Tuesday night is Philosophy night

BA degree certificate

Last Tuesday, AF35 was home to West Yorkshire’s branch of the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain (PESGB). I hadn’t had much reason to be on campus this week and despite the bitter wind and rain, was excited to hear a paper given by my supervisor. Unfortunately, most of the confirmed attendees had sent their apologies leaving Amanda with only three participants. Myself, Mary, a retired lecturer in Education studies, and Imran, a post grad MA writing up his dissertation. If Amanda was disappointed she hid it well and after urging us to help ourselves to the M&S luxury chocolate biscuits, proceeded to read excerpts from her paper on the dominance of measuring student satisfaction in Higher Education.

Despite only numbering three, we manage to keep talking for over the scheduled period, well the group did include me after all. We ponder the positioning of student as customer and the absurdity of trying to measure student satisfaction with their education by asking about the mini bus service or IT facilities. Inspired by Amanda’s choice of using the differing teaching figures in The History Boys, we think about the duality of purpose in ensuring students meet routine expectations for standards whilst still being inspired in their learning. We also think about the subtle process of the university tutorial, about both students and tutors settling for answers found in the marking criteria and for a guilty satisfaction in knowing how much is needed to be done and no further.

It comes down to, as it always does, the question of what is education for? I hated the supervision process during my first year at York, I felt inadequate, empty of inspiration and always a little bit broken. I slowly learned the basics of writing and researching, although it was empty of any joy. If you had asked me what education was for at this point, I would have replied that it wasn’t for me. And despite engaging with a few modules, always taught by passionate, eccentric visiting lecturers, I declined any suggestion of pursuing an MA in medieval studies escaping into the world of restaurants and bars, of exhausting ten hour service shifts and the ability to mix killer mojitos. This was my real education I told myself but it wasn’t long before I was drawn back to university to apply for and achieve a PGCE. I told anyone who would care to listen that this was about money, you couldn’t make a decent living on a catering wage but really, try telling that to all the line chefs who spend their lives achieving enormous satisfaction from creating a demi-glace from roasted beef bones or perfectly chiffonading their parsley. I was highly dissatisfied with the way higher education had ‘treated me’ so far and I was going back for more.

Amanda’s etymological distinctions between ‘conversation’ [ to turn with] and ‘discussion’ [to break apart,] as the basis for tutorial dialogue, helped me to understand how my university experiences could be defined. A ‘conversation’ is said to be a settling, restrictive experience; a student might ask what she needs to do to achieve a grade wherein the tutor will respond by giving her the information according to the grading criteria. This is dialogue disguised as monologue, where two voices exist side by side yet never truly engaging with the substance of the Other’s intention. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this approach, it exists to provide just the sort of security a nervous student needs. However, if we ask whether the purpose of education is to provide safety in thinking we can be justified for raising an eyebrow.

In Amanda’s ‘discussion’ for instance, educational talk isn’t limited to grading criteria. Discussion is an  unsettling process, it disrupts the confines of singular intention – what do I need to do to achieve a good grade – and require that the student speaks in dialogue with their tutor. These educative conversational experiences are richer, more fully dimensional and more ontologically aware then their conversational counterpart. It is in the nature of the I-thou aspect of Martin Buber’s theory of relationships with the Other, that does not objectify but acknowledges a living spiritual relationship that discussion is rooted in. It is Amanda’s assertion that we measure real, genuine satisfaction through the number of these types of educative relationships, not through ratings given to accountability and service level agreements. But if we are to be unsettled then does that mean we must always be in unhappy struggle?

On reflection, although I became a researcher during my first year at York, I have to say that those moments of genuine enjoyment during my undergraduate programme came when I was able to take part in heartfelt discussion. In becoming unsettled time and time again, I lost my old fearful self and was remade, as a medieval spiritualist researcher, as a post-colonial writer, as a Romanticist, each identity slipping over me as comfortably as much loved dress. That personal I-thou as opposed to I-it relationship, missing from my earlier tutors, made all the difference. Unfortunately those experiences were too few and far between but were those I immediately recognised later in my education and relished as giving me an intensely satisfactory, unsatisfaction.

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