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In the midst of the marking mountain (currently at Everest base camp), it is nice to reflect on another aspect of my role as a lecturer in criminology – teaching. In between marking I was thinking about putting together a seminar to focus on the meaning of justice and how this relates to broader structural inequalities, human rights and the need for reform. This is to contribute to my new module on ‘community justice’, as it is a place where I want to examine these terms as separate concepts, and also as a term which encompasses punishment delivered outside the prison walls, in spaces where people live, work and interact with others.
I always think it is important for students to critically examine accepted definitions and in this case, the many social constructions of justice. The article I came across, ‘Discussing Alternatives to Justice’ (edited by Allison and McMahon, 2015) very nicely presents a series of debates, discussions and poses important questions which require us to re-examine the criminal justice system and our society. It is presented as a series academics presenting radical changes they would make to shift us away from a punitive, ineffective and socially harmful system.
Professor Steve Tombs starts off the debates asking for an ‘alternative to the corporation’ – describing is as an ‘amoral, essentially destructive entity which causes far more physical, social and economic harm than the incivilities upon which criminal justice systems overwhelmingly concentrate’ (Tombs, 2015: 3). There is a clear need to reconsider our notion of what is criminal when we examine those events which lead to extensive social harms, but also the social structures and policies which enable these harms to occur and accept a muted response from our justice system. One theme of Tomb’s article is the need to shift the ownership and governance of services from the private sector to the public sector, to improve compliance and adherence to regulations and safety concerns. He also demands a need to challenge claims of efficiency and effectiveness – anyone seeing recent developments in probation and the consequences of the Transforming Rehabilitation agenda should also be asking some pertinent questions about such claims. This requires a radical shift from our acceptance of remaining a consumerist society, and placing trust in corporations to understand there are many other ways to structure economics and the distribution of capital, such as social and employee owned enterprises and co-operatives. Bell (2015) continues this theme with a rallying call to shift from neoliberal politics which have ‘fuelled the current penal crisis, characterised by mass incarceration and the criminalisation of social problems’ (p.4). For me, these two articles already present different ideas, debates and reinforce the need for students to consider crime and justice in the context of social, political and economic systems. This would then also enable a more critical examination of justice – especially a criminal justice system which is harmful, punitive and ineffective. Bell (ibid) aptly critiques neoliberalist claim of freedom of choice as misrepresentations which actually enable corporations to use the Earth’s resources without consideration for the harms caused to consumers, who accept this risk in favour of cheap goods and services and the promise of more to come. She advocates a participatory democracy in all forms of life, including penology, to allow offenders to be part of the discussion on ways they can redress harms and shift the notion of justice from being predominantly punitive, to restorative and reparative.
Pike, (2015) then provides a more focused policy idea change – to build more schools and fewer prisons. This echoes the theme of this edited collection, to pose radical changes, and reinforces the need to understand crime as a reflection of an unequal society. There is a clear focus on prevention, not punishment, a need to rethink justice as a reactive force, to a more stabilising force (Rawls, 1971). Education is presented as vital to creating a more fair society and to stop the discrimination against the disadvantaged who are disproportionately present in our victimisation figures and our justice system.
In a discussion close to my own interests, Drake and Samota (2014) discuss the need for collective capacity in policy making, to understand the impact of the apathy which has allowed a rhetoric of being tough on crime to dominate, and indeed to be overtaken by the language of war and conflict as the only adequate response. This collective needs to comprise academic criminologists, practitioners, volunteers – those understanding crime and justice from a range of perspectives to come together and share expertise, engage the public in these debates and stimulate discussion on viable alternatives. This would be a firmer foundation for policy making, compared to the knee jerk reactions of ministers attempt to appease public outrage, fuelled by media misrepresentations. Drake and Samota (ibid) also refer to the misunderstanding of justice among the public and the need for collective hubs to counteract the misleading news and spin which feeds populist punitiveness and the assumptions that justice must be retributive and deterrent, and little else.
It may seem at first glance these are complex ideas for undergraduates to grapple with, but with guided discussion, debate and using examples to illustrate what is meant by social harms, injustices, ineffectiveness, I think they could form an important foundation for learning about the criminal justice system, and what we understand as criminal. It is with these ideas in mind, that students can then perhaps understand the need to critically examine what they then learn in their studies, and they also chime with younger generations broader concerns about inequalities, social justice and social harms. It may well be the case with the rising engagement in politics, concerns about the environment and the impact of consumerist lifestyles, that these ideas are not so complex or radical as they might at first seem.
