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I have now passed a year of being exiled from my office, separated from people for most of the time. A couple of weeks before the first lockdown I was working in another university and we had just a day or two notice to switch to online teaching. As a doctoral candidate I valued the flexibility of being able to work from home, in the office, and in overpriced coffee shops in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. The weather helped with the first lockdown. I would have virtual office working sessions with my colleagues in the criminology department in my garden. I thought I was coping but the reality was I was masking any fear, sadness and the effects of having no human contact. I was training two or three times per day, counting every calorie I ate. I lost a few pounds, got stronger, fitter and felt physically amazing.
We got some respite in the summer when lockdown restrictions were lessened. However, I lost a family member to Covid-19 and still felt unsure and anxious about going out so I didn’t make the most of it. I did have a couple of work sessions in my local library which was a welcome change of scenery. This was short lived as I currently live in Manchester and we have been in either lockdown or tier 3 restrictions for most of the last year. My saving grace was my gym. We had outdoor sessions, new members joined, and I got to see real people, albeit in socially distanced marked off squares of territory on the gym floor. Life was much better then. I left the house most days.
By December’s lockdown I was starting to struggle. With dark mornings and nights there would be days when I wouldn’t leave the front door. I went from training daily to training once or twice per week and some days I wouldn’t get any more than 2,000 steps in. For my, training is my anti-depressant. It keeps me sane, it keeps be focussed and it keeps me connected to a community of people who value it too. For me, this was a worrying sign.
Fast-forward to today, a year on from lockdown 1. I sit here in front of my laptop day in, day out, trying to concentrate, trying to find the perfect playlist to make me concentrate, taking nootropic supplements (legal, not the drugs), brain vitamins and high caffeine supplements to make me concentrate. I sit here researching symptoms and self-diagnosing ADHD. But really, I just need my office. I need an over-priced lemon and ginger tea, I need a commute, I need people, I need to get out of my living room. But I don’t need it at a cost of losing more lives to Covid-19 so I’ll sit in my living room and wait.
For now, as difficult as it is to focus, I manage. I just have to work harder than ever at it. So for all of our students who are also struggling, I will finish with some of my top tips but bear in mind we all learn differently so find what works for you.
Amy’s top study from home tips:
- Host virtual study sessions with colleagues. I have at least 2 sessions per week with a colleague. We start the session by saying hi and having some human interaction before stating our goals. We keep each other accountable by asking if our goals are achievable within the 2 hour frame and suggesting more specific goals. We then mute and work, coming back at the end of the 2 hours to hold one another accountable and share how we have done. I cannot emphasise enough how much this has helped me!
- Write a to do list each day and week with SMART goals. You’re better off having smaller goals that are achievable than bigger goals that are not
- Use the Pomodoro technique. Ordinarily this is 25 mins work followed by a 5 or 10 minute break. There are online tools and apps or you can set a timer. One of my supervisors recently suggested to me to reduce the working session to 15 minutes to account for my reduced concentration span. This is helping!
- Don’t have the same expectations on yourself as you ordinarily would. These are not ordinary times
- Work with your own mind. My brain works well early in the morning so sometimes I have my laptop open at 5.30am. I have friends that work late in the night. I also know I read well in the afternoon and I do my best thinking when I am on a solitary walk in nature
- Set yourself little goals with rewards. Currently, if I finish editing 5 pages I get an episode of Grey’s Anatomy or a cookie (bad idea) or a 10 minute browse on Instagram
- Lean on the resources available to you. At UoN our students are lucky to have a tonne of informative resources on Skills Hub (see the section on ‘How to Study’), our Learning Development team to help with academic skills, a mental health team who can help support mental wellbeing, and a whole host of other services. Ask for help and accept it when it is offered (this I need to work on)
- Listen to a focus playlist. My go to Spotify playlists are here and here
Corona is liminal, this crisis stage of the pandemic will pass. Corona upended so much of our lives. Humanism suggests that we will grow from this experience if we forge a solidarity and vigilance, like with HIV/AIDS, a pandemic that initially attacked, as diseases do, the vulnerable. Now with Covit, you have people in my ole Kentucky home, storming the state capitol with guns, to un-peacefully protest wearing masks. They act in solidarity with no one but themselves, a key cue to empathy erosion.
