Fierce Grinding Discords Part 2

The good news is, most universities are packing impressive sound devices now, installed and finely calibrated in the service of retention and the closing of attainment gaps, and if not quite that, then grimly determined to deliver on decent student satisfaction scores and value for money. We are encouraged to detect and manage the emotional well-being of students earlier and earlier, to guard against their unhappiness, (or even worse, them going somewhere else and taking their fees with them).

During my stint as course leader, I was having more and more conversations with students about their private pain and its impact on their studies. I encountered students who didn’t want to write anything because the prospect of writing made them too uncomfortable; and students who didn’t want to talk in front of their peers, work in groups or give presentations because the prospect of doing so triggered their anxiety. I once supported a student who didn’t like experiencing feelings of ‘suspense’, so excused themselves from watching films that were ‘suspenseful’. Institutionally, I began to see a reciprocal trend for clearing the path of obstacles between students and their degree awards, born of all our enlightened acts of listening. I witnessed word counts shrinking, and the reshaping of curricula and credit frameworks, and alluring debates around alternative assessment gaining more and more ground with senior management.

If Klausner happened to wave his sound machine in my direction, he would have heard me screaming inside. In common with many of my colleagues, academic and otherwise, I was becoming increasingly uneasy at all the listening – but not because I was measuring my fabulously diverse student cohorts against paragons of resilience from some imagined rose-tinted past.  

At the conclusion of The Sound Machine, Klausner, fully sensate to the hitherto ignored feelings of the flora surrounding him, insists a doctor applies iodine to an axe wound in an oak tree. As sensitised to the feelings of our student bodies, we came similarly to rely on the various student support services in place to soothe them. Equipped now with our own sound machines, we knew how to better detect the tell-tale frequencies emitted by anxiety disorders and neuro-diversity, and we knew what to do about it; refer, refer, refer: “Go to the VLE and download the policy on applying for an extension”; “Go get a doctor’s note in support of your claim.” Go make an appointment with the counsellor.” Go, go, go. 

All of which looks responsible, commendable, best practice even, until I remind myself, in The Sound Machine story, it was Klausner who first hit the tree with the axe.  

While I always worked closely and collaboratively with student support services, I was keenly interested in understanding what might be producing all this pain in the first place. What point, I wondered, to all this listening, if we dedicate ourselves to reacting to the resonances of the wounded, and never to the swing of the axe? And while, I hope, I was an academic far removed from the tone-deaf tutors of the golden age of education, I wondered if there was still more I could do pre-emptively, and began by assuming there was. Sure, this quest was driven by my interest in producing transformative learning experiences for each and every individual under my care, but it was fired too by bone-deep exasperation at giving so much of my time and energy to pastoral emergenciesOh, for a day without another student panic attack. Oh, for a unit submission without the accompanying confetti of exemptions. You might say I was dreaming again of a life of silence, and not the bad old kind of the good old days, but the hush produced by higher frequencies of student contentment.

Just as The Sound Machine episode provoked my boyhood self into re-looking at seemingly benign environments for probabilities of risk, I turned my attentions to thinking about the design and delivery of year one of my particular degree programme. I was looking for axes, the glint of things we were doing badly. I looked for cruelties and insensitivity, for any unfair exclusionary practices.

I didn’t find any concealed weapons in our learning aims and outcomes, but as a first year tutor myself, I was able to cut through to something important, to an idea as bold-seeming as it was likely obvious, and it was this: the teaching on first year programmes should not be modelled after the image of the first year undergraduate you hope is coming to study with you, but instead, after the image of the sort of second year student you want your first year programme to produce. 

If we want second years (and thus third years, and thus graduates) unfazed by research and writing, unfazed by public-speaking and collaboration, and by the giving and receipt of constructive criticism, we need to stop anticipating these skills from our first years to ensure we’re actually teaching these skills to our first years. We need to situate their worriesas normal and appropriate, to design for them – and not so as to shame them, anaesthetise them, aggrandise them, or remove them, but to overt them to convert them.

When I asked myself what an undergraduate course without discomfort might look like, I shuddered. To return to The Sound Machine’s image of the neighbour cutting her rose bush, it is also true that expert and judicious pruning produces more flowers. Pruning excises old wood and triggers new growth, but thanks to Klausner’s sound machine, we also know this intervention is painful for its subject. 

