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Gillian is an Academic Librarian at the University of Northampton, supporting the students and staff in the Faculty of Health and Society.
I was inspired to write this blog post by an article from the BBC news website that my friend sent me (BBC, 2019). A reading list was used as a punishment for teenagers who were convicted of daubing graffiti across a historically significant building in the state of Virginia, USA. Normally such an offence would earn a community service order. In this case, due to the nature of the crime – using racially charged symbols and words, the Prosecutor and Deputy Commonwealth Attorney Alejandra Rueda decided education may be the cure. She provided the five teenagers with a reading list that they had to read, and write assignments on, over the course of their 12-month sentence.
“Ignorance is not an excuse” is a principle expressed regularly throughout society, yet are we doing anything to address or dispel this ignorance? Rueda realised that books may help these teenagers to understand the impact of what they’d done and the symbols and language they had used in the graffiti. She chose books that would help educate them about racism, anti-Semitism, apartheid and slavery, to name just a few of the topics covered in the reading list. These were the books that helped her understand the wider world, as she grew up. Rueda’s approach indicated that punishment without an understanding of the impact of their crime, would not help these teenagers to engage with the world around them. These books would take them to worlds far outside their own and introduce them to experiences that were barely covered in their High School history lessons.
It’s not the only time an ignorance of history has been highlighted in the news recently. A premiere league football player was investigated for apparently making a Nazi salute. Although he was found not guilty, the FA investigation found him to be appallingly ignorant of Fascism and Hitler’s impact on millions of people across the globe (Church, 2019). Whilst the FA lamented his ignorance, I’m unsure they have done anything to help him address it. Would he be willing to read about the Holocaust and impact of Fascism in Europe? Would being forced to read about the lives of people over 70 years ago, help him understand how a chance photograph can affect people?
Should reading be a punishment, would it help people understand the impact of their actions? As a Librarian, people often assume that all I do all day is read. For me, reading is a luxury I indulge in daily, when I’m at home. I find a distinct difference between reading by choice, for escapism, and reading because you have to. I remember studying English Literature at school and finding any books I was forced to read, quickly lost their charm and became a chore rather than a pleasure. I’m not sure reading should be a punishment; it could disengage people from the joy and escapism of a good book. However, I understand the value of reading in helping people to explore topics and ideas that may be well outside their own world.
There is a growing body of literature that reflects on bibliotherapy and how reading can help people in varying stages of their life (Hilhorst et al., 2018; Brewster et al., 2013). A recent report by Hilhorst et al., (2018) advocates reading to transform British society, address isolation and improve social mobility. I believe reading can help improve our quality of life, helping us improve literacy, understand complex social issues and offer escapism from the everyday. However, I hesitate to view reading as a magical solution to society’s problems. Some people advocate the literary classics, the numerous lists you can find online that extort the virtues of reading the finest of the literary canon – but how much of it is just to conform to the social snobbery around reading ‘good literature’, a tick list? We should encourage reading, not force it upon people (McCrum, 2003; Penguin Books Ltd, 2019; Sherman, 2019).
Reading can help expand horizons and can have a tremendous impact on your world view, but it shouldn’t be a punishment. What Rueda did in Virginia, is illustrate how an education can help us address the ignorance in our society. We should encourage people to explore beyond their community to understand the world around us. Reading books can offer an insight and allow us to explore these ideas, hopefully helping us to avoid repeating or perpetuating the mistakes of the past.
BBC (2019) Graffiti punished by reading – ‘It worked!’ says prosecutor, BBC News [Online]. Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/stories-47936071 [Accessed 18/04/19].
Brewster, L., Sen, B. and Cox, A. (2013) ‘Mind the Gap: Do Librarians Understand Service User Perspectives on Bibliotherapy?’, Library Trends, 61(3), pp. 569–586. doi: 10.1353/lib.2013.0001.
Church, B. (2019) Wayne Hennessey: EPL player showed ‘lamentable’ ignorance of Fascism, CNN [Online]. Available from: https://edition.cnn.com/2019/04/16/football/wayne-hennessey-fa-nazi-salute-english-premier-league-crystal-palace-spt-intl/index.html [Accessed 18/04/19].
