It’s the week before my first week of teaching in Exeter (a week earlier than I’m used to, creating an unfortunate clash with the Deutsche Historikertag in Hamburg, so it’s actually going to be my first half week of teaching…). Busy uploading module (not ‘unit’ or ‘course’; must remember that) information onto ELE, learning the relationship between seminars and study groups, revising the ILOs according to house style, checking availability of e-books, re-writing guidance on source analysis exercises, navigating SRS to send out messages, trying to grasp the workings of BART and RECAP, and wondering where I put my copy of the guide to local acronyms. I dunno, in my day you got a photocopied bibliography in the first lecture if you were lucky, none of this spoon-feeding and eDucation nonsense…
Perhaps it’s my imagination, or the consequence of following too many links on HE matters on Twitter, but it does feel as if this has been the year of academics (and others) complaining about Students Today (harrumph): their instrumentalism, their narrow-mindedness, their addiction to social media, their failure to buy books, their excessive sensitivity, their obsession with identity politics, their inability to address emails properly, their homogeneous fashions and terrible taste in music. Or, to put it bluntly, their general failure to Be Like We Were, and yet to expect this to be accommodated. I mean, seven of my new personal tutees identified themselves as dog rather than cat people: how am I supposed to work with this material?
There’s a widespread tendency in discussions of education, at any level, to project one’s own experience of it onto the rest of the world – always dressed up as a real concern for teaching methods and standards, and probably in most cases sincerely meant as such. This is very noticeable indeed in the current debates about the proposed return of the grammar school, with lots of fairly intelligent, more or less academic types arguing about the best system for nurturing today’s fairly intelligent, more or less academic children. Higher education discussions follow similar patterns: an excessive focus on the more traditional and elitist courses and institutions, perhaps, because that’s what politicians and journalists tend to have experienced, and on conventional patterns of study (sorry, FE and part-timers, *we* all did ‘proper’ full-time BAs in our late teens; nothing against you, we just don’t tend to remember your existence very often).
But even we impeccably liberal, open-minded academics have a habit of assuming that our students are basically like us – or ought to be; or at least we have a clear sense of how they ought to learn, which may be founded on little more than our own experience of learning (positive or negative). Sometimes this can be an advantage; I surely can’t be the only lecturer with a profound instinctive sympathy for the student with imposter syndrome who absolutely loathes having to say anything in class, and have therefore developed different techniques for class discussion to try to make things easier for such students because I know it would have been good for me to talk occasionally, however much I hated it… But we have to remember that they’re not all like that, not all like us. Products of a different social era, of a different level of technology, a different culture from our own student days – and with the expansion of higher education, even in places like Bristol and Exeter generalisations about “the typical student” have much less validity than even a decade ago, let alone a quarter century.
I believe that students are our future – and since it looks increasingly like a scary, dystopian sort of future, we need to teach them bloody well in order to show the way. This doesn’t imply that we need to ditch everything we know about learning and teaching on the basis that it’s old and therefore irrelevant, but simply to stop assuming that we already know all we need to know – and to drop the condescending attitude when students suggest something different. They may be wrong – we all want things that aren’t good for us sometimes – but so may we. We have wisdom to offer (“The Dalai Lama and I…”), and the benefits not only of experience but of professional skills in reflecting on that experience, analysing it and drawing lessons from it – but we need to draw the right lessons, for our students and not just for ourselves projected onto our students.
To take just one example: it’s a pretty safe bet that the vast majority of my students are going to be better adapted to technology than I am, so who am I to tell them to put down their iPads and pretend they’re back in the 1980s when they’re in the lecture theatre? But, in the spirit of Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations, I would argue that my experience of a world before the Internet offers the possibility of a critical perspective on present forms of knowledge and techniques of research, on what’s currently lost or obscured as well as what’s gained, from which they can learn. Forcing them back to physical books and old-fashioned lectures alone makes no sense; my job is to make sure that the lessons of critical thought and analysis, how to extract information and meaning from a mass of irrelevance and tedium, that we elderly and middle-aged people learnt by sitting through lectures and wading through monographs, don’t get lost in the shift to new forms of communication and information management.
The start of term always seems, understandably enough, to provoke thoughts about my own student days. Often this is in the form of the Nietzschean eternal recurrence: how would I feel about having to do it all over again, either in exactly the same way (oh god…) or given the chance to do things differently (what are the chances that I’d manage any better second time around? Limited…). But there’s an interesting variant: how would I feel about reliving my student days now, rather than returning to the 1980s? And I think the only sensible conclusion from such a thought experiment is the realisation not only of how different things are today, but also of how limited our knowledge actually is of what our students are going through, once we stop assuming that they’re simply undeveloped versions of ourselves…