higher education

a bit less baffled

I have to thank my blogging pal Christy for a really thoughtful response to my rant about students who don’t participate in seminars. She raises some interesting questions about whether 18 is the best age to start a university education, but on top of that she also made me wonder whether the problem doesn’t lie more with the system than with us individual students.

Along with something that Colleen said in the comments, Christy’s piece made me wonder if the problem might be down to me – perhaps my presence as a much older woman was actually making it more difficult for students to participate. At first I thought, no – my children are this age and they talk to me about almost everything. What’s more their friends seem to like talking to me too. But then I realised this was a stupid comparison. My kids and their friends generally relate to me in the kitchen, where I am chopping and stirring, baking cakes and making cups of tea – in other words, whether I am talking about Virginia Woolf or my daughter’s new shoes, I am basically a nurturing mother figure.

Christy and Colleen on the other hand made me wonder how I come across in the seminar room. I realised there is probably a huge gulf between how I might look and how I actually feel. Christy describes how when she was in uni, the few mature students she met ‘always seemed to have something eloquent and interesting to say’. Now, this is definitely not the case where I am concerned, but I do see that it might appear that way to a nervous 19-year-old.

If so, I wish I could tell my teenage colleagues that I really do not feel confident or eloquent at uni at all. I wish I could tell them that I often feel really stupid and that I even cried in a tutorial today when the creative writing tutor gently tore my latest submission to shreds.

The more I think about this, the more I think that the problem with seminars might not actually lie with any of us students but in the way they are set up. After all, in what other situation are you expected to talk to near strangers about ‘love, joy, death, dying, redemption, forgiveness, sorrow’, as Christy neatly sums up the themes of great literature? Not to mention sex, which was the elephant in the room at this week’s session on French feminists.

When I worked in EFL teaching, the entire point of classes was communication. Our students were there to learn English and they were never going to do that if they didn’t speak. But we didn’t expect communication to happen spontaneously; we worked really hard to ensure a good rapport among the participants. In fact one of the most rewarding parts of the job was seeing friendships spring up between people of different nationalities who might, in other circumstances, have been deeply suspicious of each other.

I think higher education teachers would do well to learn a few tricks from the EFL classroom. Occasionally I have been to a seminar where the tutor has worked like this, dividing us into small groups and setting us specific tasks around a text. Those sessions were much more rewarding than the rather loose ‘let’s all talk about this together’ model.

The university where I study is extremely responsive to students’ views on the learning process. I might just take this up with the staff-student committee. But I’d be interested to hear what other people think first.