Hilhorst, S., Lockey, A. and Speight, T. (2018) “It’s no exaggeration to say that reading can transform British society…”: A Society of Readers, DEMOS [online] Available from: http://giveabook.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/A_Society_of_Readers_-_Formatted__3_.pdf [Accessed 15/04/19]
McCrum, R. (2003) The 100 greatest novels of all time: The list, The Guardian [Online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/oct/12/features.fiction [Accessed 18/04/19].
Penguin Books Ltd (2019) 100 must-read classic books, as chosen by our readers, Penguin [Online]. Available from: https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/2018/100-must-read-classic-books/ [Accessed 18/04/19].
Sherman, S. (2019) The Greatest Books, The Greatest Books [Online]. Available from: https://thegreatestbooks.org/ [Accessed 18/04/19].
Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans
(Max Ehrmann, 1927)
Last week marked International Poetry Day (21 March 2019, to be precise) and it seems only right to consider this form of narrative in more detail. When I was younger (so much younger than today)[i] poetry left me rather cold. Why read short, seemingly impenetrable bursts of language when you could read whole books? To me, it seemed as if poetry was simply lyrics that no-one had got around to putting music to.[ii] Looking back, this may have been the folly of youth, alternatively, I simply was unable at that time to see the value, the beauty of poetry, both written and spoken.
Poetry isn’t meant to be consumed whole, like fast food to be gobbled in between anything and everything else, fuel to get you through the day. Neither is like googling facts, just enough to enable you to know what you need to know at that instant. Instead, it’s meant to be savoured, to stay with you; like many good things in life, it takes time to ponder and digest. In turn, it takes on its own distinct and entirely personal meaning. It offers the opportunity for all of us, individually, to reflect, ruminate and interpret, at our own pace, according to our own place in time and space. The extract which opens this entry comes from Desiderata which carries particular resonance for me and my academic journey. It may or may not do the same for you, but it’s worth having a look at the entirety of the text, just in case.
An obvious criminological place to start to explore poetry, was always a favourite. Long before I discovered criminology, I discovered the work of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). Starting with his novels, it wasn’t long before I stumbled upon his Ballad of Reading Gaol. With its haunting refrain; ‘each man kills the thing he loves’ it is difficult not to captured by its innate melody, as well as the story of the murderous soldier. After studying criminology and spending time in prison (albeit not serving a sentence), the verses take on a different dimension. It is difficult not to be moved by his description of the horror of the prison, even more so, given his practical experience of surviving in this hostile and unforgiving environment:
With sudden shock the prison-clock
Smote on the shivering air,
And from all the gaol rose up a wail
Of impotent despair,
Like the sound that frightened marshes hear
From a leper in his lair
(Oscar Wilde, 1898)
On the surface, poets like the Greek, civil servant C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933) have nothing to say about my life, yet his words make my heart ache. Cavafy’s tale of a mystical and mythical journey to Ithaka which seems to me to represent my educational journey in ways that I am only just beginning to appreciate. Replace the mythical Ithaka, with my all too real experience of doctoral study and you get the picture.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich
(C. P Cavafy, 1910/1911)
Furthermore, The Satrapy appears to represent ambition, desire and above all, the necessity of educating oneself in order to become something more. To truly realise your humanity and not just your mere existence, is a constant struggle. Cavafy’s words offer encouragement and a recognition that individual struggle is a necessity for independence of thought.
Your soul seeks other things, weeps for other things;
the praise of the public and the Sophists,
the hard-won and inestimable Well Done;
the Agora, the Theater, and the Laurels
(C. P. Cavafy, 1911)
Poets like Maya Angelou celebrate gender and race (among many other aspects), identifying intersectionality and the struggles fought and won, and the struggles still ongoing. Despite historical and contemporaneous injustice, to be able to shout from the rooftops Still I Rise in answer to the questions she poses, is truly inspirational:
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
(Maya Angelou, 1978)
Likewise, Hollie McNish utilises her anger and frustration to powerful effect, targeting racism with the linguistic gymnastics and logic of Mathematics , demonstrating that immigration is one of the greatest things to happen in the UK. To really get the full force, you should watch the video!
