Home » Writing
Category Archives: Writing
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].
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.
Last weekend I was fortunate enough to be treated to theatre tickets for Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution. The setting – London’s County Hall – was exquisite, the play sublime and the actors fabulous. An afternoon of sheer escapism, even for a die hard Christie fan like myself. Having read the short story/play many times is no replacement for seeing this on the stage. The theatre offers the opportunity to see the action from all perspectives; you can put yourself in the shoes of the defendant, the court actors and of course, the witnesses. Such a perspective vividly demonstrates the immense power of the State, not only through physical violence (although this is also evident) but through verbal dexterity. To see the defendant – Leonard Vole – on trial; so small and defenceless against the majesty of the courtroom, is thought provoking. Furthermore, this environment is staffed by legal professionals, who unlike him, understand the world in which they operate. The cut and thrust of legalistic argument performed in the play (and in modern day courts daily) conceals the sheer ferocity of authority’s attack on the individual. Remember at the time the play was written, the death penalty was still in force, and Leonard Vole is on trial for the capital crime of murder. In essence, he is openly fighting for his very life, but subjected to the machinations and mediation of professionals who openly profess to be seeking justice. When he tries to speak, to argue, to cajole, he is silenced. There is no place for the defendant’s perspective unless it is expressed via the mandated professional who speaks on his (or her) behalf.
In the twenty-first century (and indeed, for the latter part of the twentieth century), capital punishment in the UK has not been a sentencing option. Whilst defendants may not be faced with a possible date with the hangman, the finality of sentencing and punishment is no laughing matter. Whilst there is no doubt that dramatic denouements have their place in the theatre, in the serious business of the criminal courts such antics seem out of place. If we look at the criminal court as a theatrical scene, we start to observe all manner of incongruity (cf. Carlen, 1976). For starters; the language used and the costumes worn. For anyone that has ever grappled to understand the works of Shakespeare or the Brontë’s, such reading requires patience and perseverance to understand the beauty of such writing. In 2018, we would not request that our surgeons operate on us without the benefit of anaesthesia, neither would we want to be treated with procedures such as bloodletting or trepanning. Similarly, we don’t expect soldiers to carry muskets or form into schiltrons just because that’s how it used to be. Yet we accept and arguably, expect our courts to run as if they were stuck in time. What chance does the individual defendant have in this archaic, theatrical setting? After all, they are the star of the show, yet they have neither costume, nor the opportunity to learn their lines. It is hard to argue, that such practices are conducive to the pursuit of justice.
On the surface, going to the theatre appears to offer a pleasurable break from academia, yet the reality is it offers the opportunity to consider criminology from a novel perspective. Reading (and you all know how keen I am on reading!!) is only part of Criminology; talking, listening, thinking and exploring away from the classroom are equally important. My advice; get out, explore – the arts; theatre, cinema, literature, museums – and add this experiential knowledge to your academic studies. See things from a different perspective and unleash your Criminological Imagination (Young, 2011).
Carlen, Pat, (1976), ‘The Staging of Magistrates’ Justice,’ The British Journal of Criminology, 16, 1: 48–55
Christie, Agatha, (2018), Witness for the Prosecution, Directed by Lucy Bailey. London County Hall, [11 February 2018]
Young, Jock, (2011), The Criminological Imagination, (London: Polity)
Bethany Davies is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first year.
It is only human to doubt yourself in certain situations; however, academia can be a problematic situation to doubt your ideas and abilities. It can lead you to change your standpoint unnecessarily and also create so much stress that you give up on an idea or project entirely.
I deal with this less so now since my university experience but still regularly and I felt it may provide comfort to those currently studying or recently graduated, these examples are personal and are only two of many. In particular I want to address doubting your own ideas and work and how important it is to keep challenging those thoughts.
Upon starting university, my first ‘big essay’ (I describe this with humour as it was 3000 words, but as a first year that can seem like quite the ask) was a biographical assignment. This assignment required an interview with a family member or anyone who would be willing to talk to you and to apply that to research by highlighting some key events/accomplishments. I feared writing that essay as I had many friends with parents who were lawyers or grandparents who had been in the war or immigrants. These stories surely would be so interesting and my essay on my dad who worked in a warehouse would be seen as boring, perhaps. This was my first experience with fear and doubt over my work, but then I did the interview, wrote the essay, took a deep breath and submitted. Turns out it was one of my favourite pieces of work and the programme leaders liked it. It was an honest essay and while not glamorous, it was personal to me and that made the approval and grade that more rewarding.
