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The Lure of Anxiety

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Helen is an Associate Lecturer teaching on modules in years 1 and 3.

I wear several hats in life, but I write this blog in the role of a lecturer and a psychologist, with experience in the theory and practice of working with people with psychological disorders.

In recent years, there has been an increase in awareness of mental health problems. This is very welcome. Celebrities have talked openly about their own difficulties and high profile campaigns encourage us to bring mental health problems out of the shadows. This is hugely beneficial. When people with mental health problems suffer in silence their suffering is invariably increased, and simply talking and being listened to is often the most important part of the solution.

But with such increased awareness, there can also be well-intentioned but misguided responses which make things worse. I want to talk particularly about anxiety (which is sometimes lumped together with depression to give a diagnosis of “anxiety and depression” – they can and do often occur together but they are different emotions which require different responses). Anxiety is a normal emotion which we all experience. It is essential for survival. It keeps us safe. If children did not experience anxiety, they would wander away from their parents, put their hands in fires, fall off high surfaces or get run over by cars. Low levels of anxiety are associated with dangerous behaviour and psychopathy. High levels of anxiety can, of course, be extremely distressing and debilitating. People with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear to the point where their lives become smaller and smaller and their experience severely restricted.

Of course we should show compassion and understanding to people who suffer from anxiety disorders and some campaigners have suggested that mental health problems should receive the same sort of response as physical health problems. However, psychological disorders, including anxiety disorders, do not behave like physical illnesses. It is not a case of diagnosing a particular “bug” and then prescribing the appropriate medication or therapy to make it go away (in reality, many physical conditions do not behave like this either). Anxiety thrives when you feed it. The temptation when you suffer high levels of anxiety is to avoid the thing that makes you anxious. But anyone who has sat through my lecture on learning theory should remember that doing something that relieves or avoids a negative consequence leads to negative reinforcement. If you avoid something that makes you highly anxious (or do something that temporarily relieves the anxiety, such as repeatedly washing your hands, or engaging in a ritual) the avoidance behaviour will be strongly reinforced. And you never experience the target of your fears, so you never learn that nothing catastrophic is actually going to happen – in other words you prevent the “extinction” that would otherwise occur. So the anxiety just gets worse and worse and worse. And your life becomes more and more restricted.

So, while we should, of course be compassionate and supportive towards people with anxiety disorders, we should be careful not to feed their fears. I remember once becoming frustrated with a member of prison staff who proudly told me how she was supporting a prisoner with obsessive-compulsive disorder by allowing him to have extra cleaning materials. No! In doing so, she was facilitating his disorder. What he needed was support to tolerate a less than spotless cell, so that he could learn through experience that a small amount of dirt does not lead to disaster. Increasingly, we find ourselves teaching students with anxiety difficulties. We need to support and encourage them, to allow them to talk about their problems, and to ensure that their university experience is positive. But we do them no favours by removing challenges or allowing them to avoid the aspects of university life that they fear (such as giving presentations or working in groups). In doing so, we make life easier in the short-term, but in the long-term we feed their disorders and make things worse. As I said earlier, we all experience anxiety and the best way to prevent it from controlling us is to stare it in the face and get on with whatever life throws at us.

 

 

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Productive Procrastination

Jess blogThere’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:

  1. Criminal
  2. My Favorite Murder
  3. Once Upon a Crime
  4. RedHanded
  5. Casefile
  6. Hidden Brain
  7. They Walk Among Us
  8. Death in Ice Valley

Some book recommendations from my reading over the last couple of months are:

  1. Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer – Michael Mansfield
  2. All that Remains: A life in Death – Sue Black
  3. Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie
  4. Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell
  5. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge
  6. In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
  7. The Secret Barrister
  8. 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.

Reference:

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_twitterImage created by Glen Holman.

Waterside: What an exciting time to be a student!

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Bethany Davies is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first year.

Last Friday I viewed the new Waterside campus for the first time, and my overwhelming thought now is… it’s a really exciting time to be a student at the University of Northampton.

Leading up to my visit, I had seen a few pictures and people had told me a few things about the campus, but to be honest I kind of let the worries of ‘change’ affect how I was viewing it in my head. I pictured it as a huge and daunting place and that I was going to feel like I was teaching for the first time even though it’s been many years now.

