GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

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Competition and the culture of academe

In Melonie's Posts on 2012/09/27 at 03:02
Melonie Fullick, writing from Hamilton, Ontario in Canada

In my academic research, I look at the governance of universities and implementation of new policies that are described as “neoliberal”. This involves trends such as privatization of funding (including increased tuition), treatment of students as consumers or customers and of education as a “private good”, and the marketization of education. These policy changes are related to forms of communication such as marketing and advertising aimed at parents and students, and the careful cultivation of relationships with funding sources, and to the overall economization of higher education. They are also related to the culture of universities as organizations, and to the education and mentorship of those who will inhabit and create the universities of the future–Ph.D. students and early career researchers.

A market-based logic is being applied and the driver of markets is competition. It’s hard to deny that graduate students who seek the tenure track are competing against each other, and that this has become more the case as Ph.D. enrollments have increased. The availability of permanent academic positions isn’t improving, at least not to the extent that it could accommodate all those who seek one.

A persistent contradiction exists to a greater or lesser degree across fields: from the earliest stages of their careers, academics are assessed as individuals in this increasingly competitive environment, yet they are expected to cultivate collegial relationships with colleagues who will share their discipline in the long term.

The contradiction can lead to extreme behaviours. There are plenty of stories about professors taking credit for students’ work and exploiting their labour, and about the “stealing” of ideas (and indeed, their objectification, engendered by a need for “ownership”); the opportunities afforded to some students that are not “shared” with others, and even explicit sabotage of others’ work. Ph.D. students are applying for the same fellowships and scholarships, the same programs, and later, the same jobs and research grants. They are now competing for faculty time and mentorship as well, and the outcomes of this process inform the stratification of Ph.D. education through the networks of relationships and resource distribution that emerge over time.

This is the contradictory experience that helps shape the end “results” of Ph.D. education.

Future academics are expected to work amicably with colleagues while knowing they’re competing for scarce resources. This shapes not only actions but also self-presentation and psychological state. For example, academe as a culture of expertise retains much of its inherited masculine emphasis on reason and detachment. To reveal vulnerability (of either a professional or personal nature) is not considered appropriate to the traditional academic “ideal”. It shows that non-professional issues can impinge on professional “performance”, which changes the opinions of colleagues, who have massive influence over one’s prospects. This relates to the way that issues like depression and anxiety are so often concealed even to the detriment of students’ health.

In an environment that’s always been “elite”, the cultivation of expertise is part of the performance. The emotional and psychological aspects of learning are tied up with the kinds of fears and insecurities that can hinder learning and development. “Imposter syndrome” and “pluralised ignorance” have long been part of the psychological landscape of graduate education; in a more competitive environment, these issues could increase in significance.

I understand that many academics would argue the “right” sense of professionalism should make these concerns null and void; or that those who’ve felt hurt by competitive dynamics should learn a lesson, bind up their wounds, and move on without rancour. But hyper-competitive behaviour can become destructive and it should not be rewarded in organizational culture. We need to walk a fine line, encouraging a welcoming peer culture while being realistic about what is required for academic “success”, demonstrating feedback that is both critical and productive, providing a professional challenge in a space that supports creativity and rigour. I know there are PhD programs where faculty are mentoring young scholars and encouraging them to develop a healthy sense of professionalism. But that’s something we need to foster, to reward and cultivate explicitly, not something we can assume as a pre-existing condition.


This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Trouble With Transparency

In Melonie's Posts on 2012/07/24 at 00:23

Melonie Fullick, writing from Hamilton, Ontario in Canada

On June 10th, Teresa A. Sullivan stepped down from her position as President of the prestigious University of Virginia citing a “philosophical difference of opinion” between herself and the university’s Board of Visitors (BoV). Since her resination, which was requested by the BoV, members of the U.Va. community have expressed shock and surprise at the apparently sudden decision to “oust” Sullivan, who had only completed two years of her term. The Board, which at first gave no reasons for this extreme move, eventually describing concerns that included the need for the university to adopt more online education and to make program cuts to unprofitable academic areas. Students and faculty have responded with demonstrations and calls for the resignation of the Board’s Rector, Helen Dragas.

