It takes a department…

Insert joke about Belgium’s space programme here

I’m coming back to the idea of soft ties and community building in education, having spent the weekend in Bruges, celebrating 20 years since my Masters degree.

For those of you not familiar with the College of Europe, it’s a Masters-only institution, teaching students on various aspects of European integration. It has a reputation as a training ground for those going to work in Brussels, in and around the European Union. Certainly, from my year, there are now many friends who are now senior people in European or national organisations, from ambassadors to heads of unit, professors to executive suite types.

I mention this not to brag – if anything, there’s a strong dissonance of seeing such people in such roles, when your lasting memory is of them having a food fight at a cheese fondue party – but to observe that our reunion was grounded in the very strong sense of community that we shared.

As students, the College insisted that we not only study together, but also live  and eat together, in the various residences that they provided. At the time, I’m not sure I appreciated being given 21 meals a week – especially come ‘sandwich Sunday dinner’ – but it meant that we got to spend a lot of time together, learn more about each other as people, rather than just classmates.

Obviously, such a model has very limited directed utility outside of seminaries, but the idea is a useful one. If we can build spaces for students to interact, above and beyond their direct study contact time, then we can open a range of inter-personal experiences that will serve them well, both personally and professionally.

Indeed, I would argue that this is also of value in narrower academic terms. If you’ve had a group of students that know and understand one another, then you will have noticed how much more quickly they can fall into discussion of the matter in hand. There isn’t the all-too-frequent getting-to-know-you phase, something that can be quite lengthy in a subject such as ours, where bear-traps of sensitive issues abound.

Instead, you have a group that can discuss and debate, while knowing the general lie of the land of opinions, and knowing how this conversation fits into all the other ones they have had. Thus it also acts as a partial antidote to the silo-ing of courses/modules that we all complain about.

Assuming you haven’t got a set-up like the College, then what can you do?

Most obviously, you can organise more time in and around classes: talks, socials, study groups. That doesn’t have to fall on you to arrange, but you can certainly facilitate. In my experience, you might have to put more work in of this at the start, but as you get students more involved, they typically want to do more themselves.

But you can also communicate the value of building such links between students. That means emphasising the benefit they can derive from talking to each other, about study and not about study. Of course, if you’re pushing active learning, then this is a much easier sell: you’re showing students that what they think matters.

And that’s the closing point to all this: you have to be sincere and consistent about all this. To go back to Bruges, the College holds its ‘sprit’ very close to its institutional identity and contrives to promote it in many ways – implicit and explicit – in its activity. It is in that mutual reinforcement that the message gains credibility and buy-in: every student who turns up in September has had their expectations adjusted.

How about yours?

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