In this post, Dr Sarah Ivory from the Business School makes the case to potential students and their supporters that a university education is more than simply the accumulation of discipline-specific knowledge. Instead, an on-campus education facilitates thinking, intellectual, social and personal transitions, which will be the foundations on which a student’s future studies and adult life are built. These transitions happen thanks to the discussions, debates, relationships and connections which are forged within the university environment, not simply the accrual of facts and figures.
Sarah is a Lecturer in Climate Change and Business Strategy at the University of Edinburgh Business School (UEBS), a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (FHEA), and a Chartered Management and Business Educator (CMBE). She is also the Director of the Centre for Business, Climate Change, and Sustainability at the University of Edinburgh Business School.
Her book, Becoming a Critical Thinker: for your university studies and beyond with Oxford University Press will be released in January 2021. It draws on over a decade of teaching in a UK university context, and most recently her experience designing and delivering an award winning first year undergraduate course which explicitly incorporates and teaches elements of critical thinking.
The point of an on-campus education
Dr Sarah Birrell Ivory
The current Covid-19 situation creates dramatic uncertainty for many university students. However, recently I have heard incoming undergraduate students – and their parents – saying:
“if the lectures are online, what’s the point of being on campus?”
When I hear this, it is like a knife in my heart. It uncovers a deep-seated but seriously flawed view on the role of university in a students’ life: that university is a knowledge-accumulation factory:
Learn this now, repeat it then, HOORAY you graduate.
As the first lecturer that our students see when they join us, I spend the majority of first semester debunking this myth. Sure, I could just tell students that it is a myth. But the only way to really demonstrate this is by engaging – intellectually – with my students throughout that whole semester, so they come to this realisation themselves. When I see that moment of realisation in my students’ eyes and attitude, it takes my breath away. You can read about my student Jack’s moment of realisation in his blog here.
I still believe that being on campus is the best way to achieve this. But our current global crisis means that many students may not be on campus, and anyway our campuses will be carefully managed to adhere to social distancing. This is why I (and many others) am spending summer developing materials and designing real-time online interactions, to create the effect I currently achieve in the lecture hall and tutorial room. I will spend the semester building communities of online and on campus students (together, not separately) to achieve this.
But what is the role of university if not knowledge-accumulation? What is it that my students come to understand in the 12 weeks they spend with me at this turning point moment of their education?
While, the first semester of undergraduate studies undoubtedly teaches you knowledge, it offers you a more important thinking, intellectual, social, and personal transition. These transitions – all important – form the foundation not only of your three or four further years of university studies, but of your subsequent graduate, professional, and adult life.
And here is the key point: these transitions rely on much more than what is taught to you for a few hours a week in a lecture hall or tutorial room.
While these transitions are likely to interact, I present them here separately to demonstrate why they are so important, and where they happen.
A thinking transition:
Eva Brann, a long-standing academic at the liberal arts St John’s College in Maryland, describes her undergraduates first year in this way (you can read her full thoughts here):
“the difference between September and May is huge. For those who have read their readings, attended regularly, spoken in seminar … the difference in articulateness is tremendous. [There’s a] difference in thoughtfulness, or even in knowing that you’re supposed to think about things in a certain way and not just say the words…”.
If university is only about knowledge accumulation it is a very expensive option compared to simply buying textbooks or watching acclaimed documentaries. University is not about what you ‘know’ it is what you can do with what you know. That is, it is ‘how you think’ and your ability to ‘be thoughtful’. University is not ‘learn and repeat’ but ‘learn, think, debate, discuss, use thinking to inform complex problem solving, decision making, and logical argument construction, and so on’.
Much of this ‘thinking’ transition happens in small group teaching and interactions (or, for those courses where this is relevant, in labs) in which students ‘discover’ ideas, theories, fundamental truths and properties for themselves, instead of being ‘told’ them in a lecture. However they also happen in study groups, friend groups, and in other less formal contexts. Many if not all of these, Covid and social distancing-willing, will still be able to occur on campus.