Allison, C and McMahon, W. (2015) Discussing Alternatives to Criminal Justice, Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, London.
Rawls, J. (1971) A Theory of Justice, Harvard University.
Tomorrow, I am speaking to prospective students at our Applicant Discovery Day, and so I decided to focus this week’s blog on my first-year module on True Crimes and other Fictions. It was also inspired by a recent article bought to my attention, in the Guardian, titled ‘From Jack the Ripper to Ted Bundy, why are dead women’s bodies still being used as entertainment?’ (Rubenhold, 2019). The article shows us there is a clear fascination with true crimes, especially the more grisly and serious events. There is also clearly a fascination held with Jack the Ripper as the mystery of his (or her?) identity remains, and is unlikely ever to be definitively solved.
However, the focus of the article is not to recount more grisly details, but is an observation on the desensitization which has occurred in relation to the murder of women. We are bombarded with their images when alive and posing happily alongside gruesome crime scene photos of their deaths. This has occurred since Jack the Ripper, and the reporting on canonical five, famously with the publication of the crime scene photo of Mary Jane Kelly, described as the ‘poster girl’ for Jack the Ripper’s crimes. My students who had to choose a true crime text and analyse it critically in a book review and presentation highlighted the sensationalisation of these events in the press and the true crime genre as a whole (see Rawlings, 1995; Wiltenberg, 2004 and Bates, 2014).
Another interesting dimension identified by Rubenhold (2019) in the case of Mary Jane Kelly, is that among Ripperologists she is considered the most popular, due to her being seen as attractive but also due to the particularly brutal nature of her death. This takes us nicely to the recent BBC One documentary on the infamous crimes of Jack the Ripper, which continues in the traditions of depicting images of dead women as entertainment, along with the promise of new revelations on the case. I watched the documentary last night and while there was some focus on the brutality of the killings, there was reference made of the lives of the women and recognition of the assumptions made about them as sex workers, somehow less worthy of our sympathy compared to other victims. However, in anticipation of the documentary, Rubenhold emphasises the dehumanising effect of the victims with the adoption of the ‘virtual reality dissection table’, as the latest tool used to fuel our fascination, in addition to the hundreds of books, websites, blogs and TV documentaries. The new revelations rarely focus on the lives of the women, beyond their status as victims of a brutal killer.
However, what also struck me is the promises made by the documentary, a ‘re-opening’ of the case and using new technology to identify Jack the Ripper. For those who have not engaged with the wealth of literature on the case, the digital and criminological autopsies to identify the killer, and the use of geographical profiling may have provided new and fascinating detail on the key suspects. For those who are aware of literature on the case, the listing of key suspects was nothing new and there was even a high profile new development in the case to identify Aaron Kozminski as Jack the Ripper, with a claim of DNA evidence linking him to one of the victims (Evening Standard, 2019). The revealing of the name, and the revelation of a new victim were presented as new developments warranting re-opening of the case and the scrutiny of criminologists, ex-police detectives, profilers, forensic experts and a celebrity. No doubt the latter was introduced to offer some familiarity to fans of TV crime dramas, and draw viewers in, all part of raising the profile of the documentary. I had recently covered the case in a seminar on my module on True Crimes, using the same suspects which are widely identified in the ‘Ripperology’ community. We listed the evidence presented and all identified Kozminski on the basis of his proximity to Whitechapel, his skills as a barber, and his violence and traumatic childhood in Russia, prior to emigrating to the UK. We examined the validity of the evidence presented in various blogs, online resources, news reports and while there was general agreement about our suspect, other students made the point that we could find equally convincing information about others.
