Against Students

A heartfelt thanks goes out to John Benwell for his stellar effort in keeping the Teaching TomTom beating since 2011. We wish him all the best in retirement, and know he will be watching and waiting for regular Thursday afternoon posts as usual from now on.

We’re just back from holidays down here in Melbourne, so while we gradually get back into the swing of things, why not get our brains firing and response rates ticking with a thumping guest post by Sara Ahmed, Professor in Race and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths University of London.

Against Students was originally posted to the Feministkilljoys blog, copied here with permission from the author.

Against Students

Obstruction to elevators

Paris VIII / Saint-Denis University (students strike) by Jean-no on Wikimedia Commons.

I want to begin by explaining the title of this post. What do I mean by “against students”? By using this expression I am trying to describe a series of speech acts, which consistently position students, or at least specific kinds of students, as a threat to education, to free speech, to civilisation: we might even say, to life itself.  In speaking against students, these speech acts also speak for more or less explicitly articulated sets of values: freedom, reason, education, democracy. These values are identified as requiring the reproduction of norms of conduct that students are themselves failing to reproduce.  Even if that failure is explained as a result of ideological shifts that students are not held responsible for – whether it be neoliberalism, managerialism or a new sexual puritanism – it is in the bodies of students that the failure is located. Students are not transmitting the right message or are evidence that we have failed to transmit the right message. Students have become an error message, a beep, beep, that is announcing the failure of a whole system.

In describing the problem of how students have become the problem, I will be analysing some recent writings that seem to be concerned with distinct issues even if they all address the demise of higher education and involve a kind of nostalgia for something that has been, or is being, lost. I have made the decision to quote from these texts without citing the authors by name: I wish to treat each text as an instance in a wider intertextual web and thus to depersonalise the material. Some of these texts do cite each other. And they all by evoking the figure of the problem student (who travels through this terrain with an accumulating pace and velocity) participate in the making of a shared world.

By “problem student” I am in fact referring to a number of related figures: the consuming student, the censoring student, the over-sensitive student and the complaining student. By considering how these figures are related we can explore connections that are being made through them: connections between, for example, neoliberalism in higher education, a concern with safe spaces, and the struggle against sexual harassment. These connections are being made without being explicitly articulated.  We need to make these connections explicit in order to challenge them. This is what “against students” is really about.

One of my concerns in Willful Subjects (2014) was with the politics of dismissal: I was interested in how various points of view can be dismissed by being swept away or swept up by the charge of willfulness. So: what protestors are protesting about can be ignored when protestors are assumed to be suffering from too much will; they are assumed to be opposing something because they are being oppositional. The figures of the consuming student; censoring student, over-sensitive student and complaining student are also doing something; they are up to something. These figures circulate in order to sweep something up.  Different student protests can be dismissed as products of weaknesses of moral character (generated by a thing called “student culture” or “campus politics”) and as the cause of a more general demise of values and standards.

Let’s begin with critiques of neoliberalism and higher education. These are critiques I would share: I too would be critical of how universities are managed as businesses; I too would be critical of the transformation of education into a commodity; of how students are treated as consumers. I too am aware of the burdens of bureaucracy and how we can end up pushing paper around just to leave a trail.

I want to think about here is how critiques of neoliberalism can also involve a vigorous sweeping: whatever is placed near the object of critique becomes the object of critique. For example, my empirical research into the new equality regime taught me how equality can be dismissed as a symptom of neo-liberalism, as “just another” mechanism for ensuring academic compliance (see Ahmed 2012).  Theresa May justified a withdrawal from some of the stated commitments in the Equality Act (2010) by arguing the law “would have been just another bureaucratic box to be ticked. It would have meant more time filling in forms and less time focusing on policies that will make a real difference to people’s life chances.” Practitioners talked of how academics would use similar arguments: that these forms and procedures are just another “box to be ticked,” in order to dismiss the more general relevance of equality to their work (“a real difference”). They can then enact non-compliance with equality as a form of resistance to bureaucracy. Equality becomes something imposed by management, as what would, if taken seriously, constrain life and labour. Whilst we might want to critique how equality is bureaucratised, we need to challenge how that very critique can be used to dismiss equality.

We sense the vigour of the sweep.

How convenient.

Let’s look at a specific instance. In a recent article, one professor laments the demise of the university. He conjures an ideal image of academic life: and not necessarily one that is a past although it lingers or seems that way. He evokes Oxbridge: a time and a place where professors and dons are the ones who get to decide what they are doing and how they spend or allocate their time and resources. He writes: “It is the dons who decide how to invest the college’s money, what flowers to plant in their gardens, whose portraits to hang in the senior common room, and how best to explain to their students why they spend more on the wine cellar than on the college library. All important decisions are made by the fellows of the college in full session, and everything from financial and academic affairs to routine administration is conducted by elected committees of academics responsible to the body of fellows as a whole.”[1]

It is interesting that the specific decisions referred to are how to justify the amount of wine being consumed (not whether the wine being consumed can be justified), gardens being planted, and portraits being hung, rather than the content of courses being taught. This ideal world of “don democracy” is then contrasted to the bureaucracy of corporate academia:  “Instead of government by academics there is rule by hierarchy, a good deal of Byzantine bureaucracy, junior professors who are little but dogsbodies and vice chancellors who behave as though they are running General Motors.” One has to comment here on the problematic assumption that “don democracy” or the elite system of Oxbridge is not itself “rule by hierarchy.”

The critique progresses: “In any case, the vast increase in bureaucracy in British higher education, occasioned by the flourishing of a managerial ideology and the relentless demands of the state assessment exercise, means that academics have had little enough time to prepare their teaching even if it seemed worth doing, which for the past several years it has not.” Academics no longer have the time the old dons had. We might want to point out that the time evoked as having been lost is a time that most academics would not have had; that there was always an economy of time (some academics might have hadmore time because others had less time). In this bleak world: “All professors are transformed into managers, so students are converted into consumers.” Here the students arrive as those who are converted into consumers, having previously come up as those to whom the dons had to explain why they spent more money on wine than books.