Cos sometimes one that comes makes two
And sometimes one can add three more
And sometimes two times two is much much more
And most times immigrants bring more
(Hollie McNish, 2013).
To conclude, you have nothing to lose by immersing yourself in a bit of poetry, but everything to gain. The poets and poems above are just some of my favourites (what about Akala, Cooper Clarke,McGough, Plath, Tempest, Zephaniah, the list goes on) they may not be yours, but it doesn’t matter. Don’t rush it, read a little something and read it again. Let the words and imagery play around in your head. If it sings to you, try to remember the name and the poet, and you can return again and again. If it doesn’t sing to you, don’t lose hope, choose another poet and give their work a chance to inveigle its way into your life. I promise you, it will be worth it
Angelou, Maya, (1978/1999), And Still I Rise, (8th ed.), (London: Virago Press)
Cavafy, C. P., (2010), Collected Poems, tr. from the Greek by Daniel Mendelsohn, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf)
Lennon, John and McCartney, Paul, (1965) Help!, [CD], Recorded by The Beatles in Help!. Parlophone, [s.l.], Apple
Wilde, Oscar, (1898), The Ballad of Reading Gaol by C. 3. 3., (London: Leonard Smithers)
[i] Lennon and McCartney, (1965).
[ii] Not always the case, as can be seen by the Arctic Monkey’s (2013) musical rendering of John Cooper Clarke’s I Wanna Be Yours
Every student has a different experience in their studies, be it through what they have studied, who they studied with or even where they studied. “Team Cops and Robbers” studied the same degree, the same modules at UON, yet we had different experiences. However what we share (and are all very fond of) is how positive the experience was, tackling the stresses (and joys) of the degree as a trio. We each offer a brief overview of our experience as a member of “Team Cops and Robbers”, who graduated in 2015 and still remain very involved in each other’s lives…
Jes: I was a late comer to Team Cops and Robbers, as Emma and Leona had already bonded without me (rude I know!). We were thrown together in Drew’s 2nd year History module, where there were only a few Crim students – so they didn’t get much of a choice with regards to me joining, the then, duo. And the rest as they say is history! What stemmed from there is quite remarkable; we all had own our strengths when it came to Crim. My recollection is Emma knew everything about everything, Leona kept us all motivated and on top of our seminar preparation and I kept us glued to the library and bossed us around -especially with group work (my car Geoffrey was an unofficial member of the gang taking us to and from Park campus). Although we took the same modules, due to our differing interests, we all did different assignment questions and had very different ways of writing and tackling assessments. In my third year, I distinctly remember Emma and Leona reminding me to take time to myself and to not live 24/7 in the library; and had they not been there to encourage me to breathe, it is likely I would have burned out! They were not afraid to question my views, or understanding, or challenge my bossy attitude when it came to group work, for which I am very grateful! And still today, even though we are no longer studying together, they keep me motivated with the MSc, sending me motivational gifts as a reminder that even though they are not studying with me, I am not alone! My academic journey would have been very different had it not been for our trio, and likely would not have been as successful.
Leona: Sometimes being in class with friends can be detrimental as you end up spending so much time having fun, you end up forgetting the work side of uni. However when you meet friends who are so determined to do well and hard-working, it can really motivate you to push yourself. Myself, Jes and Emma became a power trio; encouraging each other, motivating each other and always making sure we were working together for group projects. We are all completely different when it comes to learning but I think these differences really helped us. Learning from them really helped me to improve my own standard of work, and having the girls’ input and guidance throughout, really encouraged me and helped me gain confidence in my own voice. Plus it made doing all the studying we did much more bearable. I’m sure sometimes it took us longer to get through everything as we would be half working, half chatting, but as a trio it meant we could help each other if we got stuck or go for coffee breaks if we were bored or unmotivated. Having Jes and Emma there with me meant there was always someone there to go through notes with, always someone to explain something in a different way if I didn’t fully understand something, always someone to motivate me when I was exhausted and didn’t feel like working any more. It meant that my viewpoint expanded as I learned from their experiences and that once we had all finished writing our essays we could share them with each other to check, critique and make suggestions for improvement. But more than all that, it meant there was always someone there to help you balance the workload, someone to tell you when to take a break, and to “day drink” in the SU, explore winter wonderland, or have a Disney film day. During my time at uni these girls inspired me to work harder, and to really challenge myself to improve on everything I was doing. Without them there to encourage me and spur me on, I don’t think I would have come out with the grade I did, and I am certain that my uni experience wouldn’t have been half as memorable.