What’s happening at U.Va. is hardly an isolated phenomenon, though this example is more public than most. In fact, the focus of my dissertation research is this process of “strategic change” at universities, how it’s imagined and implemented, and how it’s perceived and experienced by organizational participants. The breakdown of the governance process at a university is usually easy enough to spot after the fact, when specific incidents draw attention from outside the organization. But how does a situation devolve to the point where such failures take place?

From this perspective, the conflict at U. Va. is primarily about transparency and agency in organizational change. Transparency in this sense refers to the openness of the governance process: what and how much should the university community (and other “stakeholders”) know about decision-making and how it happens? An open governance process is also tied to issues of accountability. Who will be responsible for implementing “change” in the university, and how will we assess whether objectives and goals have been reached? What happens if other community members aren’t satisfied with the changes made?

Transparency is related directly to inclusivity, the question of who should be involved in making governance decisions in the university. Participation in decision-making is a means of exercising agency, and transparency affects this because when we cannot “see” how the process works, we cannot find ways to participate in it. In the case of Teresa Sullivan, there was no participation or transparency; there was no pretense of inclusion. The university’s BoV made their decision without input from the faculty, and the decision apparently had been brewing for weeks, according to the email trail.

Transparency is also about communication, and this is key to the problem with “trust” that has been raised so much throughout the unfolding of these events. Building trust in leadership, especially in a complex organization like a university, takes time and can be a messy process.

Notably, the “pace of change” in the university as well as Sullivan’s approach to governance have been central concerns raised by the BoV. Sullivan’s “style” has been described, by her, as a preference for “slow and steady”, incremental change involving “measured planning and buy-in from faculty and other constituents”. She has also “criticized the board’s “corporate, top-down leadership” as “not being in the university’s best interests”.

Many university administrations and boards–including the BoV at U.Va.–seem to believe that “hard choices” must also be “quick choices” and the logic they use is one of “responding” to the rapid pace of change outside the organization, and to competition in the larger higher education market. Universities, it’s argued, should be “flexible” and adapt quickly. At a time when change does indeed seem to be happening at a pace too quick for a more thorough response, this logic often prevails. But it’s a logic that must be questioned, not only in the context of the university’s long history but also because the market, and its pressures, should not be the primary determinants of governance practices. It’s no coincidence that part of the U.Va. debate has been about the corporatization of the university’s governance.

U.Va.’s predicament provides a clear example of some core governance issues at the point where the communicative “boundary” between internal issues and external scrutiny has been crossed, where public concern begins to play a strong role. Rector Helen Dragas is incorrect when she writes that “[board members] alone are appointed to make these decisions on behalf of the university, free of influence from outside political, personal or media pressure”. It seems odd to deny that the nationwide outcry, the campus protests involving students and faculty, and the statements of support for Sullivan, have influenced the BoV’s eventualunanimous decision to reinstate her. Indeed, Vice Rector Mark Kington’s resignation, and Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’’s demand that an immediate decision be made about Sullivan, show that power also lies beyond the BoV now that the issue has “gone public”.

Universities have long been esoteric and elitist institutions; they have operated on unique principles–which are not necessarily democratic–and there is an ongoing conflict between meritocratic and hierarchical approaches, and collegial, participatory ones. Their operations have never been exposed to more scrutiny than in current times. Increased transparency is thought to be one answer to the problem of trust, and communication is a way of achieving it. Universities would do well to pay attention to the lessons learned from U.Va., including something Teresa Sullivan already knew–when it comes to governance and change, sometimes you have to waste time to save time.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Love the Teaching, Hate the Grading, and Other Institutional Paradoxes

In Melonie's Posts on 2012/05/26 at 02:31

Melonie Fullick, writing from Hamilton, Ontario in Canada

April is the cruellest month in (Anglo-North American) universities, given that the yearly academic cycle reaches its peak with final exams, which are in turn preceded by the crushing weight of major end-of-term assignments. Some students, worn out by the demands of the season, lapse into a state of caffeine-fuelled zombie-like vacancy. For those of us on the receiving end of their work, there is the prospect of a mountain of marking that forms the final obstacle to a brief breather before the summer term begins.

