Get excited, you owe it to freshers

October 28, 2005

Leave your glum face at home - if you don't enthuse new students, their first year could be their last, says Bob Brecher

Another year, another influx of undergraduates... Still, maybe they could help us think about priorities. The research assessment exercise dictates that research comes first, of course; though teaching is supposed to be just as important, what with student satisfaction surveys, the Higher Education Academy, Learning and Teaching Subject Networks and the rest. We might perhaps be forgiven just the slightest feeling of deja vu, if not downright cynicism. But the sort of teaching new students get is important.

Too often, their early experience at university is desultory, dispiriting and even demeaning. Of course graduate students need teaching experience; of course the numbers mean we have to use part-time hourly paid lecturers; and, of course, both are often excellent, enthusiastic teachers.

But no one else at all? Or farming first-year essays out for marking to people who don't even teach on the course? That smacks more of Edexcel A levels than any serious engagement with students' ideas or their genuine difficulties.

In part, the point is a practical one. If we really want to get students interested, rather than just going through the motions, they need to be exposed to the excitement of intellectual effort. If we're serious about plagiarism, this is hardly the best way to show it: why should their work be "for real" if we don't treat it as such? If we're really bothered about dropout rates, don't we need to offer first-years good enough reasons for persisting, including academic help?

There's also a deeper issue here. One thing that brings a lot of people to university in the first place is a search for intellectual stimulus and for contact with people at the cutting edge - or at least near it - of what they're interested in. The stereotype of the uninterested first-year sitting there with no more than an eye to a job is in many ways one of our own making - try asking first years what they're there for. And if "we"

don't take "them" seriously, why should they bother taking "us" seriously? If our complaints about declining standards are to express more than just a jaded elitism, we have to ask what we're doing to push first years hard enough, to engage their enthusiasm. We need to accept them as members of the academic community that a university is supposed to be. Isn't there something just plain wrong about treating students as potentially awkward customers to be milked for their cash, especially as the salaries of most of us depend on them? Don't the older, more experienced of us have some obligation to engage in the harder work of first-year teaching, rather than sheltering behind what is in some ways the less demanding business of teaching finalists? Don't we have some responsibility for trying to stop degree courses becoming just an expensive rerun of A levels, but this time as tragedy rather than farce? Because for the vast majority, this really is their last chance of a decent, intellectually rigorous education.

Two last thoughts. The image of the distant academic with no interest in students and making no effort to help them develop their intellectual capacities is one that graduates will in turn take into the world. What impact will that have on university funding in future, I wonder? And anyway, isn't there something we could learn from our students before they become socialised into obedient cynics who conscientiously give us what they think we want to get their 2:1s? Maybe their enthusiasm could even rub off on us.

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy, Brighton University.

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