I had the weirdest dream. I was in Streatham campus, you know the main gate on Prince of Wales Road? There. It was packed with people: I didn’t know them all but somehow I knew they all worked at the university. We were holding banners and talking. The atmosphere was quite jolly. There were dogs and children too. We had soup and cinnamon bagels. There were students writing poetry on the pavement, classicists holding placards with quotes from the Catiline Orations, a band called ‘The Attachment Issues’ singing protest songs. There were professors from Philosophy and Geography knitting a blanket. I’m not sure how, but I found myself embroidering ‘we are the university’ on some bunting.
And then the dream goes from weird to outlandish.
At some point, the Vice-Chancellor showed up but he was a Lego figurine. I talked to him and he actually listened to my concerns. We posed for a photo together and he told me I am an extraordinary academic. No idea what a psychoanalyst would make of this. Then Billy Bragg arrived (!) and we all sang The Internationale – can you imagine Exeter academics singing The Internationale?
Ah, I almost forgot: students were occupying Northcote House in protest, then they came out and we greeted them with party poppers and a booming, sonorous round of applause. Beaming smiles, song, energy, enthusiasm. It was magical!
We marched through town and eventually ended up in the drama studio at the Phoenix Arts Centre where we talked about the university of the future and, wait for it, we discussed electing the Vice-Chancellor (!), boycotting the TEF, and abolishing tuition fees (!!!!).
I mean… I don’t know. It was probably something I ate.
Wait a sec…why do I have a party popper in my coat pocket?
I just finished marking an enormous amount of essays. Some good, some middle-of-the-road. Some were trying too hard to please the marker, and others were not even trying. Some had a true spark of insight. Some were a real pleasure to read. As I was typing my feedback, I remembered of one of Peter Elbow’s footnotes in Writing with Power:
Part of the reason why inexperienced writers benefit so little from the corrections of teachers on their essays is because the teacher is usually trying to correct flaws in an argument, while the student hasn’t yet learned simply to engage in sustained argument by himself on paper. The student experiences the feedback as a double-bind. “You ask me to engage in sustained, abstract, solitary reasoning – something that is difficult for me – and when I do you punish my behaviour” (p. 68).
Elbow does not offer a strategy to avoid the double-bind. Feedback is a delicate matter and deserves to be handled with care. It might even remain in the student’s memory for years. A friend of mine still remembers after 15 years the feedback he got after an assessed performance: “a wee bit wooden”, he was told. The teacher might not even remember the comment, but my friend most certainly does.
Assessment is required, but it can interrupt the pedagogic dialogue. Ultimately, critical thinking is the ability to sustain a conversation with the material, to interrogate it, to ask questions, to find connections. Unfortunately, assessment is so much part of our educational paradigm that a significant number of students when invited to engage critically with something, automatically look for flaws and inconsistencies. The assessment breaks two dialogues: the one between teacher and student and the one between student and material. It freezes the conversation in time and sticks a number on the output.
Teaching and learning are balancing acts. Beyond the marks and the feedback, there are people, there is thought, and there are subjectivities in flux (the learner’s and the teacher’s). I’m not sure if can can dodge the double-bind. At the time of typing up that feedback and sticking that number on the work, I need to squint and see past the anonymous essay, listen to the voice – no matter how faint -, appreciate the tussle with the material, and the labour that went into putting the essay together. Then the dialogue might, just might, not turn into uncomfortable silence.