Students as partners or students as the other?

We have all been there – marking around the clock, asking for extensions, overlooking emails we were too tired to read, declining an offer to take on additional responsibilities.

These behaviours are not deliberate and do not mean to disrupt work. They are simply part and parcel of our life as lecturers. We bend rules to solve problems, we say no in order to prioritise, and we make mistakes. We are only human.

Now let us consider the life of a student. There are those that struggle with deadlines even when set months in advance. There are those that ask what to us are impossibly simple questions, the answer to which is often communicated clearly in initial lessons and documents. And there are those that say they’ve not the time for extracurricular activities. Can’t they brush up on their time management skills?

Like many of us, I’ll admit to a level of exasperation with students who can appear to be disorganised, uninterested, and at times lethargic.

Double standards

I have been working at different HE institutions for over fifteen years, and it has always struck me how similar staff and students’ behaviours can be – but how differently these are often perceived. Struggling with deadlines, forgetting instructions, saying no to extra work are all examples of common behaviours displayed by both groups. While staff’s shortcomings are conceptualised as stress-related, students’ shortcomings are because they are disorganised and disengaged.

This apparent double standard can be detrimental to staff-student relationships and is fundamental to a fair amount of frustration on both sides. We all feel undermined if we have not been understood or listened to.

Current policies that rely heavily on cooperation between the two can potentially be undermined too. Take a students as partners strategy, which is posited as shaping the future of student learning. Concepts such as co-developing, co-learning, co-designing, co-inquiring will remain a distant fantasy if we are not able to see students under a new light. A radical change in our perception is needed if we are to embrace bold change.

The problem is not that academics are bad people or that they dislike students. Lecturers genuinely enjoy interacting with students and many go out of their way to help them with their academic and academic-related development. The real issue lies in a deeply rooted and unchallenged process of “othering” the student. “Othering” is a well-studied phenomenon in social sciences. It is the process of identifying a group of people as different, and often inferior, to us. Women, LGBT+, immigrants, religious communities and disabled people are often at the receiving end of this process. In the worst case scenario, “othering” leads to discrimination and violence. In its light form, it usually translates into bad banter.

I have not seen academics getting drunk while telling student jokes, but I believe a similar process of “othering” underlies current staff-student relationships. We are used to perceiving students as intrinsically different from us, with defined attributes and recognisable behaviours in contrast to ours. Yet our respective behaviours show how the difference is in perception, not in substance – for in reality we act similarly. As in any context of “othering”, a constructed identity is created that has little to do with real people.

Three examples

Three examples can help illustrate this point. We often assume that students have plenty of free time, which leads to our disbelief when they complain about too much homework or miss a deadline.

This assumption no longer holds in today’s HE landscape. According to a survey commissioned by NUS, most undergraduates now work while they study (77%), with 63% having a part-time job and 14% juggling full-time job and education. This means that over half of our students sitting in our seminar will have probably worked the night before or are going to later that week. Occasional absences, late homework submissions, performance drops and the odd mistake may indeed be the result of a busy schedule, just like they are for us. The idea of the idle student very much looks like a thing of the past.

Another feature of the “othered” student is their supposedly contradictory opinions. We often say that students’ feedback is flawed because students keep contradicting themselves. Some students demand more contact hours, some want fewer. For each NSS respondent that thinks the department is very organised, there is one that says the opposite. How can we rely on such contradictory feedback? Until students make their mind up, student surveys are a waste of time.

The problem with this view is that it is not a student-specific problem. When asked to comment about international students’ standard of English, 33% of academics deemed their language standard inadequate, a percentage only marginally different from the 39% of those who felt the opposite. Opinion is similarly split in other areas, such as student preparation, with 39% of academics claiming previous generations were more prepared and 34% disagreeing. Divergence of opinion within diverse groups, as both academics and students are, is only natural. Inconclusive data is a perfectly valid outcome of any survey – it simply suggests the need for further research.