This is the essence of one of the problems of our fascination with true crime accounts – most people will maintain their fascination, based on legitimate emotional responses and assumptions which they will hold on to, and explanations of events they will take as fact. So, when a documentary claims to have new revelations, and conclusions presented in the case as reliable, for many people watching, there would be no need to question this. The same approach seems to be clear with the latest documentaries and dramas on another infamous serial killer, Ted Bundy, famous not only for his crimes, but also for his drive to remain relevant and gain attention. Rubenhold emphasises that whatever the focus of these dramas, allowing watchers to gawp at the images or depictions of the victims when they are dead perpetuates this cycle of dehumanising victims and reducing them to entertainment. Much like the Jill Dando case, and numerous others, the reality is that no matter what technology is adopted, or how often cases are re-opened and scrutinised by one expert after another, some cases will simply never be solved.
I think it is this lack of closure which frustrates not just victims and those connected to events, but also viewers who not only demand to see gruesome images but also demand to have new revelations and conclusions to cases. To be told ‘we don’t know and we never will’ is simply not good enough – whole industries have been based on those willing to stake reputations on delivering the truth. Rubenhold calls for and end to the use of crime as entertainment, to stop the ‘parlour game played for our own entertainment and at the victims’ expense’ (2019). It is perhaps unrealistic to believe we can put a stop to this, but perhaps broadcasters, publishers and those in the true crime industry can stop to think about their responsibilities and the constant re-hashing of old ideas as new revelations. It makes the work of criminologists to inform the public more important, as there needs to be a better understanding of the impact of these events, the effects of sensationalizing them, in addition to how the public understand the response to crime – our work continues, and it feels like we still have a lot to do.
Bates, K. (2014) Empathy or Entertainment? The form and function of violent crime narratives in early 19th Century broadsides, Law, Crime and History, 2.
Rubenhold, H. (2019) From Jack the Ripper to Ted Bundy, why are dead women’s bodies still being used as entertainment? Guardian, see https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/apr/02/from-jack-the-ripper-to-ted-bundy-why-are-dead-womens-bodies-still-being-used-as-entertainment?CMP=fb_gu
Rawlings, P. (1995) True Crime, The British Criminology Conferences: Selected Proceedings. Volume 1: Emerging Themes in Criminology. Papers from the British Criminology Conference, Loughborough University, 18-21 July 1995.
Tobin, O. (2019) Jack the Ripper may have been Polish barber Aaron Kosminski, scientists claim after fresh DNA tests, Evening Standard, see https://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/polish-barber-aaron-kosminski-was-jack-the-ripper-scientists-claim-a4094191.html
Wiltenberg, J. (2004), True Crime: The Origins of Modern Sensationalism, The American Historical Review, 109 (5):1377-1404.
This week’s blog was bound to reflect the news this week – Brexit. I almost resisted the temptation to write about this, I feel worn down by it all, but there are just some things which need saying. However you voted, however you feel about what should happen, the whole process has brought to light some alarming issues about our political classes, the process of implementing policy, decisions made about spending of our taxes and the priorities of government. At the time of writing this, Parliament has voted against no-deal, for extending Article 50, there are threats from various ministers about resigning and confusion reigns.
To me, Brexit has felt like an exercise in placing ideology before country, on both sides of the political spectrum. It does seem Labour’s proposals do at least protect jobs and the economy, and respect the vote from 2016. I still think on balance we should remain, but I could live with a soft Brexit, and a government which addresses many of the reasons people voted to leave. On the right, however, thanks to the ERG (European Research Group) we have a situation where we are hurtling towards no deal – the vote to take it off the table is apparently not legally binding – or at best, a delay. At the time of writing this, Parliament has voted for delaying our exit, and Theresa May is planning one last vote on her deal, seemingly to secure a delay which the EU will accept as legitimate and worthwhile. The Brexiteers on the left and right seem to want no deal and WTO rules, for reasons I cannot understand, aside from serving their own prejudices and financial gains.
The vote itself and the campaigns on the leave side seem mired in corruption and questions over funding and tactics to mislead the public, so I do have to wonder why instead of the outrage at this, there is an acceptance this is the will of the public, and must be acted on. With this and the recent activities of Chris Graying (him again!), costing the tax payer over £500m with failed ferry contracts and privatisation of probation, and now Boris Johnson suggesting investigating historic sexual assaults cases is a waste of money, our political leaders seem to be normalising incompetence. They seem to be able to resist any sense of shame, remorse and criticism of their performance, which is simply staggering. In the face of evidence about this, it amazes me that they don’t reflect on this and the harm being caused. Perhaps I have too high expectations of MPs and I should not tar all of them with the same brush, there are plenty who do a good job, who have the interests of their constituents at heart and value their job as a public servant.
