Thoughts from the criminology team

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Back to school; who would have thought it could be fun?

A few years ago, probably about three or four, I found myself appointed as some form of school liaison person for criminology.  I’m still trying to conjure up a title for my office worthy of consideration as grand poohbah.  As I understood my role, the university marketing department would arrange for schools to visit the university or for me to visit schools to promote the university and talk about criminology.

In the beginning, I stumbled around the talks, trying to find my feet and a formula of presentation that worked.  As with most things, it’s trial and error and in those earlier days some of it felt like a trial, and there were certainly a few errors (nothing major, just stuff that didn’t work).  The presentations became workshops, the ideas morphed from standing up and talking and asking a few questions, with very limited replies, to asking students to think about ideas and concepts and then discussing them, introducing theoretical concepts along the way.  These days we try to disentangle scenarios and try to make sense of them, exploring the ideas around definitions of crime, victims and offenders.

There is nothing special about what I do but the response seems magical, there is real engagement and enthusiasm.  I can see students thinking, I can see the eyes light up when I touch on topics and question society’s ideas and values.  Criminology is a fascinating subject and I want everyone to know that, but most importantly I want young minds to think for themselves and to question the accepted norms.  To that extent, criminology is a bit of a side show, the main gig is the notion that university is about stretching minds, seeking and acquiring knowledge and never being satisfied with what is supposedly known.  I suppose criminology is the vehicle, but the driver decides how far they go and how fast.

As well as changing my style of presentation, I have also become a little more discerning in choosing what I do.  I do not want to turn up to a school simply to tell pupils this is what the course looks like, these are the modules and here are a few examples of the sorts of things we teach at the university.  That does nothing to build enthusiasm, it says nothing about our teaching and quite frankly, its boring, both for me and the audience. 

Whilst I will turn up to a school to take a session for pupils who have been told that they have a class taken by a visitor, I much prefer those sessions where the pupils have volunteered to attend.  Non-compulsory classes such as after school events are filled with students who are there because they have an interest and the enthusiasm shines through.   

Whilst recognising marketing have a place in arranging school visits, particularly new ones, I have found that more of my time is taken up revisiting schools at their request.  My visits have extended outside of the county into neighbouring counties and even as far as Norfolk.  Students can go to university anywhere so why not spread the word about criminology anywhere.  And just to prove that students are never too young to learn, primary school visits for a bit of practical fingerprinting have been carried out for a second time.  Science day is great fun, although I’m not sure parents or carers are that keen on trying to clean little inky hands (I keep telling them its only supposed to be the fingers), I really must remember not to use indelible ink!

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The lone wolf: a media creation or a criminological phenomenon?

In a previous blog post, I spoke how the attention of the public is captivated by crime stories.  Family tragedies, acts of mindless violence and other unusual cases, that seem to capture the Zeitgeist, with public discussion becoming topics in social situations.  It happened again; Friday March 15 after 1:00 local time, a lone gunman entered the local Mosque in Christchurch and started shooting indiscriminately, causing the death of 50 and injuring as many, entering what the New Zealand Prime Minister would later call, in a televised address, one of NZ’s darkest days.

The singular gunman entering a public space and using a weapon/or weaponised machine (a car, nail bomb) is becoming a familiar aberration in society that the media describe as the “lone wolf”.  A single, radicalised individual, with or without a cause, that leaves a trail of havoc described in the media using the darkest shades, as carnage or massacre.  These reports focus on the person who does such an act, and the motivations behind it.  In criminology, this is the illusive “criminal mind”.  A process of radicalisation towards an ideology of hate, is usually the prevailing explanation, combined with the personal attributes of the person, including personality and previous lifestyle. 

In the aftermath of such attacks, communities go through a process of introspection, internalising what happened, and families will try to come together to support each other.  23 years ago, a person entered a school in Dunblane, Scotland and murdered 16 children and their teacher.  The country went into shock, and in the subsequent years the gun laws changed.  The community was the focus of national and international attention, until the lights dimmed, the cameras left, and the families were left alone in grief. 

