“I feel like I’m just being used for a university experiment”

June 17, 2010

I’m in the middle of typing up all the feedback from my Graffiti wall evaluation with my students. It’s hard work not to be defensive and to just sit with students’ outrage, anger or cynicism, but I’m trying. There are also some really lovely comments, some good thinking and some very constructive ideas which balances all of this. And of course the feedback is anonymous which means I can’t check that I’ve understood a student’s message correctly.

However there was one comment that I just couldn’t let slide. The student wrote: “I feel like I’m just being used for a university experiment”. This is one conversation I would love to have with a student. And my response would be “Well, yeah, you are – and isn’t that fantastic?” Having been a psych student at UQ I know what it feels like to be a lab rat. I don’t know if they still do it, but they used to demand all first year students sign up as a participant in a psych experiment. We’d have Honours students conducting hypnosis or sleep deprivation experiments upon us. Despite getting 5 credit points for the experience, and in hindsight understanding WHY they did this, I recall feeling outraged at the time, and like I had to prostitute myself to the university for my degree, so I’m not unsympathetic to the student’s complaint. However I also want to put a different spin on it.

As a student, I’ve also been part of some teaching experiments. For me, they were the richest learning opportunities I’ve ever had (thanks Bob and Tony). I’ve also been part of less dynamic teaching. Having failed an undergraduate subject I had to repeat the course and I remember being astonished to hear not only the same theory – but to have exactly the same jokes in the same places, the same slides, the same stories and the same puns. The only thing worse than having to endure some lecturer trotting out the same old material year after year, droning on in the same tired voice, would be to BE that lecturer: for teaching to matter so little (and let’s face it – it’s only 40% of an academic’s workload) that I would feel no urge to invest in what I’m doing. For me, EVERY course I teach is an  experiment. Every time I stand in front of a group I want it to have something new that I’m trying out: a different process, a different approach. It’s what gives me energy and enthusiasm for what I’m doing. I could not be a passionate teacher if I was merely repeating myself.

And to make it less personal, I think it’s actually the responsibility of a teaching institution to be “experimenting” on students. I went to a talk last week to hear how three schools were utilising Blackboard in different ways. This was an experiment. Bits worked, bits didn’t. But at the end of it they were able to provide us with some terrific ideas about what helped students learn through this medium. I will be taking this knowledge into the next course I teach. I would hope students would actually embrace the idea of us improving our practice.

So what is it that has so evoked the student’s ire? A couple of things occur to me. The first is about  authority. (Now I wish I could claim a flash of brilliance on this one – but it’s taken several sessions with my Professional Supervisor (PS) to work through this one). PS suggested to me that some people need authority. Either due to learning style preference, experience, cultural background or assumptions about learning, some students crave an expert and a more didactic learning approach. They may not necessarily know or admit this, but that need will manifest in the kind of outrage expressed here. According to PS, such students would be highly uncomfortable with loose structure, open-ended processes and the kind of action teaching and action learning approach I employ. Being told this is my approach up front won’t change anything, because the need may be unconscious. What they crave is an expert. The partial positioning of a lecturer as co-learner would create enormous discomfort and open up the space for criticism. If I am not an expert then how dare I lecture? Come back when you know your field and have something solid to teach us! It’s a binary position: either you’re a student or a teacher. (I recall in another course explaining my co-learner stance and having  a student say, “I didn’t pay $600 so I could teach you!”). I have been very clear from the beginning and probably even named it as an experiment. I have said that I’m going to trial new things, and that I don’t actually know if they will work. And when they didn’t, and I had to rework things, some students were upset. The word that was used by student many times was the importance of “fairness”. (The fact that change is “unfair” is worthy of a whole post – but I’ll get stuck into that one later). I told students on Day 1 that I would be running my own project alongside theirs. I have blogged openly about my insecurities and uncertainties. I have admitted fallibility. I have been vulnerable. The idea that one could have mastery of a field and yet still have things to learn appears to be too difficult a chasm to cross.