Another example of this normalising of incompetence is when MPs suggested this last minute panic and uncertainty is how all negotiations with the EU go. Well, I can then see why some people are turning against both Parliament and the EU – the anxieties created by this as clear, people have already lost jobs, moved, disrupted family life due to trying to manage the uncertainty. Attention towards domestic issues is diverted by focus on Brexit, blinding many to the well document harms of Universal Credit, increasing homelessness, climate changes and knife crime. I believe many are fed up and would take leaving just to end the discussion and re-focus on domestic needs, but I fear many don’t realise the further problems they may face if we were to leave without a deal. It is then surely the responsibility of MPs and our political leaders to inform the public, make it clear what the best options are and maybe even make an unpopular decisions for the good of their constituents. If I were an MP, I would be concerned about all of this and also the legacy of this – much like Labour having to continually shake of the label of irresponsible spenders, through being blamed solely for creating the ‘winter of discontent’ in the late 1970s. Both parties continuing to insist we press ahead with Brexit could be dealing with a similar situation. Younger voters in particular maybe more open to new political parties, less like to be loyal to either Conservative or Labour and may embrace the change that The Independent Group is promising.
To continue with a policy which is creating so many problems, costs, and mental health issues feels like leadership who simply won’t listen to those people they are meant to support and serve. The link to mental health has been make clear in an article in the Guardian reporting that British farmers have reached out to crisis networks due to the implications of Brexit – this is manifest in farmers being on suicide watch, and serious concerns about those not even trying to contact such services (Parveen, 2019). The article reports that farming is just one of many industries which will be hit hard by a no deal Brexit, and in a research study on the extent of this, those who voted remain are reporting heightened mental distress (depression, anxiety, feelings of worthlessness), while those who voted leave reported a ‘bump’ in life satisfaction (Powdthavee et al, 2019). I can only imagine how the further harms caused if more jobs are lost, the economy slumps and the reality of craving sovereignty and blue passports bites.
Yet I don’t really have to imagine this, it seems blatantly obvious that we are not prepared to leave the EU, more time is needed to come up with a cross party consensus and maybe even a further referendum to be clear this is what the people want. When any leadership disregards the concerns raised from so many sectors, their constituents and colleagues, to press ahead with a policy which will cause harm then we can really see just how normalised incompetence and placing ideology before country has become.
Dr Susie Atherton
Senior Lecturer in Criminology
Parveen, N (2019) Brexit and bad weather puts UK farmers at risk of suicide, say charitie, see https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/mar/03/brexit-and-bad-weather-puts-uk-farmers-at-risk-of-suicide-say-charities
Powdthavee, N., Plagnol, A.C., Frijters, P. and Clark, A.E. (2019) Who Got the Brexit Blues? The Effect of Brexit on Subjective Wellbeing in the UK, Economica, see https://doi.org/10.1111/ecca.12304.
On recently seeing a news story is about a police officer being diagnosed with PTSD, I wanted to reflect on the broader contexts which led to this. The officer was assaulted during a single crew shift, and inevitably, found himself dealing with a dangerous situation, with no back up, leading to being injured. It struck me that this impact on physical and mental health is a form of social harm, which can all to easily be disregarded as ‘part of the job’, and a risk all police officers must expect, as action-oriented risk-takers, keen to do what is necessary to protect and serve. The link to social harm came to me from having recently taught students about this in relation to gambling as a form of deviant leisure (see Smith and Raymen, 2017), who cited the impact of gambling addiction affecting personal relationships, physical and mental health. We discussed the wider implications of this, and the need to acknowledge social harms which cause injury, violate rights and lead to ill health, but which stem from accepted behaviours and working conditions. There is also a wide body of literature which analyses structural harms resulting in discrimination, poverty and neglect of considerations for citizens’ safety (Pemberton, 2016). The perpetrators of such harms are not criminals as many people understand them, but corporations, states and politicians who could act to prevent harm and choose not to, or act with the full knowledge of the risks they are creating.