Along with several of my cousins, I am a teacher, and have been teaching online for over a year now. Whether online or face-to-face, I know that I need to demonstrate the sort of behaviour I expect students to bring to the class. I am fortunate to have learned this first hand, having had years of positive classroom experiences from a litany of mentor-teachers. Along with my family and religious/spiritual community, educators showed me the power of giving one’s full attention – it creates the conditions that cultivate compassion. Therefore, I am acutely aware that I need to ‘look’ at my students, and listen without prejudice. I want to; I want us all to connect. Yet, most refuse to turn on their cameras. I’m often looking at the green light above my screen.
Despite my urging, most students have not even bothered to upload a profile picture so that the icon sitting on the screen during class would at least display a human. Therefore, on the occasions when they do speak, their voices are visualized by a bland, neutral, grey-scale silhouette. This virtual space dehumanizes us. Sometimes it does feel like “Hanging on to hope, when there is no hope to speak of,” so I keep an uplifting musical playlist synced to every device.
In reflecting on several of her own dehumanizing experiences in the classroom, bell hooks asks readers: “Imagine what it is like to be taught by a teacher who does not believe you are fully human.” Like bell hooks, I have spent years “Listening to students talk about the myriad ways that they feel diminished when teachers refuse to acknowledge their presence or extend to them basic courtesy in the classroom” (hooks, TCC, 61). Further, we know that interfacing through screens lends itself to the old banking model of education, where “teachers present the material and students passively receive it” (hooks, TCC, 10). This, too, risks further dehumanization. I believe one purpose of my role as teacher/role-model is to treat students as human, some arriving so wounded that this all feels brand new.
I believe that turning on my camera signals that I am actively engaged and focused on the matter at hand. It’s even been fed back to me through co-teachers that students appreciate that I take the first few minutes of each session to chit-chat. I call this time “mic check,” and simply inquire about their well-being and share my own. I then segue into each lesson by asking each mic-checker about their own experiences or thoughts related to the topic. I hardly think they’d actively participate if I began by lecturing from slides, thereby fixing them in the passenger seats.
I have worked in the classroom since the 90’s, through the early days of social media and concurrent normalization of smartphone addiction. In this time, many have grown accustomed to phubbing- snubbing people IRL for the sake of the phone, which dramatically screws up kids. I have also observed a variety of negative implications from students’ own reliance on technology, e.g. anxiety and depression fueled by the fear of missing out (FOMO), poor impulse control, attention deficit, eroded self- esteem and awareness. This first led me back to Engaged Pedagogy (hooks’ teaching Trilogy), then further research on empathy erosion (Baron Cohen’s Zero Degrees of Empathy), and ultimately the role of technology therein. That led me to MIT Professor Sherry Turkle, who has been using her interdisciplinary research for years to sound the alarm around our growing individual disconnectedness, alongside our growing mass tech-addiction.“Empathy cannot be performed,” she’s consistently said. Empathy can, however, be cultivated.
Commenting on a year of online education, Sherry Turkle recently appeared on one of the radio talk-shows I’ve been able to closely follow during Corona’s solitude. She reflects: “To make my students feel that I’m…making eye-contact, I have to look at the little green light at the top of the computer, which means I’m not looking at anything at all. So, in order to give the illusion of connection, I have to basically look at nothing…and that doesn’t give me a feeling of empathy, I’m performing. That’s a very empathy draining thing to be doing.”
It is draining. I continually try a range of tactics to get students to share in creating an engaging and worthwhile classroom, and periodically receive positive feedback from both colleagues and students. I urge them to see the power in more fully cultivating the human connection, in spite of this virtual reality. I also remind students that I don’t do lectures, but facilitate classroom discussions around appropriate, well-curated materials. Every so often, there are students who are easily attuned to this new working rhythm. Most struggle.
Reality. Virtuality. Fictionality.
