Posts Tagged graduates
I realise that one of the main things I learned at Essex was the truth about deadlines. If a task should take about a day, task starts 24 hours before the deadline. This acquired work habit has caused me terrible stress over the years. Too late to change now! (I used to teach lots of good stuff about study and planning at University of Warwick – but no effect on my own practice).
Thinking about writing this blog has actually been a bit unsettling – as was the original experience as a mature sociology student at Essex in the early 1980s. In a good way, obviously, in both cases. It has made me look again at how life cycle, social and economic change and the social/personal construction of reality (all perfectly serviceable ideas) have impacted on my life since I left Essex some 30 years ago.
Over the years, since I launched myself as a jobbing sociologist, researcher and project manager, proper sociological theory has transformed itself into a ragbag of esoteric socio-political views and opinions. A tendency, for example, to make up grounded theories based on passing observations and shouting ‘co-variance does not demonstrate causation’ at the television. Not to mention a grumpy distrust of almost all political discourse – a word I annoyingly over-use, I’m still interested in the concerns of younger feminists though, I buy the books, but, surprise, am developing my own theories about the myths and realities of being old and female. – might be called ‘The joys of invisibility’ or ‘Life in comfy shoes’.
But most of all, at Essex, I discovered that the best time one can have fully clothed is learning stuff, second best is teaching stuff. So every term I sign up for WEA (Workers Educational Association) classes: ‘The Operas of Wagner and Verdi’, ‘Rome from Republic to Empire’, ‘The Gardens of Gertrude Jekyll’ and so on. And all enhanced by a bit of ad hoc sociological analysis. Now retired from proper work, I teach occasional day schools for the same organisation, so far on ‘Feminism Revisited’, ‘Death Matters’, ‘The life and times of Arthur Sullivan’. It’s all a bit sociological don’t you think?
I spent just 12 months as a postgraduate student in the Sociology Department at the University of Essex in 1976/7. I had graduated with a degree in Applied Social Studies, which included the professional social work qualification (CQSW), at the University of Bradford in 1974. After graduation I worked as a social worker for Bradford Social Services. While nominally a generic social worker covering all client groups, my caseload, like all qualified social workers at the time, was biased very much towards child care cases. My degree gave an excellent grounding in psycho-dynamic and ego psychological approaches to social casework which were dominant in social work training at the time. When I finished the degree I was clear that I wanted to extend do some further study related to social policy and sociology and it was the MA in Social Service Planning which I studied at Essex.
What I really liked was that there were just ten students on the course from a variety of backgrounds. The culture of the department was very different to what I was used to and the focus of the MA was, in effect, the sociology of social policy. Every week we had small group seminars with some great staff – unfortunately many of whom are no longer with us; Peter Townsend, Dennis Marsden, Adrian Sinfield, Stan Cohen, Mary McIntosh, Duncan Gallie and a (relatively) young and enthusiastic Ken Plummer – all of whom either were professors or were to go on to become professors at Essex and elsewhere – and all of whom were, at the time, the leading researchers and scholars in the field. To be honest it is only in more recent years that I have come to appreciate the influence that the course and the wider department has had on my thinking and work – both then and in subsequent years. And some of this is quite mundane in the sense that it was the first time I had to study quite conceptual and theoretical ideas in any depth and to produce a series of longer and more ‘academic’ assignments. We had to write a 4000 word essay per month as well as produce the occasional seminar paper. This was the time I began to appreciate the value of a more disciplined approach to reading and writing.
One of the courses we studied was on Deviance, Social Problems and Social control and was led by Stan Cohen and Ken Plummer and introduced me to the American sociology of social problems literature and the journal Social Problems in particular where social contructionist approaches were dominant. Towards the end of my undergraduate degree and while I was a practitioner in Bradford I had become very aware that, following the public inquiry into the death of seven year old Maria Colwell in 1973/4 that the issue of, what was then called, ‘non-accidental injury to children and the activities of social workers had been thrust into the media in high profile ways and that this was having an impact upon the operation of social services in ways which was not envisaged when we were training to become social workers. I was intrigued about how this had come about and with what implications. However I had not anticipated studying this as part of the MA. But increasingly I found the sociology of social problems literature very persuasive and just at the time I was thinking how this might be applied to ‘NAI’ in the UK I came across an article by Stephen Pfohl in Social Problems(24(3),pp310-23) entitled ‘The Discovery of Child Abuse’ and this decided me to make this the focus for the dissertation which I needed to complete for the MA with Ken Plummer as my supervisor.
