Higher education students are adults who deserve respect, says US scholar

August 11, 2011

Academics have been urged to stop "cheating" students and commit to a truly honest relationship.

Kyra Gaunt-Palmer, associate professor of anthropology and black studies at Baruch College at the City University of New York, claimed last week that lecturers were often guilty of infantilising students and reinforcing inequalities.

Speaking at a conference in New York, she accused the academy of "cheating students of their humanity" and urged scholars to "inspire truth-telling" in the classroom.

As an example, she described an occasion on which, for various reasons, she came to a session ill-prepared. Later, she discovered she had taught the wrong seminar.

"I came back the next class and said: 'You know what, last class I lied to you. I pretended that I knew where we were when I didn't know where we were at all. I want to apologise to you and promise that I will never do that again.'"

Despite worrying that this would diminish her authority, Professor Gaunt-Palmer said that she had asked her students for feedback and got an encouraging response.

"My students said: 'No professor ever says that: that was amazing. Yes, that was good information.' All of a sudden, we had this environment where we could tell the truth."

While it was a common gripe among academics that students complain a lot, Professor Gaunt-Palmer said that in her experience students "are willing to come to me to tell me the truth" and that their complaints generally related to the fact that a "commitment is not being fulfilled".

There was also a problem with the way university staff viewed students. "I hear my colleagues refer to what their 'kids' did that week like they are children," she added.

"We've got this whole environment in which we're lying - we're teaching adults but we don't relate to them in that way," she said.

One of the results, Professor Gaunt-Palmer said, was that huge numbers - she suggested as much as 44 per cent - of the 18 million higher education students currently studying in the US will drop out. "That's 7.9 million people that professors must be bailing out on in some way, because we're not accountable for each and every student in the classroom," she said.

Professor Gaunt-Palmer was speaking at the #140edu conference, at which speakers were given 10 to 15 minutes each to address the state of education.

She said one way in which tutors could improve the relationship with their students was to embrace the ideals of social media - if not the actual media themselves.

"I don't even have to use Twitter - I can emulate Twitter in the classroom," she said. "As an anthropologist, I teach the culture of Twitter; that it's a sharers' market."

sarah.cunnane@tsleducation.com.

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