Since then numerous attacks from little people with big weapons have occurred from Norway to USA, France to Russia and to New Zealand, as the latest.  And still, we try to keep a sense of why this happened.  We allow the media to talk about the attacker; a lone wolf is always a man, his history the backstory and his victims, as he is entitled to posthumous ownership of those he murdered.  The information we retain in our collective consciousness, is that of his aggression and his methodology of murder.  Regrettably as a society we merely focus on the gun and the gunman but never on the society that produces the guns and raises gunmen. 

At this point, it is significant to declare that I have no interest in the “true crime” genre and I find the cult of the lone wolf, an appalling distraction for societies that feed and reproduce violence for the sake of panem et circenses.  Back in 2015, in Charleston another gunman entered a church and murdered another group of people.  Families of the victims stood up and court and told the defendant, that they would pray for his soul and forgive him for his terrible act.  Many took issue, but behind this act, a community took matters into their own hands.  This was not about an insignificant person with a gun, but the resilience of a community to rise above it and their pain.  A similar response in the aftermath of the shooting in Orlando in 2016, where the LGBTQ+ community held vigils in the US and across the world (even in Northampton).  In New Zealand, the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern was praised for her sombre message and her tribute to the community, not mentioning the gunman by name, not even once.  This is not a subject that I could address in a single blog post (I feel I should come back to it in time) but there is something quite empowering to know the person who did the act, but to deliberately and publicly, ignore him.  We forget the importance celebrity plays in our culture and so taking that away, from whomever decides to make a name for themselves by killing, is our collective retribution.  In ancient Egypt they rubbed off the hieroglyphs of the columns.  Maybe now we need to take his name from the newspaper columns, do not make the story about him, but reflect instead, on the way we live as a community and the people who matter. 

The roots of criminology; the past in the service of the future;

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In a number of blog posts colleagues and myself (New Beginnings, Modern University or New University? Waterside: What an exciting time to be a student, Park Life, The ever rolling stream rolls on), we talked about the move to a new campus and the pedagogies it will develop for staff and students.  Despite being in one of the newest campuses in the country, we also deliver some of our course content in the Sessions House.  This is one of the oldest and most historic buildings in town.  Sometimes with students we leave the modern to take a plunge in history in a matter of hours.  Traditionally the court has been used in education primarily for mooting in the study of law or for reenactment for humanities.  On this occasion, criminology occupies the space for learning enhancement that shall go beyond these roles.

The Sessions House is the old court in the centre of Northampton, built 1676 following the great fire of Northampton in 1675.  The building was the seat of justice for the town, where the public heard unspeakable crimes from matricide to witchcraft.  Justice in the 17th century appear as a drama to be played in public, where all could hear the details of those wicked people, to be judged.  Once condemned, their execution at the gallows at the back of the court completed the spectacle of justice.  In criminology discourse, at the time this building was founded, Locke was writing about toleration and the constrains of earthy judges.  The building for the town became the embodiment of justice and the representation of fairness.  How can criminology not be part of this legacy?

There were some of the reasons why we have made this connection with the past but sometimes these connections may not be so apparent or clear.  It was in one of those sessions that I began to think of the importance of what we do.  This is not just a space; it is a connection to the past that contains part of the history of what we now recognise as criminology.  The witch trials of Northampton, among other lessons they can demonstrate, show a society suspicious of those women who are visible.  Something that four centuries after we still struggle with, if we were to observe for example the #metoo movement.  Furthermore, from the historic trials on those who murdered their partners we can now gain a new understanding, in a room full of students, instead of judges debating the merits of punishment and the boundaries of sentencing.

These are some of the reasons that will take this historic building forward and project it forward reclaiming it for what it was intended to be.  A courthouse is a place of arbitration and debate.  In the world of pedagogy knowledge is constant and ever evolving but knowing one’s roots  allows the exploration of the subject to be anchored in a way that one can identify how debates and issues evolve in the discipline.  Academic work can be solitary work, long hours of reading and assignment preparation, but it can also be demonstrative.  In this case we a group (or maybe a gang) of criminologists explore how justice and penal policy changes so sitting at the green leather seats of courtroom, whilst tapping notes on a tablet.  We are delighted to reclaim this space so that the criminologists of the future to figure out many ethical dilemmas some of whom  once may have occupied the mind of the bench and formed legal precedent.  History has a lot to teach us and we can project this into the future as new theoretical conventions are to emerge.

Locke J, (1689), A letter Concerning Toleration, assessed 01/11/18 https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/A_Letter_Concerning_Toleration

What are Universities for?