Based on the feelings expressed regularly by many professors and graduate students, I don’t think grading is something many people see as a form of genuine and enjoyable engagement with students–unless it is a case where the course director has been creative with the assignments and/or most of the students are motivated to work hard.

Instead, professors and teaching assistants tend to experience grading as a chore (or in some cases, an ordeal) that must be completed so that marks can be submitted–a technocratic necessity rather than a pedagogical one.

This makes sense for a few reasons. Grading is not an inherently meaningful activity, but more a function of a massified hierarchised institution. A letter or number grade assigns a relative value to a student’s performance, which is then used as a measure of his/her value within the educational system overall. Outside of this system, assigned marks have little relevance.

As such, in an increasingly competitive environment students may see grades more as tokens of exchange than signifiers of acquired skill or learning. That’s partly because it’s so hard to assess those things and link them to an objective “standard”. Students may (rightly) see grades as flexible, and act on this assumption, possibly encouraged by the consumerist tendency that comes with attaching a price tag to education–conflating payment for access with payment for an outcome.

Another issue is that we’ve institutionalised the way in which grading is un-enjoyable. The process and schedule of the academic year ensures this: grading tends to happen all at the same time, there’s usually quite a lot of it–and because students are fatigued and under pressure, what we see might not be representative of their potential.

In the past I’ve also felt as if I have little influence over the outcomes I see when I’m grading assignments. I remember this was among the first issues that alerted me to “something rotten” in the state of academe, years ago when I started working as an undergraduate teaching assistant. It wasn’t that I didn’t care–I cared a lot; I wanted then, and still want now, to help students to learn and write well and earn the marks they desired. But I didn’t have the time and energy (and skill) to provide the level of help they seemed to require. Later, it was both relieving and distressing to realise I was working with all their past and present educational (and life) experiences, not just my own inadequacies.

Grading is just one of the experiences I’ve had, inside the classroom and out of it, that’s led me to look at the institutional frame in which university teaching takes place. To make the larger connections, why would excellent professors be limping along on contracts without job security? Why did undergraduate TAs make only half as much as the graduate students who did the same work–who, in turn, would later make less as contract workers than on the coveted tenure track? It was clear from early on that teaching in the university could be downloaded with impunity on to those with little or no experience or training (or control), and who were willing to work for lower wages.

Can these problems be addressed in a context where more and more people are being told to get a postsecondary education? Not only do we have more students now, but the students themselves must juggle their involvement with education with other demands on their time and energy. We must also find ways of engaging with, and helping, students from more varied educational backgrounds, without making unreasonable demands on those doing the teaching (and grading). And somehow, as teachers in this system we must become more “efficient” given the perpetual economic tightening in the context of managerialist governance of education.

This is where governance meets (and clashes with) pedagogy in the institutional context of the massified university; it is why the conditions of postsecondary teaching demand attention at the level of the egg timer often used to ration each minute of essay marking. Grading and the feelings and problems associated with it show us only a few of the ways in which the long-term devaluing of teaching in the academic economy is both experienced and perpetuated in our everyday lives.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Living in Liminal Space

In Melonie's Posts on 2012/03/29 at 00:06

Melonie Fullick, writing from Hamilton, Ontario in Canada.

In teaching and in research I’ve been taught to pay close attention to the assumptions I bring to the contexts in which we create and re-create knowledge, and one aspect of my own perspective that I often take for granted is the fact that I’m more often present and comfortable in spaces that lie between one particular “position” and another. The term that comes to mind is liminality, a word associated with limits and “intermediate stages” and deriving from the Latin limen for  “threshold.

The sense of being somehow outside and inside simultaneously has been with me for much of my life. I’m a blend of, and in a zone between, cultures and continents. Born in New Zealand to English parents and having now lived in Canada for over half my life, I’ve often had the sense that no matter where I am, I’m peering in at something (a social world) that isn’t “me” but is something I’ve adopted and adapted to through exposure over time.

The geo-cultural ambivalence extends to language, too, since my accent has morphed into an odd amalgam recognizable as multiple things and no-thing; Kiwis and Brits wonder if I’m from Anglo-America, and Canadians guess at Australia, England and South Africa, or occasionally even Boston or New York (covering almost all bases but the right one!). I still sometimes joke that I did a linguistics degree so I could understand why people perceive my accent the way they do.

