“It’s Your Job To Tell Me What To Read”

I’m of a generation whose father would never tell them how to spell a word but directed them to a dictionary. I am also of a generation that grew up watching war films on a Sunday afternoon – which took me to Colditz a few years ago. There I stood dumbfounded by the ingenuity of men (because they were all men) who could make maps by using jelly, who could make a functioning sewing machine from scraps of wood they picked up, who could build an aeroplane, for heaven’s sake, from whatever came to hand.

So what does someone like me think when faced by a student who tells them that it is their job to tell them what to read? I’m told I have a face that says it all and judging by the student’s reaction to my look, it did precisely that on that particular day. That was a few years ago but the issue underlying that assertion is even more serious in an environment where students are increasingly referred to as “customers”. But surely our role in higher education still is to equip our students to function independently at university and beyond?

Increasingly, this will be about courage. Because we are in the midst of change. And what we know about periods of transition is that much can be lost that would be better retained, that the easier routes look more tempting, that dealing with the short-term challenges is more pressing than thinking about the long-term consequences. We know that students (and their parents) will become more demanding. We know that universities are under the pressure of league tables where student satisfaction, number of good degrees awarded, number of 1sts etc become more and more important – and it doesn’t take a prophet to see what the consequences of such pressures might be. So now we must, absolutely must, be sure that our aims, desired outcomes and methods line up and that they are properly articulated.

My aim is to create independent learners and to avoid all avenues that lead to dependence. The outcome, I hope, will be free-thinking, critical graduates who recognise that everything is subjective and therefore questionable; people who are prepared to challenge but able to be constructive. My methods? Well, these may be unpopular, but they will be about students doing the work, not me; they will be about students learning how to ask questions and how to seek answers. My methods will not include me acting as a transmission belt for knowledge. They will not see me telling students what to read and what to think.

I am not unaware of the major problem (I can hear the groans issuing from my students now), that I have only so much agency in the face of structures that often lead us into the realm of dependence. But this is a piece about agency. Structures will have to be for another day.