When I listened too long to Heads of School, or listened too long to certain student reps, I felt we were in danger of advocating for lobotomies, for excising the pain centres from our learners’ brains, as a sure-fire way to keep them smiling. I began to feel as if our institutional sound machines, for all their good intentions, were producing the effect of deafness in tutors themselves, a growing inability to distinguish our prime responsibilities to students, as educators, from the white noise produced by the effect of aggressive marketisation on our understanding of student satisfaction. I feared I was witnessing the activity of listening being co-opted into damaging long-term strategies for the nullification of short-term dissatisfaction, to the detriment of inclusivity and social mobility. By roping off certain types of academic or social activity from certain profiles of student, I worried we were working only to re-silence their future selves. I knew very well that reading and writing, presenting and group work, produced spikes of anxiety in many of my students. I wanted to see their anxiety managed by them, so not by removing its source, but instead by teaching into these challenging subjects imaginatively, creatively, inclusively, brilliantly.

These were discomforts I wanted for my students because, to overcome them was to learn, to change, to transform; to expose their impermanence; to laugh at fear now and forever after; to win.  

I understand it’s confusing. It sounds suddenly as if I have something in common with those former colleagues, who believed students should just ‘bloody well get on with it’, but that is not the gong I’m banging. Resilience is the weasel word for expecting people to get on with things uncomplainingly because they shouldn’t hope for better; instead of being angry at baked-in injustice, they should knuckle-down and pull themselves up. But I’m not confused at all. The drum I’m banging sounds like this: 

Begin by making different assumptions about your incoming first year students. While they’ve elected to study with you, they are more reluctant than they’re letting on. They will show resistance. They will avoid engaging with activities that worry them the most. This seems like a contradiction or a character flaw, but it isn’t. You can want what scares you, and you can know the value of a thing even as you put your energies into avoiding it.

You might not be able to detect the background hum of first year distress, perhaps because your own familiarity with the rituals of higher education and the foibles of your institution have left you a bit hard of hearing. As Klausner’s sound machine teaches us, just because you can’t hear something doesn’t mean it’s not making a noise. And while first year students are worried by the prospect of learning new things, they are as worried, even more so, by the idea of confronting all the old things they’ve always found difficult or discomforting; perhaps because, before they met you, they sat in classrooms not dissimilar to the ones of my memory, classrooms without any sound machines in them at all.

In the new knowledge your first years, a) don’t already know how to do what you want them to do, and b) feel put at risk at the prospect of trying to do it, you need to, c) teach all of them how to do all of the things you regard as vital for undergraduates. Then, d) keep explaining why what you’re teaching them is valuable, and e) teach those things in ways calibrated to reframe anxiety, not as an expression of weakness or dysfunction, but as a normal frequency of learning.

When you design and deliver programmes of study for first years, as first years actually are, you’re teaching will still discomfort, unsettle and provoke students. You are in the business of pruning roses, and the cries of students must be borne by everyone, by the student, by the tutor, and by the institution, as this dissatisfaction is the short-term noise produced by lasting, long-term change.

But if you don’t design and deliver programmes of study for first years as they actually are, (maybe because you can’t remember what it’s like to be one yourself, or don’t care, or don’t approve of first years as they actually are), your teaching will be very painful. If you don’t teach first years how to do all the things you expect them to know how to do, and you don’t explain your reasons why learning to do those things is important, (and then you fail them for not knowing how to do it or even caring about not knowing how to do it), you are not in the business of pruning roses, you are wielding an axe. Referring your student to the counsellor, on account of their resulting panic attacks, is little different to sending a ‘disruptive’ child to sit at the back of the classroom with the other broken kids, whose own faults it must be they are too different, or too sad, or too angry to make a success of their learning. And if you’re content to wield axes, while bemoaning the spiralling culture of extenuating circumstances plaguing higher education, you must have your fingers in your ears, because the dissonance of that is deafening.

Discomforts like these should not be borne by students. 

Discomforts like these should be acted upon by the institution, but I absolutely do not mean institutions should act by seeking to excise, reduce or demonise the learning activities that so predictably inflame the pain centres of students. I absolutely do not mean that all the difficult and challenging things we want our undergraduates to master should be removed from them because they produce discomfort. I do not want lobotomies for learners. Instead, I want institutions to listen to what their sound machines are really detecting when it comes to the dissonance of student dissatisfaction. It’s not the wailing of the evermore sick and the evermore stupid, or some klaxon calling time on what is ‘too difficult for some’ about higher learning, but a fierce and powerful clamour for truly inclusive curriculum design and its delivery for all.

Originally published on Linkedin

Fierce Grinding Discords Part 1

All these years later, I’m still haunted by a 1981 episode of the television series, Tales Of The Unexpected. Entitled The Sound Machine, and adapted from a Roald Dahl short story, the episode introduces us to Klausner, an enthusiast of sound.