The following sentence brings up our first figure, the consuming student, as a problem: “One result of this hot pursuit of the student purse is the growth of courses tailored to whatever is currently in fashion among 20-year-olds. In my own discipline of English, that means vampires rather than Victorians, sexuality rather than Shelley, fanzines rather than Foucault, the contemporary world rather than the medieval one. It is thus that deep-seated political and economic forces come to shape syllabuses. Any English department that focused its energies on Anglo-Saxon literature or the 18th century would be cutting its own throat.” Even if the “hot pursuit” of the “student purse” is behind the demise of a discipline, it is the students who want the wrong things who determine what is being and not taught, who have caused the loss of the right things (vampires, sexuality, fanzines; the contemporary world rather than Victorians, Shelley, Foucault, the medieval world). Indeed, the repeated use of “rather than” implies that bad objects put in place because of what is “in fashion” with “2o year olds” have toppled the good objects put in place by old dons or departments. And it is implied that not following “whatever students want” would amount to the death of a discipline (“cutting its own throat”).

What a sweep!

Even my own relatively limited knowledge of what is taught in departments of English Literature would lead me to question much in this narrative. But what interests me here is: how so much is brought up so quickly in order to be dismissed so quickly as a product of neoliberalism, of the transformation of universities into markets.

Note the placement of the word “sexuality” in this list. We can guess what this word is doing on the wrong side of the “rather than” (even though Foucault, a historian of sexuality, is on the right side[2]). The emergence of sexuality (and its studies) can be treated as a product of the marketization of higher education. In other words sexuality becomes yet another bad object brought about because of what students want.

We need to challenge this assumption that some subjects only come into existence because universities are “in hot pursuit” of the “student purse.” We know the strong critiques of curriculum  made by those working within departments that led to the diversification of the curriculum. We know of the work of “chipping away” at the walls that are sometimes called canons. We know of the long histories of feminist and queer activisms that led to sexuality as well as gender being taken up as legitimate subjects within the academy.

If we don’t know, we should know.

These histories of labour and activism are “swept away” by the assumption that such subjects only come into existence because of the “student purse.” It is this activism that enabled a challenge to some of the decisions made by departments as well as dons about what is of value; decisions that solidify as canons. These decisions are often protected by assumptions of universality, which is a way of making a decision “indefensible” (the usual sense of indefensible is unjustifiable – I want to make this mean “that which does not need justifying”). The various subjects made possible through the labour of political critique and activism are dismissed in the flourish of a “rather than,” as simple expressions of the wanton nature of the market (that monstrous body).

The figure of the consuming subject, who wants the wrong things, a student who is found wanting, is hard at work. She is how: an idea of universal knowledge or universal culture can be so thinly disguised as a critique of neoliberalism and managerialism. She is how: an academic world can be idealised in being mourned as a lost object; a world where dons get to decide things; a world imagined as democracy, as untroubled by the whims and wishes of generations to come.[3]

We have an understanding of how: when students are being critical of what we are doing, when they contest what is being taught, they can be treated and dismissed as acting like consumers. In other words it is when students are not satisfied that they are understood as treating our delivery as a product. Critique as such can be “swept away” by the charge of consumerism. Students become the problem when what they want is not in accordance with what academics want or what academics want them to want: students become willful when what they will is not what academics will or not what academics will them to will.  What seems to be in place here is what Paulo Freire (1970) called the “bank model” of education in which teachers deposit knowledge into the bodies of students like money into a machine. Rather ironically, students are more likely to be judged as acting like consumers when they refuse to be banks.

Luckily I would say: don’t bank on it.

The figure of the consuming student has something to say to other figures such as the censoring student. I now want to return to an earlier post “You are Oppressing Us.” I referred to one letter that mobilised the figure of the censoring student (this letter has since been supplemented by yet more letters – one of which even equates alleged “no platforming” in the UK with various acts of extremism around the world). This letter speaks of how some have been stopped from speaking on campuses because they articulate viewpoints that are out of line with the views held by students (who are treated as remarkably consistent, as body or thing, and I am partly tracking what is achieved by this consistency). The figure of the censoring student exists in close relation to that of the consuming student: both work to create an impression that students have all the power to decide what is being taught as well as what is not being taught, what is being spoken about as well as what is not being spoken about; and that this power is at the expense not only of dons and departments, but also politicians, journalists and other public figures.

Students: they keep coming up as having all the power.

Really?

Yes, really.

I noted in my previous post how the letter relies on flimsy evidence because it is assembledaround a desire for evidence. Indeed the instances of apparent censorship (translate: student protests) seemed to generate more discourse and discussion rather than preventing discourse or discussion. When students who protest against such-and-such speaker become censors, those who wrote and signed the letter become the ones who are silenced, whose freedoms are under threat. So much speech and writing is generated by those who claim they are silenced!

But we can still ask: what is the figure of the censoring student doing. By hearing student critique as censorship the content of that critique is pushed aside. When you hear a challenge as an attempt at censorship you do not have to engage with the challenge. You do not even have to say anything of substance because you assume the challenge as  without substance.

In the first instance, critique and contestation (“they want the wrong courses!”) is dismissed as consumerism; in the second instance, protest (“they don’t want the right people!”) is dismissed as censorship.

Sweep, sweep.

Beep, beep.

Error message.

Another figure comes up, rather quickly, at this point: she is often lurking behind the censoring student. This is the over-sensitive student: the one who responds to events or potential events with hurt feelings. She also comes up as someone who stops things from happening.  We can refer here to a number of recent pieces that I would read as a moral panic about moral panics. Many of these pieces refer to US college campuses specifically and are concerned with the introduction of safe spaces, and trigger warnings.

The figure of the over-sensitive student is invested with power. The story goes: because students have become too sensitive, we cannot even talk about difficult issues in the classroom; because of their feelings we (critical academics) cannot address questions of power and violence, and so on. A typical example of this kind of rhetoric: “No one can rebut feelings, and so the only thing left to do is shut down the things that cause distress — no argument, no discussion, just hit the mute button and pretend eliminating discomfort is the same as effecting actual change.” Or another: “while keeping college-level discussions ‘safe’ may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else. People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision.” Here safety is about feeling good, or not feeling bad. We sense what is being feared: students will become warm with dull edges, not sharp enough in wit or wisdom.