Emma: Meeting Jes and Leona was one of the best things about university. Not just because they are now two very dear friends of mine, but because we were vital to each other’s sanity at uni. I met Leona first in welcome week with a very interesting exchange asking if I was at the right seminar and proceeding to tell her my name, that I was from the south west and that I liked reading about serial killers. Leona reciprocated with the main difference being that she was from the north and from there our friendship blossomed. Jes was some girl who sat with another group of people. It wasn’t until 2nd year that Jes really came into our friendship group and “Cops and Robbers” was formed. We all had strengths and weaknesses that helped us when it came to group work. Jes was always super, super organised, having her essays completed with weeks to go. Leona was always bubbly and would follow Jes with completing her essay with time to spare. Me… I would research and collect quotes and references and then write my essays with 48-24hrs to go, as I liked the time pressure. This changed in my 3rd year though as being around Leona and Jes, they moulded me and proof read my concepts and challenged me back on things. Any time we had group work, I knew we would do well because as a trio we kicked ass! We did not always have the same views in our seminars and would often debate but we would always leave as friends. Best advice for getting through university sane, is to find people who are fun, you get on with and drive you to be the best.
Hopefully what is clear from each of our perspectives is how important we were to keeping each other (relatively) sane! Your friendship groups during your studies are essential to keeping you happy, but also keeping you motivated! Whilst it is independent studies, and at the end of the day is YOUR degree; the input from friends and family will shape your own ability and attitude. If you find the right group, hopefully you will find that they push you, support you and challenge you!
On Tuesday 12 December 2018, I was asked in court if I had been radicalised. From the witness box I proudly answered in the affirmative. This was not the first time I had made such a public admission, but admittedly the first time in a courtroom. Sounds dramatic, but the setting was the Sessions House in Northampton and the context was a Crime and Punishment lecture. Nevertheless, such is the media and political furore around the terms radicalisation and radicalism, that to make such a statement, seems an inherently radical gesture.
So why when radicalism has such a bad press, would anyone admit to being radicalised? The answer lies in your interpretation, whether positive or negative, of what radicalisation means. The Oxford Dictionary (2018) defines radicalisation as ‘[t]he action or process of causing someone to adopt radical positions on political or social issues’. For me, such a definition is inherently positive, how else can we begin to tackle longstanding social issues, than with new and radical ways of thinking? What better place to enable radicalisation than the University? An environment where ideas can be discussed freely and openly, where there is no requirement to have “an elephant in the room”, where everything and anything can be brought to the table.
My understanding of radicalisation encompasses individuals as diverse as Edith Abbott, Margaret Atwood, Howard S. Becker, Fenner Brockway, Nils Christie, Angela Davis, Simone de Beauvoir, Paul Gilroy, Mona Hatoum, Stephen Hobhouse, Martin Luther King Jr, John Lennon, Primo Levi, Hermann Mannheim, George Orwell, Sylvia Pankhurst, Rosa Parks, Pablo Picasso, Bertrand Russell, Rebecca Solnit, Thomas Szasz, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, Benjamin Zephaniah, to name but a few. These individuals have touched my imagination because they have all challenged the status quo either through their writing, their art or their activism, thus paving the way for new ways of thinking, new ways of doing. But as I’ve argued before, in relation to civil rights leaders, these individuals are important, not because of who they are but the ideas they promulgated, the actions they took to bring to the world’s attention, injustice and inequality. Each in their own unique way has drawn attention to situations, places and people, which the vast majority have taken for granted as “normal”. But sharing their thoughts, we are all offered an opportunity to take advantage of their radical message and take it forward into our own everyday lived experience.