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As we go through another welcome week it becomes quite apparent in conversations with new students that their motivation for coming to University and joining a course is not singular.  Of course there are some very clear objectives that are shared across like the interest for the subject and the employability afterwards for underlying those there are so many different personal motivations and aspirations attached.  

In the eyes of our new cohort, I can see a variety of responses, the eagerness to learn the joy of studying, the expectation of belonging and the anticipation of ordering their lives across the University life, just to name but a few.  

In conversation, I see these attributes in a different light.  “I want to belong but I am shy”, “I wish to learn but I am worried about learning” “I want to engage but I am concern with my writing”. This is the soft underbelly of becoming a student; because in education our own insecurities are playing up.  These little devils, who rest on the back of the head of many people who doubt themselves and worry them.

One of the greatest fears I hear and see been rehearsed before me is that of intellectual ability.  This is one of those issues that becomes a significant barrier to many people’s fear when joining a University course.  Of course the intellectual level of study is high. There are expectations of the degree of knowledge a student will build on and the way they will be able to utilise that level of knowledge.  After all a University is an institution of High Learning. The place where disciplines are explored in totality and subjects are taught holistically. Nevertheless the University is not the end of one’s education but rather the door to a new dimension of learning.  

For myself and many of my colleagues what makes this process incredibly exciting is to see those eyes of the new students across the years brighten up, as they “get it” as the penny drops and they connect different parts of knowledge together.  Once people reach that part of their educational journey realise that coming to University was not simply an means to an end but something beyond that; the joy of lifelong learning.

As this is a early session, I shall address the intellectual fear.  The greatest skills that any student need to bring with them in class is patience and passion.  Passion for the subject; this is so important because it will sustain during the long cold winter days when not feeling 100%.  Patience is equally important; to complete the course, needs plenty of hours out of class and a level of concentration that allows the mind to focus.  Any successful student can testify to the long hours required to be in the library or at home going over the material and making sense of some challenging material.  This ultimately unravels the last of the requirements, that of perseverance. It is through trial and error, rising up to a challenge that each student thrives.

So for those who joined us this year, welcome.  The door to an exciting new world is here, to those returning, we shall pick up from where we left off and those who completed, hopefully University has now opened your eyes to a new world.  

New beginnings

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This time of the year, it always feels a bit, well odd!  I prepare for the new academic year, in terms of the administrative tasks but most importantly for the academic material.  For many years now, I have been returning to the same space, sit on the same chair and talk to the same old people.  I am aware that this may demystify the role of the academic, but this is only the obvious side.  What I left out from this annual ritual is the most important part of the process; the time used to contemplate content, to reflect on the pedagogies used and to explore new ideas; this is a process whose gestation will commence at the end of the last year and will mature just before the new academic year begins.

This year things are going to be slightly different; the last academic year I was on the old campus and now we have moved to a brand-new campus.  Admittedly, this is a very interesting experience so far.  In a way, it feels like I have changed employment although I still see the same recognisable faces around.  Getting used to the new buildings will take a bit of time, so for those reading this blog, and coming to the campus, please bear with me and of course, if you see me going the wrong direction point me to the right one.  This is a year the myself and my colleagues and our students will be discovering the new campus together.  This will be a shared experience to remember.

The move to the new campus is also aligned to the way we have developed our institutional pedagogies, although our subject has long been involved in those, either espousing the changemaker ethos or getting involved with local organisations and engaging with the community.  We have already been thinking of ways of working with our students to become more civic minded which will help in connecting the academic experience, with a different kind of social learning.

This is a year like all other years, in terms of preparation and planning but at the same time this is a year like no other.  It is a year all students and staff will remember beyond their educational experience.  Years ago, I told a group of students that the place of study becomes such an important point of reference because as people we combine experiences together.  The new campus will shelter the dreams and aspirations of many generations of students and transfigure them into the level of academic maturity that lead our graduates to professional success.  The process is so simple and at the same time so incredibly vital.  The students who come will progress through their studies, master the importance of becoming independent learners with confidence, who will return to their communities, to enhance them with their knowledge and ability.  This is an incredibly satisfying academic process that encouraged myself and many other colleagues to join academia in the first instance.

Let’s have a great new academic year.  One of many

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