The moral panic around trigger warnings is a very good pedagogic tool: we learn from it. Trigger warnings are assumed as being about being safe or warm or cuddled. I would describe trigger warnings as a partial and necessarily inadequate measure to enable some people to stay in the room so that “difficult issues” can be discussed. The assumption that trigger warnings are themselves about safe spaces is a working assumption (by this I mean: it is achieving something). Indeed what I have said is  rather misleading because the assumption that safe spaces are themselves about deflecting attention from difficult issues is another working assumption. Safe spaces are another technique for dealing with the consequences of histories that are not over (a response to a history that is not over is necessarily inadequate because that history is not over). The aim is to enable conversations about difficult issues to happen: so often those conversations do not happen because the difficulties people wish to talk about end up being re-enacted within spaces, which is how they are not talked about. For example conversations about racism are very hard to have when white people become defensive about racism: those conversations end up being about those defences rather than about racism. We have safe spaces so we can talk about racism not so we can avoid talking about racism!

The very techniques introduced to enable the opening up of conversations can be used as evidence of the closing down of conversations. Anyone with a background in Women’s Studies will be familiar with this: how we come up against stereotypes of feminists spaces as soft, cosy, easy, which are the exact same sexist stereotypes that make Women’s Studies necessary as a feminist space. The very perception of some spaces as being too soft might even be related to the harshness of the worlds we are organising to challenge.

The idea that students have become a problem because they are too sensitive relates to a wider public discourse that renders offendability as such a form of moral weakness (and as being what restricts “our” freedom of speech). Much contemporary racism works by positioning the others as too easily offendable, which is how some come to assert their right to occupy space by being offensive. And yes: so much gets “swept away,” by the charge of being too sensitive. A recent example would be how protests against the Human Zoo in the Barbican, about how racism is disguised as art or education, are swept up as a symptom of being “over-sensitive. According to this discourse, anti-racists end up censoring even themselves because they are “thin skinned.”

So much violence is justified and repeated by how those who refuse to participate in violence are judged. We need to make a translation. The idea that being over-sensitive is what stops us from addressing difficult issues can be translated as: we can’t be racist because you are too sensitive to racism.

Well then: we need to be too sensitive if we are to challenge what is not being addressed.

We might still need to ask: what is meant by addressing difficult issues? It is worth me noting  that I have been met with considerable resistance from critical academics when trying to discuss issues of racism, power and sexism on campus. Some academics seem comfortable talking about these issues when they are safely designated as residingover there. Is this “there” what allows “difficult issues” not to be addressed here? In fact, it seems to me that it is often students who are leading discussions of “difficult issues” on campus. But when students lead these discussions they are then dismissed as behaving as consumers or as being censoring. How quickly another figure comes up, when one figure is exposed as fantasy. If not over-sensitive, then censoring; if not censoring, then consuming. And so on, and so forth.

My own sense: our feminist political hopes rest with over-sensitive students.

Over-sensitive can be translated as: sensitive to that which is not over.

All of these ways of making students into the problem work to create a picture of professors or academics as the ones who are “really” oppressed by students. This is what it means to articulate a position or a view “against students.” One US professor speaks of being “frightened” by his liberal students. He blames so much on “identity politics.” And indeed so much is blamed on identity politics: that term is used whenever we challenge how spaces are occupied. It has become another easy dismissal. We are learning here about professors (their investments, emotions and strategies of dismissal) more than we are learning about students.

And this is where it gets hard, and this is where I write with a sense of political urgency. There is another body of work that is “against students”: work on sexual harassment. This body of work intersects with the work on trigger warnings and safe spaces: they imply that a concern with safety and survival is creating the vulnerabilities that are then used to justify the regulation of the behaviour of academics or faculty. Indeed these literatures generate the figure of the professor as potential or would be victim: the one who is endangered by the very construction of students as vulnerable. One article states: “I was writing about an academic culture that misunderstands power, inflates vulnerability, and infantilizes students.” I have read other articles that suggest that when students talk of harassment it is assumed that professors must be guilty of coercion: “an enunciation of an accusation is all it should ever take to secure a guilty verdict.” The implication here is that it is easy for students to complain about professors who harass them (“enunciation” – as if an accusation is a word that can be thrown carelessly into a world); and that complaints are automatically registered as guilt, as if an offense is only committed because a student is offended. The figure of the over-sensitive student slides into the figure of the complaining student whose “hurt feelings” are treated as sufficient grounds for complaint.

Let’s pause here. I want to state what many feminists know too well: it is very difficult to address the issue of sexual harassment. And: it is very difficult to address sexual harassment within universities (particularly the harassment of female students by male academics).[4] The difficulty of addressing something is often a consequence of something. Since I have been engaged in diversity work on campus I been contacted by staff as well as students from a number of different universities about their experiences of sexual harassment. And I have learnt just how pervasive sexual harassment is – as well as just how much harassment is normalised in or even as academic culture. I have heard how academics justify their behaviour as their right: a female professor told me about one academic in her former institution who had multiple sexual relationships with his female students. When a complaint was eventually filed, he justified his conduct as a “perk of the job.” I have heard sexist excusing of sexist behaviour: “ah yeh he’s a bit of a womaniser,” “a yeh he’s one for ladies.” I have heard how much sexism (as well as racism) is defended as “just banter.” And I have learnt of the countless ways in which female students are told that to enter the university requires accepting and expecting this kind of conduct. And yet despite sexual harassment being widespread (this “despite” is probably misplaced) it is rarely publicly discussed, sometimes because of confidentiality clauses attached to the resolutions of specific cases; and sometimes because, I suspect, a frank discussion of the problem would require challenging entitlements that some do not wish to challenge.

We are so far away from the picture created by the figure of the complaining student (who wields her power over academics) that it is or should be striking. I have been in touch with students from many different universities who have made complaints – or tried to make complaints – about sexual harassment as well as other forms of bullying. I have learnt of the myriad ways in which students are silenced. Some students are dissuaded from proceeding to formal complaints. They are told that to complain would damage their own reputation, or undermine their chances of progression; or that to complain would damage the reputation of the member of staff concerned (and if they do proceed with complaints they are often publicly criticised as damaging the reputation of the member of staff); or that it would damage the reputation of departments in which they are based (with a general implication being: to complain is to be ungrateful). Students have reported how their complaints are “sat on,” how they have testify again and again; or how they are doubted and ridiculed by those they go to for advice and support.