Without radical thought there can be no change. We just carry on, business as usual, wringing our hands whilst staring desperate social problems in the face. That’s not to suggest that all radical thoughts and actions are inherently good, instead the same rigorous critique needs to be deployed, as with every other idea. However rather than viewing radicalisation as fundamentally threatening and dangerous, each of us needs to take the time to read, listen and think about new ideas. Furthermore, we need to talk about these radical ideas with others, opening them up to scrutiny and enabling even more ideas to develop. If we want the world to change and become a fairer, more equal environment for all, we have to do things differently. If we cannot face thinking differently, we will always struggle to change the world.
For me, the philosopher Bertrand Russell sums it up best
Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. It sees man, a feeble speck, surrounded by unfathomable depths of silence; yet it bears itself proudly, as unmoved as if it were lord of the universe. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man (Russell, 1916, 2010: 106).
Russell, Bertrand, (1916a/2010), Why Men Fight, (Abingdon: Routledge)
There’s the saying ‘Find your passion and you’ll never work a day in your life,’ however I much prefer the updated version ‘Find your passion and you’ll work every day of your life’ BUT you’ll love it. Criminology and the law are everything to me and I enjoy my profession and my ability to work in a field that allows me to direct my interests. It is a very special position to be in and not something I take for granted. I am fortunate to be starting at The University of Northampton this coming semester as a criminology lecturer and I’m looking forward to meeting and getting to know all my colleagues and students.
As a student you may not always want to study, and it is also important to take time off. You may feel guilty if you’re not studying as there is always more reading or research to do for your assignment – it is a veritable rabbit hole. I highly recommend that you undertake ‘Productive Procrastination.’ Productive Procrastination is not working on the task you should be working on, but it is still related closely enough to your work that you don’t feel guilt. (Yes, maybe some mental gymnastics to get to this point!)
It is very important to stay up to date with the current news and research in criminology and criminal justice. To achieve this I use Twitter, read books, and listen to so many podcasts. Apart from being entertaining and educational, the best thing about listening and reading is it often gives your mind to think about what you’re learning differently.
Some of my top podcast recommendations are:
- My Favorite Murder
- Once Upon a Crime
- Hidden Brain
- They Walk Among Us
- Death in Ice Valley
Some book recommendations from my reading over the last couple of months are:
- Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer – Michael Mansfield
- All that Remains: A life in Death – Sue Black
- Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie
- Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell
- Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge
- In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
- The Secret Barrister
- Women & Power: A Manifesto – Mary Beard
If you like any of these podcasts or books, please let me know as I can make a lot more recommendations. Alternatively, please provide me suggestions! Happy Productive Procrastination!
I have a personal blog Academic Traveller if you would like to read more about my experiences.
Image is inspired by New Yorker Cartoon: Sipress, D. (2014). The New Yorker Daily Cartoon: Friday, December 5th [Online image]. Retrieved from <https://www.newyorker.com/cartoons/daily-cartoon/daily-cartoon-friday-december-5th?mbid=social_twitter> Image created by Glen Holman.
I’ve been thinking about Criminology a great deal this summer! Nothing new you might say, given that my career revolves around the discipline. However, my thoughts and reading have focused on the term ‘criminology’ rather than individual studies around crime, criminals, criminal justice and victims. The history of the word itself, is complex, with attempts to identify etymology and attribute ownership, contested (cf. Wilson, 2015). This challenge, however, pales into insignificance, once you wander into the debates about what Criminology is and, by default, what criminology isn’t (cf. Cohen, 1988, Bosworth and Hoyle, 2011, Carlen, 2011, Daly, 2011).
Foucault (1977) infamously described criminology as the embodiment of utilitarianism, suggesting that the discipline both enabled and perpetuated discipline and punishment. That, rather than critical and empathetic, criminology was only ever concerned with finding increasingly sophisticated ways of recording transgression and creating more efficient mechanisms for punishment and control. For a long time, I have resisted and tried to dismiss this description, from my understanding of criminology, perpetually searching for alternative and disruptive narratives, showing that the discipline can be far greater in its search for knowledge, than Foucault (1977) claimed.
