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We can profess that those of us in academia get to own a small nugget of knowledge on their chosen subject. This is how specialism is developed and cultivated. We start our long journey into knowledge first by learning the discipline as a whole, going through the different theories and issues, becoming aware of the critical debates, before we embrace the next step of in depth understanding. Little by little knowledge becomes a road full of junctions, intersections and byroads, constantly fueled by one of the most basic but profound parts of human experience, curiosity. Academia, was originally developed by a person looking up in the wider cosmos and wondering; surely there is more to life than this. When the recorded experience aligned with imagination it produced results; civilization emerged as a collective testament of being. Arguably the first ever question, whenever it was posed and however it was phrased, philosophy was born; any attempt to answer it generated reason and logic.
The process of learning is painstaking because education is a process and as such it requires us to grow as we absorb it. This process is never ending because “The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing” to quote Ecclesiastes and therefore learning is lifelong. In academia, in particular, this thirst for knowledge is unquenchable and because of it we progress our respective disciplines further, constantly expanding the boundaries. Anyone of us who had a discussion in or out of a classroom will testify that even on the same topic, with the same material, a seminar is never the same. The main reason for this is, education is active and as a learner I gain from whatever I can relate to and comprehend. Time and time again, I go back to my own learning as I adapt my pedagogy, because to teach is a dialectic; we impart an idea and we let it flourish to those who shall be taking it further.
There is a reason why I am so reflecting of education on this entry; recently we had a reunion of our alumni and in preparation of the event, I was looking back at the way we taught criminology, what changed and how things have progressed. Colleagues, moved on as expected and the student demographics may have changed but the subject is still taught. It is this ongoing process that fascinated me in that reflection. The curriculum and the ideas behind it. As an institution we offer a number of subject areas, criminology included, that other institutions around the world do, but no other institution will have the unique blend of what we offer. This part is quite astounding that in the reproduction of ideas and across the continuity of disciplinary knowledge, there is always a place for originality.
On the day, I could hear the stories from some of our alumni with a latent sense of pride as they spoke with some confidence about their life plans, work commitments and ideas. These were the same people who some years ago, blushed in a seminar from shyness, were anxious about their exam results and worried about their degree classification. Now with confidence, they embrace their education with the realisation that they have just made the first step into a terra incognita… their journey into learning continues. During the next weeks (and hopefully, months), a number of our alumni (and current students) will put pen to paper of their thoughts, on our blog and talk about their experiences and their criminology. We thank them in advance and are looking forward to read their thoughts.
As I sit in one of those busy hotel cafés writing these lines, worrying that someone will spill their double decaf latte with a dash of hazelnut, over my laptop, I wonder. What is the point to a conference? Why seemingly normal academics will spend any time in hotels next to noisy honeymooners or loud party people who like to play their tunes at 03:00?
As we finished our first session the other day, in keeping with our own tradition, we overran, we sat and had a long discussion of the key points we got out of the session. The discussion was very interesting to talk to people who may do something similar to you, but so very different. “Comparing notes” has always been one of those processes in academia that promote understanding and enhance the way we learn.
The conference for any discipline is a mass gathering of professionals that do just that; exchange ideas and engage in discussions about the discipline and its practices away from all the other less academic endeavours of the profession.
Usually conferences carry a theme, our conference the theme this year is “Crime, Legitimacy and Reform”. I found it interesting, considering the sessions we are presenting, focus on subverting facets of an established penal institution into providing higher education classes and altering ever so slightly some of its founding principles. Reform? Perhaps, but definitely an attempt to address a profound disciplinary question what are prisons for? This is a question that considers if prison is a relevant institution for a 21st century society. Education in prisons is not a novel idea, but introducing HE education inside a carceral environment provides a new suggestion of what prisons might be for. Clearly this is something worth debating and this week we have been exploring some of the aspects of our work and research.
In a group discussion after one session, we identified the principle ideas of our approach to HE in prisons. The notions of mutual respect, equity for all and educational purpose are the things we identify as the most important. It was interesting to hear the responses from other delegates who seemed to have slightly different views about who ought to participate in such an educational initiative. Sessions such as these allows me to reflect also on what we do. One of the thoughts, I have had regarding the educational approach we have taken, is whether we “normalise” incarceration in a way that justifies/legitimises its hold as an established penal institution rather than challenging its authority (as @paulaabowles asks, quite graphically, is it better to be inside the tent and pissing outside than be outside the tent pissing in?!) Leaving colourful metaphors to one side, the question of what is the obligation/duty of a modern day criminologist regarding criminal justice institutions remains. In essence, should it be different from before; what Liebling calls; a critical friend towards all those institutions of control or not?
Finally the conference is where trends and ideas come to be tested, explored and debated. I remember being in one session back in 2000, when one colleague said; looking into the new century and predicting that the main concern for criminology will be youth crime and initiatives to control it. A year later, 9/11 made terrorism an emerging priority and the collective discussion shifted quite dramatically.
What are conferences for? A great deal of academic discourse…and an interaction that reaffirms why we care so deeply for our discipline