When I arrived, every fear and worry I had about the new term, training and changes I was going to face… just slipped away.  I was blown away by how beautiful the place was and I felt like I was having flash backs to the feelings I had when I went to an open day at Park Campus as a student many years ago now. This feeling however was on an elevated level.  The way the university seems to balance the old with the new and the large feature of natural surroundings almost seems like it’s a signature style of the university as it’s carried these aspects to the new campus.

My reason for attending was for training on the new system which will allow students more freedom to work all around the campus and also some new creative interactive features. Some of these might not be as crucial to criminology lectures and seminars as other classes,  but seeing the scale of what can be done is testament to the university’s aim to advance the student experience.  Following the training, I wandered around and located what would be my new space for teaching in the Senate building. I decided to let myself in to take some pictures and I was really pleased with the room and the view from the window. The space is modern and I could picture the debates and discussions and the group work that I could plan.

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There is a sense of familiarity with the campus, which may sound silly if it is your first visit, but to me it felt like a safe and motivating environment with student life at its focus. The ‘student village’ and the facilities such as the hotel, shops and many places to eat, made me feel rather envious of those experiencing student life at such a place.

There will be learning curves and bumps in the road as everything new does, but ultimately what has been created is a fresh start for the university and everyone in it. It’s an exciting time to be a student at the University of Northampton and I am excited to be a part of the journey.

 

University? At my age? You had better believe it!

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It was whist working a shift at Tesco that the thought of doing that job for the next 35 years dawned on me. So, I took the decision that day to apply to university and start on a new career path. My career history is mainly within healthcare so I fancied something completely different. I have always been fascinated by crime and punishment, and would love to work within that field, that’s why I chose criminology to study.

When the acceptance email came through to say I would be starting university in October 2017 I went through every emotion possible, although I was really excited about it, I thought Jesus what have I done. I attended some of the activities that took place in welcome week which really helped to settle some of the nerves. This is where I met two very special mature (like me) ladies, the friendship blossomed from there and the support provided between the three of us has seen us all finish the first year. Making friends is a really important aspect of uni life, it provides a support network that can get you through tough and stressful times. The initial friendship group of three has grown throughout the year to include some amazing ladies from age 18 through to ** (I daren’t say), and as we have all discovered ‘age is just a number’, let’s just say it isn’t the young ones being told to keep their voices down in the library (ha ha).

From the very start of the academic year we were bombarded with assignments and expectations. This was an extremely scary and stressful time. The questions of ‘what am I doing here?’ ‘I am never going to survive first year’ and ‘what do all these long words mean?’ played over and over in my mind. It was only the return of each assignment result that kept me going. The thought that ‘wow I actually passed that’, encouraged me to remain on the course. One really frustrating part of assignments is that you work your butt off completing them, then you have an agonising four week wait for the result (probably more nerve racking than the exams).

The course lecturers came across scary and unhelpful to begin with, giving off a vibe of ‘you are an adult and at university so get on with it’. I was unsure if this was just the personality of the criminology staff, as no question has a simple answer and question everything (haha). This vibe soon changed once I got used to university life and they are in fact very helpful, supportive and want you to be the best you can be.

I have received my confirmation of results email and I have made it through to year two (whoop, whoop). Although the first year of uni has been tough, I am missing the people and mental stimulation and cannot wait to return in October. The new Waterside campus promises great things so here’s to the 2018/19 academic year!

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

“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)

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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.

A mature student’s reflections on the first year

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At the age of 51, when I first applied to study Criminology at the University of Northampton, I was a VERY mature student. I had previously been a Registered Nurse for 12 years, then after having a family, re-joined the workforce in various jobs from bar work to office work. I even worked at the local Crematorium for a few years, followed by a short stint at a Funeral Directors! But now my children are grown up and I wanted to do something for me for a change. I happened to see an article in my local newspaper about a 55 year old gentleman who had just graduated from university and that got me thinking….then my daughter told me that there was a man in his 70s at her uni, whose wife made him go so he’d be out from under her feet! That settled it….if they could do it then so could I.