The “othered” student also just wants to have fun. They party throughout their studies, expect entertainment in class and have the attention span of a goldfish. But how many times, half way through a conference talk or even a meeting, has our hand reached for our mobile phone, just like a student in class? How many times have we modified or discontinued a course because we had stopped having fun teaching it?

Adults’ attention span is similar for similar tasks, irrespective of age groups. Fun is something we enjoy as workers too, and even increases productivity. Happy workers work better, just like happy students learn better.

As human beings, we need fun to function, but that is not to say that we do not want to work. 71% of students say academic success is what they were most looking forward to before starting university. Interestingly, this is a figure remarkably close to that of employees (like ourselves) who consider themselves ambitious (78%).

For students, with students

The process of “othering” the student is not new – it has been around since the beginning of education itself. There is a fundamental imbalance in the act of teaching which constitutes its very raison d’être. Both instructors and learners are defined in relation to their knowledge and this divide is a necessary evil.

But modern pedagogy involves scientific enquiry and reflective teaching. We look at what we do, how we do it and why. We explore the implication of our beliefs, assumptions and attitudes to advance good practice. That’s why our current perception of students must also be challenged. It belongs to an old conception of top-down teaching, where students were seen as inferior – as the non-expert, non-hegemonic group.

As cutting-edge research and state-of-the-art teaching facilities fill the pages of university marketing brochures and the relentless development of digital technology is modernising every aspect of our profession, it is easy to forget about some old hard-wired habits.

If we want to move genuinely towards modern learning communities, we need to move forward our notion of who the student is, in step with the changes in the student profile and in our educational strategies. Common ground is what makes successful partnerships and we share much more than a physical space with students. We share not only interests and ideas, but also struggles, emotions, frustrations and behaviours. A shared humanity makes us strive for the same positive feelings and fail at the same challenges.

“Othering” can sometimes be a process of self-identification providing a mirror to the self. Let us hold the mirror up to ourselves and get ready for this partnership.

7 responses to “Students as partners or students as the other?

  1. “Othering” is deeply ingrained in our culture, or at least in mine. Replace “student” and “staff” with another instance of agents engaged in an imbalanced relation of power, and there you have another compelling article. Very interesting, Vera. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Really interesting. I once heard someone at a conference say that we should think of students as ‘potential future academics’, and see them in the context of our career pathways, and this can help to bring the commonality of experience into focus, and enable the synergy of effective engagement.

  3. This site really hates academics, doesn’t it ?

    because in a university, there are typically, academics, students, and administrators.

    Yet the presence and role of administrators in this is airbrushed

    Here’s an example why that is wrong. The whole thing about deadlines, and prosecution/persecution for students’ failing to meet them was once entirely a matter of academic discretion

    And because we used that discretion in a student centred way – for a start, we believed what we were told – a whole set of rules and procedures were established, and are enforced by people who aren’t students, and who aren’t academics. So they are not the people who pay the fees; and they are not the people who stand in front of 300 odd students and do the teaching for which the fee is paid. Nor do they do research.

    They are the people whose rules deny human sympathy. They are the people who put 300 students in a lecture theatre.

    So, who could these people be ? And who is it who is Othering and being Othered.

  4. William Cooke is exactly right. The administration has weaponised students to undermine academic integrity. And not a shot was fired.

  5. And by the way ‘I have not seen academics getting drunk while telling student jokes” is worthy of the Daily Mail, as is the continuation ‘but I believe a similar process of “othering” underlies current staff-student relationships’.

    Well, people believe in a lot of things, but is hardly substantiation is it, particularly when it is similar to behaviour you say you have never seen.

    Scientific enquiry, you say.

  6. Academics hate administrators far more, trust me. Having the audacity to be an administrator in an academic institution, you can generally expect to be treated with the respect afforded by a Lada car or assumed to have a McCarthyist agenda.

    As for rules and regulations – well, I’m sure academic discretion is easy to explain to one student given an extension for her rabbit getting myxomatosis and to another refused one because she can’t provide evidence that she was seriously considering suicide the night before her essay deadline.

  7. Indeed, there are also administrators in universities. They are not the focus of this article because they can do their own bit of self-reflection themselves.

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