Putting the you into university

When you enter higher education as a student, it can take a little while to realise that things aren’t what they seem. There’s a myth at play, cultural conjuring, that just being part of the course, following through, will yield something for you on completion.

It’s true, the award at the end can get you places. This is enough for some. But what if you want something else? What if you want transformation? To come out of the other side with a mind hatched-open, questioning who you even were before the journey?

There are secret spaces in between. Cracks and crevices in the concrete.

The myth exposed

In an ideal world, your passionate professors would have a freedom to challenge you to learn in a way that exactly stretches you into someone different. Truth be told, it’s getting harder for those teachers to unbind themselves from the policy and demands of higher education. Some of them feel lost and frustrated with the rote. Others can wriggle free and try and succeed. Most teachers want to offer you personalised paths of learning,  something beyond the lecture, tutorial and document-heavy learning management system, but many can’t. At least not yet. And maybe not ever. The layers of hierarchy are complex in our learning institutions world over.

That’s where you as a student can change something.

Personal and quiet acts of learning activism.

Many of these are things I have done, some I have thought of doing. Maybe they won’t work for everyone, but as quiet person, these things have helped me make learning a transforming and lifelong experience. You can’t sustain this energy permanently, life as a student is busy enough, but over the years of your studies, look for cracks in the concrete to plant these seeds.

Reclaim the question

If you’re putting your all into an assignment, it might as well mean something. Yet so often, you head straight to the assignment questions of a topic you have dreamed of taking. There it is. Somehow, the questions seem disappointing.  This topic is really important to you. What do you do?

Propose your own question. Make sure you demonstrate how it meets the same learning objectives as the set question, and if you can find a marking rubric show that too. Bring all the evidence you can muster and explain why you want to write it.

Demonstrate that you understand the system, but bend it in a way that makes that question relevant to you. Depending on the openness of your professor, perhaps show a draft of your question and ask your teacher to help shape it into one that fits into the grid, but bleeds out of the edges. Sometimes this won’t work, sometimes you will encounter laughter or hostility, or distrust – but keep trying. Sometimes you will get a crappy grade, but it will mean more to you than the string of HDs.

Reimagine community

“Finding community is a tricky thing. Community could live at least partially in the imagination, rather than continually forced into the literal. Our community should involved long dead poets, sharks teeth, the heavy frost of a Scottish glen, the erotic trim of a Bedouin tent. We could reach a wider perspective on the word on the word rather than attempting to wrest it always into concrete solutions, petitions, finger wagging, committees, living in a tiny house of comrades arguing over who last bought the toiletries and who stole the tofu from the back of the fridge.”

Martin Shaw, Branch on the Lightning Tree

Observe and interact with everything around you. Notice it. Discover the local social or political challenges knocking on the doorstep. Read free community newspapers and newsletters, loiter around public noticeboards with an intent to read. These may not seem like the world turning BIG issues, but solving local problems ripples out. Every time you write, make it matter locally, even if this includes imagining what could be. Start a learning journal that maps the ways you came and the way ahead. Save that for the future.Your community includes the voices that you read and listen to and what you write.

Give something freely

Think about those younger than you, or older than you and from different cultural backgrounds and how your discipline connects across these spheres. What could you do?

English grad? – what about reading fantastic literature in an elderly care home, or audio readings for blind and visually impaired people, or in a local library?

Computing? – what about helping with digital skills at your local library, setting up databases for small non-profits, helping a small business or neighbourhood centre, a maker space in a school? Help a local wildlife conservation group with their computers and databases.

Law? – helping a local environment action group navigate the legal system

Arts? – help organise a public art sharing exhibition in a local cafe for kids with special needs.

Engineering? try sharing some design and problem solving concepts with preschoolers

The more people you interact with outside your discipline, and about your discpline will expand your learning in a way that no university class can re-enact.

Think backwards and forwards in time

Sometimes our first part time jobs when studying feel a million miles from where we want to be. It can be hard to balance everything and just plain wearying. Journey on, for this is learning that will only become apparent in future. Years later, always write back to your first employer and tell them how you grew. Even if it was a terrible experience, tell them how you grew.

Poke a hole in the box very early

Think of the organisations and places that you would love to work for. Don’t just send them a CV and covering letter, send a covering question. Invite a dialogue. Ask them early, what they are looking for, and tell them, at the end of  your studies, you want to have grown ready to work for them. Tell them, you’re not sure if your course will deliver that out of the box, and that you want to strive to make it happen. Ask them how? What do they need? Who are they looking for? Or even better, talk in person. So many will never reply, but you don’t need them all to. Feel rejection keenly, because it will visit you many times.

