The gift of surprise

Looking over the work produced by her masters students, Tara Brabazon is struck by their creativity, inspired by their enthusiasm and determination and humbled to see teaching help to change lives

May 23, 2008

Coursework masters degrees are the cash cows of universities. Most of the time, this metaphorical bovine willingly chews its reading and passively produces fees and sustenance for its hungry administrative hordes (and myriad exam boards). Masters programmes are about numbers. How many students are enrolled? Are they international? Are they from Europe? Are they full-time? These students have more in common with data entry than discourse analysis, and calculators rather than consciousness. But there is a reason for the streamlined economic role that these masters scholars play in our universities.

They are squeezed between the crowd control of undergraduate education and the over-bureaucratised doctoral programmes that dislodge the historically functional relationship between a PhD candidate and supervisor. It would be a Situationist joke (or an Orwellian dystopian nightmare) if we were not living this language as reality: research training, progression review panels, upgrade meetings, supervisory teams, supervisory registers, research support teams and student monitoring. Instead of waiting for Godot, we are waiting for yet another seminar on methods. We are so busy pummelling students with “the how” of research that we have forgotten “the why”, and the great capacity for a doctorate to innovate, challenge and probe. This obfuscation often makes us forget about the productive power of a flexible, dynamic, rigorous and mentoring supervisory relationship.

With the doctorate flattened under a carpet of conditions, caveats and recommendations, the coursework masters degree is the Rosetta Stone of our universities, translating between undergraduate education, doctoral education and vocationalism. While some staff look for (seemingly existential) meaning from regulations, strategies and plans, perhaps we should find purpose, spirit and focus from the hopes, beliefs and aspirations of our masters students.

This week, my cohort offered a profound gift through their final assignments, giving a reminder of what education can achieve. I lead the MA in creative media at the University of Brighton. When writing such a programme, we never know who will enrol. I had an idea, but the students have surpassed all expectations. As I groaned under the weight and shape of the strange items that had been submitted to me, hissing and weaving on the train to avoid knocking – with a large roll of butcher’s paper – a group of gum-chewing, text-messaging, am-i-bovvered proto-WAGs, the objects of assessment eventually landed on my lounge-room floor with a none-too-glamorous thump.

I had given my students on the media literacies course the opportunity to produce an example of curriculum or an investigative paper about literacies in the workplace, leisure, education or home or the construction of a sonic or visual artefact and exegesis. Although there is a science – and craft – to curriculum, we never know how our students will remix our aims and riff off our structure to create melodies and syncopations beyond our lesson plans.

Donald Murray predicted this behaviour in 1984 with his powerful and inspirational article “Writing and teaching for surprise” in the journal College English. His imperative has always guided my writing of curriculum. While teachers must present clear assessment, marking criteria, reading lists and guiding questions, we must leave space for student voices, views and choices. When we do, students surprise us with their innovation and stun us with commitment and motivation.

As I looked around the floor of my lounge, I saw that huge roll of butcher’s paper. Unfurling it, I realised that one of my students had transformed each week of teaching into a layered, textured design capturing one shard of the literacy debate, whether multiliteracy, terrorism, multiculturalism or tabloidisation. The youngest student took the opportunity to write a primary curriculum for ten-year-olds, deploying the principles of literacy praxis. An older student used the course to consider his working environment and the technological assumptions that punctuate the post-Fordist office. A distance-education student, teaching in further education with an overstuffed timetable and holding a staunch desire for professional development and fresh ideas, produced one of the finest examples of creative-led research I have marked. It seemed at first glance just an MP3 file. Upon clicking it, I realised he had assembled a sonic suite that moved from noise to music and gibberish to literacy to reveal a developmental arc between sonic media and understanding. The exegesis demonstrated the depth and complexity of media literacy theories when applied to sound.

I was stunned. From quite complex, abstract, international mixed-media resources, the students surprised me. Each uncovered a distinct path through the material. It was brilliant. These innovative and fascinating scholars offer a reminder about why masters degrees are crucial to universities. These students want a second chance to remake their careers and lives. Their enthusiasm is contagious, and their examples show that change and creativity emerges when courageous students decide to live their lives differently.

Alan Jenkins reached this realisation before the rest of us. He has based his career on developing the paradigm of teaching-led research, most recently captured in Linking Teaching and Research in Disciplines and Departments, a report released in April 2007 for the Higher Education Academy and written with Mick Healey and Roger Zetter. Throughout his career, Jenkins has built a model for staff – particularly in leadership roles – to align their teaching and research functions. He makes the point that “teaching research” is not an inevitable or “natural” process but must be constructed with care and reflection on the links between disciplinary research and student learning.

As we reach the end of this semester, I hope that through the stress and the marking, the stress and the moderation, the stress and the exam boards, academics feel buoyant at their teaching achievements but humbly reflective about what our students can teach us. Certainly teaching is ruthlessly corrosive of innovation and slices away time with our family and friends. But through our extraordinary students who are using education to transform their lives, there is a bubbling fountain of inspiration. Mortgaging their present to create a positive future, they capture the best of what a university degree can offer.

It is a great sadness to hear academics describe teaching as drudgery, the intellectual equivalent of housework. Supposedly, the greatest accomplishment of a career is to have teaching “bought out” by a research grant. The larger question to ponder is whether staff “lose out” when they are “bought out”.

It is a privilege to teach. We must never take this gift for granted. Working with these masters students, reading, listening and viewing their originality and inventiveness – tangibly feeling their hopes for the future – I wonder why anyone would want to be bought out of this experience. When linking teaching and research, we pay homage to the great scholars who taught us and continue the legacy of great teaching for our future universities.

Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies, University of Brighton.

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