Don’t dismiss today’s students as human-phone hybrids

Undergraduates are ready to be inspired by the right call, says Alex Valente

June 18, 2015
Person speaking on mobile phone (illustration)

I can, without malice or naivety, sympathise with the author of Times Higher Education’s recent feature about a day in the life of a temporary lecturer and the sorrows of early career academics (“Help! I can’t make it on scraps alone”, 4 June).

Higher education in its current state has severe deficiencies in urgent need of attention. Where there is support for associate tutors and temporary lecturers, teaching spaces and offices are lacking or overcrowded. Where there are rooms and materials, the available technology is obsolete or non-existent. Where the technology works, all the other types of support are bafflingly Kafkaesque. So yes, as a PhD student working as an associate tutor in the humanities, I can relate.

I do not, however, share the sentiments expressed by the author in relation to teaching eye-rolling, disengaged, part-human/part-phone undergraduates. Sure, there are some students who clearly do not want to attend a lecture or even a seminar, and make their thoughts on the matter perfectly clear. And yes, others perhaps made the wrong choice when taking on the course, even the degree as a whole. Some will realise that a course or module is not what they expected and react negatively or just unplug altogether; others still might find the teaching methods a lot more demanding than they thought, having aced their pre-university exams.

That does not, in my experience, mean that they are not engaged. And unlike the author of the article, we should not be giving up on those who actually are. The question, then, is: how do we encourage those students who show interest, reach out to those who do not and capture the minds of those in between?

As tutors and lecturers, we are able to change our lecture delivery, seminar discussions and learning materials (whether handed on from previous staff or self-generated). We should engage students in conversation and allow them to think beyond the texts in front of them. Instead of leading them by the hand, we should nudge them towards the crossroads, allowing them to deliberate, then support them in choosing their own path – all under our watchful eye, of course.

We should do this because we work for them, for the students – and not because their fees pay our salaries, however disproportionately. We work for the students because we chose to become teachers, tutors, lecturers, educators. We are meant to be helping them find the confidence to show how engaged they are on the inside and develop their interests. In fact, we don’t simply work for our students: we work with them.

In the past few years I have seen for myself what the students who are now paying higher tuition fees are actually signing up for, what they want, what they expect and how we can deliver it. Grades are not what they ask for (except when getting formative work, and closer to deadlines, especially in first year): rather, they ask for ideas, for challenges, for reading suggestions. They want more, even if it takes them time to realise it. I have met some of the most fiercely intelligent people I know in the undergraduate cohorts I have worked with, even though some needed a little prodding to get the ideas out.

In writing this, I am not trying to brush off or gloss over the issues that affect and afflict fellow early career, casualised, temporary and stand‑in university staff. What I am challenging, however, is the conflation of two issues. By placing on the same scale institutional deficiencies and supposed student disengagement, neither point makes it out alive. This does a disservice to students, devalues the problems of a precarious education system and reinforces the climate of gloom that permeates our universities. Perhaps our students are not the only ones who would benefit from greater engagement with the practices of teaching and learning.

Alex Valente is an associate tutor nearing the completion of his doctorate at the University of East Anglia’s School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing.

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Article originally published as: Getting the engaged tone (18 June 2015)

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