April 30, 2018
“Come out come out, where-ever you are...”
I took three of my children to University with me this week. My six-year was super excited and loved the whole idea of going to ‘Mum’s school.’ She asked loads of questions throughout the morning about all the things a six-year old wants to know about (such as do any of the students need the teacher’s help to wipe their bottoms… How to answer? Hmmm literally no, but figuratively well that is a discussion for another occasion) and can you fill up your water bottle at any of the drink fountains or can you only use the one near your classroom? But it was her questions as we entered the hallway where the academics have their offices that caught me the most…
Mum, where is everyone?
Can we meet your teachers? (No) Okay but can we at least see what they look like?
What is this place anyway? Is it a hospital?
Its always good to view the world through the eyes of a child so I looked at the situation afresh. We had just left the vibrancy of the student hub - a large grassed area framed by the library, bookshop, eateries and so on. Students were lounging around in the sun on deckchairs and beanbags, talking or working/playing on their devices. Some were reading (yep, actual books made from paper) and others were just lying with their eyes shut doing not very much. We had been in the library with its glassed partitioned study rooms, its open plan seating areas and collaborative learning spaces. And then…
We trudged upstairs towards the psychology department to the floor where the academics ‘live’ where it was deathly quiet, the hallways were dark, there were no windows, and no-one had their doors open – creating the dark, gloomy atmosphere of a hospital with its closed doors and reverent air. There was literally not one person other than our group of four anywhere to be seen. The one person who came out of their office as we walked down the hallway did so quickly, shut their door and scurried off to wherever they were going.
The contrast was stark.
The whole situation stayed with me throughout the afternoon as I kept wondering, what does this lack of academic visibility say to us as students?
It got me thinking: the infrastructure of universities has moved with the times, but the academics have been left behind. Like the unicorns who were too late to the ark, have academics missed the boat?
Universities now compete in a very tight market for the student dollar and upgrades to their facilities are one way to differentiate themselves from the ‘competition’. The cool, on-trend libraries and learning spaces that focus on group interactions, the classrooms with pods of desks rather than rows facing the lecturer at the podium, the student hubs with bar-type seating where students are encouraged to plug in and work side by side. Even the colours of these spaces have been updated with lime greens, orange and red upholstery and bright abstract art that enhances these facilities.
But will these radical physical changes – away from the teaching spaces of old where the lecturer was the expert up the front – find their way into the halls of academia where the real heart and soul of higher education lies: its teaching staff?
As an ex-academic I understand the issues that teaching staff face: The increasing demands on their time, the extra load they are given as sessional staff budgets are cut, more marking and less paid time to complete it, increasing demands from students who don’t understand the matrix that determines how many minutes can be allocated to student consultation per unit and so on. I do get it…but I don’t think that means we should accept it. Let’s get our academics out in the open.
Let’s do away with the closed corridors and isolation. Let’s aim for VISIBLE collaboration. Let the students see exactly how academics ‘work’ – one thing is for sure in this era of viral social media, if this generation of students see something they don’t like, they won’t accept it. Let’s utilise this consumer culture to push for better conditions for teaching staff at universities with proper time and budgets allocated for student consultation and interaction. In other industries they would call it customer service or the new terminology ‘customer happiness’. We want to know our teachers. We want to hear their opinions, learn from their experiences and have insight into their research that we just can’t get from non-face-to-face contact. We want to see them working. Open their office spaces, bring them out into the light. Let’s start a discussion about how to do this in a way that respects their boundaries and allows adequate time alone to work without student interference but also promotes meaningful relationships between staff and students.
Let’s stop focusing on the problems of budgets and time constraints and start talking solutions and innovative ways of addressing this.
Like the new infrastructure, let's freshen up the conversation and work together on this.