The other thing that I think may be evoking outrage and a sense of being “used” is a sense that a line has been crossed, from learning for improvement versus learning for personal and professional gain. So not only have I set up this class as a learning “experiment”, but I have formalised that process by gaining ethical clearance for the “project” and I have asked for students’ permission to utilise their feedback, to present at conferences and to write papers (no idea if the latter will happen but I’m hopeful). I am indeed “using” the student’s data and experience and ideas and feedback.  And I am hoping to personally gain from this. I am not apologetic about my desire to move beyond behind casual and part-time teaching contracts! In our class on systems theory we discussed the idea of networks as being linked by a contagion – it could be money, a virus, gossip, resources, etc. In academia the contagion is ideas (developed through research), and we spread this contagion through publishing. Being part of this network exposes me to other ideas and in turn improves my own work. So yes, there is personal gain. But if part of the role of an academic is to contribute to the broad body of knowledge, then it is also gain for the broader field.

So the third thing happening here is sensitivity to power, and a sense of dishonesty about the use of power. So for example, I am positioning myself as a co-learner, as though I was an equal (“look, see, I’m learning alongside you”) but in fact it’s not a relationship of equals. I am ultimately evaluating students. I am in a lecturer role. So what I name as working relationally and being transparent, others might label as disingenuous.

I admit at this point I’m stumped: I don’t know how to work through this. I need to go to the literature. I really hope someone has done some research on this.

Image source: http://lifesagasp.wordpress.com/2007/07/12/rat-in-a-cage/


One Response to ““I feel like I’m just being used for a university experiment””

  1. Karen Says:

    Hi Lynda,
    I have to admit that I was one of your slack students in followng your blog to the extent that I should have. But I was obsessed with my own, and between that and followng 9 other peoples in the class I was short on time. But I was kept updated by others who were following yours, and I feel bad cause I had comments to make re the negative feedback but just didn’t get around to it. So I am taking ths opportunity to do so now.

    First congrats on the last post sounds like it was great. And you have to cut yourself and us some slack on the not remembering the answer to ‘WHY’- that was on the first day of class – not unnatural for that to be forgotten given when the conversation was held.
    If you look at this way a full time student has four subjects – on average 16 hrs of listen to lectures and tut information per week, followed by another average of 20 hours per week of reading, researching for uni. Then you need to add our entertainment- sport, music, tv, movies, games etc at least 20 hours per week, then our work, family and friends between all then at least 30 hours. In a week that is 86 hours informaton gathering to remember, plus 56 hours of sleep (if we are lucky) which leaves us with 26 hour per week to travel to and fro and to ourselves. So 13 weeks later you are contending with 1118 hours of information we have been collected – that is a lot of data.

    Next in regards to the negatve comments, I can only answer for me. I have to say that I have had a great learning experience. To the point where I feel it reflected in my assignment – I was so enthralled with doing something different that I negelected the standard research and theory required for that assignment (hence not such a good mark). I am ok with this- cause I found the rest far more interesting and stretching of my skills, this is more benificial to me. I know that I can do the research and match theory, but I didn’t know about blogging (and now twitter).

    I am offering my experience in the second part of this comment as an employer in this area, I have students at my service all the time, and I have learnt numerous things from them over the years, including how to do powerpoint.

    I do have an expectation when I have students come to my office that I can learn something from them equally as much as they can learn from me. Many managers in this field have been in the field a long time- and many are behind the times in knowing how to use the technology – not that they don’t want to, but they are busy and have little time to investigate themselves. When students come and are able use and teach this knowledge (no matter how basic) it is appreciated and very helpful.

    It would also be something I would consider as making a person applying for a job, a skill that I would consider extremely valuable. The sector knows it needs to catch up fast and we are looking for vehicles to do this- for me as a student and an employer I have already begun using this as a selling point to those in my field to help them with blogs, twitter, videos on line- AND IT IS WORKING.
    So from me a big thankyou Lynda for taking us down this path.

    Lastly re the power comment, power is a stange beast, but it needs to be looked at in context and remember that it is an individuals view point and their understanding of their own social arrangements. So in this envronment I am throwing in a comment from an assignment I have just finished for another class on the topic of people and their relationshp to power in the global context.
    ‘In addressing the context of globalisation of social work the interaction of people with their social arrangements needs to be investigated; looking specifically at the strong relationship between the exercise of power on peoples experience. The implication of power within the global context and the impacts this has on the social arrangements for people is different in each circumstance. However power has far reaching affects into each community, the application of power is principal to the human experience (Layder 2006, O’Conner 2008 p 16).
    And that experience is both good and bad- for me in this circumstance I am saying it was a good one. So I just wanted to say thank you Lynda for the experience.

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