Students don't need any lessons in making friends

October 10, 1997

Jennie Bristow takes exception to the structured methods by which academics seek to break the ice in early-year seminars

The beginning of a new academic year - the time when everyone teaches the same thing, and everyone learns the same thing. Whether teaching or studying, and whatever year of study, the first seminar will be the icebreaker.

The idea of "icebreakers" - starting a seminar with some chit-chat to force the students to talk to each other - is to help groups of students to interact. Shy students will be encouraged to speak and stroppy students will be encouraged to listen, building group harmony, tolerance and friendship. But for anyone thinking of starting term in this way, I suggest students do not need icebreakers, and they do not work.

The bit of a first seminar that a lecturer generally misses is the ten minutes before it starts, when all the students turn up early for once and are eager to go. Sitting in the corridor, they ask each other what their names are, what their major subject is, where their accent comes from - all the basic student talk. By the time the lecturer finally arrives, most students are perfectly at ease with each other and looking forward to discussing something interesting.

Instead they have to get into pairs and spend five minutes finding out about each other, before reporting back to the rest of the group. Embarrassment sets in. Some vital detail about the person next to you is forgotten or mistaken and they glare at you with resentment. You begin to think that everyone else in the group is either utterly boring or far more interesting than yourself. Finally, the whole tortuous experience is over - only to be repeated in nine weeks' time at the start of a different course.

So what is the point? After all, it is not as if students are incapable of civil conversation. Students get to know each other in lots of ways, including in their halls, in the bar and in the contributions they make to their seminars. All these ways of making friends and forming relationships are spontaneous and uncomplicated, so why does it now need to be taught as part of a degree course?

At the heart of the obsession with icebreakers in universities are two rather worrying assumptions. The first is that students have suddenly become incapable of making friends without some help from their tutor. The second is that it is as much a tutor's job to help their students interact normally as it is to teach them what they need to know. Both assumptions are degrading to tutors and degrading to students, and their effect is a further degradation of educational standards.

The assumption that students cannot form spontaneous relationships with each other and so need icebreakers betrays a deeply patronising attitude. Parents worry about the friends their child makes and schoolteachers have a certain amount of responsibility to look out for the welfare of their charges. One would have thought that students aged 18-plus could interact with each other and pick out their own friends without the help of a grown-up. But many icebreakers assume the opposite.

In the second term of my final year at the University of Sussex, a tutor handed my seminar group a form to fill out and bring back to the second seminar. The idea was that we would spend the seminar telling each other our name and the name by which we preferred to be addressed, our major course and our career aims. We were instructed to bring along, or talk about, "one thing which says something about me" and explain why this thing was significant.

I felt transported back to my primary school days when "Show and Tell" was considered a legitimate activity, and remembered that I was due to graduate in six months, along with the other members of the course. If we needed to fill in a form to conduct a conversation, what chance would we ever have in the big bad world of work?

In treating adult students like incompetent children, icebreaking exercises play a role in redefining the job of the university lecturer. Once the job of lecturers was to lecture, to use their knowledge and expertise to facilitate students' intellectual development.

Now, the job of a lecturer seems more comparable to a counsellor or nursery nurse, as they are expected to facilitate normal human interaction between the students in their group. This expectation is no longer confined to personal tutors and their tutees, but to all tutors on any course.

Ironically, as postgraduate lecturers, businesses and some edu-cational theorists complain that graduates know less and less about their subject, as hours are cut back and seminar classes grow, as university lecturers are divided into "teachers" and "researchers", more weird and wonderful icebreaking exercises keep on coming.

When the only thing students are good at is making friends, that is what they are being taught to do. Can we start worrying yet, or should we wait until "personal interaction skills" become part of a formal degree assessment?

Jennie Bristow graduated from the University of Sussex this summer.

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