Waiting to engage

‘Student engagement’ is a feel-good term.  We don’t really know what it is, but we want more of it. Like anything we want more of, we need to think of ways of measuring it, so that we can check that we’re tracking in the right direction.

In Australia and New Zealand, we measure it with the Australasian Survey of Student Engagement (AUSSE), which matches closely and deliberately to the US National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), so that we can compare our results with theirs and see whether they get more of it than we do.  Nothing like a bit of international rivalry to sharpen the pencil.

But what we measure isn’t engagement itself, funnily enough. This might be because engagement is a mystical, even secretive state that isn’t intrinsically connected to external reward. If you’ve been really engaged in doing something, to the extent of minding on your own terms that it gets done well, your approach to it becomes more than instrumental, and it can keep you awake at night in both good and bad ways. To be honest, there are forms of engagement that are really closely related to obsession and stress.

A better sense of what we’re searching for comes from people who think about creativity and flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihaly is famous for arguing that there’s a state of profound absorption in any task whose attainment has been convincingly linked to happiness. Surely this is fairly close to what we think of as the positive affective dimension of engagement?

But we can’t measure it, so we divert our attention to self-reported accounts of the nature, scope and frequency of certain activities that we assume are either symptoms of being engaged, or — in a virtuous loop — lead to higher states of engagement. There are six of these activity scales in the instrument, and we place a heap of faith on their diagnostic facility. Some of them sound a bit like each other, to be honest, but the one that preoccupies me is Staff and Student Interaction, where we’re not doing all that well, it seems.

To measure Staff and Student interaction, surveys ask very conservative questions that imagine the good staff-student encounter as a scene straight out of any Ivy League college movie: the eager acolyte hanging out in the office of the wise counsellor, reflecting on the extensive feedback given on their promptly graded papers, or extending the conversation about course readings because class time just wasn’t sufficient to go over these in depth, or exploring research projects and career pathways. There are no questions about the numbers of times students and staff might be sharing war stories about their common experiences of finding good childcare or carparking, or might be navigating painful stories of gambling, bereavement, self-doubt, domestic violence, and finding enough money to pay the petrol even to get to campus (all of which I’ve discussed with students this week).

Here’s the thing. None of these critical encounters are of interest to our current measures of engagement. All of them are about crisis management, but they’re not unusual.  They’re the stuff and substance of the staff-student relationship every single week.  So while I generally like the ways in which we’re beginning to recognise that a student’s university experience extends well beyond the parameters of the classroom and the website, and is shaped by social contexts we’re really not in a position to change, I’m worried that we’re overlooking the scale of the problems students face just in getting through the everyday.

What if these tealeaf readings from national surveys are at heart an expression of our own nostalgia for a model of campus life when engagement might involve dropping by an academic’s office and sitting there for an hour discussing Deleuze? If students aren’t doing this any more, wouldn’t it be better to figure out what they are doing, than to continue to represent this vanished golden past as a deficit on our engagement balance sheet?

Conversation welcome here