Today, the Teaching and Learning Centre’s Lee-Ann Sequeira asks: Is there no place for powerful emotions and experiences on university campuses today?
A conversation with a colleague at a recent conference set the ball rolling. He remarked on how there was not enough outrage in our classrooms, and that outrage wasn’t being cultivated among our students. His observation resonated with me. I, too, did not see outrage, righteous indignation or, for that matter, passion in higher education. I saw sanitised versions of these expressions – microaggressions, enthusiasm – but not their powerful counterparts. Righteous indignation is more common, but tends to manifest itself primarily on socially sanctioned issues, with an emphasis on the personal. Were these powerful emotions and ideas now outdated? Was there no place for them in today’s campuses? It made me think about other emotions, experiences and behaviours that appear to have fallen out of favour – silence, hazard and resistance – I’ll examine these briefly in today’s HE landscape:
Silence is dismissed in today’s classrooms, in favour of active participation, which tends to be predominantly vocal. Silence in students tends to be equated with shyness, a lack of confidence, poor preparation, poor language skills, and most egregious, poor understanding. Quiet students are seen as a problem to be managed, needing to be coaxed out of their shells. This is the corollary of privileging oral participation in class and conflating it with evidence of learning. Anecdote, personal experience and evidence show that an overemphasis on vocal contributions in the classroom does not necessarily aid deep learning, but teachers and instructors persist, due to the teaching and learning ideologies they subscribe to. It is not the importance of oral contributions in class which I am questioning (there is no doubt that it has an important place in the repertoire of multi-modal participation techniques); rather, it is the emphasis placed on it to the detriment of other forms of participation and contribution such as reflection, writing, etc. Consequently other skills and behaviours associated with an engaged silence (such as contemplation, and listening skills) remain underdeveloped and devalued.
In today’s risk-averse society, a hazard is seen as something to be avoided at all costs and at best, carefully managed. This is not surprising, given how neoliberalism and performativity have eroded personal agency and autonomy. As a result, the current generation of students is receiving an education marked by safe choices and managed risk, rather than intellectual curiosity and experimentation. When universities attempt to chart out and ‘manage’ the student journey, they end up creating a bureaucratic labyrinth. The student, instead of negotiating challenges that make her journey meaningful and endow her with agency, grows adept at jumping through bureaucratic hoops, as Geoff Bunn explained at the recent Radical Pedagogies conference.
On the other hand, in a highly competitive world, failure is not an option. As part of the precariat, students today arguably do not have the luxury of seeing mistakes as life lessons: there is no ‘freedom to fail’. But in a society marked by political uncertainty, unpredictability, lack of job security and diminishing living standards, taking the tried-and-tested option is the deceptively safe choice. As teachers, we need to empower our students to negotiate a changing world and culture, thereby enabling them to exercise their agency and achieve self-formation, a concept put forward by Simon Marginson. Immersed in the narrative of vulnerability and compassion, are we are shielding our students from these kinds of formative experiences? How can we enable our students to negotiate challenges and hazards not only in safe spaces, but also in authentic, real-world settings?
It is interesting to see how, in a higher education system pervaded by a therapeutic ethos, where resilience and character-building are pathologised, where instrumentalism is encouraged and rewarded, there are pockets of resistance where students and staff are challenging the status quo. Campaigns such as Rhodes Must Fall and (the) Post-crash Economics Society, alongside exhortations from eminent educationalists such as Stephen Ball to eschew becoming a “handmaiden of the economy, but scourge and hinderer to the processes of economism” are instructive examples of how, through teaching and learning, we can cultivate opportunities that allow us to win back our agency and achieve self-formation.
From Socrates to Friere, examples abound of how, as teachers, we can adopt a critical approach to higher education – through theory and canon, pedagogy and practice. Sometimes that may mean bucking popular trends that celebrate the personal and confessional, to emphasise principle and the structural. By arming our students thus, we can prepare them to confront uncomfortable truths and overturn commonly-held beliefs.
Ball, S. 2018. Response to Simon Marginson’s Inaugural Lecture. UCL Institute of Education. London UK. Available at http://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/news-events/events-pub/nov-2017/professorial-lectures-higher-education-as-self-formation
Bunn, G. 2018. The ‘Student Journey.’ Presentation at the Radical Pedagogies Conference. Canterbury, Kent.