Here I am in my Christmas jumper, looking slightly silly #dachshundthroughthesnow, and telling you a bit about myself. First things first, I do have a twelve year old black and tan sausage dog whose origins are close to Bristol. So call my stint at BILT a bit of a return on behalf of my hound! I am absolutely thrilled and honoured to be a Visiting Professor at BILT for the year. My undergraduate years were spent at the University of Cape Town, not dissimilar in size and feel to Bristol but a campus university rather than a city one. From my four years in the fraught 1980s at UCT, I remember feeling both adrift and excited; mystified, enthralled and slightly confused at the relevance of T S Eliot and Catullus. My studies seemed slightly irrelevant in a context of tear gas and angry fists thrust in the air. As I look back I now know I was experiencing what many students feel but cannot name in relation to their studies. Sarah Mann has written the best work on student alienation and as I read it, I know for myself that this is the root of much of student disengagement in higher education. Particularly for first generation students.
My interest in alienation and in engaging students is a huge spur to my work in learning and teaching. In leading the ‘Transforming the Experience of Students through Assessment’ (TESTA) research and change process for nearly ten years, and working with students and staff in many UK universities, I have encountered alienation in many guises. The defining feature of alienation is an absence of meaning or connection with something expected to bring meaning. In the context of assessment, it is students disgruntled with the treadmill of repetitive assessments; overloaded with content; finding that their curiosity is not ignited by assessment; that they have little in the way of pedagogic relationship with their tutors in feedback, for example. Students often experience their modular curriculum as fragmented and knowledge on one unit seems unrelated to another one. TESTA exposes some of the structural flaws in compartmentalised modular curricula. It calls to a much more programmatic and joined up approach to teaching and learning.
But alienation is not all bad. It is part of what higher education is about as students wrestle with multiple perspectives and try to pick their way through different ways of understanding their disciplines. The soupy sea of ambivalence that higher education invites students to swim in is bound to be a bit unsettling. However, there are wonderful pedagogic ways of lighting beacons along the way for students. Through TESTA, I have seen academics embrace new ways of doing formative assessment, engaging students in challenging, playful and exciting learning which prepares them for summative tasks. I have seen academics stand back and see the whole programme for the first time. This new way of seeing is often a catalyst for programme teams drawing back from content-heavy, facts first approaches, and inviting them to partner with their students in slow learning. The ‘slow professor’ approach to teaching, learning and assessment is all about creating spaces for students to engage, integrate and apply their learning. I hope over the coming months to share some of these ideas and engage various programmes in the TESTA process. I am really looking forward to getting to know the community at the University of Bristol, with or without my dog. Definitely without my Christmas jumper.
Berg, M. and Seeber, B. 2016. The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. Toronto. University of Toronto Press.
Mann, S. 2001. Alternative Perspectives on the Student Experience: alienation and engagement. Studies in Higher Education. 26 (1).