I was never really able to engage with ‘student life’ at Essex as much as I would have liked. My partner, Christine, and I lived in a small bungalow in Clacton called ‘Pixie Dell’ as she was working for social services in Clacton and I travelled about NE Essex on my trusty Honda 50. Then in May, just as I was about to start work for the dissertation, Christine was knocked over by a car and was very badly injured and spent the next 4 months in hospital near Braintree. So my summer was spent either sitting in the library at Essex trying to find relevant articles and analysing newspaper coverage of child abuse, interviewing a few key ‘informants’ who had some important insights into how the problem was ‘officially’ being handled or travelling to Black Notley Hospital (now closed). At the end of the course and after Christine came out of hospital we were keen to get back to West Yorkshire and I got a job as lecturer in social work at the, then, Polytechnic of Huddersfield, where I have worked – more or less – ever since. I got pretty engrossed in the work for the dissertation and Ken Plummer was always very supportive and this prompted me to write a much edited version of the dissertation for the British Journal of Social Work (9(4) 432-451) entitled ‘The Natural History of Child Abuse: A Study in Social Problem Definition’.
It was never my intention to spend so much of my academic and professional life studying and writing about child abuse and child protection – but that is how it seems to have worked out! In the early days I had assumed that the initial public and media interest in child abuse and social work would subside. But this is not what has happened. While the last 40 years have seen occasional lulls, overall the trend has been for an increase in both coverage and also an increase in, what I am now calling, ‘outrage’. Part of this reflects the growing awareness of the size and nature of the problem of child abuse and the terrible suffering experienced by a significant number of children and young people. But the ‘outrage’ is also very much directed at the professionals and managers, particularly social workers, who have been involved in a series of high profile cases and are, almost, seen as ‘responsible’ for the suffering. It is as if child abuse – or rather child protection – and social work are tied together by some sort of umbilical cord and that the latter has projected onto it much of the fear and anger experienced at a rather subconscious level by numerous sections of society. For many years I have been of the view that it is not possible to understand the nature and purposes of social work in the UK without understanding the nature and social reactions to the problem of child abuse. Increasingly I have been of the view that the way we respond to both child abuse and social work says a great deal about the kind of society in which we live and how this might be changing. My most recent attempts to provide a critical analysis of this will be published by Palgrave/Macmillan in the spring of 2014 as The Politics of Child Protection: Contemporary Developments and Future Directions; and, in many ways, the seeds for this and previous publications were sown in the Department of Sociology at Essex in 1976/7.
Studying sociology at Essex was a revelation to me. Imaginative academics inspired a journey into new territories of philosophical thinking, at time when ‘modernism’ was just becoming ‘post’. The sociology lounge and the deep smell of coffee infused our intellectual debates, mended broken hearts and offered a space for creating lifelong friends. Daily tensions of motherhood and study – struggling to get a baby on the bus and into the nursery before the lectures began. I managed to startle Ken (Prof Plummer) as he supervised my undergraduate project on urban witchcraft and it was Ken who recommended that I went on to study for my PhD. Although I did not have a vision of my journey’s end, I enjoyed the bricolage of postgraduate life.
Having completed my PhD it took me into new terrains and I had the privilege of living and working with indigenous communities around the world with my memories of Essex travelling with me. For instance, I had been working on issues concerning human rights and bio-piracy with the Hagahai people who live in the highland forests of Papua New Guinea. As I flew home we had to detour and land on the Trobriand Islands (now the Kiriwina Islands). I thought about my anthropology lecturers (Drs Okely and Ennew), as the children ran across the rough runway, pointing and laughing at the odd white woman (me) who had just landed. I never thought when I was learning about the ‘Malinowski and the Kula Ring’ in the classroom at Essex that my feet would walk on that land. I have to say that over the years my sociology career has ebbed and flowed and I currently I find myself working back in academia. However, I have never had a clear sense of ‘building a career ‘and so I have found myself working in different jobs in international, national and local settings (researching, writing, and making films) but always with social justice and social inclusion at the heart of my work. As we now we find ourselves at a time where neo-liberalism permeates every aspect of our lives (yes, I am a fan of Philip Mirowski) I believe that critical sociology is still needed in the world. Sociology continues to enrich my life and I would like to say thank-you to everyone in the Sociology Department at Essex for offering me such a very unique education. Long may it continue to flourish. (1991-1995)
I am currently PVC University of Cumbria – just about to retire (permanent sabbatical) at end of the year to enjoy walking in the lovely Lake District and maybe finding time for that writing I never got round to.