To be honest I was actually amazed to be accepted after writing a 500 word essay on why Criminology is important today. Now that I actually know how to write an essay, the thought of what I wrote then makes me cringe, but onwards and upwards!

Then came the fear. What the hell was I doing? I must be mad! I’d never fit in. These youngsters would never accept me. I’d be useless cos it’s so long since I studied. Even the lecturers would be younger than me. I’d be a joke!
But, what the hell, I thought, ….you only live once! So I swallowed my panic, girded my loins and set forth……I could always run away if I didn’t like it and I’d never have to see any of these people again!

Then out of the blue, on the first day of welcome week, someone started talking to me! She was a mature student too, though much younger than me! The next day I met someone else and the three of us stuck together like glue (and still do now)! As each day went by I started talking to more and more people and before I knew it, I was part of a large group of students ranging from 18 years old right up to me (yes I’m still the oldest person I know!) with every decade in between! I’m just amazed that these people have accepted me and I wish I’d done it years ago! We’ve even had a few drunken nights out (but we won’t go into too much detail about that!).

I have totally surprised myself by how quickly I’ve got back into study mode. The Associate Lecturers have been a lifeline and I can’t praise them enough for all the help and support they’ve given me. Not sure if I’m allowed to mention names, but @jesjames50 and @bethanyrdavies….you know who I mean!!!

All in all, I have absolutely loved my first year. I’ve really enjoyed the studying and it has opened my eyes to so many things. I feel I have a totally different perspective on life now and I’m really excited for Year 2.  I have met some amazing people and I feel so thankful and proud to be part of the community of the University of Northampton.

My advice to anyone, especially older people thinking of embarking on a degree is, to coin a phrase from Nike, “just do it!” Education is the greatest gift and you are never too old to learn.

Painting by numbers: The problem with HE.

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].

That Fat-Tuition: International Students’ Career Prospects

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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.

Park Life

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Bethany Davies is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first year.

Park Campus has now been an active part of my life for around 7 years. In 2011 , after an open day and ‘taster session’ and a few months of obsessing over UCAS points and student finance, I stepped foot onto Park Campus, filled with anxiety, excitement and Redbull. It only took me a few weeks to work out, that I really did not know what Criminology was. Years later and the questions keep on coming, I may have a better understanding of theories and have new ideas and opinions, but if there is one thing Criminology at Northampton has ever taught me, is; the more you learn, the more you realise you do not know.

Studying Criminology is not for everyone, it requires a lot of passion for things that some may find tedious, such as reading, research and more reading. For many of us and hopefully those still studying Criminology it is also some of the best bits about Criminology. The rewards of reading something not necessarily to produce an essay but just to feed an interest or challenge your own views is a gift Criminology has given me. From discussions with those at the reunion, it was evident that Criminology never really leaves any of us and it does not matter whether you work in a criminological field or not, there are always moments for us to appreciate our time studying Criminology at Northampton.

Park Campus has meant so many different things to me over the years. Firstly, while I would not yet define myself as a fully grown adult by any means (does anyone?) but Park Campus was the starting point of many learning curves for fundamental skills that I needed to experience before entering the ‘working world’. Park Campus was the place I found a love for learning, a place where I could ask questions without the feeling of dread hanging over me, a place I met my current partner and many lifelong friends. When I graduated in 2014, I was unsure what to do next, luckily, I was not alone in that feeling and for the most part, it was down to losing the routine of working towards a particular goal (usually in the form of an essay or exam date).

Park Campus then took on a new meaning for me, when I joined the Criminology team in 2015. I still have a mixture of feelings when I am on campus, a mixture of familiarity and happiness to walk around as if I were still a student, but also a general sense of pride to be part of such a fantastic team. Luckily, as we move to Waterside I will not only still be surrounded by a great team but also each year brings a new cohort of students with views and ideas that I can witness change, inspire or challenge others around them.

While I’m not much of a Blur fan, but I am a fan of a bit of corny writing (hence the soppy blog post), I leave you with the chorus lyrics to Park Life, which I find enjoyably fitting …

All the people

So Many People

And they all go hand in hand

Hand in hand through their Parklife

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