by Sarah Marten
Professor Peter Squires works in the Faculty of Health and Social Science at the University of Brighton where he heads a team undertaking influential research into various aspects of criminology, including gun crime. The many undergraduate and postgraduate students benefit from his engaging and entertaining lectureship style and friendly open-door approach. Professor Squires started his academic career as a lecturer at the University of Brighton in 1986, and has seen student numbers in his department increase ten-fold. He recently talked to Sarah Marten about his fascinating role.
What does your job involve
Life as a professor is quite complicated and busy! I have responsibility for teaching during term-time as well as all the preparation that goes with that, alongside developing my on-going research interests and generating new ones. Then you have to add on lots of administration, office work and regular meetings with colleagues.
Do you teach undergraduates?
Certainly. For me it is crucial to engage and interest our undergraduates right from the start in year one, for me teaching is a vital and enjoyable part of this job. Many of my books are about young people and crime and many of our students are close in age to the young people I write about.
Undergraduate teaching time occupies about five hours each week, sometimes lecturing to 200 plus students and there is preparation and marking is on top of that. I have a weekly tutorial group with about 12 students and also supervise third years undertaking their final research projects.
How do you inspire your students?
Injecting lectures with commitment and passion is my aim, to enable our students to engage with ideas that are relevant to them. They need to be convinced about why this matters. Overcoming any initial reluctance, I have now become a PowerPoint enthusiast and have developed a technique which works for me using images and pictures (and sometimes film clips and music) to keep everything lively. There is a certain drama in crime, so this is easy to achieve.
What about your postgraduate students?
At present I supervise two postgraduate students, which involves helping them with their research work. As a professor I also have responsibility for overseeing oral PhD exams for other faculties to ensure the high standards here at Brighton are maintained.
What sort of research are you undertaking at present?
A key area of my recent work has focussed on gun and knife crime in Britain and some of my recent publications have examined issues surrounding young people and weapon-based violence in urban areas. I am looking at gangs and their use of weapons, and the factors which make violence an option. The media often portrays this as an inevitable and increasing problem, whereas it is actually more complex – rising in some places whilst falling overall. In addition the public’s view of young people does not match the evidence – they are perceived to be four times more likely to be involved in crime and anti-social behaviour than is actually the case.
Having completed some work for the Fire Brigade which involved evaluating a project studying young arsonists, I have now been invited to do some research into Community Fire Safety. Put simply, how can you change peoples’ behaviour to increase and improve safety?
Do you perceive your role as that of public educator?
Ideally yes. I am currently chair of the ‘public relations’ committee for the British Society of Criminology, and where possible I accept opportunities to talk about my work and try to improve public understanding about crime problems.
I am also a member of the UK Gun Control Network, a pressure group which started after the Dunblane Tragedy of 1996. After years of lobbying parliament and MPs, as a group we were able to influence government policy with the “Violent Crime Reduction Act (2006)”.
What does your admin work involve, in its broadest sense?
Maintaining close contact with colleagues is very important, and we hold regular informal meetings to plan and develop our courses. Admin also has its more mundane aspects, such as photocopying and word-processing, updating of reading lists and preparing handouts and maintaining the intra-net web-links for your courses. Academics tend not to have dedicated secretarial support these days; you are responsible for your own admin. We do obviously have administrators, but they generally look after the running of courses rather than directly supporting the academic staff.
In my other role as Deputy Head of Applied Social Sciences at the University of Brighton I have a number of additional responsibilities, which include appointing staff, staff development reviews and the general oversight of lecturers and research staff working in the criminology area: ‘academic leadership’ it is called. Maintaining intranet resources, liaising with the library and ensuring our section of the website are up-to-date are all part of my job.
How do you keep up to date with the latest research?
Reading journals and articles is vital, and I have an email alert system to let me know about recent research findings. The University library has subscriptions to some journals and I subscribe personally to others.
How did you get into this type of work?
By accident entirely! As a young person I had always wanted to join the police, but by the time I reached 18 I found I was not tall enough. After taking A levels in Law, Politics and Sociology I applied to study Sociology at Bristol University, where I focussed on crime and deviance. There was nothing careful or well-planned about this decision, and despite hating the first year I came out in the end with a 2:1 and a mind set on an academic career. After graduating I successfully applied for a research bursary and completed a research project and PhD on the ‘criminalisation of poverty’. This was an interesting time, during Thatcher’s Britain, when “benefit scroungers” often made headline news. Benefits claimants were often treated as second class citizens.
Having spent five years undertaking research at Bristol University I was appointed Lecturer in Social Policy here at the University of Brighton and steadily worked my way up through the ranks before being appointed Professor four years ago. When I first joined there was a rather limited research culture at Brighton, but I have been fortunate in being able to successfully help develop and encourage this over the years.
What hours do you work
This is clearly not a 9-5 job! During term-time I usually spend most of my time on-campus at the University, but much of my research takes place during evenings and weekends due to the pressures on my time. However, the job is flexible and at Brighton we are encouraged to dedicate two days each week to research activities. We get six weeks annual leave, and although I tend not to take all of this, I make sure I have regular time off.
Describe the skills and personal qualities needed for this work?
You need to be upbeat, positive and genuine, and possess a high level of commitment to your students. They are more than just a number and I do try to remember all their names – though it can be difficult with over 150 new criminology students each year ! Most of all you need to make the students feel welcome and try to be very approachable.
What do you like about your job?
This job gives me the opportunity to make real choices about the creative use of my time, from which research projects I might pursue to which books and articles I will write. It is like being your own boss and the freedom this gives me is immeasurable. I love the research and writing that are all part of this job.
It is very rewarding when students see something in themselves that they had not seen before. You are helping to increase their self-confidence.
Is there anything that you do not enjoy?
The university and HE bureaucratic processes can sometimes be a little tedious and time-consuming - sometimes I fear that they reduce creativity and vitality. The necessary auditing and monitoring processes (in teaching and research) can be time-consuming and take your time away from the actual research. Sometimes it can be difficult to attract funding for your research, as the pool is always limited.
What ambitions do you have?
I would like to help increase the status of criminology here at Brighton even further by consolidating and developing our existing reputation. This means undertaking research that makes people take notice.
What advice have you got for anyone interested in this type of work?
The experience of doing a PhD and being around academics is fantastic. It is like an apprenticeship and if you are really motivated you will enjoy it.
To succeed in academia you need to be driven, passionate, committed to your subject and to be very engaged in what you are doing. You also need to be independent, proactive, and self motivated with lots of ideas.
If you weren’t in this job what do you think you would be doing?
I might have tried to join the Metropolitan Police, as, at the time, there seemed to be an idea that at the time they were less fussy about the height limit and in greater need of new recruits. All in all, though, I’m quite grateful for that missing centimetre, things might have turned our rather different if I’d been taller!
Professor Squires is the author of many books, including:
Shooting to Kill?: Policing, Firearms and Armed Response by Peter Squires and Peter Kennison. Wiley/Blackwell Publishers, Oxford. (published next Feb 2010)
ASBO Nation: The Criminalisation of Nuisance by Peter Squires (The Policy Press, Bristol)
Gun Culture or Gun Control? Firearms and Violence - Safety and Society by Peter Squires (Routledge, London)
Rougher Justice: Anti-social Behaviour and Young People by Peter Squires and Dawn Stephen, (Willan Publishing, Cullompton, Devon)
Community Safety: Critical Perspectives on Policy and Practice by Peter Squires (The Policy Press, Bristol)
Young People and Community Safety: Inclusion, Risk, Tolerance and Disorder by Lynda Measor and Peter Squires (Ashgate Publishers)