In my second year, I conducted my placement at a probation office and based my research around a case study of one male who was doing an English class and aimed to discuss the success of that class. After around 8 weeks of observations and an interview with the male. I went to my seminar leader at the time (@paulaabowles) in a complete panic and almost teary-eyed. I told her how I felt my research was not good enough because the male was lying to me, in fact he was almost lying to the whole probation experience as he was more or less just turning up to tick the boxes he needed but then conducting his behaviour differently to me in certain situations and the interview. I felt I had failed as a researcher and also as a teacher almost, as I was assisting in the teaching of the class he was in. I was then told some of the great truths of research and also why I had not failed and actually I had done very well. My research was good research and I just had not realised it. The research didn’t find what I wanted it to, in fact it found the opposite, which was still good research. My research which I had titled ‘Playing the system’ had actually proved to not be a failure and my doubts were unnecessary but not anything to be ashamed of. As in my quest at the time to find answers of why was I such a ‘bad researcher’ and interviewer, I found a plethora of other people online and among peers with the same doubts over some great work they had produced.
Whether it be doubts or fear of speaking up in fear of failure or sounding stupid, I hope others may be able to see not only are they not alone, but actually you are normal because of these doubts. We should just maybe work on believing in our work more and not waiting to get the approval of others for those ideas. With this I feel it is fitting to use one of my favourite quotes from Bertrand Russell:
“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”
This week some students, independently and across the years, introduced me to the novel idea that education should be “enjoyable” and “fun”. Furthermore, if it wasn’t enjoyable, it wasn’t being done right. Given Criminology’s subject matter is often grim, dark, focusing on the worst aspects of humankind, enjoyable and fun are not descriptions that often appear in relation to the discipline. Certainly, such a perspective is not one that I personally recognise; a day at an art gallery, playing Hungry Hippos with two little people, a nice bottle of wine, lunch with friends, building a Lego Yellow Submarine etc are things that I would say are enjoyable, perhaps even fun. But education……I’m not convinced! What follows are my vague ramblings around a subject which is very close to my heart (you are warned!).
All of the enjoyable activities I have described above are ones that I spend very little of my time doing and that to me, is part of their enjoyability (if such a word exists). They are attractive because they are rare and unusual, in my life at least. But education, learning, knowledge are part and parcel of my everyday existence, and dare I say fundamental to who am I. However, does any of this preclude education from being fun? Maybe, I just take for granted my thirst for knowledge in the same way as my thirst for water, just everyday appetites that need to be fed to maintain equilibrium and optimal performance.
I love considering new ideas and new perspectives, particularly if they challenge my thinking and jolt me out of complacency, so I want to consider this concept of enjoyable education. I’ve always been a curious person, there’s lots of questions that I want to know the answer to and they generally begin with “why”? Like all children, I expect I drove my parents mad with the constant questions; never fully satisfied with the answer. I can trace my first early, tentative steps into criminological thinking to when I was a child and regularly had to pass HMP Holloway on the way to various hospital appointments. I used to wonder who lived in this huge, forbidding building, why they were there, what had they done, when would they get out and where would they go? Some decades on, I have answers to some of those questions but I’m still actively searching for the others. This, of course, is experiential learning and children’s books (at that time) offered little by way of answers to such profound criminological questions.
At school, the type of learning I liked best was when I could explore for myself. An experienced and knowledgeable teacher or lecturer explaining complex ideas could open the door so far, but I wanted to find out for myself as much as possible. For me, the best educationalists are those that gently guide and enable, not those who deliver information on demand. They also engender self-confidence and self-discipline encouraging the scholar to take control of their own intellectual journey. All of this leads me to the conclusion that learning is intrinsically neither enjoyable nor fun, although both may be by-products. Education, knowledge, learning, all of these are painful, challenging, at times they appear almost impossible. But! The level of personal satisfaction, achievement and growth means that ‘some kind of happiness is’, not as the Beatles suggest ‘measured out in miles’, but through intellectual endeavour (Lennon and McCartney, 1969). And to answer the essay question I set in the title, Lego has many charms but independent, self-direction is not one of them. Provided you follow the step-by-step illustrated instructions you will have your very own Yellow Submarine, but there are no surprises, whether positive or negative, which means I have no intellectual investment in the process. Furthermore, take the instructions away and I would not be able to recreate this “masterpiece”. Having said that, it does look rather lovely on my book case 🙂
Lennon, John and McCartney, Paul, (1969), Hey Bulldog, [LP]. Recorded by The Beatles in Yellow Submarine, Northern Songs: Apple
 HMP Holloway closed its doors for the final time in July 2016.
