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17 September: Letter to a New Student

Published onJul 09, 2019
17 September: Letter to a New Student

A friend asked recently: ‘You work in a university, what advice would you give to a new student like Hannah?’ His daughter is preparing to start a course at the University of Sheffield. Poring over decisions such as what things to take to ‘uni’, Hannah is also imagining what it will be like to leave home and begin her degree course. My first thought was to admit that perhaps I am actually not the best person. The student experience today is fundamentally different from what it was thirty years ago when I was in Hannah’s position.

One of the dangers of being a university teacher is of losing touch with the memory of what it meant to be a student. Students today not only pay to study, they work while they learn. Chatting to a current third-year student while she served me in the college bookshop, I asked her if she thought about further study after her degree. ‘I’d like to do an MA . . . but I’d have to save up first.’ It really shocked me. Of course, that’s how students have to think. There is something deeply humbling in the thirst that young people have for learning regardless of its cost. Anyway, I am stalling. This is for you, Hannah, and new students anywhere who are thinking nervously about the prospects of university life.

1. Listen but don’t be silent

In the early part of the twentieth century, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche gave a series of lectures on the future of educational institutions. In his fifth lecture Nietzsche imagines a foreign visitor trying to make sense of academic study. The visitor asks how are students connected with the university, what is their point of connection to thinking and knowledge. The narrator in Nietzsche’s parable responds: ‘By the ear, as a hearer.’ The lecture continues but the visitor is astonished and asks again: surely listening isn’t the only way that a student is connected to learning. Nietzsche’s professor reiterates that undergraduates are connected to the university: ‘Only by the ear . . . The student hears.’

Much of the architecture of higher learning is dedicated to reinforcing the image of Nietzsche’s obediently silent student. Students sit in row after row of seats all directed toward the stage and the lectern. It is also impossible to have a proper group discussion in a lecture theatre – they are designed for monologues not dialogues. Nikolas Rose once told me of a session he would do at the beginning of the academic year that tried to make this authority structure explicit. He would turn up to a large first-year lecture in sociology, take to the stage, open his file of notes and place them on the lectern. He would look down at his notes but say absolutely nothing! Often latecomers would arrive apologetically with umbrellas after being soaked by an autumn shower. Someone near the front would say, ‘It’s alright – he hasn’t started yet.’ They found their seats. The expectant students waited silently, pens poised, for Nikolas to say something. He said nothing. One year he managed to say nothing for forty minutes.

When the excruciating silence was eventually broken he would use it to explore how it could be understood sociologically. The ordering of speaking and listening is part of the social furniture of the lecture hall and Nikolas would invite students to think about the way power, authority and knowledge were implicated in what had unfolded that morning. I doubt it was a lecture any of his students ever forgot.

Nietzsche captures something important. Higher learning means that students have to train their ears. It is increasingly hard in our world of distractions to listen with undivided attention for a whole hour. Via mobile phones we hold the world in the palm of our hand and the temptation to text and email under the table is particularly strong. Many educators believe that the kind of obedient listening that takes place in a lecture is actually not a very good way to learn at all. I am sure this is right. However, a lecture is a listening workout. It forces students to face the difficulties of training a deep attentiveness.

It is unsurprising then that students find it hard to speak out, ask questions or for points of clarification when they don’t understand. They don’t want to appear foolish or incapable. So, Hannah, listen attentively but don’t be silenced by the authority structure of the lecture hall. There is no such thing as a foolish question. It is the teacher’s job to help you understand. This also goes for seminars and workshops. Regardless of the heavy historical weight of academic authority, every lecturer’s worst nightmare is a group of students who will not speak. So train your ear, listen carefully, but don’t be silent.

2. Care about your grades but don’t make them your only goal

Education in English schools has become so bureaucratic, obsessed with targets and levels of achievement, that pupils talk about their understanding within a grid of levels almost without reference to content. ‘I am a level 6b in maths and I need to be a 7a’, says the concerned Key Stage 3 student. The substance of what is learned has become almost irrelevant. This is having a carry-over effect on undergraduate students who have become increasingly instrumental in their relationship to learning. ‘What do I have to do to get a 2.1 in your class?’ The truth is that it just doesn’t work like that.

There is no straightforward correspondence between how much you put into an assignment and the final grade. Of course, working hard, reading widely, following advice and guidance all help keep you on track. Write on topics that are genuinely interesting to you. Have ambition to understand as much as you can, submit yourself to the craft of thinking and focus on the content first and the grade second. This is actually the best way to ensure that you achieve the highest assessment levels.

3. Read and buy books

If instrumentalism leads to grade obsession then it also limits students’ engagement with reading. Reading is the most important thing that any student does. There are so many online sources today that are useful to students but the habit of reading books – whole books – is something that is being lost. Students often come into my study and say, ‘God, you’ve got lots of books, have you read them all?’ ‘Yes, most of them’, I reply. ‘They are the fundamental tools of the trade and they are the tools of your trade too.’

Buy your own books. There are many bargains to be found on used-book websites or through the dubious magic of Amazon. Seek out second-hand bookshops where you can find things in your area of interest. Buy books.

I remember when I was a student I found an early twentieth-century dictionary in a local used bookshop. It has a wonderful glossary of Latin phrases, proverbs, maxims and mottoes. I still use it. Every time I need to look up a word for its precise meaning I mark it with a pencil. After thirty years of these marks the dictionary is like a record of my education. This is partly why having books is so important because we leave an imprint of ourselves and our reading eye in them through our scribbles and the passages that we highlight or underline.

