The programme for the annual education day at my faculty included a discussion on ‘what students care about’. Great, I thought. How is a room full of teachers going to say something sensible about that? I was afraid that it would amount to little more than sharing prejudices and gross generalisations.
Luckily I was too pessimistic. More students attended than in previous years. It wasn’t just that one token education commissioner with the thankless task of representing ‘The Student’. The Student, of course, does not exist. But discussions like this still tend towards generalisations about ‘students today’, even if students are present. And once you are within that frame, the discussion quickly centres around what is odd or wrong with the new generation from our point of view. Or, at the very least, how we can steer them in the direction that we think is right. I have trouble with this.
Thinking in terms of generations can easily lead to well-intentioned paternalism
One of the speakers told us about a student who, at the end of a lecture, had stormed out of the classroom saying something rude. During the lecture she had raised her hand and the teacher had promised to get back to her later on. But he had not done so. This was not right, he admitted, but he would not accept someone responding to this so disrespectfully. With a sense of pride, he argued that we should not be afraid to set strict and clear norms about such things. Not least in the interest of this generation that – apparently – never learned to deal with boundaries and setbacks.
We can at least start by asking ‘What happened there?’
I did not think his reaction was anything to be proud of. If a student reacts unexpectedly to something seemingly trivial, I first want to know where that came from. Perhaps she had not felt seen or taken seriously for months. Or maybe something unpleasant happened in the class before your lecture. Who knows? We can at least start by asking ‘What happened there?’ instead of immediately taking the role of a stern authority figure.
Another theme in the discussion was how students experience so much pressure nowadays. Experience. As if it is a character trait. Poor snowflakes. But there really is more pressure now than what most teachers had to deal with while we were studying. Rising student debt. The binding recommendation on continuation of studies (BSA). More studies with selection procedures. Ever increasing student numbers so that there is less contact with teachers and more to figure out on your own. Higher expectations from employers for CVs to contain all sorts of extras. And so on.
Thinking in terms of generations can easily lead to well-intentioned paternalism. It can easily make you interpret the behaviour of an individual in terms of a stereotype, and respond as if you can teach the whole generation a lesson through that one student. Instead of talking about students today, I would rather we talked more about what students today have to deal with. And how we can deal with that – together.
Bob van Vliet is a lecturer at the 3mE Faculty and is specialised in design education. Reactions are welcome via B.vanVliet@tudelft.nl