About hoods and unorthodox teaching approaches

2013-02-17 14.30.02

No, you have not started seeing things; it is me – Dr. Maria Nedeva, Manchester and Lund Universities academic – wearing a hoodie with the hood up. And no, we have not moved to the estates, I am not getting ready for participant observation (who would believe a fifty year old, white, middle class woman in a hoodie anyway) and I am most certainly not getting ready to join the church. Having started in a good academic style by telling what this is not about, let me now tell you what it is.

After six years in university management (building successful Doctoral schools and being the Associate Dean for post-graduate research of a very large faculty), a year of rapping up and research, and a year of sabbatical I am finally teaching a full load. This means that I teach a philosophy of science course to PhD researchers, a course on innovation and creativity to undergraduates and a methodology course to Masters students. This story is about the last course and the one where we, academics, are most exposed at present; but I am digressing a bit.

My colleague Kate Barker and I have been taking turns teaching methods and methodology to Masters (and PhD) students for almost couple of decades now. We have almost perfected the art of bouncing the course from one to the other with minimal disruption and optimal efficiency. Or this is what I thought! My optimism, having nothing to do with content and all to do with disruption and efficiency, didn’t take into account administration where things can go really wrong if routines are broken an tasks deviate from the ‘ordinary’ even by the smallest degree.

So when this year it was my turn to teach methodology to Masters students and I had to move the course from Mondays to Fridays (I am not bragging about being busy, I know this is making me look bad; but there are still many conflicting demands on academics’ time and we do self-exploit) the system broke down. While, blissfully unaware, I was delivering my last lecture in Lund, my students – equally unaware – were expecting me to be in a lecture theatre in Manchester. Getting more and more annoyed – after all, they are the customer and they have been messed about again!

To cut a long story short, four days later, (very) early in the morning I had to stand in front of about sixty really cross Masters students and deliver the first lecture of the Methods and Methodology course. This is not a mean feat even when facing a crowd that still trusts you; but…

So, when my eyes moved around the lecture theatre and I spotted a guy wearing a hoodie with his hood up, I wasn’t really surprised: after all people have to make their feeling known somehow. If I were in a lecture with my hood up what I’ll be saying will consist of good, punchy Anglo-Saxon words, none of them longer than four letters and these are better not repeated on this blog. What I’ll be feeling and conveying will be disrespect!

If I told you that I just got on with it and mumbled my lecture you are not going to believe me. Instead, I looked the student squarely in the eye and said:

“Would you mind taking your hood off, please.”

“Is this a requirement of the course? ”Cause if it isn’t, I am not doing it!” – defiance in his voice.

“No it isn’t a requirement of the course; it is a much more basic requirement of proper behaviour.”

Nothing happened; the hood stayed up!

I did a decent job of the lecture; I suppose, being so tired and vexed made me forget that I have to be good and I just was. Usually, my lectures rate high for entertainment value – deep down, I am just a frustrated actress and a stand up comedienne.

I could have left it at that and just gone on with my life. But I kept thinking about it and about what this young people learned from it. Here is what I came up with:

  • They learned that they are the customer;
  • The customer can misbehave because he/she has the power in the relationship;
  • Lecturers can’t do much; they can ‘suck it up’ and carry on;
  • Lecturers don’t care.

Next thing I knew is that I was thinking: ‘This is wrong! I have a room full of young, bright people full of promise – and paying a rather large fee – who will be left with the deception regarding their status, their rights and obligations and my place in all that. In other words, they will be left confused about why they are paying their student fee (apart from education being a privilege in the UK, this is).’

I decided that for the next lecture I’ll wear a hoodie and will teach with my hood on; not in revenge but as a fairly unorthodox pedagogical method – remind them about the categorical imperative of Kant and the Golden Rule of the Bible.

I needed a hoodie; for this one I decided that I may as well buy myself a Manchester University one. After all, I have a number of Georgia Tech tops (don’t ask) and wear them often when travelling – and Georgia Tech is not paying my salary but Manchester University still is. On my way to the shop, I stopped at the undergraduate office; when they heard about my plan the administrators were so excited to hear how it went that I got a free hoodie (this is what I am wearing on the picture, thank you Linda).

So, for my last lecture I appeared in my brand new, warm and cuddly hoodie. Looked around and…the student was wearing a nice top, looking straight at me and ready for whatever I threw his way; in a way of knowledge and skills this is :). So I just smiled and:

1)      Told the class that their belief that they are paying such large fees so that we make them entrepreneurs is misguided. They are paying this fee because we open gates (help them see opportunities) where they only saw walls. Part of this is that we are here to broaden their thinking and expand their minds. You think this sounded slushy? Well, maybe but it gave me an outlet into Kant.

2)      Told them that being successful and being an entrepreneur is a personal choice, a bit like being moral: I can teach them ethics but I can’t give them morality.

3)      Than explained that wearing hoodies is not my usual style; but that I was going to lecture with the hood on if their colleague was wearing his. They laughed and their trust in me increased. As to the ‘Hoodie Student’ we agreed that for next lecture we’ll both wear our hoodies – and have research methodology ‘hip-hop’ style.

All is well when it ends well! But this makes me think about:

  • How by casting our students as ‘the customer’ we are in effect short-changing them; and
  • How easy it is for academic colleagues just to ‘give up’. How easy it is to forget that teaching is not ‘just a job’ but it is a calling and our highest duty.

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