Interview with Professor James Teasdale 

Crime, Deviance, and Media- insight to what the course is, how it functions, and what one can expect to learn. 

Community Spotlight

By Kayla Muller /Matthew Staff | | Edited by Eleonora Prior

Photo courtesy of James Teasdale 

John Cabot is offering a new course called Crime, Deviance, and Media (SOSC/LAW 236), taught by Professor Teasdale. I had the pleasure of interviewing Professor Teasdale about his course to provide insight into what the course is, how it functions, and what one can expect to learn.

How would you describe this course to someone interested in taking it? What can they expect to learn from it? 

The idea is that crime and deviance are fascinating to people, especially students, and it crosses over a lot of disciplines. As we said at the beginning of the course, you have criminologists, sociologists, psychologists, etc.; the problem is that deviance is problematic in every generation, in every society, for several reasons. Most primarily, the way we’re looking at it, it’s not something that’s readily found, it’s usually something that’s constructed and wielded by people. That can make individuals’ lives very difficult, including students. I imagine a lot of people have experienced forms of discrimination or abuse of power. This is some way of being able to understand why. On a personal level, I think it’s somehow cathartic to people to understand why that happens but also how this thing, which is so huge and ever present in society, is functioning. In terms of crime, we very rarely get an insight into serial killers or murderers. You don’t want to be voyeuristic, the course isn’t like that, but we want to try and understand how crime functions in society. Also, similar to deviance, why certain things are deemed ‘crime’ and how crime and deviance interact with each other. Because they’re so distant from our day-to-day lives, media products whether it is termed “factual”, so news, documentaries, etc., or fiction, which is how most of us interact with this, like true crime for instance, where podcasts have become massive recently. The media is a way for us to have a look into this, and we have to be careful for several reasons. We can use these tools to have an insight into how crime functions; recently in class, we were doing prisons and the idea of what’s it like to live in a prison. How do prisons function, why do they function in this way, are they functioning correctly, is there a lie happening, what do we have from the people themselves who speak about them? Why do the people who produce representations of prisons do them in this way? Because subconsciously or consciously, there is some agenda, as well, and that often changes throughout generations in societies, which is interesting to trace. 

What is your favorite part of this course to teach, and is there anything you wish you could add? Where do you see the direction of this course going, do you see it expanding? 

The course is brand new; in regard to your second question, one of the problems that we have is there is so much to talk about in terms of crime and deviance– we have almost limitless possibilities. Some things aren’t included, for example, ecological crime and deviance. When we come back after spring break, we’ll be looking at the experience of women in crime. It lacks somewhat in terms of domestic abuse: a colleague of mine said “no, this should be in there.” So, one of the issues is that I want to try to pack in as much as possible, without diluting it and without making too much of a list of different things that we cover. The thing I like most is the discussion with the students. Often, we cover the theory– the course is very heavy on theory—and I like to see how students negotiate around it and whether they like it, whether they don’t like it, and if they’re able to apply it to media products that they’ve seen or heard or read themselves, or experiences of anecdotal or historical evidence that seems to speak to them. 

What is something that stuck with you from your own university experience that inspired you to teach this course? 

My PhD work was very much focused on how newspapers are able to depict people– it was on refugees and migrants, so people in very dire situations, very vulnerable people– as deviant. One of the things which is constant, unfortunately, in the modern world, is that the scapegoat for the right wing in particular is the idea that the migrant is somebody who is entering society with deviant inclinations. The thing is, often these things happen in a very subtle way, and they are accepted by society on a whole scale: they are not questioned or challenged. This is something that inspired me to think there are other forms of deviance that need to be questioned– what is it we’re talking about, who’s winning by depicting people in this way? 

Can you tell me more about your experience teaching this course at other universities, are there any differences teaching it at John Cabot? 

I’ve taught this class in the past focused primarily on sociology of crime and deviance in a pure sense, on how it functions in society: how it’s labelled, how it’s produced, and how it’s challenged. This is an extension of that, in that we’re using far more media products to be able to explore how this process is happening in real terms. What I really enjoy about this one is that there’s more accessibility for students to be able to approach the theory, but also a lot more angles for students to dismantle theories. I really do think it’s important that when students are introduced to certain theories, they’re able to apply it to their own experiences, their own academic background, their own knowledge, their own discipline, and make an almost individual decision of whether the theory works or doesn’t work, and that’s something new with the John Cabot course. 

How does this course cater to different areas of study? 

As I said before, my perspective on this is sociological: my own background is in language and semiotics. I’m trying to think of a course that maybe doesn’t apply to; I’m biased, I would like to say everyone could sit in on the course. Largely, any course in which there’s a concern about the depiction of people as bad, the idea of people being bad, doing bad things, or the threat of bad people/being vulnerable to bad people; I would say anything where that crops up in the course, they’d be able to take something away from this course. 

Can you describe a time in class where you felt you reached through to your students and made a valuable connection, or maybe learned something new? 

Of the top of my head, I can’t think of one particular moment, and I think it would be a bit arrogant of me to try to claim that’s ever happened. What I have noticed is that students have had a tendency– which has been nice and surprising– to not only apply theory to media products that we have been looking at, but to their own lives, where they’ve offered anecdotes or discussed things they’ve experienced, or their friends have experienced, that they think the theory speaks to, or that prove the theory doesn’t have any legs.  

What do you believe the most valuable takeaway from this class is and why? 

Number one: academic theories are there to be challenged. There is no such thing as truth, you especially cannot find it from a professor. All that the professor should be doing is facilitating your ability and your chance to be able to discover these things and to understand them. Ironically, even though this process is happening, certain theories do speak to us. People are able to make individual, often personal– as well as academic– choices about what approaches they want to make to any discipline, not just crime and deviance. A lot of the theories we look at are cut into disciplinary, and it should be understood that students can pick them but also discard them. What’s been taught is not gospel, but something to be negotiated within themselves.