Thursday, March 24, 2011

Future Tense

I haven't been writing much in this blog for the past six weeks or so. After posting more than usual in January, I took a bit of a break to catch up on other work (blogging takes it out of me, for some reason!) and to attend and present at the Georgetown University Round Table in Washington, D.C. from March 11th to 13th.

Here I'll catch up by writing an extra-long post for your enjoyment ;-)


Perhaps because it’s grading season—mid-term exams and assignments have been rolling in and TAs and course directors are dealing with the results—over the past few weeks I’ve been seeing a lot of frustrated talk from academics on Twitter and Facebook. Some of it’s angry, some of it’s more anguished than anything else; but the common thread is that we’re all feeling as if we can’t “reach” students, and that students in turn aren’t doing their share of the work involved in the educational process.

Part of the problem is the way I just defined “education” in that last sentence. I invoked the notion of education as a “process” involving effort from both the person assigned as “teacher” and the people being “taught”; I don’t assume the students are the only ones doing the learning. But as I’ve argued in the past, a consumerist model of education—which encourages students to view education as either a service or a product or some mutation that blends both (“service product”)—undermines the notion of active participation because it assumes a strong element of “delivery” rather than “co-production”. We had a discussion about this in a recent tutorial where I pushed the knowledge-as-object metaphor to its ridiculous limit by drawing on the image of a “basket of knowledge” that we could pass around the room and from which students could simply take what they needed.

Apart from this definitional misunderstanding that causes so many conflicting assumptions about responsibilities and self-conduct, I suspect there are even bigger issues at work. I like asking of students, “how did you know you should go to university?” The reason I ask is because I’m interested in where that decision came from, not just the “why” of it. When we ask “why did you come to university?”, the answer is usually predictable—“because without a degree I cannot get a job.” If we ask how the decision was made, responses are usually quite interesting, and they reflect the influence that parents, teachers and guidance counselors have on students’ decision-making processes.

But what happens to the “work preparation” narrative when students realize that a university education is no longer any guarantee of employment, let alone the “dream jobs” that so many young people are encouraged to envision for themselves? I think this is where the whole arrangement starts to fall apart. You can tell students there are rewards (e.g. in the form of post-graduate employment options), and indeed the statistics continue to point to the financial benefits of PSE for graduates. But if you offer students no (clear) path to those rewards then the result is sometimes a disaffected nihilism towards learning. And one problem with university education is that is was never really designed to offer a clear path to employment.

We need to get at the contradiction in the fact that students come to university because it's "necessary" to get ahead in life, yet in some cases they show little or no enthusiasm for university learning and confusion that there is no obvious connection between what happens in class and what they expect to happen at a job, later on. I think this is why we sometimes hear disparaging comments about how "undergrad is the new high school"--necessary, but not necessarily enjoyable or productive.

I've been thinking a lot this year about why students "tune out" during class and tutorial, particularly when technology shows up as a distraction from class. Larger social, economic and educational trends are one reason for effects such as these, for example the consumerist concept of education as "product" often correlates with students' focus on grades (outcomes) rather than learning (which often irritates professors and TAs).

We can't take on those big issues alone, in one course, in one university; they're ongoing and need to be addressed and re-addressed by everyone. The question is how to navigate these currents when we're faced with the everyday "realities" and frustrations of teaching in universities--grammatically unsound assignments written in haste because students are working 20 or 30 hours a week alongside full-time study (so who's to blame?); flimsy excuses for skipped tutorials (who can we believe?); papers submitted weeks late without notifying the professor or TA that an extension was required (how could we know?); students "burning out" and disappearing without even dropping the course (what happened?); and on, and on.

Now more than ever we're reminded that education is a collaborative effort, and behind that effort must be desire--the desire of the person "teaching" to assist, collaborate and convey; and that of the students, a hunger for knowledge based in questions about the world. Last night in class I talked about how I became interested in education and involved in politics, and how in my experience the key ingredient to success in university is to find some thing about which you have critical questions, a boundless curiosity, a constant hankering, an "itch" that can only be scratched with learning. I think then the learning starts to drive itself.

