Making a difference

because googling “I don’t matter” gets you to a lot of very negative JPGs…

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking of late about whether I matter or not.

Maybe it’s the after-effect of coming back from leave to discover that things have been just fine in my absence, or maybe it’s that the kids are old enough to need no support other than top-ups for their phones.

But certainly it’s also about the start of the academic year.

As someone dedicated to active learning, I know that I have to work from my students, rather than them work from me. Their centrality implies a less central role for me.

That’s particularly true in my autumn module on negotiation, which very explicitly and consciously puts students front and centre, and puts me at the metaphorical and literal side of the classroom, trying to help them to understand what they’re doing.

The corollary of this is that if students don’t bother, or aren’t bothered, then there’s little I can do to force learning upon them. 

At best, I’m like the sun in that favourite fable of IR: my best chance lies in offering positive encouragement and opportunity, not in brow-beating and punishing.

The challenge – for me, at least – is how to keep that sun beating down.

The round of academic events at the end of summer is always a good moment to gather thoughts and find new ideas to help in this. This year, it’s been good to hear again about the value of building a high level of communication with students, giving them some ownership of the process and acknowledging where the limits of my capacity lie.

This last point is a bit of paradox: by being clear about what I can’t do, I can also strengthen the value of what I can. This is not so much modesty as realism and reflection: if I seek to inculcate such values in students, then can do no better than practise them myself.

Of course, the difficulty comes in also having to acknowledge that you aren’t in complete control of things. I’m fine with saying that, but I know many colleagues aren’t, not least for fears that it undermines their authority.

The answer to this is that rather than thinking you have to know the answer to all possible questions, you really only need to know how to answer all possible questions.

That might seem semantic, but actually it’s about feeling confident about your more abstracted skills – of reflection, of research, of analysis – and applying them to the novel case your student has just presented to you.

Sometimes that means turning the question back to the student, or to the class, to answer (or work out what they’d need to do to answer). Sometimes it’s a matter of returning to underlining principles to answer. Sometimes it’s just saying that you’d need to go off and do some work to answer it next time.

All of these options rely on us being honest with students.

It’s too easy to fall into the trap of “we know everything, you know nothing”, which underpins much of the didactic model: I’m the reservoir of knowledge, you should just sit downstream and drink your fill.

Instead, we have to recognise our limits and students’ abilities. I’m certainly not ashamed to admit that I’ve learnt as much from students as I have from colleagues: very different things, certainly, but still valuable things.

And in all this I do matter.

I might not be at the centre of the classroom, but that doesn’t mean I don’t shape, contribute, encourage and support. In short, I’m part of a group that learns.

And that’s what keeps me so eager to get back to the classroom.