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Reading is dead, long live the book

Pile_of_books

The first week of teaching is always a bit of a culture shock. The transition at the end of term from teaching to other activities and vice versa marks a change of tempo and a change of focus. For me, the summer is a time of immersion in reading, thinking and writing. All of these activities continue throughout the year but far less intensively. It’s is perhaps ironic then, that this week’s blog post has left me struggling for ideas…

Previously, I have blogged about the stresses and strains of writing, so this week I thought I might turn my attention to reading; a far more pleasurable personal experience. The first questions is why read? The simple answer is to accumulate knowledge, to find the answer to a question and to educate and entertain. Arguably, all of these purposes can be achieved far more easily by looking on the internet, getting a quick (if not always correct) answer. Why bother learning things when the internet can provide information 24 hours a day?  Furthermore, who can fail to find something to entertain and amuse on the television, in the cinema or on the internet? Perhaps the death knell for the old-fashioned art of reading books is sounding with increasing urgency and volume? I disagree!

I learnt to read at around the age of 5 and very quickly I was hooked. Throughout my childhood I was teased for my seeming inability to put a book down even with eating or walking. This never dissuaded me away from the book and even when that one was finished, there would always be another one to take its place. This reading “addiction” has never left me and has meant that I have been able to explore mythical places such as Eastasia, Erewhon, Gilead, Lilliput, Manderley, Narnia and Utopia and without even leaving my armchair. I have explored America, Australia, Botswana, Germany, India, the Netherlands and South Africa to a name a few, not to mention my home city, both over ground and underground. In my reading life, I have travelled on the Orient Express, fought in the American Civil War, WWI and WWII, hidden from Nazis, as well as served prison sentences in Reading Gaol and Robben Island. I have solved crimes with Mikael Blomkvist, Scout Finch, the Famous Five and Hercule Poirot. I have felt the pains of Lady MacBeth, Jane Eyre and the second Mrs de Winter, been left unmoved by Flora Poste and Jay Gatsby and felt terrorised with Joanna Eberhart, Offred and Gregor Samsa.

Whilst the above may illustrate my love of reading, it does not really explain why it is so important to me and my career. For one, it is the only activity that really holds my concentration, particularly for extended periods of time. In the twenty-first century, where life seems so fast-paced and we jump from screen to screen, triggered by notifications as if we are one of Pavlov’s dogs, such a skill requires protection and cultivation. Second, it is intensely independent and personal; I can share stories with others, I can even discuss books in details, but my reading is my own. Thirdly, and probably the most important for criminology is the opportunity to try someone else’s life for size. The famous line from Harper Lee; that ; ‘[y]ou never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it’ sums this up beautifully (1960/2006: 30). By reading accounts of crime, criminality, victimisation and criminal justice; even if fictionalised, we have an opportunity to test out ideas, to find out how comfortable we are with responses, actions and penalties. In particular, dystopic novels offer the unique potential to imagine the world differently. Whilst on the surface such texts, as with criminology, are presented as negative; dealing with uncomfortable, frightening and disturbing behaviours and responses, they are ultimately full of hope. The potential for change is both explicit and implicit in dystopic fiction and criminology; all is never lost, hope remains no matter what.

If you still need to be persuaded by my argument for reading everything and anything that can get your hands on, perhaps Beccaria’s words of wisdom will help ‘I should have everything to fear, if tyrants were to read my book, but tyrants never read’ (1872: 18).

And after all, who wants to be a tyrant? Not me!

 

Beccaria, Cesare, (1872), An Essay on Crimes and Punishments, (Albany: W. C. Little Co.), [online]. Available from: http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=2193&Itemid=27 [Last accessed 24 March 2012]

Lee, Harper, (1960/2006), To Kill A Mockingbird, (London: Arrow Books)

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The Criminology of the Future

metropolis

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?

Institutional Violence: unfortunate disaster or crime?

Banksy_-_Sweep_at_Hoxton

Despite my love of criminology, there are also aspects which I find deeply troubling. One of the earliest things that an undergraduate student learns to parrot is that “crime is a social construct”. Unfortunately, for much criminological research whilst this may be acknowledged it is largely ignored, with the focus firmly on those actions which are defined by law to be criminal. The first of my concerns, is criminology’s potential to do harm all in the name of making contributions to solving the “crime problem”. All this measuring, trying to find out what works, always seems to involve finding innovative ways in which humans can be forced coerced to do another’s bidding.  It seems to me that this project is inherently designed to hurt individuals, supposedly in the name of justice.

Another concern is criminology’s seeming inability to address bigger issues, which are often dismissed as some other unspecified form of harm, rather than crime.Those of you who have studied with me are likely to know that my academic interests revolve around institutions and violence. I’m not interested in what they do and how we measure their supposed efficacy and “improve” them – administrative criminology leaves me cold – but the impact of these institutions on individual lives.

Much criminological research focuses on individual motivations for criminality (as reflected in some of our earlier blog entries on cyber crime, murder and manslaughter) and these explanations can offer extraordinary insight. Such individualised explanations often follow the classical tenets of freewill and choice, leading to discussions around punishment, and particularly deterrence. Whilst these offer the promise of understanding crime and criminality they run the risk of decontexualising crime; removing the criminal(s), the victim(s) and the criminal justice system from the environments in which both operate. If we consider events such as the Aberfan (21.10.1966) and Hillsborough (15.04.1989) disasters and more recently the catastrophe of Grenfell Tower; (14.06.2017) individualised criminological explanations make little sense, instead we are faced with complex arguments as to whether or not these are actually crimes. However, the sheer number of deaths and injuries involved in these tragic events cannot simply be dismissed as if they are somehow natural disasters. Furthermore, the violence inherent in all of these events is far bigger than any one individual, making traditional criminological theories appear inadequate.

It would seem that perhaps the concept of institutional violence, although contested, can offer a gateway to a more nuanced understanding of crime and harm. One of my starting points for understanding institutional violence is Steven Lee’s question ‘Is poverty violence?’ (1999: 5). He makes his standpoint explicit and argues that ‘[p]overty results in a whole range of serious physical and psychological harms: higher risks of disease, shortened life spans, stunted mental and emotional development, and inadequate opportunity to lead a meaningful life’ (Lee, 1999: 9).

Such a perspective widens our view of what might be understood as violence, taking it away from the overt (two chaps squaring up after a night out) to something less obvious and arguably more damaging. It also recognises that events such as the fire at Grenfell Tower do not happen in a vacuum but are predicated on historical, social and political factors. Justice for the victims of Grenfell Tower cannot be achieved through blaming individuals and rationalising their actions (important as that may be). What is required is a great deal of soul-searching and an exploration of the wider institutional harms, including poverty. Only then can we really begin to understand the impact of institutional violence on the everyday lives of the residents of Grenfell Tower which ultimately led to such devastation on the night of 14 June 2017.  

Lee,  Steven, (1999), ‘Is Poverty Violence’ in Deane Curtin and Robert Litke, Institutional Violence, (Amsterdam: Rodopi): 5-12

You’re never too old to learn

Blog MJ

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.

Reflections from a Pilot

mrs-_fry_reading_to_the_prisoners_in_newgate_john_johnson

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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