And: because students who complain about harassment are silenced the problem of sexual harassment within universities is constantly and grossly under-acknowledged (as much violence against women is under-acknowledged). The picture of the complaining student whose accusation becomes truth is so far from the truth that there should be a public feminist outcry. We need a public feminist outcry.

I want to pause on one piece of writing (addressing the US context). It is written in the same kind of jokey tone that characterises the first article I engaged with, and has a similar nostalgia for a time past; a mourning for a freedom that has been or is being lost. Here it is not neoliberalism that signals the beginning of the end (of dons and their delightful democracy), but what the author calls “the prohibition,” a moment in time when freedom from restriction becomes the restriction of freedom [5]. The introduction of new laws around “consensual” sexual relations between staff and students is described as the rise of a feminist moralism and puritanism, based on a misunderstanding of the fluid or dispersed nature of power (the author cites Foucault; yes, he comes up again, indexed weakly, again). It is worth noting that the words “moralism” and “puritanism” are constantly being mobilised in anti-feminist writings. These words are useful because they allow a critique of power to be reframed (and dismissed) as an imposition of moral norms. We could consult for example Ray Filar’s smart challenge to an anti-feminist diatribe in which the word “moralism” is used 9 times. It is an exhausting repetition! And these are often the words used by harassers themselves, as if to refuse an advance is to be moralising about an advance (she says “no” because she is a prude, say). If you refuse an advance, or if you dare to call repeated and unwanted advances “harassment,” you are being moralistic.

Surely, not, you might say.

On academic describes “strictures on sexual harassment”  as well as “political correctness” as “the old Victorian moral panic.” In this piece of writing, sexual harassment is referred to twice and both times as a kind of moralism that restricts freedoms that would otherwise be enjoyed (sexual harassment as  intending that restriction). The use of “political correctness” implies that new norms and rules about appropriate behaviour in the workplace are simply a mechanism of policing the flow of play and desire. The feminist killjoy appears here: as if the problem of sexual harassment only comes up because she brings it up; as if feminists only object because they want to prevent the enjoyment of others.

We have looped back to one of my starting points: how equality is dismissed by being identified with managerialism, with the imposition of moral norms from the top down (feminism is then aligned with management, as a technique for managing unruly bodies, just as feminism can be aligned with the market, as a consequence of unruly bodies). Not surprisingly: the techniques for dismissing feminism are the same techniques for justifying male power. In an earlier blog, I commented on how challenging sexual harassment is understood as imposing restrictions on those who would otherwise be “free radicals.” Of course what has to be remain unsaid here is this: the freedom of some rests on the restriction of the freedom of others. So much harassment is justified and reproduced by framing the very language of harassment as an imposition on freedom. And so much violence (such as domestic violence) is not called violence because it is understood as a right and a freedom: “it is not violence, it is not force, I have a right (to your body).”

We are up against history; walls.

And let’s be clear here: when sexual harassment becomes embedded in or as academic culture, then we are talking about how some women do not have access to universities even after they have applied and been admitted. Sexual harassment is an access issue. Sexual harassment is an equality issue. Sexual harassment is a social justice issue. We are talking about women who have to exit the institution to survive the institution.

We are talking about missing women.

I have become more and more aware of what we are talking about.

Of who we are talking about.

We could and should refer to the important blog, Strategic Misogyny, which collects stories of harassment within universities. We need to hear these stories; to listen to their collective wisdom. Different posts describe in detail what harassment can feel like, and what it can do. And we learn: how power might function by not being dispersed. We are reminded when we read these posts of the immense power that academics have overstudents: they grade student essays and exams; they have discussions about students in meetings that are closed; they sit on committees that decide funding; they have access to confidential files that hold personal information. It is very important to recognise “power over” as a modality of power. We should not neutralise a situation by assuming its neutrality.

And it is in this context that we must question the constant exercising of the language of consent (and its companion “will”): if the person who is asking for your consent holds power over you (in effect a power to decide a future, whether a door is open or not) what does it mean to give or withhold consent? I am not saying here that that all consent is coercion, but that consent in the context of asymmetrical relations of power is not a stable ground for establishing whether or not an abuse of power has occurred. It is because some have power over others, to open or close that door, that we need boundaries, rules and norms.  So much abuse of power within universities is justified by the illiberal use of the liberal language of will and consent. As I argued in Willful Subjects (2014) some might become willing when the costs of not being willing are made too high. Being unwilling might mean being expelled from a group that would allow you to access the resources necessary for your survival let alone progression. Being unwilling might mean being called frigid or (worst still) a feminist. These names have costs. Becoming willing might be a way of avoiding these costs.

We have a sense here of what is going on here. Challenges to sexual harassment within universities can be swept up and swept away, as if the challenges are themselves the products of managerialism or neoliberalism: as just another way that academic freedoms have been restricted; as just another way academic dissent is punished.

The power embedded in a historic situation is reversed.

We have a sense of what is at stake here. Critiques of neoliberalism and managerialism have become useful tools for those who abuse the power they have by virtue of the positions they are in. Those who are accused of harassment can argue, or at least imply, that students who challenge their practices are acting like consumers, being censoring, over-sensitive, or just complaining. They can position themselves as victims of managerialism as well as marketization. A critique of neoliberalism can be used to imply that those accused of harassment are the ones who are paying its costs.

This is how: harassment can be justified as an expression of academic freedom.

That is where we have got to; this is what we are up against.

We need to support, stand with, and stand by, those students who are fighting to survive hostile institutions.

It is our job.

References

Ahmed, Sara (2014). Willful Subjects. Duke University Press.

——————— (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life.  Duke University Press.

Coward, Rosalind (1985). Female Desires: How They Are Bought, Sold and Packaged. Grove Weidenfield.

Freire, Paulo [1970]  (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed Continuum Publishing: New York.