I feel like I was born at a liminal historical moment, as well—at the tail end of “Generation X”, which is itself a kind of transitional generation coming as it does after the Baby Boomers and before the (supposedly radically different) “Millennials”. Our group seems sandwiched in between great demographic revolutions, a transition point, when the global economy tipped from post-war Keynesianism into neo-liberalism even as it became more tightly connected by new information technologies.

Aside from time, and physical and cultural space, I’m also living between socioeconomic classes. This is technically acceptable in a culture that encourages (and expects) us to be engaged in the long-term process of “climbing” to a better point in the economic hierarchy. But the actual process of the climb is not seen in its messy detail. For those of us outside the bubble of academic and/or economic privilege, education comes well before economic success, not alongside it; often we’re in the position of having multiple degrees, yet struggling to pay the costs of day-to-day living.

In the academic sphere, I’ve found that my interests lie at the crossroads of a number of different disciplines, including education, sociology, economics, communication studies, linguistics, and political science. I try not to be a dilettante dipping my toes into the various disciplinary deeps to add a splash of this or that to my work, but it’s hard not to create that impression when I haven’t formed the kind of strong connection to one definable area of study above all others that is considered desirable in academe.

Lastly, I know the “space” I take up at the moment is one between the position of an academic and that of student, one that PhD candidates know well, wherein we are expected to assume a high degree of professional autonomy even as we’re still considered incomplete as scholars and “knowledge workers”. As for what follows the PhD, it’s becoming more and more difficult to predict what we’ll “become” —or what will become of us—if and when we embark upon academic careers. More and more of us from all academic backgrounds may be finding ourselves between jobs or professions, trying to make sense of the shifting ground beneath us.

One of the positive effects of this bias of mine is that I’m usually not content to understand something from one angle only. I feel a need to inform myself about the “other side” of every argument. Thus being in “no place” has its strategic advantages, and I find I often act as a connector, a curator, and a translator between and among multiple groups or domains.

For most of the examples I’ve provided, I don’t know if I’ll ever find a “place” for myself that’s already named and recognizable. After all, these locations are in some ways just imagined—they are expectations we hold, but perhaps states that we never really reach—because there’s “no there, there”. All of this is about perpetual learning, and it’s usually when we don’t fit the categories provided to us that their limited nature becomes clear.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed. 

Word Watching

In Melonie's Posts on 2011/11/19 at 08:33

Melonie Fullick, writing from Hamilton, Ontario in Canada.

Often when writing blog posts or papers, I end up dissecting not just a policy or educational issue but also the specific terms in which it is being described and discussed. I start to pick apart the terms and limits of the discussion alongside my engagement with the argument. Far from being a quirky habit, this kind of attention to language is a key element of much of the work I do.

My fascination with language use emerged partly from an early interest in media representations and the ways in which they could obfuscate what seemed like “real life”. Why did the language in the news not “match” the things I had experienced or read about elsewhere? Could language be “hiding” something? If so, what was being hidden and how? I became fascinated with propaganda, mediation, and ideology, my curiosity piqued by the immediate context of the 9/11 attacks and the second Iraq war.

Later after returning to university, I learned about critical theories of communication and linguistics. Linguist Norman Fairclough emphasizes that language use involves conscious as well as unconscious choices, and plays a role in the maintenance of social structures and power relations. Foucaults ideas highlighted the larger formations into which institutional practices and everyday exchanges of words might coalesce over time. Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis focused on technologies of communication and their effects on the nature of what is communicated.

As well as learning the content of the curriculum, I began to understand what was constraining it:  the context of the institution (the university). I became interested in the relationships between pedagogy, communication, and governance, which led to my research focus on language and institutional change. Universities were employing forms of “strategic planning”, borrowing from the realm of management science. These forms tend to assume a need for change not only to the practices of the institution but also to its culture, and I wanted to examine the role of language and discourse in this re-formation.