Never wait

Wherever you can, at every opportunity, stuff the corners of your learning with wandering. Sometimes things happen as serendipitously as the simple timing of a question, a random meeting or a timetable clash. Negotiate with open-minded teachers. Confront everything that comforts you. If you are good at writing, choose talking. Run from safe and comfortable.

Mark your own work

My success is not earning epic sums of money or speaking to millions of people or having a vast influence or audience. I have a modest professional job in higher education that I enjoy, volunteer where I can, have two young children and still love learning and growing. My small influences are important only to me. The self-made opportunities make me who I am beyond my ranking in my organisation. Quiet comments like “I did something that I had never done before because you inspired me to” make me rich and successful.

For me, these small ways are the only ways I know to make learning personalised, by the actual learner acting on their own learning.  Why do we capitalise the Teacher, but often not the Learner? Yet teaching erupts from the heart of being a passionate learner. In spite of the existing challenges in education, and whether or not technology comes into it, only you as a Learner can whittle away at the materials of formal education, and make it into a useful tool for your future. Bend it. Shape it. Make it.



4 thoughts on “Putting the you into university”

  1. When I was a student some of us took charge of our own learning by running the student society and approaching the people who inspired us to come and talk at our Uni. We also set up peer support groups so that those of us who were more competent could help those who needed it (I guess that#d be called PAL now) and set up a student paper (there was a very worthy one called MUSE, we called ours AMUSE) to share our philosophical jokes.

    1. That sounds great Sarah and there are certainly lots of opportunities to join and make groups and I do now love meeting student groups that exist to support peer-to-peer learning, it really makes me happy to see students supporting students. 🙂 I wish I had accessed that more. There will always be some students for whom groups are something to shy away from a bit, certainly the case for me when I was an undergrad. More confident now, but I felt like a stranger at university, like I didn’t fit in at all, so these small acts of personalising were a way of being empowered, but still comfortably invisible. 🙂

  2. Wow Angela love the spirit of this post – thinking outside the conventional norms and breaking through the silos of the establishment to reach out with authenticity and honesty and have an actual human conversation with someone who might be able to help you get where you’d like to go, deliberately moving out of your comfort zone, noticing the little things around you, and being open to serendipitous conversations – because you’re right, as you get older and reflect on your experiences, you realise it’s often the small moments that add up to make a difference to who you are.
    I’ve been meaning to tell you actually – I had a situation with my 5 year old recently which made me think about our voice conversation from last year. My child really shies away from participating in party games, I suspect out of fear and shyness – probably similar to the fear of using voice that we’d spoken about in our conversation. With his cousin’s birthday coming up I tried to tackle this with him, And I thought about that thing you said – that being afraid of using voice as essentially a self centred position to take – and instead viewing participation as something you ‘give’ to the recipient as a much more helpful way of thinking about it and to get over your fear. I used a version of this to point out that his participation in the party would make his cousin happy. Although it wasn’t enough to get him over his fear (he is 5, I guess…) I still found it a useful way of thinking about the situation as it enabled me to frame the behaviour in positive (participating will make your cousin happy) rather than negative terms (not participating is anti-social). It’s interesting how certain conversations come back to you, and sometimes seemingly just at the time you need them. I listened to your recording again as I was writing this (mainly to ensure my memory of what you said was reliable..!). It’s still so striking how intimate and present your voice sounds – like you’re actually in the room, speaking to me. Thank again for that x

    BTW, I can’t believe I only just realised we’re in the same country?! I am also enjoying some of your gardening / growing posts- it is a dream of mine to one day set up a permaculture garden on some land we have up north…you’re living the dream! Great seeing how it’s done.

  3. Thanks for this lovely reply Tanya and yes, changing my thinking and rhetoric about being quiet, including actually valuing it instead of feeling it was a deficit has had quite a big impact in my life. I can transport myself back to being 5 and feeling dread at parties so I feel for your son!. 🙂 My youngest is quiet and being a boy I fear he will face an even bigger stigma about it than I did through school. The message to boys is often ‘toughen up’. He has certainly found transitioning into school at age 4 an epic few weeks! The first morning of school was around 50 adults and 25 children crammed into a small space and even I found it an assault on the senses, so I truly felt for him as he sobbed and clung to me. The first phrase his teacher (who is brilliant) said to him, as he refused to say his name but pointed to his name badge was “You’ll have to find your voice!”. Of course she’s right, but I bristled for him. A few weeks later, he’s talking in front of the group, tentatively, but talking. He just took a little longer than others to feel trust.

    If you think about that in some of the massive online courses, and that they tend to have short durations, you can see that they sometimes can’t really give enough space and time for people to emerge in a short space of time. You just suddenly have to BE a participant, and there’s not a lot of time to find your slow groove into the rhythm of a new community. I try to remember that with online learning, that lurking is not a personality trait, it’s participation in a community – it is engagement.

    Thank you for the kindness of your words and voice!

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