“I believe … there is a whole world of sound about us all the time that we cannot hear. It is possible that up there in those high-pitched inaudible regions there is a new exciting music being made, with subtle harmonies and fierce grinding discords, a music so powerful that it would drive us mad if only our ears were tuned to hear the sound of it.”

In pursuit of his ambition to apprehend sounds undetectable to the normal range of human hearing, Klausner invents a listening device. At first, Klausner doesn’t understand the provenance of the screams detected by his machine when he tests his apparatus out in his garden – until he notices his neighbour snipping the blooms from her rose bush. Klausner’s sound machine is hearing the agonies of plants.

As a child, this episode did for walking across lawns what Jaws did for the deep end of my local swimming pool, freighting ubiquitous behaviors in familiar environments with new probabilities of risk. These days, I’m more likely to worry about entire ecosystems than the discomfort experienced by the few blades of grass between my toes. Even so, I still find myself thinking about Klausner’s sound machine, and the act of listening to pain.

Given the clear and obvious impact of the pandemic on student well-being, and on the institutional infrastructures in place to support it, discussions around the responsibility for the pastoral care of undergraduates have intensified. Even before the advent of Covid, the term ‘epidemic’ was much used to characterise the rise of poor mental health among university students.

In my former higher education institution, initiatives to support student well-being proliferated like plucky mushrooms. There were ‘listening posts’ and ‘Mood Boost’ workshops and online counselling sessions, hopelessly over-subscribed. Consider our incessant hand-wringing over the ethics of granting extenuating circumstances to students, with the university unable to make up its mind as to whether the glass was half-full or half-empty, when it came to recording high numbers of extended deadlines and interruptions of study. Was making extensions available to ever-growing numbers of undergraduates indicative of greater inclusivity, and welcome move towards student-centred learning? Or proof instead of systemic course-level failure? By seeking out extra time and additional allowances, were students demonstrating commendable levels of self-determination, or just vapid snowflakes, melting wetly, the institution wilting similarly under the glare of its canny customers?

When the conservative government cut funding for disabled students in higher education, there were those in the university who feared the good and proper project of widening participation would now continue in name only, in service to the institution’s recruitment targets and not much else. For others, the paring back of learning support assistants and free laptops was like being given permission to switch off an expensive machine that was keeping the pipe-dreams alive of students otherwise ill-suited to the rigours of higher education.

Sometimes, often, I’d hear colleagues talking about ‘the good old days’, when undergraduates just knew how to study; when they were resilient, self-directed, arriving on day one of year one as savvy, professionalised learners. 

Hand-on-heart, I wasn’t immune to prelapsarian thoughts myself, dog-tired after another round of tutorials with unhappy students. But golden ageism is always bullshit, as we know very well. We might look back wistfully at tutors from yesteryear going about their simpler business in their simpler classrooms with their simpler cohorts, just as Klausner might once have smiled fondly at someone taking their shears to a hedge. We might coo nostalgically over all those seemingly stoic undergraduates, the sort who “bloody well just got on with it”; strong, silent types, who could be relied upon to metabolise gumption from hardship. 

But let’s imagine, in addition to its existing functions, Klausner’s sound machine has the capacity to detect the frequencies of the past, and how about we turn the dial: what’s that I hear? Ah yes, it is those same fierce grinding discords, the as-of-now unmuted miseries of diverse groups of individuals being nicked, bruised, picked at, and broken by the everyday habits of teachers and the mono-cultures of their classrooms; and not injuries inflicted on purpose, not always anyway, but injuries nonetheless.

When I think back to the classrooms of my own secondary modern, my blood runs cold in the knowledge of this parallel universe of suffering, rendered undetectable by the deficit in my own perceptual apparatus. I remember the rather odd-seeming children hidden away at the back of the class who wouldn’t meet your eye, whose non sequiturs disrupted the teacher’s flow and magnetised the bullies. I recall the clamour of the disruptive boys, too quick and too clever to know when to wind in their necks, but too stupid to read the black board; and I think about the weird kids, the whey-faced loners standing disconsolately at the edge of the playground, friendless inside the hoods of their parkas. 

These young people were all unheard and unhearable in their different ways, for how to detect the call-to-action of Asperger’s, when it’s carried by a frequency to which no one is yet attuned? How to decipher the dissonance of dyslexia when the only sound it makes in the world of other people is naughtiness? How to mitigate against acute social anxiety, when there is insufficient bandwidth by which to detect it?

But that was then, the ‘good old days’, when all the damaged, stupid people knew better than to go to university, when silence was golden…