The study of language raises deeper questions about reality, agency, and knowledge. To me the way language is used is very important, but not in a rigidly determinist way. I don’t believe that words precede thought or determine the limits of thought, or that words can dictate to us what to think. Neither do I agree with the idea that all reality is socially constructed. If any one thing characterizes all language and language use, it is their inherent complexity. This was part of what drew me to study the way language works in social life. Language is reflexive, not merely reflective or constructive; while it re-presents (aspects of) our reality it also has an effect on that reality, given the way we act on our attitudes and beliefs.

When a word is used over and over without a definition being provided, there is an assumption being made. Assumptions are always necessary in language—this is how we can agree on the meanings of words without having to re-define them every time we have a conversation. But consider how many words we use regularly without necessarily having more than a limited, functional grasp of their meanings; words like knowledge, discovery, creativity, innovation. These words are embedded in policy documents as well as in the everyday language of people participating in academic institutions. They’re the same, often nebulous, terms that are used to frame debates on crucial academic issues.

More specific clusters of words can come to be associated in our minds with entire programs of policy: performance, accountability, flexibility. Efficiency, evidence, choice. Each of these terms takes on a function constructed on a scaffold of presupposition; each can be identified as playing a role in a “discourse” (corporate”, managerialneoliberal). Many academics, angry and frustrated with new programs of governance, have an extremely negative reaction when these words are used. This kind of reaction tells us something about the depth of inter-connection between our language, our experiences in the world, and our emotions.

Hence the struggle over language—it can define the evident parameters of a debate, helping to exclude or minimize facts, experiences and viewpoints that don’t fit with a preferred version of events. As Fairclough (1989) reminds us, language use is a choice, whether conscious or unconscious, and abstractions are usually realized in specific material ways. Critical awareness of language means never taking for granted the terms of the discussion, or the ways in which those terms will be translated to help produce –or stymie—versions of change.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.

First Year Focus—Understanding Student Choices & Transitions

In Melonie's Posts on 2011/09/22 at 11:57

Melonie Fullick, writing from Hamilton, Ontario in Canada.

September is upon us and with the beginning of another academic year comes a fresh crop of undergraduate students jostling their way into universities’ hallways and classrooms. As a researcher in postsecondary education who also teaches undergrads, I take a direct interest in the first-year experience. Whenever I have a teaching assignment with first-year students, I try to have a conversation with them about the decision they made to come to university, the factors that influenced their choice, and how their experiences in university compare to those in high school.

I thought of this recently when I had a chance conversation with a young woman working at a second-hand store where I was buying some summer clothes. We started chatting about the job and how she’d come to be living and working in town. I assumed she was a student at the local university, but as it turned out she had quit her BA at the University of Toronto and wasn’t sure if or when she wanted to go back. She spoke about coming from a family of artists, and how in hindsight her degree (in Art History) seemed more like the logical and familiar thing to do rather than an informed choice. I was reminded of my own experience, heading to university at age 17 to study studio art, but subsequently taking a break from higher education for several years.

As we talked, she described how overwhelming the experience of university had been, comparing it to the structured and planned environment of high school where “someone was always there” to tell you what you needed to do next, where to go, and why. Even students’ schedules were essentially planned out for them. University was overwhelming because “you could do anything;” there were so many courses and programs, to choose from, but “you don’t know anything about any of it.” Her impressions spoke to me of a lack of guidance and mentorship at that early and crucial stage.

For this student, high school had provided a structure and a coherence that made it navigable. The university was apparently limitless and chaotic, a freedom that came with an unexpected and intimidating level of responsibility as well. The safety of high school, an illusion of knowledge about knowledge itself, was like a rug pulled from under her feet.

Based on other experiences with young undergraduate students, I think this may be one illusion that (some) primary and secondary schooling perpetuates through its very structure: that knowledge is somehow unified and can be mastered by internalizing and reproducing information from the right categories at the right times, that it can be divided into navigable units and that its relevance will always be evident somehow.

Experience with teaching university students has led me to question the dialogue between secondary and post-secondary, which should involve high school teachers and administrators, students, and professors. There seems to be a continuing deficit on both sides of the educational fence. How many university professors are familiar with the high-school curriculum, and vice-versa?

