The questions weren’t interesting but I worked hard to find the interest in them
Clem Bowles, Little Boxes
I went dark because I didn’t know where I belonged or where I was going, and I had nowhere to direct the words.
Bonnie Stewart, The long dark tea-time of the soul
It’s been a week for noticing the stories that get told in higher education about satisfaction. How do students feel about the experience of being students, and how do they look back on this later?
Higher education is already an entanglement of stories about what students think, how they feel. There’s the marketing story where all the students are young and clear-skinned and laughing together in culturally diverse groups as they hug their laptops against scenic campus backgrounds. There’s the story we frighten ourselves with in meetings where we huddle around the spreadsheets, and we can see the trends but we don’t really know what’s causing them. There’s the defensive gossip that comes out when we think we know why students haven’t done a thing, or seem not to be paying attention, or seem not to care about deadlines or details until it’s too late.
Then there’s the story we accidentally overhear, in the corridor or on social media, where students tell each other what’s really going on for them, and how we come across to them, and we can’t back away fast enough. So we grab hold of the comforting story, the one that makes us all feel good, when students tell us about something that was meaningful or someone who was kind.
Listening very selectively to these stories, there are days when it feels as though we’re ok at this, we’re keeping it all safe.
In 2015 I took my daughter to a higher education conference in the US. She was fifteen and hanging on in high school, just by her fingernails. Listening to her on that trip I realised that leaving school very early was the risk she needed to choose. Here’s what I wrote at that time.
Listening to Clem as we travel around, I’m thinking of many university students I know for whom higher education is also abrasive, demoralising, and marginalising, in ways that don’t trigger any kind of protection or support for them, because what they really need is for us to change the way we do the things we do.
Nearly three years later, through a collision of appointments in the past few days, I’ve been listening intensively to the stories of students like her: the student who quit high school to challenge herself and travelled the world; several students who left uni at the first attempt because they’d picked the wrong course or the wrong time; the student who’s technically on the books but committed to a sporting career that needs his full attention; the students who care about a project or an idea sufficiently that actually being a student has become a background chore—part cleaning the bathroom, part putting the bin out.
All week, I’ve been impressed by the stories of their creativity, resilience, inventiveness or ambition that have not yet found a home in the way we teach or ask them to learn.
But there are other stories that are now sitting with me like a bag of stones. There are students who don’t really want to be here, or to be doing what they’re doing, or who sense that they have no choice about how a degree is to be completed. They’re deep in the sunk cost of having got this far. The experience of passing in and out of the gates of our maze, trading more or less the same assessments for more or less the same grades, isn’t convincing them that they’re becoming more employable. Time is carrying them along; time will tell.
Their expertise in employability is actually pretty formidable. Most have been working since their mid teens; they come to class in their work uniforms. Meanwhile, they’re looking at graduate recruitment that says “entry-level” and “must have 2 years experience” in the same breath, and they’re not fools—they know that this experience has to come via an unpaid internship that they fund themselves by taking on more shifts at the jobs they’ve had since high school.
This week I was asked if I thought blogging could help international students overcome obstacles to local media employability. That’s a good question, and I’m looking forward to reading what this student has to say about it. I’m glad it’ll be on her blog where I can read it, as I’m not the person who will be grading this work.
In general, I think this is the value of student writing in public. The audience is larger, something worth saying has more chance of starting a conversation, of raising awareness of human struggle and creating the opportunity for change.
So student blogging isn’t about finding a different platform for the same old thing, it’s not blending the learning. It’s the incentive for all of us who write in public to maintain the network that helps new writers find real readers.
If no one wants to read the hastily constructed blog post for a class participation grade, then what is the purpose of making it public? If assignments are going to live online, don’t they need to be connected to a public dialogue? Don’t they need to be oriented at the proper audience? The web is a network for conversations, and if students still see their audience as a teacher with a red pen, then nothing changes.
Then nothing changes.
But there’s one thing I can’t settle, that keeps coming up. I’m not sure where future employability fits in this assessment v conversation scenario, even as the shadow of the imaginary future employer falls on everything we do.
What if student blogging is just the long unpaid internship to a gig in the threadbare economy of online clickbait generation? What is the future of writing, if this is the result?
Robin de Rosa is a powerful and radical scholar of open pedagogy. Last week, I was startled out of a writing slump when she fished up an old post from here and shared it in a talk. I am beyond grateful for this care.
— Robin DeRosa (@actualham) May 22, 2018
What does it mean to be a writer in this world? What does it mean to teach?
In 2017 my daughter left high school. She was 16. She negotiated her exit independently, and I signed a form.
At the moment she works in our local supermarket and intermittently studies at the local TAFE. She wasn’t exceptional in wanting to leave, she says; she was unusual only in being supported to do so.
I recognise myself as an educator in the way that I reacted to her decision.
This week she wrote about her current student experience of not fitting in the boxes of a piece of assessment. And in that piece she reminded me what this blog is for me. It’s where I re-learned how to write, in my own voice, about things that I care about in this short life.
Blogging is a practice I defend, and that defends me. And like Bonnie Stewart, who writes beautifully about the relationship between employability and writing and loss of voice, I understand this writing as a stealing back of the self that is otherwise left hostage to the banal performativity of “career”.
Writing is the gift we give to ourselves. It’s the soul work of our agency, our refusal, and our choice.
It’s that important.