Why are we here?

IMG_6987In this blog post, Natasha Taylor and Catriona Cunningham reflect on life in the wonderless classroom…and the perils of asking ‘why are you here?’…

Natasha’s story…

I was really excited to have the opportunity to teach this term, but it has turned into one of the most frustrating teaching experiences I have ever had. Attendance is a serious problem and even when they do come they are not engaged – it is like they don’t care. Out of a group of 16 students, I have never even met 8 of them. Nothing in my arsenal of ‘tried-and-tested strategies’ works – absence reporting, pleas to collective conscience, signposts to assessment, promises of fun. Not even chocolate.

Perhaps it is about misplaced expectations? It is a topic that I find interesting – academically, but also at a more general level. Who wouldn’t find crime investigation, prisons and the courts interesting? Who wouldn’t want to come and have a discussion about these things? What is interesting is that in the conversations we have had, they don’t seem to have any awareness of what is going on in the world – be it in real life news, or fiction. Perhaps I am wrong to assume that their lives are enriched with new movie releases, tweeted news headlines, trashy holiday reads and Netflix?

I have been determined not to accept the argument that they are all slipping into ‘consumer mode’ and just want to be presented with a certificate at the end of three years. Surely students come to university to learn, not just be fed knowledge? At the end of one mediocre discussion, I challenged them on this very point. WHY are you here if it is not to take every opportunity made available to you? WHY the inertia?

Devastatingly, the response was numbing. They didn’t even seem to care that I was challenging their very being, demanding them to justify themselves. It was so utterly frustrating because I know what they are missing.  Am I wrong to get cross with them for that?  Should I be letting them decide how and when to engage?

Catriona’s Story

January 2016: Return to institutional life after 5 years in the academic jungle of the Higher Education Academy with its many different tribes and territories. Now, I’m in an institutional landscape where learning and teaching is taking root and sprouting. In academic development we are launching a new HEA-accredited CPD framework and are piloting a (non-accredited) course for those aiming to become Associate Fellows. Within a few days of launching this course, waiting lists for the sessions were full; there was an appetite or even a hunger for teaching and learning… As the weeks have gone by, however, I’ve often felt like I was back in the jungle constantly battling through shoots that are resistant and occasionally hostile.

I had imagined sharing the excellent practice taking place across the UK and beyond, looking at this study, or this website and helping them see the magic you can unleash in your class. They explain very patiently to me that this is all great, exciting, possibly even inspiring and yet they have no time to integrate this new way of doing things. It is as if I am bringing them brightly wrapped gifts from around the world and they don’t even want to unwrap the paper. I want exploration, they want answers. I want change, they want empathy. I want hope, they want job security.

Yesterday, to my shame, I let my emotions show in a class. In an open discussion, I felt a surge of anger I couldn’t – or didn’t – conceal and asked them why they were here to learn about learning and teaching if they didn’t actually want to change. Unlike Natasha’s participants, there was an audible gasp and lots of comments in the session feedback sheets. They were confused, had learned nothing and were deeply offended that I had questioned their reasons for being there. And they were right to be angry because instead of opening up a model for collaboration and ensuring their space was ‘safe’, I was imposing my agenda on them.

But how, in academic development, in the spirit of openness and educational enquiry, can we change hearts and minds without getting battle-fatigue? Where can we find an open clearing in the jungle?

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