Universities can do their part, using research to inform well-designed first-year programs. Many examples exist in Canada, such as McMaster University’s Honours Integrated Scienceprogram (iSci). The program is small, enrolling about 30 students in a cohort. They share a “home base” (a study room), as well as a specially-equipped teaching room, both located in the Engineering library. Students have close learning relationships with others in their cohort and with faculty and staff. They also complete an initial standard curriculum designed to provide a common foundation for the rest of the first year.

The downside of many such programs is that they’re still elite, catering to limited cohorts of students who are more likely to arrive well-prepared for university learning. One of the great policy problems for higher education is the extension of successful elements of elite programs to benefit all students in a massified system.

While we may not have the means (yet) to provide these kinds of elite program experiences to larger numbers of students, there are things that teaching assistants and faculty members can do to lessen the disorientation suffered by many undergraduates. We can try to connect course material to work they’re doing in other classes, and help them to identify their academic strengths and weaknesses. Most importantly we can show an interest in what’s going on for them and how they’re experiencing it, since this kind of help and attention can affect their eventual success at university.

This post was also published at Inside Higher Ed.

Communication, not Edutainment

In Uncategorized on 2011/03/06 at 12:48

Guest blogger,  Melonie Fullick, writing from Toronto, Canada

How do we, as tutorial leaders or professors, deal with the revelation that students find classes or entire subject areas “boring?” And to what extent is it our responsibility to get them “interested?” These were questions that came to mind as I read Itir Toksöz’s recent UVenus post about “academic boredom”. While she was discussing the boredom she experiences in conversation with colleagues, my first thought was that boredom is not just (potentially) a problem for and with academics, but also for students.

I see boredom as something other than a mere lack of interest. I think of it as a stand-in for frustration, which can, in turn, stem from a sense of exclusion from the material, from the discussion, from the class, from understanding the point of it all; ultimately an exclusion from the enjoyment of learning. This can happen when the material is too challenging, or when the student doesn’t really want to be in the class for some reason.

Boredom is sometimes about fear, the fear of failing and looking “stupid” in front of the instructor and one’s peers. In other cases it can also be a symptom that someone is far beyond the discussion and in need of a deeper or a more challenging conversation. All these things can be called “boredom” but often they are more like communicative gaps in need of bridging.

In other words, boredom is often a mask for something else. We need to remove this mask, because of the negative effects of boredom on the learning environment and process. It causes people to “tune out” from what’s happening, and in almost every case it creates or is accompanied by resentment for the teacher/professor and/or for the other students. As a psychological problem, this makes boredom one of the greatest puzzles of teaching, and one of those problems that most demands attention.

It’s even more important to uncover the causes of boredom now that many students have access to wireless Internet and to Blackberries and iPhones, in the classroom. Professors and TAs complain that students are less attentive than ever while in class, because of this attachment to their devices—something I’ve encountered first-hand with my current tutorial group.

I think the attachment to gadgetry comes not from the technology itself, but from the students. In my blog I’ve written about the issue with students using technology to “tune out” during lectures, and they do it in tutorial as well; they’re “present, yet absent”. To understand this behaviour we need to keep in mind that the lure of the online (social) world is reasonable from the students’ perspective. Popular media and established social networks are accessible and entertaining, and provide positive feedback as well as a sense of comfortable familiarity. Learning is hard work, and the academic world is often alienating, difficult, and demanding. It’s all-too-easy to crumple under the feeling of failure or exclusion. Facebook is welcoming and easy to use, while critical theory is not.

The other side of this equation is that in the process of negotiating and overcoming “boredom” there’s a certain point at which I can meet students halfway, as it were—but I can’t go beyond that point. Like everything else in teaching and learning, boredom is a two-way street, and the instructor is the one who needs to maintain the boundary of responsibility. I’m not there merely to provide an appealing performance, which leads to superficial “engagement.” I’m not “edutainment”.

However, I think it’s part of my job when teaching to “open a door” to a topic or theory or set of ideas. I can’t make you walk through that door (horse to water, etc.) but I can surely do my best to make sure you have the right address and a key that fits the lock. And that means using different strategies if the ones I choose don’t seem to be working.

