On March 14th 2018, Professor Stephen Hawking died at the age of 76. For many people, his life was as much about his long battle with motor neurone disease as it was about his achievements as a theoretical physicist. The first thing I saw when clicking on news sites was this quote:
‘Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up’.
To me, this reflects the value he placed on the pursuit of knowledge, to see this as an opportunity, not a burden and to strive to make sense of it all. For him, it was the universe, the vast expanse of stars and galaxies to be understood in ways I could not even being to fathom. For those studying social sciences, our world is not out there beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, but it is a world we must also seek to understand and, as lecturers and students to communicate this understanding to others. There is a lot of concern in HE as to how to engage students, to consider what we can do to keep them attending and studying their chosen subject outside the classroom. I am beginning to think this is not just to do with our efforts in lectures and seminars, but also perhaps we don’t emphasise enough the opportunity students have, and the value of being in HE is so much more than the qualification itself.
One thing is clear – we should not be in the business of spoon feeding information, to be repeated in assessments, in order for students to be awarded a degree based on their strategy to work towards assessments, and little else. It may sometimes feel like this, so we do have to consider whether this is to do with the way we teach, or the way students respond to this. I think the latter needs as much attention, in that it needs to be clear that students must take responsibility for their learning, and one obvious way to do this is to make the most of opportunities provided by their university. There are students I have taught in my 14 years in HEIs who have clearly appreciated the opportunity they have been given – they make it all worthwhile. There are those who never seem to engage on any level, not even to pass assessments, and who realise HE is not for them. I have more respect for someone coming to that conclusion and seeking a different type of opportunity than those who muddle through and hope it just gets easier.
By the way, if the tone of this seems judgemental, it is not meant that way. My reflections are based on my experiences as a lecturer, but crucially, also as a student. Here is where I have to confess something. In my BSc I was one of those students who muddled through. Then half way through year 2, I realised I was wasting the opportunity I had been given, got a grip and graduated with a 2:2. I know I could have done so much better. The next stage of my academic journey was a combination of being in the right place at the right time and working in a university as a course administrator where one of the staff benefits was to subsidise the cost of degree programmes. The university was the London School of Economics and Political Science, the degree was an MSc in Criminal Justice Policy, and it was very heavily subsidised. My attitude to this opportunity was so different. I was amazed to be accepted onto the programme and found myself being taught by Professor Janet Foster, Professor Robert Reiner, Professor Andrew Ashworth, Professor Maurice Punch, and Professor Ben Bowling. Sorry for the name dropping, but this was the last thing I expected to happen to me. I came away with a Merit award and it set me on this path to be a criminologist. I engaged with the degree by attending everything, working during evenings and weekends, following advice and making the most of it. Then to find myself undertaking a PhD, well it has been a long and arduous journey at times, but I knew my experiences before had set me up well to take on the challenge. It can feel isolating and lonely sometimes, and it can take over your life, but once again, I value the opportunity not just as the pursuit of knowledge, but also the way it has made me overcome challenges and not give up.
The experience of studying for a degree when I was engaged, interested and committed was so much better, with less anxiety, a sense of achievement and I knew I had done my best. As I said earlier, as academics we can do our bit, and many of us do – we consider how best to communicate theories, concepts, policies, debates, and to empower students to have their say. We offer opportunities for interaction, discussion, challenging ideas and enabling students to think more critically. We do this so that students enjoy their studies, make the most of the opportunity and value this as a pursuit of knowledge, as well as the qualification. However, we can only do this successfully when students engage with this process and understand and then accept their role. My role as a lecturer in criminology is about to change significantly, as the move to a new campus changes teaching methods and provision. I have my anxieties about adapting my modules over summer to fit with this model, IT fails, and the usual issues about going through big changes. I know our students share the same anxieties, it’s natural. But, the one thing we can do is ensure that we, as staff and students alike recognise the important role we have, to embrace this change and make the best of it.
So, my plea to students is this. If we don’t keep seeking to expand our understanding and valuing this process of learning, if we stop being curious, then we don’t advance. That is the legacy of Professor Hawking, to remember to keep asking questions, to value learning and to strive to better understand the world around us. Sometimes it will feel like there are barriers put in your way and you cannot overcome them. At this point, it is worth remembering what Professor Hawking had to deal with on a daily basis and ask yourself what you can do to solve these problems. Not only will you do better in your studies, you will learn important skills for the future and will look back knowing you have done your best and overcame whatever life threw at you. That is a legacy to be proud of.
Susie Atherton, Humanoid, Planet Earth.