Notably, our students here in Vietnam more easily cooperate with using their cameras and, perhaps subsequently, more actively engaging. My husband – who is teaching Vietnamese students online at this very moment – has suggested that this comes from the local cultural significance, and subsequent authority teachers hold here as compared to the west. He also believes that students here are more willing to be vulnerable. Turkle also affirms that: “We become accustomed to enjoying that lack of vulnerability by doing so much of our personal business and our business business hidden behind a screen.” The grey-silhouette is a like a superhero’s mask that displays invulnerability within that virtual world.
“You have reasons to not like Zoom,” Turkle continues, “… the better you are at Zoom, the less of a real connection you’re making.” In the face of much resistance, I try my best to hold steady to the idea that learning is social. While it remains true that facts can be studied, remembered and regurgitated on command – even met with great accolade – true understanding relies on the ability to think critically. “Thinking critically is at the heart of anybody transforming their life,” hooks says emphatically. Critical thinking relies on empathy. Empathy relies on human connection. In order to take best advantage of the virtual classroom, we must be about the business of creating the conditions and expectations for real human connectedness.
Some of you might remember Tony Blair’s speech introducing the Labour party’s education manifesto in 2001. In it he proclaimed that education was at the forefront of government policy. Education is often high on government’s agenda even if it is only to berate previous administrations for failing our youngsters. I have watched with interest the current government’s farcical approach to education and in particular the attainment of qualifications during the first period of Covid lockdown and to some extent even felt sorry for them as they grappled with what were not insignificant problems. My benevolence, however, has long been drained as I watch the news more recently only to see the same farce emerging. But what really intrigues me is the conflation of the notion of qualifications and education. It seems to me the clamber to get children back into school is only right given that they are missing out on education and other social aspects. However, I cannot see how the dealing with the qualifications issue can ignore the fact that the students have not received all of their education.
In a previous blog I have used the analogy of a driving instructor giving lessons to a pupil. In that blog the point being made was that the education of the pupil was a two-way enterprise. If the pupil didn’t engage or didn’t turn up for their lessons, then the instructor could not be held responsible for the pupil’s failure in the driving test. But what of the test itself, what is that designed to achieve? It is not simply to provide a person with a driving licence, what would be the point of that? It is to ensure that the person taking the test can drive to a satisfactory standard that would help ensure the roads were safe for all users. So, the point of the driving lessons is to provide the education in ‘road craft’ and the point of the driving test is to test knowledge and ability in that ‘road craft’ to ensure it meets satisfactory standards. The driving licence is a form of certificate that states the driver has achieved the knowledge and skills required.
So, what of education? Surely GCSEs, A levels, BTec and so on are a test of the knowledge and skills acquired. A degree is the same, is it not? How then could we reasonably expect students to pass any of these tests if they have lost significant periods of tutorship or teaching? The suggestion, dumb down the tests in some way by only testing what they have been taught, or as in the case of university students suggestions, be more lenient with the marking. Now as I understand it, that would be akin to saying to a learner driver that because through no fault of their own, they could not engage in all of their lessons, they will only be tested on their ability to park and not on their ability to carry out an emergency stop as they hadn’t been taught the latter. How ridiculous would that be? Imagine then that the very same driver, who now has a driving licence, goes onto some advanced motoring course. A course that starts with the premise that they have all the skills tested in a ‘full’ driving test.
Whilst, I can understand students’ preoccupation with tests and qualifications, I somehow think that government and teaching establishments should be more concerned with education and the knowledge gap. How will they ensure that students have the requisite skills and knowledge? Tony Blair may have said ‘Education, Education, Education’ and subsequent governments might well nod in agreement, but somehow I think they’ve all lost the plot.
In the concept of managerialism, we see that both policy and procedures form part of the techniques employed to enhance productivity and cultural changes. These changes use a ‘calculative and rationalistic knowledge base’ which appears both ‘universalistic’, and [at first sight] ‘seems entirely good sense’ (Gilling, 2014:82).
However, this knowledge base is far from universalistic and to the ‘street level bureaucrat’ (Lipsky, 1980) often falls little short of complete naivety. Lipsky (2010) provides a valuable insight into how individuals in public service adapt unworkable policies and procedures as the idealistic meets the reality of overstretched resources and ever demanding and needy consumers of services.
