.
Who am I? For this week’s blog I thought I’d talk about the challenges of being a single parent and an academic. When I started down this path, children were definitely not part of my plan. I was career driven and adamant that I was going to be an outstanding academic – how things change! As others around me started to settle down and have children I found myself increasingly being challenged by societal perceptions that as ‘a women’ it was my duty to have children, if for no other reason than to have someone to look after me when I got old. I vividly remember these conversations, with people saying ‘you need to make a decision’, or ‘you can’t have both (children and a career)’! For those of you who know me, you’ll know that being told I ‘can’t’ do something simply makes me more determined to prove everyone wrong, however what I hadn’t taken into account was the fact that I’d eventually end up doing it on my own. So here I am some years later trying to balance the two. Do I do it successfully? Well that depends on how you measure success. From an academic perspective the answer’s probably no because I’ve deviated a long way from my original goal. Similarly, if being a good parent is someone who is there for the children after school, every weekend, and school holidays then the answer is also no. In short, trying to do both presents a constant state of tension, with my job demanding evening and weekend work, and my kids demanding less commitment to my career. For many, the answer to this tension is simply a matter of prioritising my children over my career, however what happens when my children grow up and my career has stalled? Also, why should I have to lose myself and my dreams in the name of motherhood? Such questions lead to feelings of guilt, guilt because I’m not there to collect the kids from school like the other mums in my area, guilt because I can’t commit to networking and conference because of the absence of childcare, guilt for taking time to go to sports day, Christmas plays, recitals and the like, rather than finishing that paper for publication.
Mulling this over I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no answer, in fact the situation is only likely to get worse as greater and greater pressures are placed on us in both our work and home environments. But all is not lost, as human beings we have considerable resilience, so I make it work through a process of negotiation and compromise. The children are well accustomed to the rule that ‘mummy works in the morning and plays in the afternoon’. They also get my full attention for a 2 hours every evening, restricting my work to after they have gone to bed. My most cunning approach is the one that involves play zones, where they can run around and burn energy and I can work in the corner with a cuppa tea. Finally, it’s about picking out the moments that are most important to them such as gymnastic recitals, swimming lessons, sports days and all the performances, which to them are huge events. I’m lucky that the nature of what I do allows me the freedom to be able to attend these big childhood events and gain brownie points in their eyes, which then minimises the impact of my absence at other times. The same compromises have been made regarding my career, I’ve adjusted my goals and dreams making them more realistic for my current situation. I’ll still be a good academic but I may never be a high flyer, but I’m happy with that – for now!