[1] I shuddered when I read this. One of the hardest experiences of my academic career was attending a wine evening at a college in Cambridge. I remember sitting there as expensive bottles of wine were opened, one after the other, thinking “austerity,” realising in the pit of my stomach, what “tightening our belts” allowed some not to give up. Note also how critiques of neoliberalism might be masking elitism: a hatred of “the masses,” and a perception that standards are lowering because of the widening of participation.

[2] I think the “fanzines and not Foucault” operates as a cultural contrast: Foucault is a serious and heavy scholar, fanzines are silly and light. This distinction is gendered.

[3] Interestingly one white male academic when asked about “decolonizing the university” during an Occupy event was reported to have something like “this is education not democracy: we get to decide what we teach.” He helpfully reveals to us how the democracy often defended is an illusion: what is being defended as democracy is often despotism.

[4] There is a growing and important literature on the problem of laddism within universities in the UK. See for example this very helpful workshop provided by Alison Phipps: https://genderate.wordpress.com/ladculture/.

[5] This period of “freedom from restriction” is described as a boozy and fun period when students and staff could have sex with each other without worrying about the consequences.  I found myself wanting to reach for Rosalind Coward’s classic Female Desires (1985) – an early debunking feminist critique of the myth of sexual freedom.

Online identity, work spaces and folios – a celebration of awareness

 This week Leigh Blackall, Educational Designer from the Digital Learning Team in the College of Design and Social Context writes about the issue of online identity and continuity

 

leigh 1

This sign welcomes visitors to the main building of the Googleplex (Google’s company headquarters) at 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway in Mountain View, California. Source: Coolcaesar on Wikimedia Commons

Who are you?

Cover of International Multimedia School Magazine "trait d'union" n° 03-2003. Topic: "our identity. Creator of the mask: Antonia Lent, German School of Toulouse (2003). Photographer: Lothar Thiel. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Cover of International Multimedia School Magazine “trait d’union” n° 03-2003. Topic: “our identity. Creator of the mask: Antonia Lent, German School of Toulouse (2003). Photographer: Lothar Thiel. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Shall we start with a quick Google search on your name? Web, image, video, news, and scholar.

I do it as a matter of course when considering new people to work with, or in preparation for applying for work. I want to know what a person looks like; to gain some insight into how they work online (or not); to get an overview on the sorts of things they have done in the past; and to get a sense for what their identity is, online. There is a significance to me, in what is revealed in such a search and what is not.

Is it too simple to say that an online folio is a search result for a person’s or project’s name, and an online workspace is the Internet as a whole? This online workspace is not a single publishing platform or content management system – the Internet is the platform. Some of us might be a bit stuck on this, but this perspective becoming mainstream is probably inevitable if it’s not already a reality.

Most people who do a search on their name come to realise that the search result is essentially the first page of their online identity – their folio. It could be personal, it could be professional, often it’s both. Their next realisation might be that the way they work online, the processes, platforms, linkages and associations in the data that they generate, all has an impact on their portfolio-as-a-search-result. Their search terms and saved bookmarks, the media they upload and download, their playlists, click-through history, viewing times, purchase history, GPS location, and strength of linkage to other people, collaborators and projects. All this data is built up around us as we work online, and can be used to create, shape and grow a personalised and professional workspace. It can be harnessed to improve the quality and efficiency of our work. Our search results on topics of inquiry can become more targeted, or recommendations and linkages can be made more relevant. This includes advertisers and surveillance agencies of course, which at this point in time at least, we might consider as our symbiotic relationship.

 

You’re a machine

In 2004, Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson created a video about this future that we now live in. They called it the Evolving Personalised Information Construct (EPIC2014). Their video starts in black, with a flickering light in the distance. A narrator reads, “it is the best of times, it is the worst of times…”

In 2007 Dr Michael Wesch expanded on this topic and published the incredibly popular video, The Machine is Using Us, now at nearly one million seven hundred thousand views. This video explained an EPIC hypertext reality, 7 years before Sloan and Thompson thought it would come to pass.

While we’re talking about Michael, check out his online folio. As you do that, it’s worth considering how the strength of Michael’s online identity impacts on those that link to him, such as his students at Kansas State University.

 

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Goshen College Choir 1958-1974 Source: Mennonite Church USA Archives on WIkimedia Commons

 

A cog in a wheel

In the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University, a range of educational development projects are interested in this line of inquiry, and in the kinds of operating principles that might inform the design of learning activities and assessment tasks. Tasks that ask people to manage their online workspaces, professional identities and portfolios.

At RMIT though, like many other universities, a specified workspace is provided that impacts on this conception of a professional identity, precisely because it has become a central and major entity of the Internet – Google.

To some, Google is a good platform choice. It is a very relevant and effective toolset in a university that needs to show ‘industry relevance’, productivity gains and expenditure savings. To some others though, they think that RMIT should be more concerned about data sovereignty and maintaining local IT skills. They would ask, “should an offshore advertising company with questionable links to surveillance agencies be getting intimate access to data about a large population base, especially a university one?”

 

Who are you tomorrow?

As we ask people to use the Internet in their work, and in RMIT’s case – Google in particular, we’re asking people to shape their online workspace into a personalised space with professional relevance. Their connection to us is recorded, their connection to each other is recorded, what they do with their online identity all combines to teach “The Machine” to use them, and be used by them.

What happens to these online identities when the people leave though? Their accounts are disabled! They’re effectively deleted, or held in limbo until that person comes back into the organisation.

What about people who have already built themselves an online workspace, a professional identity and folio? Should they stop with that and rebuild another one? Won’t they dilute their online identities, especially students, casuals, contractors and other transients?

Additionally, if RMIT continues to limit the functionality of an RMIT/Google account by not enabling Youtube accounts, Maps, Classroom or the use of Addons for instance, what impact is that decision having on the account holder’s development of a professional workspace and online folio?

All this seems at considerable odds with RMIT’s graduate capabilities around Lifelong Learning.