However, it is becoming increasingly evident that Foucault (1977) was right; which begs the question how do we move away from this fixation with discipline and punishment? As a consequence, we could then focus on what criminology could be? From my perspective, criminology should be outspoken around what appears to be a culture of misery and suspicion. Instead of focusing on improving fraud detection for peddlers of misery (see the recent collapse of Wonga), or creating ever increasing bureaucracy to enable border control to jostle British citizens from the UK (see the recent Windrush scandal), or ways in which to excuse barbaric and violent processes against passive resistance (see case of Assistant Professor Duff), criminology should demand and inspire something far more profound. A discipline with social justice, civil liberties and human rights at its heart, would see these injustices for what they are, the creation of misery. It would identify, the increasing disproportionality of wealth in the UK and elsewhere and would see food banks, period poverty and homelessness as clearly criminal in intent and symptomatic of an unjust society.
Unless we can move past these law and order narratives and seek a criminology that is focused on making the world a better place, Foucault’s (1977) criticism must stand.
Bosworth, May and Hoyle, Carolyn, (2010), ‘What is Criminology? An Introduction’ in Mary Bosworth and Carolyn Hoyle, (2011), (eds), What is Criminology?, (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 1-12
Carlen, Pat, (2011), ‘Against Evangelism in Academic Criminology: For Criminology as a Scientific Art’ in Mary Bosworth and Carolyn Hoyle, (eds), What is Criminology?, (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 95-110
Cohen, Stanley, (1988), Against Criminology, (Oxford: Transaction Books)
Daly, Kathleen, (2011), ‘Shake It Up Baby: Practising Rock ‘n’ Roll Criminology’ in Mary Bosworth and Carolyn Hoyle, (eds), What is Criminology?, (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 111-24
Foucault, Michel, (1977), Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, tr. from the French by Alan Sheridan, (London: Penguin Books)
Wilson, Jeffrey R., (2015), ‘The Word Criminology: A Philology and a Definition,’ Criminology, Criminal Justice Law, & Society, 16, 3: 61-82
“Στον πατέρα μου χρωστώ το ζην, στον δάσκαλό μου το ευ ζειν” To my father I owe living, to my teacher I owe my wellbeing (Alexander the Great)
I remember this phrase from school, among with other ones about the importance of education in life. Since then there have been several years but education is something that we carry with us and as such we take little memories of knowledge like pieces of a gigantic jigsaw that is our lives and put them together. Experience is that glue that makes each piece of knowledge to stick at the right time whenever you want to find the words or feelings to express the world around us. Education plays such an immense part in this process because it give us these words that explain our world a little more clearly, precisely, deeply
This phrase had great resonance with me as I have never known my father and therefore I had no obvious person to relate this to or to have a way to express gratitude for living to anyone (obviously from my paternal family branch). So for a very long time, I immerse myself in education. Teachers in and out of the classroom, living or dead, have left a trail of knowledge with me that defined me, shaped my thoughts and forge some intense memories that is now is my turn to share with my students.
Education has been my refuge, my friend and a place of great discovery. Knowledge has that power to subvert injustice and challenge ignorance. Arguably education comes in different guises and a formal school curriculum sometimes restricts the student into normatives of performance that relegates knowledge into bitesize information, easily digestible and reproduced. The question, of a fellow student of mine who asked, “sir, why do I need algebra?” could have only be met from the bemused teacher’s response…”for your education”! Maybe I am romanticizing my own education and potentially forget that formal compulsory education is always challenging and challenged because of the purpose it is called to play.
Maybe this is why, what I consider of value in education, I have always attributed to my own journey, things that I read without being in any curriculum, or discussions I had with my teachers that took us away from the strict requirements of a lesson plan. The greatest journey in education can start with one of the most basic of observations, situations, words that lead to an entire discussion on many complex ideas, theories and perspectives. These journeys were and are the most rewarding because you realise that behind a question is the accumulated human curiosity spanning the entire history of life.
One of the greatest places for anyone to quench this thirst for learning is the University. In and out of the classroom knowledge is there, ready to become part of a learners’ experience. It is not bestowed in the latest gadget or the most recent software and other gimmicky apparatus but in the willingness to dwell into knowledge, whether it is reading late in the library or having a conversation with fellow students or a tutor (under a tree as one of my students, once professed). Perhaps my trust in education is hyperbolic even obstinate but as I see it, those of us who have the choice, can choose to live or to live well. For the first, we can carry on existing, but for the latter the journey of knowledge is neither a short one nor one that comes easy but at least it will be rewarding.
