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.


I’ve written here about babies who do not cry because they are institutionalised and about toddlers who do not speak because nobody has ever shown them how.

Maybe that is why I am particularly furious today about able bodied university students who live in a democratic society and do not speak in their seminars.

I am halfway through a part time degree in English. I enrolled full of enthusiasm, expecting to have stimulating conversations with other people who love books and reading. It was the fulfilment of a 25-year ambition.

Three years on and I am beginning to think I might have to stop going to seminars. I can no longer cope with the long silences that follow almost every question posed by the tutors.

I have tried to be patient and to make allowances for the fact that my fellow students are young and perhaps shy. But nobody is a fresher now and I have run out of excuses for them.

I simply cannot understand why anyone would pay for a university education and then fail to participate in the learning process. Yet week after week I sit in seminars where only one or two people speak unless virtually forced to by the tutor.

Take Wednesday, for example. Fifteen minutes into a seminar on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando – arguably a landmark work in English literature – the tutor despairingly announced that he felt as if he was pulling teeth. It’s not as though the questions were difficult. ‘What did you think of this book?’ is hardly threatening, is it?

I wish I could take my silent fellow students to meet some of the people I encountered in my years as a teacher of English as a second or other language.

They would probably like Yasmin. A refugee from Yemen, she was one of the most intelligent women I have ever taught and one of the hungriest for learning. Her eyes filled up with tears when she told me how her parents had forced her to leave school at 14.

Or take Munira. Munira was raising eight children on her own, all of them under 11 years old. But she never missed a class and always handed in her work on time. ‘My ambition is to go back to my country and be a teacher,’ she told me. Unfortunately her country, Somalia, is gripped by famine right now and I’m guessing nobody is going to school there.

It wasn’t just women, either. There were several Kurdish men in my literacy class. The reason they could barely read or write was that when they were children, the Iraqi authorities banned them from school because they were from the ‘wrong’ ethnic group.

And if all this seems too far from home, how about my mum? Her ambition as a teenager was to do biomedical research, but back in the 1940s her school told her that ‘girls don’t do science’. She’s 76 now but she still speaks of it with regret.

My fellow university students make me want to weep with frustration. Their lack of engagement is such an insult to thousands of people around the world who would literally give their right arms for the chance of decent education.

They also devalue the learning experience for everyone. It took over an hour to get nine things on the whiteboard that people thought were interesting about Orlando. Next week I might just go to the library and read instead. The problem is that then I wouldn’t be participating either – but at least I would be learning.