Breaking: There’s a problem with something

Surely redundant when no one ever takes a phone in the toilets anyway, right?

The discussion that prompted my previous piece also gave me opportunity for more reflection on the long journey back home from the conference: another benefit of using surface transport only.

The position that most of us – I think – would take on AI is that it’s here and we have to live with it. It might be causing our colleagues inconveniences or making us change what we do, but the use-case of the technology is so much broader than university assessment (or applications, for that matter) that the thing will keep on rolling forward.

If that’s so for AI, then it’s also so for other technologies. The noughties cry of “don’t use Wikipedia: it’s trash!” is an obvious example. That site has a lot to condemn it, both in breadth and in ever-more instances depth, as its editorial model has proven its value.

Likewise, we all seem to have accepted students with laptops in our classrooms, after all those years of grumbling that they couldn’t be up to any good and weren’t paying attention. Which they might not be, but again, that say more about what’s happening in class than what’s happening on their screen.

But I’d take it one step further.

There are lots of things about the world that aren’t – how to put this? – helpfully aligned with what we want to happen in our classes. Our students are people, and like people everywhere, they have a bunch of other stuff going on.

Moreover, each of them thinks and acts for themselves. Which is great, but also sets up the possibility that the zone of overlap among the class on How We’ll Be gets smaller.

Often, that’s not an issue, because the range of what a student might have to do in class is itself constrained: drawing down and pulling up knowledge and experience with others.

But as we move towards more active environments, the issue becomes more salient, because we are relying more on the students to create for themselves the space for their learning. At that point, there is a need to have a more engaged approach to Everything That’s Not Directly On The Syllabus.

A case in point was the course on negotiation I used to run at my former institution. Classes were all about students practising their negotiation with each other and then debriefing. My role was to facilitate and support.

A frequent theme was that “So-and-so is an arsehole”. Which, often, they were, in that situation. They didn’t play by the rules, or didn’t know how to, and sometimes they just liked to stir. Like I said, students are people.

The import of this theme was typically that I should stop it happening. Which I understand, but which I always pushed back on.

The course was designed to create a relatively safe place to try out negotiating (none of the behaviours displayed would have merited me seeking disciplinary behaviour under our student code, for clarity), so part of that practice was exactly about handling people who aren’t all conveniently on the same page.

You’ve dealt with arseholes and I’ve dealt with arseholes and it’s not fun, but sometimes you don’t get a choice.

For some of my students, this sounded like just throwing my hands up in the air and saying they had to suck up all the bad things in the world. But that was never the intention.

Debriefings were communal and part of that was about trying to get the arseholes to understand why their actions were counterproductive to their objectives (both academic and personal). Often that did result in them trying out different ways of interacting that were less antagonistic.

Just as important was getting everyone else to reflect on how to manage problems like these. Even if you can’t stop some arseholes being arseholes, you can find ways to limit their impact.

I won’t pretend that everyone came out of the class all on top of such things, but it speaks to the wider point already made that as much as we seek to build agency in our students, that agency will eventually find limits. At those points we want our students to have the self-reflection to make sense of that, the adaptability to continue and the resilience to press on.

We might not be able to stop the world being a problem, but we can work to improve our chances of riding those problems out.

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