 

A temporary role

I’ve raised these RMIT/Google account issues with anyone willing to talk about them, on behalf of the projects I’m assisting with, in the hope of better understanding RMIT’s position and conceiving a workable solution. I’ve had a few things pointed out to me so far:

  1. Perhaps managing multiple online identities is a critical literacy, and a student account is a ‘practice’ space before developing their real workspace. Related to this is the reality that industry workspaces are also going to prescribe an account that contributes to the complexity around a person’s online identity and workspace.
  2. RMIT is a large and international organisation and needs to implement a system that can work consistently across that organisation. Our partners in Vietnam for example, have not agreed to the full use of a product like Google, citing performance and other issues.
  3. An account with @rmit.edu.au is branded RMIT, and what a person does with that account impacts the RMIT brand and RMIT’s liability.
  4. There are legal implications for RMIT accounts using Youtube channels or Addons, relating to Intellectual Property.

 

Practically though, when a staff member or a student needs or wants a Youtube account, or to turn on an Addon, or to Create a Map, they simply work around the limitations and use their own Google accounts. I’ve been advised that there is no policy or procedure in RMIT that would regulate or prevent such practice.

Youtube for instance, the third or fourth most used website by Australians, and not just for watching funny cat videos either, has long been sociologically important*, a media phenomenon over the past 10 years with significant cultural impact*. RMIT’s teachers, researchers, students and administrators should have by-now developed deep critical awareness around this. But they have not on the whole, not while their RMIT accounts can’t engage it. RMIT remains technically disengaged.

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Mummified Nile catfish (Middle Kingdom) placed in a tomb for the deceased to eat in the afterlife on display at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, California. RC 2182. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Retain something of yourself

With all these realities, issues and workarounds in mind, we might then consider the idea of advising people to primarily use their own accounts over their RMIT provided ones, because the development of online workspaces and folios are long term projects starting now, and continuing well beyond their life as students and staff members.

To most, this suggestion will appear too subversive, “taking a long walk off the reservation”, as a good colleague puts it. But in another light it might only be a minor conceptual shift. It is certainly inline with the practical realities at universities that are not deploying Google accounts. The staff and students at those universities simply use Google like any other external web service when required. One that is not limited by the University-wide settings or legalities over an account that in reality is on loan to them and never really ‘owned’ by the user who’s identity it actually is!

A BYO account has longer term benefits for transient people in the university, such as students, casual and part time staff – which I hear is most of us now.

leigh5

“There’s nothing casual about casual employment. The working conditions experienced by tens of thousands of casual academics in Australia’s public and private universities demonstrate that casualisation, as an employment strategy, is both widespread and systemic.” Source: NTEU Website

 

Celebrate the awareness

To conclude this never ending libertarian dilemma then, if it is deemed inappropriate that an offshore advertising corporation with links to foreign surveillance agencies has deep ties to the research data and communications within a university; and if the university that is using that service does not enable the full features of that service anyway – thereby impacting on the productivity, professional identity and portfolio of its staff and graduates, it might be better to do away with the limited service and make arrangements for services that do better in terms of data sovereignty and personal responsibility and control (if that exists, look to the open source, open data and hacker communities for committed innovation in this space).

So, the university drops Google so that we can use Google. Better still, the university seeks out a partnership and invests in communication and documentation services that genuinely give us some options outside the profit and surveillance driven motives. In the meantime, we might make it our responsibility to raise awareness around all of this. We’ll design learning activities and assessment tasks that help people manage their online identities and establish life-long learning efficacy. And we’ll celebrate the readiness of our staff and graduates by citing the confidence of their online work practices and the self evident strength of their portfolios…

 

*Note: “An Anthropological Introduction to Youtube” by Michael Wesch may not be currently available due to copyright challenges in your country.

 


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School of Art: Feedback notes for Students

This week Associate Professor Peter Ellis, Deputy Head of School, Learning and Teaching, School of Art writes about his school’s guidelines on how to explain feedback to students in the creative disciplines.

School of Art: Feedback notes for Students
Work Integrated Learning (WIL) Group Tutorials
Individual Tutorial Guidelines

Year 1 Student Chloe Caday in feedback session with Dr. Robin KingstonThis week’s Teaching TomTom post seeks to provide staff in the college of Design and Social Context (DSC) with some guidelines on how to explain feedback to students in the creative disciplines. The notes have been designed for students within the School of Art, but may be of interest for other schools too.

Attached to this post are Notes on feedback for students designed to inform students on, what feedback is, the types of feedback, how it is given and by whom.

The main idea behind this document is to provide new introductory students and staff with some useful notes on the importance of feedback and how it can be adapted for individual tutorials, Work Integrated Learning Group Tutorials, and Formative and Summative assessment.

The key points being that feedback is a continuous activity, not just at assessment, that it is the way students learn and that it is designed to:

  • Inform them on how well they are meeting the criteria for assessment
  • Inform them on how well they are meeting the learning objectives of courses or projects within courses.

Feedback is designed to:

  • Be supportive, clear, and honest
  • Assist in moving forward with their work in a confident, positive and manageable way
  • Be delivered in a way that clearly indicates what they should do to improve their work and how to move forward to the next level of their learning

Feedback should focus on the successful things your students are doing well, as well as things that need more attention, in order to improve and make their work stronger. Feedback is inclusive, individual and supportive. It is important that all feedback is given in a collegial, positive and supportive learning environment, where there is respect for individual opinion, gender and cultural diversity.

It includes strategies for conducting tutorials including the use of WIL feedback forms that are designed for students to record and reflect upon feedback provided to them by peers and lecturers during WIL group tutorials. The WIL forms that the student present for assessment clearly enables staff to ascertain if the student has understood the feedback that was offered to them.

The WIL form allows students to upload an image of the art work discussed, six keywords that exemplify the work, a description of the artist’s intentions for the work, a section to record the peer and lecturer feedback, and a section on how they will progress with the work after reflection on the feedback. WIL feedback forms also have a section for students to record suggestions from peers and staff about artists they should research, both historic and contemporary, bibliographic ideas, writers, films, critical theory, websites, magazines, YouTube etc. that may be useful for the their progress.

In an environment where the Course Experience Survey (CES) is an important tool for measuring student responses to the feedback we provide, it is crucial that both students and staff are aware of the importance of explaining and understanding what feedback is, that it is continuous in studios every day and is provided in a positive and supportive way.

The feedback we provide must be informed and supportive to encourage, inspire and provide strategies for continual improvement.

