Dr Vicky Heap reflects on the opportunities and challenges for teaching victimology

Teaching Victimology into the Future and the Accidental Victimologist…

The purpose of the recent ‘Teaching Victimology: Innovations and Issues’ event held at Sheffield Hallam University was two-fold: to share good practice in teaching victimology and provide a forum to debate some of the issues facing teaching the discipline into the future.

The afternoon’s proceedings concentrated on issues. Fuelled by cake, the final session of the day focused on unpicking some of the difficulties we face when teaching victimology. As a group we undertook a graffiti wall exercise (a fancy way of saying we used flip chart paper and gave everyone a pen).

As you can see from the photo, a variety of topics were covered, ranging from whether we should pursue the creation of stand-alone victimology degrees, to how we can protect students when teaching and discussing potentially upsetting/difficult areas. One of the matters discussed was whether victimology should be delivered as a stand-alone topic, or embedded across numerous criminology modules. The short answer appeared to be that it should be both, but accusations of this being something of a cop-out response led to deeper discussions about what this might actually entail. We agreed victimology should play a major part in any criminology degree (we were perhaps a bit biased!), but we also uncovered a range of structural issues that make translating this into practice far from simple.

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Barriers to realising the ideal centred on staff expertise, with the suggestion that some departments lack victimology specialists, while others have staff that lack confidence in teaching this area (myself included and I’ll come back to that later). There were also concerns about an absence of institutional buy-in towards victimology and the perception that it is an inherently feminist domain (Pam Davies will be talking about the latter at the Lincoln event). The other issues were student-centred. It was felt that victimology was sometimes unpopular with students, possibly because they don’t know enough about it to select it as an elective module, or because other areas of criminology appear a bit ‘sexier’, such as violent crime or drugs. There was also a conversation about the strategic motivation of many current students, with career pathways into victimology-related jobs not quite so well known or clear-cut as traditional criminal justice professions such as the police, which may affect student decision making around module choice. Needless to say, we didn’t quite generate a solution to these issues, but in many respects it felt like a problem shared was a problem halved.

The conundrum of where and how victimology ‘fits’ is particularly pertinent for my Department at present, as we are currently re-writing our criminology programme to align with the latest QAA benchmarks. Since I joined Hallam in 2012 we have only ever offered victimology as an option (with that not running this year due to staff changes), alongside modules considering specialist areas such as hate crime. Victimisation in general is currently covered in many of the core modules, albeit in a fairly briefly, with the overarching theoretical perspectives being predominantly aetiological and penological.

As I’m part of the Course Planning Team involved in shaping the new criminology programme, I revisited the QAA benchmarks after the Teaching Victimology event with my head full of all the arguments outlined above. Draft curriculum structures at that stage were a little light on victimology, so I (perhaps foolhardily in retrospect) suggested we try for the ideal; a stand-alone core victims module as well as embedding elements of victimology across the programme. Numerous people from Hallam were at the ‘Teaching Victimology’ event and support for my suggestion was strong. So we are going to have a new core second year ‘Victims, Offenders and Vulnerabilities’ module from 2016! The foolhardiness aspect relates to the fact I’m now charged with leading the development of this module, despite being one of those on the less-confident side of teaching victimology. I’m really an ASB, crime prevention and research methods nerd, with victimology being an area I’ve stumbled across through my work relating to victim-focused shifts in ASB policy. So now this accidental victimologist is going to be fairly busy developing the new module, but I’m looking forward to the challenge. This is also a warning that I may well be asking for your help in the not too distant future!

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