Holding this view about boredom certainly doesn’t mean I’ve solved the problems with student attention in class; I’m reminded of that frequently. It just means I have an approach to dealing with the problem that treats their boredom as something for which there’s mutual responsibility. In an ideal learning environment there must also be mutual respect—but unfortunately mutual “boredom” is easier and often wins the day. My hope is to help cultivate the former by finding ways of unraveling the latter.

Toronto, Ontario in Canada.

Melonie Fullick is currently a Ph.D student working on research in post-secondary education, policy and governance. She previously earned a BA in Communication Studies (2006) and an MA in Linguistics (2007). She can be found in virtual space on Twitter [@qui_oui] and in the blogosphere [ and

Places of Learning

In Uncategorized on 2010/10/06 at 17:09

Guest blogger, Melonie Fullick, writing from Toronto, Ontario in Canada

I’ve always felt that the physical environment of educational institutions — their colours, their spaces, their architecture — is one of the least-considered elements in the constellation of educational “success factors,” though possibly the most pervasive one.

Take, for example, the graduate program in which I’m currently completing my PhD. Just before I began my degree, the Faculty of Education—in which my program is housed—was moved from a concrete tower in the centre of campus to a newly-renovated college building. This seemed like a fine plan; however, it wasn’t long after joining the program that I realized the re-design had been a failure. While the Pre-Service Department was housed on the airy, welcoming ground floor, the graduate students’ space, consisting primarily of a computer lab, was relegated to the basement. This separated the grad students from the Graduate Program office and faculty—who were now sequestered on the second floor.

You might be wondering: other than the inconvenience of stair-climbing, what’s wrong with this arrangement? Everyone is housed in the same building, at least, and it looks clean and efficient thanks to the renovation job.

The first problem is that while grad students can probably work in almost any room with a computer, housing them in the basement—which is referred to as “The Dungeon” by some program members—is a poor choice because they will spend more time in this room than most other students will spend on the ground floor. Providing a pleasant working environment means more people will use the lab facilities, and it gives grad students an additional reason to come to the department from off-campus. At a large and isolated commuter campus like ours, this is important, because it helps to create a communal environment and to foster the social and peer support that is so vital to graduate student success.

The second problem relates to the same issue: physically separating faculty members from graduate students makes it more difficult for students to have informal, serendipitous and social contact with professors. So assigning graduate student space to the basement, in a room which is well-equipped but sterile and detached, means adding distance to the existing (non-physical) chasm that often separates students from faculty. Not that the faculty space is well-designed either—it’s standard academic architecture, a loop of corridor lined on each side with offices, following the shape of the building. Most of the office doors are closed.

Part of keeping students in a program, keeping them “engaged” with classes and faculty and other students, involves creating a space where they can feel welcome and included. I feel strongly that educational architecture—the “place” of education—contributes to the kind of educational experience we have, from grade school all the way to the doctoral degree. Institutional architecture sends a message, and affects messages sent; it expresses an idea about the function of the environment it helps create. In the documentary How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand suggests that while buildings may indeed “learn,” people also learn from buildings; our practices and habits, even our feelings, are shaped by our environments—and thus so is the work we do within them.

Amid the current cuts and crises in higher education, it may sound trite to offer this kind of critique. But with graduate school attrition generally hovering around 50%, universities should be taking more seriously the research about what helps students adapt to university life and to academic culture. The effects of physical space are very real. I think it’s no coincidence that in our program, students often find it difficult to “meet” a supervisor. After all, there are few real in-person opportunities to do so, outside of planned events and the classroom—relatively formal occasions.

While we can’t necessarily change the buildings we’re in, we can be sensitive to their use, to our adaptation to the context provided. And we can ask ourselves questions. What would the building look like if we began by asking how people learn? How do people meet each other and form learning relationships? If you could design your own workspace, your own learning space, what would it look like and why? This need not involve a major reconstruction project. If the university had taken these things into account before renovating our program space, the same amount could have been spent and things might have looked, and felt, very different.

Melonie Fullick is currently a Ph.D student working on research in post-secondary education, policy and governance. She previously earned a BA in Communication Studies (2006) and an MA in Linguistics (2007). She can be found in virtual space on Twitter [@qui_oui] and in the blogosphere [ and

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.