Teaching Stories

Conversations around the edges

James Norman, Associate Professor in Sustainable Design, Department of Civil Engineering.

It is 14:16 on Friday afternoon of week 24. The large pile of marking has moved off the horizon and is fast approaching. A meeting has been cancelled. The gift of an hour. A moment to breathe. A deep sigh. A pause. A second to reflect. And so rather than do the right thing (start marking early – you’ll thank yourself in a month), or the daft thing (new blog idea, 101 ways to procrastinate when there is marking) I have chosen the middle path. To pick up my proverbial pen and write. Something I have not managed to do in months. To write, not for the sake of writing, but writing to reflect. To listen to my gut and try and be honest about the last 24 weeks. To acknowledge what went well, but also to dwell on what I have missed. And I have missed a lot.

I have missed greeting my students with a visible smile and possible hand shake.

I have missed standing up and giving a lecture.

I have missed bumping into students and staff and having those serendipitous conversations that lead to other, important conversations.

In fact conversation is what I have missed most.

The conversations that go on around the fringes of my teaching.

The question about a job opportunity.

The request for interview advice[1].

The discussion about a recent building failure or the latest episode of grand designs.

The debate about the climate emergency.

All of these conversations are rich with learning. They won’t necessarily help the student get a better mark on my unit – but the mark is the least important part of my unit. It is what they learn that matters. And not just the knowledge. The skills. The ability to ask questions. The thoughtful enquiry of the mind. The realisation that what they are learning will have a future impact. The behaviours that are expected of a professional engineer. There is so much to learn. And it is this opportunity for learning that I have missed most.

But more than that. It is not just the conversation, but the silent observer in the conversation who can no longer listen in. The small shift in body language, the noticeable hush when someone asks a question and others want to hear the answer that occurs in the class room, but not in the TEAMs room. The passing on of information. The fact that it is OK to ask a question in the first place – because when they asked they were greeted with a smile, so when I ask I will be greeted with the same smile.

There has been much to enjoy about this year. There really has.

I have loved making videos.

I have loved the number of questions an anonymous whiteboard has enabled.

I have loved bringing in practioners from across the country (and in theory the world) who can jump into a call without having to take a day off.

I love that my students can speed me up when I’m boring and slow me down when I’m rushing – without having to timidly raise a hand and ask.

I love that the test I set was marked without me having to lift a red pen, create artificial incentives (5 more papers and you can have a flap jack), or stay up into the middle of the night.

I love that I can be talking to a group who are geographically spread across the world.

I love that at the end of a tough day, I can close my door, walk down stairs and be home, no long walk, no train ride, no trudge up a big hill, in the dark, in the rain.

But I have also missed the conversation around the edges.

So my question, for me, for you, is how can we create not just the space, but the desire to bring those conversations around the edges back. How can we let students know not just that they can ask to have these conversations, but that they should, that there is great value in them. Whether teaching in a lecture theatre, on a screen, in a field. How can we bring back these conversations around the edges?

[1] There was one moment where I was meeting with a group online and only one member turned up. So I asked the student if I could help with anything else, seeing as I was there, and as luck would have it they had an interview the next day, so we discussed it. But this is the exception this year, not the rule.

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