The study of social harm, zemiology, has much more to say on this perspective than this blog allows, but PC Johnson’s story, to me, reflected a society and a government who are implementing policies they know will cause harm, neglecting their responsibilities when downplaying the harms caused and who insist on placing blame on individuals or other organisations when incidences occur. It is clear there are there are various factors which created this situation for this officer, including the reduction of police officer numbers in the name of austerity. We do not know the details behind the perpetrator’s behaviour enough to attribute causes or contributory factors, but from this short story we can easily see the harms being caused, to those who wish to protect and serve citizens, resulting from an officer being out on a single crew shift. PC Mick Johnson is very clear that staff shortages led to him operating on his own on the day he was stabbed, a problem echoed by 90% of 18,000 officers of all ranks who reported to a Police Federation of England and Wales survey that they are understaffed. The health impact of this understaffing was also reported, in that 79% reported feelings of stress and anxiety in the past 12 months and 61.7% reported suffering at least one traumatic experience in the past 12 months.
A key rationale behind double crewing is to avoid having officers alone in vulnerable situations with no back up, a situation which single crewing creates, and which is described by the Police Federation as ‘unacceptable’, in a service feeling the ‘brunt of issues around resilience’ (Police Federation, 2017). Work pattern analysis shows many having to work overtime, routinely on 10 hour shifts and having rest days cancelled, and being unable to take break entitlements. The survey also shows a 14% fall in police officer numbers from 2009 to 2016, and is described as having ‘significant repercussions’. This is manifest in officers mental and physical well-being and it is having an impact on family life, childcare and officers’ skills development as they cannot spare the time for additional training. PC Johnson’s story clearly reflects these issues, as he reported that his assault led to symptoms of mood swings, lack of sleep and reported that the incident ‘utterly changed him as a person’. His unit has shrunk from 20 officers in 2009, to 10, and he expressed the frustration at not being able to do the job he once loved; that the conditions of his employment now meant he was counting down the days until retirement.
The motivation for becoming a police officer and staying in the job has been widely attributed to police culture characteristics which attract and are reinforced through a process of socialisation and acceptance of this culture; key characteristics which represent positive aspects of this are being action oriented, risk takers and pragmatic (Reiner, 1992). While there are negative connotations associated with police culture as impediments to reform and change (Loftus, 2009), it is difficult to imagine how cutting numbers will help with this in anyway, and in fact, to add to the stress on officers, could arguably bring out the worse aspects of police culture in the form of prejudices and discrimination, borne out of frustrations with the job and every day stress. The demonstration of personal and social harms caused by austerity cuts, stagnating wages and fewer staff are clearly demonstrated by PC Johnson’s final quote, and raise some serious questions for those responsible for keeping communities and citizens safe, and for those tasked with managing this service:
“We are all devastated, as we joined to protect our communities and to serve the public, we didn’t expect to have to sacrifice our families and our physical and mental health.” (PC Mick Johnson, BBC News, 2019).
BBC News (2019) Police shortages: ‘Working alone left me with PTSD, Ian Westbrook, available from https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-47212662.
Loftus, B. (2009) Police Culture in a Changing World, Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Pemberton, S. (2016) Harmful Societies: Understanding social harm, Policy Press: Bristol.
Police Federation (2017) Three quarters of officers ‘often or always’ single-crewed, available from http://www.polfed.org/newsroom/4094.aspx
Reiner, R. (1992) The Politics of the Police, Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Smith, O. and Raymen, T. (2017) Lifestyle gambling, indebtedness and
anxiety: A deviant leisure perspective, Journal of Consumer Culture, 0(0) 1–19.
Tomorrow I am at the University of Northampton Open Day for our criminology programmes, and I have decided to focus on the theme of punishment, and so it seemed appropriate to also focus on this for my blog this week. I want to introduce prospective students to this question of why we punish offenders, given that when students come to us – and I have found this in every HEI I have worked in – up until that point, little consideration is given to the assumption that offenders must be punished and that they must face harsh punishment, as this is the key function of our justice system.