This isn’t going to be the intellectual blog post I had expected myself to write. I am writing this as I am undertaking my post-grad dissertation and in all honesty, I can’t be bothered anymore. And I feel secure in the fact that I am not the only person who feels this and I most certainly will not be the last. Heck, I’ve been close to giving up altogether a handful of times throughout both my under and post-grad. I will be the first to admit that I don’t know how to leave work mode alone when I have deadlines due. And it is only through friends and family that I have to be reminded that all work and no play, doth not make for a mentally healthy Bronagh. I have always struggled separating the two and have been known to cancel or decline plans so I can do work; low and behold, I don’t write a word.
Be mindful of your mental health. You can’t work at it constantly. Between work and uni, you need to allow yourself those stress-free days off so you can produce the best work that you are capable of. I hate to harp on about the most obvious scenario. But as someone who felt bad for taking time off to have fun and as someone who is currently struggling for the motivation to complete this dissertation, just know that you are not alone. It is not uncommon to feel burnt out towards the end of your degree, be it 1 year, 3 years, or more. Just know that you have not come this far to fall at the final hurdle.
My biggest motivation was having friends going through the same situation. Meeting up to go the library so none of us bailed. Telling one another to “shut up, we need some quiet time”, putting headphones in so as not to get dragged into another one-hour chat about that dire television show we all watched the other night. As with everything, it’s all about moderation. You are your own worst enemy, but it is you who will pull yourself out of your slump and show your self-doubt that you are both capable and worthy. This isn’t forever and you will relish those days where you have no deadlines to worry about, but trust me, you will also miss them. Do not let these tough times get the better of you and certainly do not let them put you off any possibilities of further education. The motivation will come and you will get there in the end. Carry on doing the things you enjoy and take everything in your stride.
Just keep swimming, you’ve got this.
I read a report the other week about concern over the number of 1st degrees that are being achieved within higher education in the UK (Richmond, 2018) and the fact that the volume of such achievements is devaluing university degrees. I juxtapose this with another report that states that 32% of students do not think they get value for money (Neves and Hillman, 2018) and the result is some soul searching about what it is I’m trying to achieve as a lecturer, aside from survival, and what higher education (HE) is about. A conversation with a friend who works in Information Technology muddies the water even more. He’s a high flyer, jetting backwards and forwards to the USA, solving problems, advising on, and implementing major change projects within large corporations and generally making a lot of money along the way. For him a degree is not as important as the ability to ‘think outside the box’, find solutions to problems and show leadership that enables change or fixes. If you have a degree then you ought to be able to do all these things to some extent, experience will then build on it. He lets on that his company will not touch graduates from certain universities, simply because they do not have the requisite skills or abilities, their degrees are effectively meaningless. A sad generalisation but one that is becoming increasingly prominent amongst employers. One other thing that he was quick to point out is that the ‘real world’ is highly competitive and his company are looking for the best potential.
So, what is higher education all about, higher than what? What is the benchmark and what is the end goal? I have always believed that higher education is about taking students beyond what can be read in books or can be followed in manuals. It is about enhancing the understanding of the world in which we operate, either professionally or socially and being able to redesign or reimagine that world. It is about leadership in its many guises, problem solving and the ability to use initiative and autonomy. It is about moving a student from being able to paint by numbers under supervision to a student that can paint free hand, understanding light and colours, understanding how to capture moods or how to be evocative, a student who uses materials that they want to use, and they are not frightened to do so. It stands to reason that not every student can achieve excellence. If the starting point is the ability to paint by numbers, then some will move only slightly beyond this and some will excel, but only a few will warrant a 1st degree. What is clear though is that the students really ought to be able to paint by numbers before they enter HE otherwise they will need to be taught that skill before they can move on. That then is no longer higher education but further education (FE) and more importantly, it sets students up to fail, if they are being measured against HE standards. An alternative to avoid this potential failure requires HE standards to be lowered to those of FE. In which case what is the point of HE?
