Are university students special?

This will mean nothing to many of you, which will be your loss.
This will mean nothing to many of you, which will be your loss.

Let’s try to get past your reflex answer/snort/mutter and consider this question with a bit more thought.

It’s something that occurs as I head to Portland for TLC 2016, leaving behind (for a bit) my new Fellowship, much of which is concerned with disseminating academic research to a wide variety of audiences.

In particular, I wonder whether the teaching we provide in our university classrooms is that different from the teaching we might give elsewhere, or even from the dissemination work that goes beyond this.

Last week, I found myself pitching for a TV commission, thanks to the Political Studies Association’s ‘Total Exposure‘ project. You’ll be able to judge for yourself whether it was any good when they upload the video, but the experience is one I’d thoroughly recommend.

Importantly, the pitch – while so very different in form from a seminar or lecture – still contained the same basic dynamic (or, at least, it did in my case) between the nominal objective and the contextual objective.* Nominally, we were trying to get the panel interested in our programme idea, but more contextually, we were also trying to show the panel that we were the kind of people they’d like to work with, whether or not they liked the specific idea.

Now, you might argue that was just because we didn’t think our idea was all that brilliant, but in our minds it was more an acknowledgement that the chances of us having just the right idea for the panel were likely to do small, but that they might have ideas of their own at some later point to which we could contribute: “remember those guys? lots of enthusiasm and ideas? let’s try them.”

Maybe this is all just us not knowing much about how TV works, but it is certainly how the university system works.

In our classes we all have nominal objectives: understand this issue, practise this technique, play this simulation. But underlying that are a whole series of other objectives, from exposing the academic method to students, to building more diffuse interest in the subject, to developing critical and inter-personal skills. All of this is largely unspoken, although we might come back to it after the fact.

To take one example, I was being told by a colleague at another institution that she had invited in one of her colleagues to take a class, and he had used my parliamentary dynamics game. It’s nominally about coalition-building, but when they finished the discussion was all about sampling and n-sizes, because the class was in research methods.

Much formal education is like this: memetic learning, where your understanding of one thing can be carried across to help understand another thing. It is surely fair to say that universities are aiming to help learners how to learn, at least as much as they are aiming to help learners learn about specific things.

That’s true for all stages of formal education: making people more able to function independently  than they were before. In that sense, university is no different than a school, in objective if not in degree.

But dissemination does strike me as different and might partly explain why academics seem to be uncomfortable with getting out of their formal education spaces. Often, dissemination is just about the nominal objective: how your audience understand a specific thing. Unlike the pitch, you will be judged solely on whether you achieve that objective, because that’s what that particular interaction will be about.

That’s a tough gig, because the scope for saying “well you didn’t learn all you should about what you invited me to talk about, but we did learn about a bunch of other stuff, and we can muse on the barriers to learning too” is small to non-existent. You’re on the radio for three minutes? Then you need to hit the nail on the head first time, on time.

As always, diagnosis is easy, but remedy is harder.

For me, the biggest lesson has been that timeless classic book subtitle “it’s not what you say, it’s what people hear“. Essentially, it’s no good being interesting to yourself, you have to be interesting to your audience; likewise hitting your objectives is no good if you don’t hit your audience’s.

The simplest way to  doing this is to think about all those times someone else is trying to get some point across to you, be that in a conversation, or a meeting, or a media interview, or a training session. You know more than enough to be able to make a critical and informed judgement about whether they are doing a good job or not, and no what they need to do to improve that job. You just need to turn that critical eye on yourself.

And if you can’t, because you’re just great, then consider this your first lesson.

Maybe the other point to take away here is that one of the commonest grievances that colleagues have about non-academics’ view of us is that they think we’re pompous and other-worldly. So go prove them wrong.


  • Yes, I did just make these up, since you ask.