We are our students

Andy Grayson sees his own strengths and weaknesses reflected in those of his students.

Andy Grayson is Associate Professor in Psychology at Nottingham Trent University. 

I’m panicking because my iceberg of an inbox is concealing, just below the bottom of the Outlook window, an unwieldy mass which will be difficult to navigate around, and which comprises a hidden mountain of material to which I really should have been paying more attention.

I take some comfort from suspecting that I am not alone in this.

Anyway, one thing off my desk was the email shot I had to do on one of our modules. It was to 150 students, giving them a lot of information that they need. Of course, while a third of them will pay close attention to the email, another third will kind of notice it, and the remainder will deny all knowledge. The enquiries will start coming in soon, about things that were, in fact, clearly addressed within it. Same old same old.

But my main priority now is to send that assessment briefing email out to colleagues. There are 150 full-time lecturers in our department, so it’s imperative that we keep on top of the organisation of everything. Of course, while a third of them will pay close attention to my email, another third will kind of notice it, and the remainder will deny all… hang on.

Binaries don’t help

It’s funny, isn’t it, how life comes full circle. We have many familiar ways of marking this, culturally speaking. You swear, do you not, that you will never become your own mother or father. Then one day you find yourself utterly flummoxed by the tuneless pap your teenage children are listening to. And back in the day you would have put your house (not that you had one) on you never saying or writing, “back in the day”.

Real life rarely resolves neatly into discrete categories. In this piece I want to challenge the them and us binary that carves up the world of higher education into students (on the one hand) and staff (on the other). When we cut through the different looking surface layers—which can be wafer thin—it occurs to us that we were all students once, and that we are all made of essentially the same stuff.

Do as I say, not as I do…

Where does this get us? Well, to some important principles that have a major impact on learning and teaching environments. If we recognise ourselves in our students—if we allow ourselves to think reflexively—a number of possibilities open up. For a start it becomes easier to decide not to be irritated by things. I get enquiries from colleagues about what they need to do, and by when. And it’s not uncommon for these enquiries to be about information that I have previously given out.

I never find these onerous or problematic, because, in parallel, I will be asking another colleague about some other matter that has quite probably already been covered in an email from them, which is sitting in the submerged part of my Outlook iceberg. None of us can stay up to date with everything. And those who are able to keep fully on top of their inboxes are the exception, rather than the rule. We all rely on others to lead us through the different domains that we must navigate. And, of course, the same goes for students. They also get unmanageable quantities of emails. They also have information about this and that matter in this, that, and the other location. They face exactly the same challenges.

So, just because we have told a set of people a thing, doesn’t mean that we can expect every member of that set to hear, remember, and act on that thing. This principle holds true for substantive academic matters, just as surely as it holds true for administrative ones. Take for example a set of second year essays, several of which have not covered something that we know we said should be covered. As a marker you can choose to be annoyed, even offended, by that.

Or you can choose to recognise yourself in those reports. Did I listen to everything in the classes that I attended? Did I understand everything? Did I remember every instruction I was given? Oh, and while we’re on the subject, when am I finally going to grow up and learn to manage my time effectively (like we tell our students to) instead of furiously working, last-minute, to deadlines?

Near, far, wherever we are

One upshot of understanding that “we are our students” is that this realisation can support a constructive, positive mindset when it comes to evaluating students’ performances, and providing them with feedback. If, for example, we remember that our own first response to receiving feedback on a piece of work (a paper submitted for peer review, say) is actually an emotional one (we are elated, or disappointed, or angry) then we become better able to frame the judgments that we make of others in ways that encourage them onwards in their journey.

And we should make that journey together, walking hand in hand with one another through the…icebergs, recognising that we are all trying to keep our heads above water, and that we all get cold and wet in exactly the same ways. There really shouldn’t be a “them and us” in learning and teaching. Only an “us”.

4 responses to “We are our students

  1. I enjoyed this very much, so much of it resonated with things that I have reflected on in similar ways. It is so very important to recognise that we, our students, and our colleagues are all human with imperfections and flaws.

    1. Thanks, Nikki. None of this is rocket science, but I think it helps sometimes to articulate these widely held values and make them explicit. Glad you enjoyed it!

  2. I also really enjoyed this Andy – we do need to remember how we feel when we are on the receiving end of feedback and that all of “us” are juggling lots of conflicting priorities.

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