Friday, 31 May 2013

How much support for students is healthy?

This is one of those mornings.  I suppose every morning has to be a morning of some kind of another - but this is one of the ones which tends to exist in a kind of no-mans-land.  It is a morning like the calm in the centre of a hurricane.  It is a morning which is that moment of weightless peace which exists just before you land either in the fire or in the frying pan.

For several nights I have been working on project plans, reading draft dissertations and preparing lectures until the wee small hours - and this all just a week or so before marking even begins.  It is not healthy, and the older I become the harder it gets.

Today, I have two lectures (one of which may well be the subject of a peer observation - so no pressure), two seminars and three supervisions.  I need to read through three draft dissertations, - not to mention studiously avoiding a groaning email inbox, and ignoring half-a-dozen other 'urgent' tasks which were probably due last week.  This is not an attempt to gain sympathy (although sympathy is always welcome).  I know for a fact that there are many people who could breeze through a workload like this with a sunny smile on their face and time left at the end to sit down and read a book.  Or two.

Oh, how I wish I was one of them.  My response to a morning like this is to sit down and do something entirely unproductive and un-related to any of the things which I should (by rights) be panicking about instead.  Like writing this blog.

There are many, many tips, gadgets, gizmos, and various other forms of hokum which I have tried to help me focus, to prioritise and organise and in all other ways simply get through stuff quicker.   Some have actually worked quite well.  I starting to wonder, though, whether the real key to survival is simply this...

...not to care as much.

Any lecturers or teachers out there may understand what I mean when I say that.  It is almost built into the genetics of teachers that their instinct is to feel a great sense of responsibility for their pupils / students.  Their successes or their failures impact upon an HE practitioner less directly that in the world of compulsory education, but (particularly with dissertation students) the instinct to feel personally invested in the progress or otherwise of a student remains very insistent.

Yesterday, I had a dissertation supervision which involved reviewing a final draft and lasted two hours.  Last night I was reviewing another draft online and spent at least as long adding comments - without even getting to the end of it yet.  Some of this is doubtless a mode of working which stems from being at a small institution where students direct access to academic staff is a key selling point.  These hours spent with students or their work are not included in any survey of 'class contact' hours (which for staff officially stands at 19 per week), but if they were taken into account I am sure our students could boast significantly higher levels of support than in most institutions - even if in terms of material resources we would doubtless come far lower.

There are is a danger though.

The close relationships which often develop in these contexts between students and staff can potentially make staff feel overly responsible for their students.  It is, I might suggest, vital that there is at least some responsibility - but too much can encourage students to take less responsibility themselves.  There is plenty of evidence to suggest that one-to-one contact and feedback are the most effective mechanisms for teaching, so there is certainly pedagogical validity to our approach of focusing on these.  The success of this approach can be seen by the rate of improvement in our student grades over their three years, which is very steep.  The question is, how to know where the dividing line is between being a support to learning or being an obstruction to the independence of the learning process?

Students studying for  degree need to acquire a high level of independence.  Fine.  There should, as well, be an effective mechanism for supporting students - and yes, this will usually involve back-loading one-to-one contact time towards the end when drafts need reviewing.  Fine.

Maybe the problem I have here, is that rather than just trying to maintain this rational balance I am becoming too heavily invested in students work.  Spending too much time myself worrying over it.  Too much time writing tons of notes in which I wrestle to try and identify precisely what might be going wrong, or what might be a good way to make it right.

Maybe I should care just a little bit less.  Maybe...but how?