Whilst both working in and studying the police as an organisation subjected to and adopting managerialist policies, I witnessed the nonsensical notions of measuring activities and the subjugation of professionalism to management ideals (Hallam, 2009). Perhaps, there could be no better example than the measurement of the length of time a call handler spent dealing with a call. This derived from the need to answer calls within a target time period. It all made sense until you begin to take into account reality – the lack of resources and the nature of calls which demanded that on some occasions operators ought to spend far longer on the phone to deal with more protracted matters, such as someone in crises who really needed help and a comforting voice whilst someone was on their way. The result of the measurements was often counterproductive, officers being sent to incidents that amounted to little more than a waste of time, ‘My Jimmy is missing and I haven’t seen him for three days’ – when the officers turn up, Jimmy turns out to be a cat or, officers being sent to locations where information regarding the incident is scant because little time has been spent on the phone to get sufficient details. In the clinical world of the policy maker, there are ideal call takers, those that have knowledge about every eventuality, and ideal call makers, those that are precise, unemotional and to the point. Nothing of course could be further from reality.
Disappointingly, I find little solace in academia. Policy and procedures abound. Teaching styles are based, not on the nuances of student types but on the ideal student. The student that has the requisite skills to read and write and think critically. The student that is always engaged and always turns up and above all else, teaching is based on idealistic (see Morse and Lewis for tutorial sizes) small student classes. Policies that are well meaning such as catering for additional needs, become unworkable in an environment where class sizes and teaching demands outstrip available resources. Like the call handler, for the lecturer, it becomes impossible to cater for those that need more attention and time. And like the call handler, lecturers are subjected to managerialist idealistic measurements of success and failure. I once heard of a manager that referred to academics as ‘slackademics’, I think is probably just an indication of how far removed from reality managers are. There are two worlds in organisations that provide a service to the public, one is based on reality the other, a fairy tale world of policies and procedures based on the ideal.
Gilling, D. (2014) Reforming police governance in England and Wales: managerialisation and the politics of organisational regime Change, Policing and Society, 24 (1): 81-101.
Lipsky, M. (2010) Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
As a commuting student, I have a very different experience to most students. Many go to uni to get a sense of freedom away from their parents and away from their hometown. I knew this was not something for me. I had no reason to want to get away, I have a job and friends around me that I am not ready to leave.
I would say most students think that those of us who commute are not experiencing a sense of freedom, however I found the opposite. I would feel more trapped being in student accommodation and not having the freedom of leaving whenever I pleased. Keeping university and my home life separate meant my life didn’t really need to change that much, compared to the traditional student.
For me, university is a part of my life, not my whole life. This balance was much more manageable for me. I wouldn’t have been able to make my whole life about uni because that is not who I am. Completing my assignments in a quiet place at home, with my dog by my side was much more appealing to me than being in halls surrounded by noise and distractions.
As I have said, I was not ready to leave my job and all the friends I have made there over the years. Without my job, I wouldn’t have the freedom that I do. My job pays for my car and that is my lifeline when it come to getting anywhere. I need it to get to uni and to get my education.
I have really enjoyed the balance of university and home life. However, I can see the appeal of it, it’s just not something for me. I couldn’t imagine moving away from my parents and my little dog. I didn’t want university to change my day-to-day life much and it hasn’t.
As a commuting student, to some it may seem difficult to keep motivated as you are surrounded by home comforts and home life. I do believe you have to be very disciplined with yourself, especially when you have a deadline due and you can’t join in with a family night. Although I did try my best to get assignments done as soon as I could for the sake of this and if I was desperately needed at work. Although at sometimes I felt swamped by assignments and overtime at work, if you manage your time right, in the end you wonder why you even worried yourself about it.
Another way I keep my uni and home separate is by using my uni laptop for assignments and society related tasks. I do not use it for anything else and this helps me keep my two lives completely separate. This way I never get them mixed up and confused. My uni email strictly stays on my uni computer, which keeps it as only a part of my life and not overtaking it.
I would say to anyone wishing to commute to university to go for it. It’s the best thing I have ever done. But you need to remember to keep uni separate and make sure it doesn’t swamp the rest of your life. In my house, uni consists of one shelf and a desk. And if you are fortunate enough to have your own car, it makes a world of difference as you can come and go as you please from uni, with no strings attached.