We all spend the next three years challenging these assumptions through an examination of the purpose of punishment, sentencing practice, the legalities of what the courts can do, the likelihood of cases getting to court, that a life sentence very rarely means ‘life’ and the problems we have with overcrowding in prisons and high re-offending rates. I introduce students to the work of Joe Sim, Ben Crewe, Yvonne Jewkes, George Mair and Rob Canton among countless others to provide research evidence and theory which should help them answer the question – why punish? Yet, I still find students at the end of their programme who have not shifted from this position of punishment as central to justice, required to support victims and as necessary to uphold law, order and maintain a civil society. I don’t wholly disagree – there are high risk offenders, there are types of offending which cause harms beyond direct victims, and there is a need for intervention to protect the public. What I try to get across to students, is that there are equally circumstances in which we need to ask whether a criminal justice response is the most effective, morally just and if it truly reflects a civil society.
In my experience of teaching one of the ways this debate is raised is to examine case studies, how the justice system dealt with them, how they were presented in the press and what we know now. I will be examining the Shannon Matthews case on Saturday – an emotive, harrowing and high-profile case which will no doubt get prospective students – and their parents – talking. I don’t intend to change hearts and minds during a 45-minute presentation and discussion, but it is really to make it clear that a criminology programme will challenge what people think they know and believe about crime and the justice system. I think it is vital that criminology, as a social science, maintains its foundations as a critical examination of policy, law, practice, theory and those established common sense beliefs about how crime should be dealt with. I tell students during these sessions and induction weeks that telling friends and family they study criminology presents an interesting issue for them, as everyone has an opinion they will want to express. This is especially the case for Karen Matthews, Shannon’s mother, who continues to be vilified in the press after her release from prison. It takes time to get across to students that to examine our assumptions about what we think we know about Karen and what she did is not to condone it, but to explain it, understand it and perhaps look at it less with emotion, and more with empathy.
Rob Canton’s book ‘Why Punish’ is a very good resource for these debates – it presents these questions from moral, philosophical, sociological and political perspectives. It is one of the most thorough examinations of punishment, the penal system and the rationale we present for this, from deterrence, incapacitation, retribution and rehabilitation. The case of Karen Matthews would seem to present an obvious answer – we punish because it is reprehensible to kidnap a child and to fraudulently obtain money from this act, and then to deceive friends, family and community. We punish to send a clear message of response, to vindicate laws and to seek justice for Shannon, and we punish because that is what the justice system is meant to do. The re-examination of punishment requires an acknowledgement of the emotional reactions to crime, that our assessment of what should happen to offenders comes from a place of indignation, fear, a need for justice and a requirement that the state must act to implement this. So, in the case of Karen Matthews, perhaps the question is not to ask why was she punished for her crimes, but to consider why this continues in the form of press attention and condemnation. For those less high-profile cases, we need to consider how many among the 82,764 (Ministry of Justice, 2018) people in prison truly pose a risk to others, need treatment and support and not just incarceration, will not benefit from retributive condemnation or attempts at deterrence and where there were alternatives in community sentencing which could have addressed their offending behaviour.
This may seem a lot to ask of prospective students and parents who come along to find out what we do, but it is simply to emphasise the importance of asking this question, among many others. The harms of imprisonment are well documented from Foucault, to Sykes, Sims and more contemporary research into the impact of overcrowding, violence, drug use and the high numbers of prisoners with mental health issues (such as Nurse et al 2003; Huey & Mcnulty, 2005; Crewe, 2007). This must all be understood in the context of high re-offending rates which tell us whatever your views on the purpose of custodial sentences, they don’t work to prevent further offending. As well as being an important question to ask, it is also a difficult one – it proposes to ask the public to think differently about crime and offenders, to demand politicians and policy makes use methods which are more effective, less harmful in terms of the consequences of engagement with the criminal justice system, and which still represent ‘doing justice’. I am expecting, and hoping, for some interesting debate and discussion, and that students get a clear idea of not only what we do, but why we do it and why we will continue to do so.
Senior Lecturer in Criminology
Canton, R. (2017) Why Punish? An Introduction to the Philosophy of Punishment, Palgrave, London.
Crewe, B. (2007) Power, Adaptation and Resistance in a Late-Modern Men’s Prison, The British Journal of Criminology, Volume 47, Issue 2, 1 March 2007, Pages 256–275.
Huey, M. P., & Mcnulty, T. L. (2005). Institutional Conditions and Prison Suicide: Conditional Effects of Deprivation and Overcrowding. The Prison Journal, 85(4), 490–514.
Ministry of Justice (2018) Prison population Figures: 2018, MoJ, London.