An intellectual transition:
An intellectual transition goes beyond the thinking transition referred to above which, at its simplest, comprises how to think. But an intellectual transition is a more deep-seated desire to engage with great thinkers, deep thinkers, different thinkers, different ways of thinking, and different ways of thinking about thinking. Intellectual thinking is characterised by enormous curiosity about the world and how it works; by a desire to know, analyse, understand, and appreciate other world views or perspectives with an open mind; and by an appreciation that this isn’t a course you take or an exam that you pass, but is a transition to seeing the world in a different way. Even more than this, an intellectual transition is a desire and ability to become an independent thinker, who can critique ones’ self, without the input or guidance of others. US academic and historian Professor Ibram Kendi explains this better than I can in his address to graduating doctoral students at the University of Florida in 2017 (you can listen to his full speech here) when he says:
“When I say intellectual, I’m not referring to someone who knows a wealth of information. I do not measure a person’s intellect based on how much a person knows … I define an intellectual as someone with a tremendous desire to know. Intellectuals have a tremendous capacity to change their minds on matters, to self-reflect, to self-critique”
A social transition:
Often, you will know very few (if any) students at university or on your degree. Socially, university is a time for new beginnings. It provides you with opportunity to determine the identity that best suits who you are, not the one that formed during your years at a secondary school. It also provides the opportunity to experiment with and change that identity over time as you try to determine this difficult path to adulthood. It provides the opportunity to meet and mix with new people: of different races, religions, backgrounds, genders, approaches to gender and so on. You get to build a new friend group – or groups – not based around a geographical anomaly of your secondary school location, but based on … whatever you choose to base that on. Those with similar (or different!) interests or passions, study patterns, or aims and aspirations. Perhaps those who are facing similar struggles to you now, or similar struggles to you in the past. Unfortunately, none of these bonds will form in a significant lifelong way over a computer screen. Meeting in person, or in small groups of people, is what forms such ties. And so by a social transition, I don’t mean mass parties or large social nights out, for which my students tell me the novelty wears off after a few weeks anyway. I mean the challenge of finding and forming new friendships and friendship groups based on closer and deeper relationships. It is these bonds you will turn to during good times and especially difficult times, which you will face at university and throughout your life. Indeed, it’s my view that the current situation will make these bonds – and the challenges faced together – even stronger.
A personal transition:
Finally, but possibly most importantly, is the personal transition which undergraduate education represents. From a life determined by and controlled by others (parents and teachers) to a life almost entirely within your own hands. For those who move away from their home, this will include budgeting, possibly cooking, definitely laundry, and definitely time management. Even for those who remain living at home, you are in control of how much you are at home or elsewhere to socialise, study, work, and play. This pathway to independence almost always has bumps on it: mistakes made, choices regretted and dinners burned. But pathway does not come through a computer screen while sitting in your childhood bedroom all day.
Let me be clear: I have no idea if you will be able to come to be on campus for the start of your university education. You may not be able or willing to travel. A second peak may lead us back into lockdown. You may be shielding a loved one, or being shielded yourself. The issue of affordability is likely to impact more students than ever as the economy is hit, your parents’ income is affected, or your own part-time work prospects are diminished.
Some or all of these factors may affect whether you are able to be on campus as semester starts, and that in itself is one of the difficult side effects of this global crisis. I don’t know about how these things will impact you personally.
But one thing I do know about is the university learning and teaching environment. In particular, I know about the first year of undergraduate study, and the complex transitions students undergo during an undergraduate degree: a thinking, intellectual, social and personal transition. I know that university academics and professional services staff are working incredibly hard on helping with any aspects of this transition that can happen in an online or socially distant world. But I also know that physically being on campus – albeit at the appropriate distance from those around you – will enable you to develop the discussions, debates, personal relationships, intellectual connections, and life experiences that contribute to these transitions. There may be many things that prevent your ability to be on campus come September, and for those who this affects we are working on many innovative ways to address this. But the idea that everything you get from undergraduate education comes through a few hours of lectures a week delivered through a computer screen should not be one of them.
Brann, E. (2019). Tutor Eva Brann (H89) on the Enduring Power of St. John’s College, January 21st, Available at: https://www.sjc.edu/news/tutor-eva-brann-h89-enduring-power-st-johns-college
Kendi, I. (2017). Commencement Speech, University of Florida, August 22nd Available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bTIho5SFDu8
Image credit: University of Edinburgh Communications and Marketing (remixed by Rosalyn Claase)