In a recent issue of Ad Valvas, the Observant equivalent from VU University Amsterdam, there was a piece written by a student, stressing the importance of students getting involved in university governance by taking part in programme committees, faculty councils and university councils. Academic staff need to know what students think, in order to be able to improve the quality of our teaching. Students learn about how the university works, beyond their own individual concerns. Such engagement will help students to gain experience of committee processes and politics that might serve them well in future jobs in all sorts of fields and may help them to develop political careers.
At this abstract level, student engagement can only benefit everyone involved. But the author did not do herself any favours by the example she chose. She began by asking the (student) reader to imagine the situation in which you’ve just finished a particular course – the teacher was good, you learned a lot, you enjoyed the classes. But – horror – you had to read a really thick book and you thought that not all of it was relevant to the course. The author says you have a choice – forget it and move on to the next course, or attempt to right this terrible wrong by complaining to the education programme committee so that future students will not have to suffer the indignity of being expected to read a thick book.
This is the kind of example that brings despair to the hearts of university teachers. For many students (but maybe I’m being too idealistic), going to university is an opportunity (and a privilege) to read all sorts of books, thick and thin. Part of what you need to learn is to be able to judge which bits are relevant for what purposes, and sometimes that can only be assessed after you’ve read the whole thing.
Of course, as teachers we need to check that student workloads and assessment are reasonably balanced, based on the number of credits. But we also want to open students’ minds to the ideas contained in books. And we want students to learn that books and the people who write them might be trying to convey a book-length argument that cannot be easily cut up into little pieces to fit on a PowerPoint.
By all means, fill in course evaluations and get involved in programme committees, but please don’t complain about having to read books. Universities are places where the knowledge conveyed by books should be cherished.
Sally Wyatt, Professor Digital Cultures at Fasos