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve revisited my life as a student. That’s not to say I haven’t been studying on a regular basis, but the last fortnight or so has seen a return to more “intensive” times. Having c. 20,000 words to prepare for Ph.D transfer, plus a rationale to tie it all together has led to some very late nights, not to mention days in the library. With the presentation still to prepare, not to mention the thesis, this looks likely to continue for some time. As an undergraduate student I was fortunate enough to study full-time and work part-time; this time the roles are reversed.
As an undergraduate, you get into the flow gradually; at the beginning the dissertation appears impossible; how can anyone write 10-12,000 words on just one subject when you’re struggling to write 1,000? By the time you get to that point, the question changes; how can I be expected to get everything I want to say into just 10-12,000 words? The process and progress is gradual and at times, haphazard; when you are in the throes of studying, success can be almost imperceptible. It is only at the end when you can really begin to consider how far you have come, from that early timorous foray into academic life. By the time you get to graduation you have forgotten the anxieties which often go hand-in-hand with academia.
Although I have studied more or less constantly, since taking my first hesitant steps back into education via an Access course, it’s been some time since I have been confronted by word counts and deadlines. For almost a decade, I’ve been setting them for other people rather than be subject to them myself. It’s come as quite a shock!
I’d forgotten how painful writing can be, especially to deadlines, reliving all the old anxieties and noticing the feelings of inadequacy flooding back. Not only trying to satisfy curiosity, develop understanding and construct arguments, there is also the knowledge that this is not private, your output is designed for an audience, albeit small. When I start writing, it is if I am back in primary school, trying to make sentences which not only make sense, but say what you want them to say. Trying to ensure that the words you choose are not going to bore your audience into submission and yet still get your message across. The perpetual internal competition, between wanting to give up and wanting to succeed, seems to grow ever more insistent the more you write.
So why do it? Why not just walk away, do something less painful, less challenging, less meaningful? Why bother with education when you don’t have to? The answer for me, as with all of us, is intensely personal and largely integral to my own sense of being. Even to put my rationale/motivation into words is extremely difficult; I’m not sure I have the words to do justice to the experience. Fortunately, some years ago my daughter did find the words; replace Philosophical/Philosophy with Criminological/Criminology and you’ll get the gist….
The Philosophical Orgasm
Philosophy is difficult. You can read the same piece over and over, making little progress each time, losing faith and on the verge of giving up and then… something happens. The fog clears, everything slots into place, the philosophy offers itself up to you, the tension subsides and your whole being is filled with warmth and understanding; new clarity dawns. This moment is something many of you will be familiar with. It comes on quickly, and strong. And it changes the way you understand forever. You’ve taken it, conquered it, made it yours. Borges sums it up perfectly; in that moment of clarity we become part of something larger than ourselves – we access that shared knowledge (shared, that is, by all those who have gone before, who have walked the same path) and can speak the words as our own. Some people call this the ‘Eureka!’ moment, but I am inclined to say there is even more to it than that. The Ancient Greek εὕρηκα translates roughly as ‘I have found it!’, hence its association with scientific discovery. We can all recall the story of Archimedes jumping out of his bath and running naked through the street exclaiming ‘eureka!’ upon his discovery that the volume of water displaced in his bath was equal to the volume of the part of his body that was submerged. In the case of philosophical understanding, something more personal is going on. It is not merely a case of seeing how concepts operate within arguments – the understanding goes deeper than that, is internalised, changes you. It’s like an orgasm in your mind, that permeates your whole being. The more difficult the philosophy you are trying to grasp, the more intense the orgasm. It isn’t about finding a solution to a problem, it’s about augmenting your ideas in preparation for the next exploration. On each subsequent journey, you’ll take those new ideas along with you. (Saffron Garside).