Please find some time to look at the attached Notes on feedback for students and provide advice.

I acknowledge Sally Mannall’s assistance in the preparation of the attached notes for students.

 


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writing + thinking teaching awards

helen tomtom pic

Image from morguefile.com

This week, Helen McLean, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching and Rosemary Chang, Project Manager – Scholarship of Learning & Teaching (SoLT) project, write about the college’s new approach to supporting academics applying for teaching awards.

This year in the College of Design and Social Context (DSC), we are supporting our college participants in the RMIT Teaching Awards process by using a community of practice model that makes writing and sharing of knowledge about learning and teaching the central methods for developing deeper understanding of individual teaching practice. We are exploring how teaching staff might be enabled to deepen their understanding and articulation of their teaching practice as they develop teaching award applications.

We are providing a supportive space whereby participants learn from each other in the drafting and development of submissions under the guidance of two College LT team members. We are offering three sequential workshops and five writing + thinking spaces to support the writing and development process of submissions using hands-on writing sessions, models and feedback on drafts. The workshops invite participants to engage with theoretical frameworks about writing and the genre of teaching awards through scaffolded reflection and dialogue, as well as engaging in writing activities and sharing of drafts for comment. The writing + thinking spaces are opt in and unstructured. They are designed to assist applicants with maintaining momentum and time management as they weave their applications together.

We aim to nurture a supportive community where applicants receive individual, formative and ongoing feedback from college L&T team members and peers through review of drafts. We discuss writing strategies for the teaching award genre and for selecting learning and teaching evidence to support applicants’ stories. The approach seeks to enable teaching staff to genuinely deepen their knowledge and articulation of teaching practice in the context of the teaching awards application process.

We are also taking a long term view of developing teaching awards applications and encouraging applicants to consider working on planning and preparing their submissions with sufficient lead time. In many cases, applicants are opting to take a year or more to reflect on their teaching practice and gather focused evidence. We are supporting participants to think strategically about the teaching awards process in relation to their individual career plans, taking into consideration their aspirations and suitability for national awards, grants and academic promotion. We therefore help with mapping out an individual schedule for developing learning and teaching practice, collecting evidence and applying for grants and awards over the immediate future.

This overall approach for supporting teaching award applicants builds on previous posts on the teachingtomtom which have emphasized the planning and benefits of the effort and writing involved for developing a successful and rewarding application.

We are realistic with applicants about the competitive nature of teaching awards, particularly at the national level. We therefore aspire to ensure that the work that applicants put into the development of an RMIT award has the potential to seed a strong case that will both demonstrate the contribution that has been made to learning and teaching and tell a convincing and memorable story for the purposes of another award, promotion or even a publication (see Iain Hay’s book Inspiring Academics for a lovely read of award-winning university teachers’ explorations of their practice).

We hope that the college process we are using this year will set the foundation not only for supporting quality submissions, but also for enabling deeper understanding and expressions of practice, leading to scholarly reflections and writing in learning and teaching and the relevant fields for each applicant.

 


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Engaging Students’ Professional Capacity

Picture of staff at Software workshop

Software Workshop. Photo credit Julian Lee

Post by: Howard Errey
Senior Coordinator, Digital Learning Design, College of Design and Social Context

Have you ever thought about the talent, knowledge and skills that your students are cultivating as they progress through their studies at university? Have you ever considered that you might be able to tap into this rich resource on offer to enhance your own professional context and learning?

Recently there have been a couple of opportunities to hire students to support staff projects. For this year’s LTIF on Practical Analytics (Learning and Teaching Investment Fund) we invited a 4th year student referred to us by the teaching staff in Graphic Design to design a logo and card to distribute at events and to promote the project website. We were very pleased with the result in the DSC College, receiving great concept designs overnight that needed only minor adjustment before final printing.

Last year the College of Design and Social Context commenced an e-learning Innovation Incubator aimed at getting collaboration across schools on digital learning and teaching innovations 10 years ahead of where we are now. One group of staff were interested to learn how to design 3d objects for the Occulus Rift (OR). A couple of 4th year gaming students, recommended by their lecturers in the School of Media and Communication, were highly experienced in the skills required to develop the OR and they were able to provide some cutting edge professional development to teaching staff from across the College. We had representation from the schools of: Architecture and Design, Property Construction and Project Management and Global, Urban and Social Studies. It was a fabulous win as a cross school collaboration not just from the three schools, but by employing students from a fourth school to train the staff.

 


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Digital learning: who’s doing the learning?

This week Angela Nicolettou, Manager, Digital Learning, Design and Social Context College shares with us her thoughts on setting up a new digital learning team and some of the challenges it presents.

angela tomtom image

Picture Credit – Angela Nicolettou

A new team has been established this year at the College of Design and Social Context, the Digital Learning team, and I have the pleasure of managing this group. Being in a management role is new to me and so I find myself ‘learning’ on the job. Learning about recruitment, workplans, policies and procedures and other administrative tasks that I have not had to pay much attention to in my career so far. It is not all administration and processes though, it is also about team building, learning about new educational technologies, working with new groups in the college, learning from those in the team and having opportunities to bounce ideas off each other and progress concepts, processes, develop resources, to name a few. In short, my new role is a hive of activity and there is the ever-present ‘newness’ of the work.

Why am I writing about this? As I was thinking about this post and reflecting on what Digital Learning is, it led me to think about who is doing the learning? The students yes, but before that can happen, the teachers need to learn a thing or two about digital learning spaces, just like my new role is taking me on a steep learning curve.

So, to the teachers. What is their role in this age of digital learning? What skills does one need to teach? When I trained to be a teacher in the 90’s it was all about curriculum, content, class planning and class management. All of these elements I would argue are still the case, but added to this we have online learning. It involves not only knowing how to use various educational technologies, but also knowing how to create digital learning spaces, communities, manage these, provide feedback, ensure that students are engaged and supported, fix things when they aren’t working (or at least know where to find help), and do all of this for groups of 5 to 500+ students. Technology brings with it opportunities never before imagined in teaching spaces, such as global collaboration, online assessment, industry engagement at the touch of a button, access to numerous resources, and on-demand access to learning resources; place and time are no longer a limit to engagement.