There are essentially two kinds of book lovers. There are ‘vandals’ like myself who deface the printed page with marginalia, intelligent graffiti that either refute or applaud. Then there are ‘preservationists’ who jealously protect the virgin pages of their books from defilement. Being a book lover and buyer will help any student get the most out of their education regardless of which camp they end up in.

4. Don’t try and do it all the night before

As a student, you don’t just have to learn to listen and become a critical reader, you also have to become an academic writer. I often say to students that the story of a degree begins with learning how to consume and read critically the books in the field of study, but ends with them becoming producers and writers of sociology. The short version of what I want to say is that this cannot be done in a rush the night before. Resist the temptation to cut and paste passages from the internet or to copy sections from books. You’ll hear a lot about plagiarism in the course of your degree. Universities are unforgiving and have almost criminalized copying. In most cases, students who plagiarize do it out of desperation or because it is a shortcut when they are running out of time.

Last year a student came to see me. She wanted to talk about a paper that she had written for my course. She had received a very low mark, barely passed. The grade at this point was provisional because the papers were due to be sent to the external examiner to be evaluated. She looked at her hands in her lap as she sat down, avoiding eye contact. ‘What happened?’, I asked. ‘I am so ashamed and disappointed in myself and I am sorry’, she said. ‘I did it the night before – just to get something in.’ I told her that all that was left was to try and learn from the experience.

The external examiner looked at the paper and insisted – rightly – that it had been marked too leniently and failed it. I am always reluctant to fail students. As our department administrator commented, ‘Les, you are not doing them any favours by letting it pass when it shouldn’t.’ She was of course right. Former Warden Richard Hoggart reflected in his memoir: ‘Goldsmiths’ weakness grew directly out of its good will. It hated to close its doors to anyone; it agonized even more than is usual about possible examination failures; it rallied to any member in difficulties; it often made judgments more with the heart than the head.’ I realized that I’d fallen foul of this well-intentioned vice.

Time passed and before long the summer re-sits came around. A package of papers arrived via the internal mail to be marked including the re-sit from the student mentioned here. The paper was unrecognizable – thoughtful, informed, well written. I graded it as a high 2.1 before realizing who had written it. When the results were announced a very different student came to see me. Her face bright and animated, she said, ‘I worked really hard on it and in the end I was really proud of what I did. Showed myself that I can really do this.’ Her mark was capped at 50 because of the initial failure but the essay was considerably better than the bare pass. I had learned something too. I had been wrong to pass it and if the external examiner hadn’t insisted on dropping the grade the student would have been denied the opportunity to try again. In many respects re-writing the assessment has proved to be the turning point in her degree and her whole university education. She’s no longer a failing student.

Written work at this level cannot be done at the last minute or in a rush. It takes time. Use your teachers: if they will read draft essays then make sure you can get feedback on them ahead of the final submission. If they won’t read drafts then go and see them to run through your ideas. Students who get feedback on their work always do better than those who do not. It is one of the few educational laws that holds true in all cases.

5. Don’t be just a consumer

‘I need to get the most out of this because I am paying for it’, I overhear a first year say to her friend as she dashes to an induction meeting. The marketization of the university has turned campuses into places of commerce. It corrodes the value of thinking and learning. Money can’t buy a thought, or a connection between ideas or things, or a link between a private trouble and a public issue. The idea that education promises a straightforward return on a financial outlay reduces thought to a commodity. The commercialization of higher education cheapens us all. It is entirely logical that students should start to see themselves as paying customers. I think it is incumbent on staff to make their teaching worth the price it has cost.

Students need to be offered an environment for learning and if that’s not forthcoming they should demand it to be so. ‘The more it costs, the less it’s worth’, students shouted in protest to the introduction of fees and indebtedness. Nevertheless, thinking and intellectual growth cannot be purchased ‘off the peg’. It makes universities into places of skills transmission or a kind of financial transaction. The university can foster a place where we can ‘think together’ about difficult problems and practise what Fichte called the ‘exercise of critical judgement’. This means not being just a consumer and thinking for yourself with others.

6. Follow your interests

One last thing, Hannah – it is important to get involved in things outside the seminar room or the lecture theatre. I know it’s harder now because students have to work as well as study. But get involved in the student societies, or the student newspaper or things going on locally in terms of campaigns, or be active in the student union. Those things can be life-defining, the beginning of something that will be important for the rest of your life. It’s true for people I’ve known.

When I was a student there was a guy in the year below me called Rob Stringer. He studied sociology. He was a truly awful student – shocking, by his own admission. Rob loved music and partying and as an extension of his twin passions he was elected the student union social sec. He organized gigs and events but being involved in the union was the start of something for him. He went on to work in the record business initially as an A&R (artists and repertoire) person developing new acts. Now he’s very high up in Sony/BMG and one of the most powerful figures in the music industry. But it all began for him in the Goldsmiths Union. It doesn’t matter if you think working for Sony is a good or a bad thing, what matters, I think, is realizing that really useful knowledge can be learned in all sorts of places and not just found on your course reading lists.

Finally, let me try and sum up. Take time to read, think and doubt. Ask questions and get feedback. The time invested is never wasted because you are investing in learning to think for yourself. This will give you more than just good grades: it will help you establish your own commitments and bearing in life. Make sure that you attend all your lectures and seminars and be present in them physically and intellectually. Many students just don’t turn up even though the cost to them is high financially and academically. Listen hard and with care but don’t be gagged by the seeming grandeur of clever people. It shouldn’t take long to see that even the most brilliant lecturer is in fact all too human with the same weaknesses and foibles as anyone else.

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