I came back to my home county to help set up the new university in a part of the country that has low participation rates and a real need for socio-economic boost from higher education. Formerly I was Director at the Higher Education Funding Council for England – where my boss was a former Essex Sociology staff member – Howard Newby. I have also worked at Coventry University, University of Brighton, the Open University and at Newcastle Poly (now Northumbria University). My PhD came from Surrey University where I went immediately following my 3 years at Essex. I can say that intellectually speaking the 3 years at Essex were the best foundation I could have hoped for.
On graduating from Essex I was unsure whether to follow deviance studies or education. The choice of education was due to a funded phd offer at Surrey and I have been studying the relationship between teaching and learning ever since. Essex staff always took great efforts to help us to learn. Debate and arguement was supported and I still remember some amazing lectures and fascinating tutorials. Partly as a consequence I have spent my career arguing for and helping to develop professional approaches to teaching in higher education.
The lecture that sticks in my mind to this day is when Ken Plummer, in the space of an hour in a small cramped lecture theatre, gave us a complete overview of the theoretical frameworks underpinning modern sociology. By the end of the hour the board (yes, still a black board I think) was covered in connections and links – it was a real “Ah ha”moment for me. In terms of helping students to learn Ken is the man!
Another memorable lecture series was a joint set of debating lectures given by Ted Benton and Ian Craib. Their contrasting styles adding to the amazing intellectual effort just to keep up with their thinking as they paried their different views – while trying unsuccessfully to keep cigarettes lit. – To witness this was to understand that ideas are not right and wrong but require deeply reasoned arguement based on facts and theories: that ideas can be transmuted into different significance through linkages and contexts. It was a life lesson.
Another memory is of the troubled times when we had a ‘sit in’ in the hall and the police came in vans. There was a stand off in the underground car park – students on one side and police on the other. Peter Townsend calmly walked between the two sides, had a chat with the chief policeman (I think he was an essex graduate also) and things were diffused. It could have been nasty. A typical gesture from a really lovely person. Weren’t we lucky with the senior staff at the time – Three wonderful professors – Peter Townsend, David Lockwood and the incomparable Stan Cohen. Wow – I count my lucky stars that I got to Essex, through clearing, all those years ago – and never looked back.
I have recently completed a Phd with the London Consortium and am now freelancing as an editor/proofreader and undertaking independent research in incest studies.
My interests are feminisms, confessional narratives, troublesome sexualities and first-person writing.
I have very fond memories of my link with the Sociology dept, even though my degrees were in Literature. I spent many happy hours in the Soc. common room, helping myself to an endless supply of coffee and basking in the buzz, warmth and humour of staff and students alike. As a post-grad, I took several courses with Ken (Plummer) and Ian (Craib), which still inspire my approach to research. What a terrific time it was back then to be in conversations with such rich company.
I was a 53 year old grandmother when I started my PhD in the Department of Sociology at Essex University and was privileged to have Professor Ken Plummer as my supervisor. My research topic raised a few eyebrows: the transgender phenomenon in Britain and Thailand. This involved me spending a year teaching myself the Thai language and spending the equivalent of an academic year (two fieldwork trips) in Thailand, talking to Ladyboys! I also carried out extensive fieldwork in the UK, interviewing male-to-female transsexual women. I started my PhD part-time in 2001 and the following year was awarded full ESRC funding. I will be eternally grateful for that.
My time at Essex University, and in particular, the Department of Sociology, holds wonderful memories for me. I have a lot to thank many people at Essex for: Professor Ken Plummer; Professor Colin Samson (second supervisor); Professor Diane Elson; Professor Joan Busfield; Rowena Macaulay; Chrissie Rogers; Berenice Rivera Macias; the staff in the Department of Sociology general office; the staff in the Graduate Office in the Department of Sociology; the staff in the Student Support Office, and many more.
I was 58 when I graduated in 2007 and had no idea that I had a career ahead of me. I thought I would be retiring! However, retirement was not what the universe had in mind for me. I am an Associate Lecturer teaching a Level 1 Social Sciences course for the Open University (OU), and loving it. I am also working as a dyslexia support tutor for the OU as well as a mental health mentor for OU students. I am also a regular visitor to local HM prisons, tutoring OU students serving lengthy sentences. All of this is highly satisfying and fulfilling work which I thoroughly enjoy. Just goes to show, you are never too old!! I am in the final stages of revising my PhD thesis into a book for publication.
I miss Thailand a lot and plan on returning when time allows. These days the only chance I get to speak Thai is in my favourite Thai restaurant in Wymondham, Norfolk, where I live now.
I would not have missed my time at Essex for the world and it certainly was a life-changing experience! I am now undertaking a Creative Writing course with The Open University and transsexual characters occasionally slip into my stories. Watch this space for racy little novels by Anne Beaumont!