University tactics for keeping students stuck range from threats, surveillance, and persuasion, to outright bribery because (as we explain to both them and ourselves) students who come to class and interact with us and their peers get higher marks.
Reasons for poor attendance are probably many and varied, but we can’t help taking it personally. Full classrooms are much better for staff and student morale. They help maintain the collective dream of intellectual possibility.
After the hasty pivot to online learning and teaching in March 2020, many argued that virtual sessions were a poor substitute for the real thing, and the return to a fully in-person campus experience was a just cause for celebration for groups of staff and students alike. However, after an initial honeymoon period, we saw a definite decrease in attendance numbers.
Had students learnt that asynchronous learning to suit their timetables (and busy lives) was more convenient? Or that some face-to-face sessions were not that satisfying after all? Or that you could save on the journey into town and still learn new concepts? Or were the students coming into campus, just not into the classroom? Or maybe the conception of campus is actually an imaginative one.
In 1983, Benedict Anderson wrote of the power of imagined communities, offering a new account of nationalism; identity with one’s nation involving dreams and stories rather than empirically present objects. More recently, Yuval Noah Harari reminds us that imagination is the essential characteristic of Homo Sapiens.
an imagined reality is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world.
The knowledge that the imaginary cannot be seen should not stop us from realising that it is very real, accurate, and can have authentic effects.
We can examine the imagined higher education dream through our proliferating storytelling about it. This is in the polished images in marketing material for universities that look identical, clichéd, and almost stereotyped. In these we see small groups gathered on fair-weather lawns, individuals communing with books in a library stack, and (of course) the classic lecture theatre shot of engaged faces. We select pictures like these to promote our practices, and some of us have even modelled in them. The dominant themes are youth, health, attractiveness, social connection, and happiness.
But what about the university as imagined by staff? It might include some distant memories, reliable or otherwise, of excitedly setting out alone into a world of new relationships, novelty, and stimulation. These are surely edited; the moments of disillusionment, boredom, sadness or loneliness are simply forgotten. Otherwise, we would not have stuck around in academia.
And maybe the pandemic has simply re-catalysed mythologies that were always there. That at university, lecturers wear tweed jackets with leather elbow patches, stroll across quadrangles in black gowns, smoking pipes. That students transversely wear multi-coloured Doc Martens and expressive hairstyles and have piercings and go on protests, live in all-night-party house shares and on white buttered toast and, having done very little work or never having left the library, are ultimately approached in the third year and asked to become a spy.
In the midst of a cost-of-living crisis and the buzz and press of freshers’ week, we need to remember that, like any good spark for the imagination, universities provide a space – just a space – a blank, a void for all of us, staff and students alike, to pour in our desires, fears, beliefs and dreams in the hope of seeing some or all of them reflected. Rather like the perennially lost community of yore, we thought we would return to all this fulsome wonder after the pandemic.
But the university, chameleon-like as ever, had brought all its possible to the online space. Being the opening to several possible futures, a choose-your-own-ending of sorts, the university will always be this elusive seeming dreamcatcher, whatever the medium, simply because the people at the university (who are The University) bring all this energy with them, wherever it goes.
If we want students to stick, perhaps we should think (and talk) more about those dreams. For some of us, a campus is a solid bricks-and-mortar place featuring impressive building work. For others, it’s a glorified resource centre with a great kit. For most, perhaps, it’s a unique social centre containing potential lifelong friends or partners. More abstractly, it might be a realm of endless intellectual motivation.
Whatever our vision, by stubbornly aiming for a physical sticky campus, we might be on a sticky wicket, trying to cast students in a single story of the university.