So why would I be confused about HE? Well, when students are seen as cash cows, each being worth £9250 a year to an institution, being able to paint by numbers becomes a barrier to recruitment in a highly competitive market. Institutions can help students that do not have the requisite skills, but this requires either extra time before joining the HE course, this has funding implications, or a lot of extra work by the student during the HE course, and this means that students with limited academic ability struggle. A need to retain students over the three-year period of a degree, to ensure institutional financial stability or even viability, becomes problematic. Struggling students have a double whammy, they have to catch up to the starting point for each year, whilst also progressing through the year. The choices are stark for HE institutions, progress students by lowering standards or lose them.
HE institutions are measured on the number of good degrees and it makes for good advertising. There is enough literature around to suggest that such unsophisticated quantitative measures are never a good thing. The complexity of higher education, where there is a heavy reliance on students engaging in their studies (there is something to be said about reading for a degree), puts much of the achievement of grades beyond the control of lecturers or even institutions. The resultant solution appears to be the lowering of assessment standards and teaching to assessments. In effect, HE is falling in line with FE and teaching students to paint by numbers. It is easy to see why there is disquiet then about an increase in 1st degrees and more importantly, in a competitive world, why employers are becoming increasingly concerned about the value of a degree. As for value for money for students, for many, it’s a bit like being charged a fortune to race a Maserati round a track for a day but not being able to drive.
Neves, J. and Hillman, N. (2018) Student Academic Experience Survey report 2018 [online] available at https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/student-academic-experience-survey-report-2018 [accessed 20 June 2018]
Richmond, T. (2018) A degree of uncertainty: An investigation into grade inflation in universities. [online] available at, http://www.reform.uk/publication/a-degree-of-uncertainty-an-investigation-into-grade-inflation-in-universities/ [accessed 20 June 2018].
Sallek is a graduate from the MSc Criminology. He is currently undertaking doctoral studies at Stellenbosch University, South Africa.
As an international student studying for my doctorate in South Africa, I have been pushed and compelled to think more and more about life after studies. This push does not often come from the most caring hearts. It would seem some South Africans have been wired to ask every ‘foreign national’ they meet, ‘would you go back to your country when you are done studying?’ The motive for asking this question is not as important for me as the reality packed in the question. This reality is that of the post-PhD blues, a time of unsettling emotions, and transitioning from studying to a career or post-doctoral study. Experience shows that the waiting period stirs emotions of rejection after interviews or for just not being shortlisted and when the value of one’s research and academic competency is questioned. For some the experience is short, others simply return to their former employment, while for many others, it could take a year or two, or even more.
Recently, the thought of graduating and life after the ‘PhD’ has been in my mind, and sometimes, it encroaches into my active study hours. However, this entry does not depict the reality of life after PhD alone. I had this moment after my bachelor degree and even more after my Criminology degree at UoN when I had to consider the thought of returning to my home country. I am certain some international students would relate with this. I have had numerous conversations and have heard the opinions of many on this. However, given that graduation is not only an end, but a new beginning as Helen rightly notes, careful thought out plans, perseverance and patience has helped me navigate these periods.
As the labour market has become more competitive, the need for perseverance, thought-through plans and sometimes, ingenuity has become even more important after studying and receiving beautiful grades. Statistics indicates that a significant percentage of faculty positions are non-permanent appointments and this makes the academic career prospect of young and aspiring researchers unpromising. Outside of the academia, not only is the labour market competitive, but applicants are stifled with years of experience requirements and these issues brings me to the crux of this entry.
Beyond doubt, the cost of studying for international students in most countries is comparably higher than those of ‘home’ students. I do not refer to the economic costs in terms of higher tuition, international registration fee requirements, and other sundry maintenance requirements only. Added to this is the immense social cost such as the loss of personal relationship with family, friends and one’s social network. For some, studying in Europe or the West generally attracts certain prestige and a huge pressure from social-expectation that one will return to begin a lucrative work. But, the reality is far from this. Africa has an existential youthful unemployment crisis, serious insecurity challenges and several countries lack basic infrastructures and social amenities. Hence, after studying, some elect to never return, even if it means keeping that beautiful certificate away, picking a menial job or staying back illegally. After all, besides selling all their possession or borrowing to pay the huge tuition, they have nothing to return to and have to eke out a living. These factors undermines and affects the career prospects of international students.