The difficulty lies in getting to those questions and issues, since their instrumentality for the future is obscure in the present. It's why I told my own story--because students lack narratives they can use to order their present experience, and the tools to construct their own potential narrative; so they find it hard to project into the future even though they are so focussed on it. This is an anxiety-producing state of affairs.

New possibilities open up when we make the connections required to understand a story about how something happened, rather than a description of what is. Maybe it's this causality that students crave, since they live in a world lacking the certainty with which their parents were so fortuitously blessed. The old stories about careers, adulthood and family no longer ring true in this era of instability, workforce "flexibility", debt and recession.

Perhaps the universities should be places/spaces where we start telling new stories.


"How do you get from here to the rest of the world?"
"I wish I knew."

--From The Wire, S05 Episode 5

Monday, March 7, 2011

Places of Learning

This entry was originally posted on October 5, 2010 at University of Venus blog on Inside Higher Ed [link here].

I’ve always felt that the physical environment of educational institutions — their colours, their spaces, their architecture — is one of the least-considered elements in the constellation of educational “success factors,” though possibly the most pervasive one.

Take, for example, the graduate program in which I'm currently completing my PhD. Just before I began my degree, the Faculty of Education—in which my program is housed—was moved from a concrete tower in the centre of campus to a newly-renovated college building. This seemed like a fine plan; however, it wasn’t long after joining the program that I realized the re-design had been a failure. While the Pre-Service Department was housed on the airy, welcoming ground floor, the graduate students’ space, consisting primarily of a computer lab, was relegated to the basement. This separated the grad students from the Graduate Program office and faculty—who were now sequestered on the second floor.

You might be wondering: other than the inconvenience of stair-climbing, what’s wrong with this arrangement? Everyone is housed in the same building, at least, and it looks clean and efficient thanks to the renovation job.

The first problem is that while grad students can probably work in almost any room with a computer, housing them in the basement—which is referred to as “The Dungeon” by some program members—is a poor choice because they will spend more time in this room than most other students will spend on the ground floor. Providing a pleasant working environment means more people will use the lab facilities, and it gives grad students an additional reason to come to the department from off-campus. At a large and isolated commuter campus like ours, this is important, because it helps to create a communal environment and to foster the social and peer support that is so vital to graduate student success.

The second problem relates to the same issue: physically separating faculty members from graduate students makes it more difficult for students to have informal, serendipitous and social contact with professors. So assigning graduate student space to the basement, in a room which is well-equipped but sterile and detached, means adding distance to the existing (non-physical) chasm that often separates students from faculty. Not that the faculty space is well-designed either—it’s standard academic architecture, a loop of corridor lined on each side with offices, following the shape of the building. Most of the office doors are closed.

Part of keeping students in a program, keeping them “engaged” with classes and faculty and other students, involves creating a space where they can feel welcome and included. I feel strongly that educational architecture—the “place” of education—contributes to the kind of educational experience we have, from grade school all the way to the doctoral degree. Institutional architecture sends a message, and affects messages sent; it expresses an idea about the function of the environment it helps create. In the documentary How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand suggests that while buildings may indeed “learn,” people also learn from buildings; our practices and habits, even our feelings, are shaped by our environments—and thus so is the work we do within them.

Amid the current cuts and crises in higher education, it may sound trite to offer this kind of critique. But with graduate school attrition generally hovering around 50%, universities should be taking more seriously the research about what helps students adapt to university life and to academic culture. The effects of physical space are very real. I think it’s no coincidence that in our program, students often find it difficult to “meet” a supervisor. After all, there are few real in-person opportunities to do so, outside of planned events and the classroom—relatively formal occasions.

While we can’t necessarily change the buildings we’re in, we can be sensitive to their use, to our adaptation to the context provided. And we can ask ourselves questions. What would the building look like if we began by asking how people learn? How do people meet each other and form learning relationships? If you could design your own workspace, your own learning space, what would it look like and why? This need not involve a major reconstruction project. If the university had taken these things into account before renovating our program space, the same amount could have been spent and things might have looked, and felt, very different.