Nurse J., Woodcock, P. & Ormsby, J. (2003), Influence of environmental factors on mental health within prisons: focus group study British Medical Journal, 327:480.
Over the last two weeks, twitter was littered with Conservative MPs posing at foodbanks, thanking the public for donations and showing their support for this vital service. On seeing the first one I thought this was a strange way to show compassion for those in need, given how the increased use of foodbanks is directly linked to austerity policies, the rollout of universal credit and is one of the issues raised by a recent report on the impact of poverty in the UK (Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2018). The report states that spending cuts from austerity led policies have put Britain in breach of its human rights obligations and highlights discriminatory issues, as these cuts have adversely affected low income and lone parent families, ethnic minorities and the disabled. It recommends more investment in health, social care, education and housing, and a rethink of Universal Credit. In addition, a report by the United Nations has described current government policies as ‘punitive, mean-spirited and often callous’ in their impact on the most vulnerable, more alarming given we are still one of the richest countries in the world (UN, 2018).
The responses on twitter articulated what I was feeling, ranging from incredulity, to anger and shock. It is a strange state of affairs when politicians see this as a cause for celebration, but then, there is little else to choose from, in relation to policies introduced in the last two years. The cognitive dissonance between thinking this presents them as compassionate and caring about problems they have created is quite an achievement. But then, I also know I really should not be surprised – I never believed Conservatives could be considered compassionate and anything but concerned with their own interests and dismissive of those in need. When Conservative MPs received the memo to pose at foodbanks, I wonder how many refused? Or how many believed this would be accepted as an example of celebrating charity, because even at Christmas, we all too easily normalise this level of deprivation, and rationalise it as due to individual circumstances, and not structural inequalities.
The wording of the UN report is clear in its condemnation and recognition that in Britain, the government lack the political will to help those most in need, given that tax cuts signalling the ‘end of austerity’ have once again benefitted the rich, under the auspices of this wealth trickling down in the form of jobs and increased wages. However, the EHRC and UN reports have emphasised how these policies are disproportionately affecting those who cannot work, or can only do part time work, or who face discrimination and disadvantage, including employment opportunities and prospects. When foodbanks were first set up, I honestly believed this was a temporary fix, never did I think still in 2018 they would be still be needed and indeed, be increasingly used. I also never would have imagined they would be held up as an example of the good work of charities adopted as a PR stunt by the very people who have created the inequalities and harm we see today.
The small glimmer of hope is the protest in one of these pictures, and the responses via twitter which reflected how I felt. There was a clear backlash in Scotland, where it was reported that a record number of supplies were needed as Universal Credit was rolled out, and where there were calls to foodbanks and supermarkets to refuse to pose with Conservative MPs. Alas, my fear is beyond the twittersphere, most people can rationalise this as acceptable. After all, should we not celebrate charity and helping those in need at this time of year? Is this just an example of good will and thinking of others? Well, yes of course, and if these photos were simply asking people to donate without the MPs responsible being there, I would think most of us would perhaps be reminded we can do our bit to help, and we should. The presence of the MPs and acceptance of this as good PR is what really worries me, that people will still vote for a party which has been described as cruel and punitive and believes this sort of promotion makes them look good. The irony that our current Prime Minister once herself warned that the Conservatives were becoming the ‘nasty party’ is staggering. For what she now resides over are policies which are internationally condemned as harmful, discriminatory and callous.
The other slight glimmer of hope is some commentators suggest this stunt reflects rumours of a general election on the horizon, as while Theresa May celebrated the ‘success’ of negotiating a deal with the European Union, it seems this was short-lived once parliament began to debate the deal and may trigger an election. The UN report suggested that Brexit has been so much of a distraction for MPs and the public that we are not seeing domestic problems as a priority. I think for many there is a sense that once this deal is done, we can get on with resolving other issues. But for this government, I don’t think that is the case. I think for Conservatives, these negotiations and now parliamentary debates are a welcome distraction and a narrative which fits their lack of will to actually address the harms caused by austerity. A general election may bring about change and force MPs to confront where we are today as a result of political choices, but this depends on how we all really feel about poverty, homelessness, discrimination and disadvantage. I wonder if too many feel these are insurmountable problems, inevitable and therefore, beyond the abilities of government to address. But the UN and EHRC reports clearly tell us this is not the case. I hope we do get an opportunity to hold this government to account sooner rather than later. But most of all, I hope that more of us actually take up this opportunity and not allow what we see today to continue.