To anyone beginning their studies, I would say start prepping your assignments before you think you should. Get ahead and then you’ll never fall behind. If you have a day where you just want to take some time to yourself, you will be able to as you have already prepared in advance. If you let it slip and fall behind with assignments, you have no space to breath when it comes to needing a break. I think this may be easier for commuting students due to the lack of distraction, but even in halls, separate your time according to how much work you have to do and if you need to take time out for yourself.
Overall, I would say to those commuting, be organised, be on time and get ahead. And to those in halls, ignore distractions when you have deadlines to achieve, be organised and make time for yourself.
Over the past week or so there have been some mutterings about whether it is safe to open up universities. There is the advice from the scientific advisors (Universities get some Indie SAGE advice on reopening campuses in September) and some thoughts from academics ‘Why universities must move all teaching online this autumn’.
As we move closer to the start of term, so my dread of what is ahead comes into sharper focus. I try to imagine what it would be like and try to reassure myself that the risk assessments have been done and the reassurances that the universities are Covid safe are true rather than simply fantasy and wishful thinking.
In this safe environment I imagine that the number of students and staff on campuses will be carefully managed as it is with many large stores.
I imagine that all staff and students will be wearing face coverings. This is not for protection of themselves, as the use of coverings is a somewhat altruistic venture, I cover my face and protect you and you cover yours and protect me.
I imagine that all thoroughfares will be marked and monitored. Social distancing is important, and we need to be at least a metre apart.
I imagine that the classrooms will be laid out in such a way that social distancing can be maintained and that the classrooms will be well ventilated, even in the middle of winter. I imagine all the chairs and desks and any other equipment will be wiped down after each session.
I imagine that face to face teaching will be limited and interactions with multiple groups of students will be severely curtailed to ensure lecturers are not put at unnecessary risk. I imagine each class will comprise only a few students to minimise risk.
I imagine that anyone who is symptomatic will not attend a university and will after being tested self-isolate. I imagine that all the people they have been in contact with will do the same for a whole, boring, 14 days.
I imagine that the universities’ management will be at each university, leading from the front. They will be checking to ensure the safety of students and staff. They will be mixing with staff and students, receiving feedback and continuously monitoring. I imagine the safety of the students and staff is paramount.
And then I think, what if…
What if campuses are a free for all. Students can come and go as they please, there is no monitoring of volumes. Or what if there is, but it is impossible to enforce with limited staff to do so. And those staff tasked with this endeavour are at greater risk due to the proximity with large volumes of students.
What if people decide not to wear face coverings or having got into the building decide to take them off or several people are exempt for some reason or another. Altruism has gone out of the window. I’m a criminologist and I know that people break the rules for all sorts of reasons and the only certainty is that some people will break the rules.
What if social distancing becomes all too difficult. Many of us have experienced it in stores. A one-way system works for most, but a significant number just don’t abide by it, for whatever reason. People break rules.
What if the social distancing in classes is impossible, there just isn’t enough classes to maintain it with the volume of students on the course. What if ventilation is impossible, other than air conditioning, some classes are in the middle of buildings. Who will clean the chairs and equipment after each class? Go to a restaurant and tables and chairs are wiped down after each use so who will do it at a university?
What if lecturers have to teach multiple groups face to face as there are not enough staff to spread the load. Teaching in a classroom for two hours multiple times in a day with different groups each time must surely expose lecturers to much greater risk.
What if students are of the age group where they are more likely to be asymptomatic? How many that are infected might be at a university, spreading the virus around campus and around the locality. Even if they are symptomatic, how likely are they to self-isolate? Judging by the street parties and illegal raves reported on the news, there is a good chance that some will break the rules. Let’s be realistic, if you are only likely to suffer affects akin to a cold, why would you be that bothered about social distancing or self-isolation?
And finally, what if all managers avail themselves of the much-vaunted government advice, work from home if you can. Leadership from the rear, the bottom line is more important than the safety of others. We can of course dress this up in management psychobabble about what the students need.
Never mind, ‘Tally ho and all of that sort of thing and over the top we go’*.
* For those of you that are lost at this point it might be worth a visit to the last episode of Blackadder Goes Forth.