Is it then reasonable to expect that one teacher can have all these skills? I’d say no. Like many jobs in the digital age, it is a job that requires constant learning and development. Just like the students, teachers in the digital space are in a constant flux of learning and development. A dynamic space that is at once terrifying and exhilarating with the promise of ongoing innovation.

I can understand terror and resistance when it comes to trying new things and ‘going online’ because this can mean a new and unfamiliar work space, a combination that may lead to difficulties, loss of classroom management and most importantly hours of extra work. But what if it works? What if there are efficiencies to be gained, such as ease of grading, management of student groups, and communication with students? What if student engagement can be enhanced through having more collaborative activities, peer feedback opportunities and real-time student feedback that teachers can respond to during teaching time? The short answer is there are, with efficiency and engagement being two of the most positive outcomes I regularly see occurring when online learning is well structured, thought through and designed.

Believe it or not, Learning Management Systems (such as Blackboard) when used well are all about efficiencies. Student collaboration tools (even those in Blackboard) when linked to clear outcomes and assessment are brilliant at enhancing engagement. The key to success here is to have a clear plan. The first step is to develop an understanding of who the students are and what their learning needs are (developing learner personas is a good way to do this). The next step is to determine exactly what it is you want the students to do, know and experience so that a series of activities can be developed. These activities will also need to be linked to the assessment tasks. The basis for the map is now drawn up, choosing and implementing the technology tools is the final step. All this can be achieved with ‘safe’ technologies, ones that are part of the university’s systems and ones where there are lots of existing examples, resources and success stories to draw from.

Going beyond the ‘safe’, we enter the world of innovation. This is where ideas are trialled, new technologies tested, and old technologies stretched. This is where students are often challenged to learn differently, and more times than not, it takes way more time to develop the learning environment than originally anticipated. It is where learning technologists and production staff need to be engaged, projects scoped and resources allocated. Is it worth it? Most of the time it is. It’s the frustrating and exhilarating part of this work. This is where we need ‘special projects’ such as Global Learning by Design or the e-learning innovation incubator; projects that are designed to support these innovative activities, providing the time and resources to ‘have a go’.

So what of the Digital Learning team? What is our role in all this? Simply, we are here to support the design and delivery of everyday efficient and engaging online teaching activities by curating resources, providing exemplars and principles of good learning design, encouraging the development networks of like-minded teachers and engaging with as many teachers as we can. We are also here to support innovation projects, test emerging technologies, challenge ideas and spark conversations both virtually and literally about online learning and what that means for our work.

Who’s doing the learning? I’d say we all are!

To find out more about the DSC Digital Learning team go to the Digital Learning Teams’s Blog

 


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Capstone Feedback

This week, Ruth Moeller, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, Design and Social Context College,  shares with us her capstone feedback model.


Picture of Capstones

Capstones Photo credit Ruth Moeller

RMIT is very interested in the employment outcomes of its students, and a lot of research is currently underway to explore factors that effect employability. One of the factors that I have been surprised by is the fact that employers are telling us that graduates have difficulty articulating what they have learnt and how it could be translated into the work environment. (RMIT Graduate Employment Study Draft Final Report, insightrix, 2015)

I find it surprising because isn’t it obvious? You set an assessment task to address a brief, have students work in teams to produce an outcome. Aren’t these activities rich with transferable learnings and experiences; working with diverse others, understanding and meeting client needs, creating a product using the knowledge and skills of your discipline, meeting deadlines, the list goes on. Apparently I get it, but the students don’t, or at least can’t make the connections. So what is needed are ways to help students make the connections between what they do in our learning environments and how that can be communicated to potential employers.

There are a range of different strategies that can be incorporated into your curriculum to help address/support this, but what I would like to offer here is a simple, double edged strategy that I will be trialling at the end of this semester. It involves incorporating an end of course evaluation exercise I commonly do with my students, with reflection and articulation of student learning specifically in relation to workplace and employment contexts.

The feedback model I have used with my classes in the past is based on the premise that, for course feedback to be valuable, it needs to be clear, practical and implementable (whether you choose to action or not). A way of achieving this is to encourage students to reflect on their own experience of the course, but also clarify and moderate it with their peers. Using this model to encourage reflection reduces the likelihood of unsubstantiated and unhelpful comments such as: “it was OK or Things could be explained better”.

What I am planning to do in future classes, is to link this feedback exercise with an the opportunity to analyse and discuss the skills and knowledge they have developed or enhanced, and how what they have learnt can be linked to current or potential employment. (I will link a detailed “How to” to this post but as a start will give you an overview.)

In the last class of semester, I am planning to run an activity where the goals are to:

  • Get feedback from students on their key learnings and their perspectives of the course, its content and delivery, and suggestions on how it could be improved
  • Help students to identify and articulate the knowledge and skills they have developed in this course
  • Link students’ development and learning to their future employment.

My plan is that this activity will be done in two stages. In the first part I will encourage students to reflect and answer the focus questions on their own. Working on their own is an effective way for students to reflect initially on their own experience. In the second part, they form groups to discuss their responses and produce a ‘group’ response to the questions. Working as a group provides an opportunity for the individual responses to be clarified, moderated and validated.

The focus questions that I will provide are:

  1. What I have learnt (formally/informally)? Or had reinforced?
  2. What skills have I developed or improved?
  3. How can this knowledge and skills be used for my future career (does everyone want a career) job, profession, employment?

Now, think about the content and delivery of the course:

  1. What worked well? What should we do again next time?
  2. What suggestions do you have to improveme the course the next time it is run? What changes should we make?
  3. Anything else you would like to add about the course?

Once the students have discussed their responses in small groups, I will open up the discussion so we can explore their learnings and how these can be applicable to life (and work) beyond this course.

I have used this strategy to collect feedback before and it has been highly successful, as it provides tangible and validated feedback. It will be interesting to see how adding the second employability aspect to the activity will go, will it give the students the opportunity to reflect and make connections about the learning and its transferability and in doing so model the communication that employers are looking for?

I have attached the “How to” instructions to run this activity. If you try it too with your classes I would be very interested in your experience/feedback.

Click here to download the “how to” Capstone feedback handout


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