Senior Lecturer in Criminology
Equality and Human Rights Commission (2018) The cumulative impact on living standards of public spending changes, available from https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/publication-download/cumulative-impact-living-standards-public-spending-changes
United Nations (2018) Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, see https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=23881&LangID=E
I seem to be reading more and more reports on the need to retain lectures as a form of teaching, as it is claimed to ensure students are more engaged and committed to their studies when this method is used. Well, these findings have come to my attention just as I am testing online technologies to replace the ‘traditional’ lecture, via Collaborate on the new Waterside campus. Collaborate is a tool in Blackboard which opens an online classroom for students to join, listen to the lecture and see slides or other media, while also being able to pose questions via a chat function.
On the face of it, not so different, just the physical world replicated in the real world, right? Well, I will reserve judgement as I am still coming to grips with what this technology can do, I am aware younger generations of students may embrace this, and the reality is, it is the only forum I have to offer teaching to large numbers of students. I suspect student experiences are mixed, I know some really like it, some are not so keen, so again, not so different to lectures? The article in the times suggests that students are less likely to drop out if they are taught via lectures and have perceptions of good one-to-one contact with staff. Some more interesting issues were raised from replies in the tweet about the story, raising questions about the need to focus on quality, not method, that many universities are playing catch up with new teaching technologies and that this needs to be better understood from social and cultural perspectives. I think it is also worth picking up on perceptions of students, along with their expectations of higher education and remember, they must develop as independent learners. The setting in this respect would not seem to matter, it is the delivery, the level of effort put in to engage students and reinforcing the message that their learning is as much their responsibility as ours.
There is certainly a lot to grapple with, and for me, just starting out with this new technology, I myself feel there is much to learn and I am keeping an open mind. I do feel there are aspects of traditional teaching which must be retained and this can be done via group seminars, with smaller numbers and an opportunity for discussion, debate and student-led learning. If we see the lecture as the foundation for learning, then perhaps its method of delivery is less important. Given the online provision I must use for lectures, during seminars, I step away from the powerpoint and use the time I have with students in a more interactive way. For those modules where I don’t use online lectures, not much has changed on the new campus, but I am always keen to see how online teaching methods could be adopted – and I am prepared to use them if I genuinely can see their value.
It would be easy to offer only critique of this technology, and I think it is also important not to see it as an answer to the perennial problems with lack of engagement and focus many lecturers experience from mid term onwards. Perhaps online provision can at least overcome barriers to attendance for commuting students, those who feel intimidated in large lecture halls, and those who simply find they don’t engage with the material in this setting. At a time when some courses attract high numbers of students, and the reality of having lectures with 150+ students in a room means potential for noise disruption, lack of focus and interaction then maybe online provision can offer a meaningful alternative. There is provision for some interaction, time can be set aside for this, students can join in without worrying about disruption or not being able to hear the lecturer and it removes the need for lecturers to discipline disruptive behaviour. It does require some level of ‘policing’ and monitoring, but the settings can enable this. Having done lectures with 100 plus students, it is not something I miss – I’ve always preferred smaller seminar group teaching and so I can see how online provision can be a better support for this.
Currently, I use the online session as a form of recap and review, with some additional content for students. This is in part due the timing of the session and I am sure it can work equally as well as preparation for seminars. Students can then use the time to clarify anything they don’t understand and it reinforces themes and issues covered in seminars as well as introducing news ways to examine various topics. As with any innovation, this needs more research from across the board of disciplines and research approaches. In order to move such innovation on from ‘trial and error’ and simply hoping for the best, as with any policy we need to know what works, when it works and why. Therefore, along with my colleagues, I will persist and keep a watchful eye on the work of pedagogic experts out there who are examining this. There have been the inevitable issues with wifi not supporting connectivity – I can’t believe I just used this sentence about my teaching, but there it is. I am optimistic these issues will be overcome, and in the meantime, I always have a plan B – relying on technology is never a good plan (hence the featured image for this blog), but this is perhaps something to reflect on for another day.
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