This week in my tutorial group, which is for a first-year undergraduate course, something rather interesting happened. While of course, class is interesting in some way every week, this time around some of the students were feeling frustrated because a class had been cancelled the week before, and our discussion segued into a bigger conversation about the way the university runs itself and how that affects their experiences within and outside the classroom.
One really striking problem they raised was that of credit transfer. I had heard about the significant problems with Ontario’s system but I hadn’t seen the effects “up close”; hearing personal stories was informative to say the least. For example, in some cases students had been told by college staff that their work would earn them a certain amount of university credit, only to find out later that no such arrangement was in place. This brought to mind the presentation at OISE’s panel on Ontario PSE last month, where credit transfer was described by Christine Arnold as a game of “Snakes and Ladders” — no wonder.
Students’ attempts to find help with their various problems were also met with mixed reactions from faculty and teaching assistants at the various institutions they’d attended. One student who was struggling with family problems went to her TA for help, only to be told she should think about dropping out if she was having so much trouble. Sometimes professors would not accommodate when there were genuine family emergencies, and thus students lost valuable credits. I also heard from one student who was told, “if you don’t like it, pay for it somewhere else.” Consumer culture indeed!
From the perspective of the “teacher”, the issue of trust here is very important but it’s one that is addressed only in hallway and office talk between and among faculty and graduate students. We know there are always some students who simply don’t show up to class, then provide what looks like pretty spurious evidence of their inability to attend. Recently a student told me he’d just been too “busy” to do the required class work. Whether or not the reasons provided are valid is something I’m expected to negotiate for myself, as the TA or course director, since only on rare occasions do I see a doctor’s note or other formal documentation. And I think this makes a game out of truth, it can contribute to tension in the relationship between teachers and students. It also makes it harder for those who are having real difficulty because their truths look less credible.
Yet clearly many students really do have trouble juggling university work with everything else in life, and they might not want to say so for fear of being perceived as inadequate.
The “student experiences” we should be thinking about are right in front of us all the time, not just what happens in our classes and tutorials but what students bring into the tutorials, their expectations and feelings about education that are totally unknown to us and influenced by things beyond our control. When a student has been put off from asking for help or for a deferral, they might assume that every professor or TA is that way, and thus keep their troubles to themselves and try to “cope” on their own.
We know that even when services are available in universities (such as writing clinics and counseling), students often don’t “access” them. One reason among many could be that there’s a disconnect where some students have tried to find help but found the information too confusing or the territory too intimidating and off-putting.
In our tutorial I mentioned the “assumed student” in postsecondary policy, who’s generally imagined as someone coming to university right from high school, who lives near the campus with parents or in residence, who has means of paying tuition up front and in full, and who is academically and socially prepared enough for a certain level of autonomy. I think it’s also assumed that students can easily learn the “system”, the way the university works, when from their perspective it may be a confusing tangled mass of contradictory information and obscure policy.
Ultimately I think the “silence” about personal struggles, within the PSE system and with life in general, really needs to end. A student cannot be expected to bring a note from their parent or employer explaining why they have to work 20 hours a week to cover tuition. But who is there to listen when they need to explain this? The 50 minutes each week that I spend with them really isn’t enough for that. But if everyone’s chipping in, if in every class we can try to provide a “safe space” for this kind of honesty, maybe it’s a step in the right direction.