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.


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.


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:

[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.

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.


Share your thoughts, comments or start a discussion on ‘Explaining Feedback to Students’ by leaving a reply in the comments section!

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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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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

Share your thoughts and questions on capstone feedback and Ruth’s model in the comments section!

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Sustainability: Enabling Graduates

Dr Jude Westrup, Senior Advisor, Strategic Initiatives, Office of Dean, Learning and Teaching updates us on Sustainability at RMIT University, and invites you to a professional learning session on sustainability on the 21st of October.

Sustainability is a major contemporary issue and therefore fundamental to good business practice for education institutions. Australia’s National Action Plan for Education for Sustainability – Living Sustainably , the Rio+20 Treaty on Higher Education  and the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development  over-arch and inform RMIT’s strategic, global implementation of sustainability in learning & teaching, research and industry engagement. Initiatives such as Sustainable Urban Precincts Project  and the global management of international programs and partnerships  contribute to RMIT’s “reorientation…to a focus on achieving a culture of sustainability in … teaching and learning for sustainability… and continuous improvement in the sustainability of campus management” . TT post

As part of the ongoing process of embedding sustainability within the curriculum, research and partnerships across RMIT, the Sustainability Committee via the Office of Dean, Learning & Teaching has undertaken extensive curriculum, professional development (PD) and project work within the Learning & Teaching for Sustainability (LTfS) project during 2013-14.

RMIT’s Sustainability Policy and Action Plan to 2020 defines and directs projects and programs that embed sustainability principles and practices throughout learning & teaching, research and operational activities.

The plan states:

Tertiary education will:

  • Engage students at all levels in learning about relevant sustainability concepts (knowledge, skills and values/attitudes), identifying issues of importance and taking actions in order to empower them as future leaders in industry and society in their chosen fields
  • Embed sustainability capabilities/competencies within disciplinary and professional contexts, including where relevant challenges from beyond narrow or chosen discipline(s)
  • Support academic and teaching staff to develop high levels of discipline relevant sustainability literacy so that they are able (competent and confident) to facilitate sustainability learning

Sustainability: Enabling Graduates – professional development

This interactive, introductory professional learning session will introduce you to Learning & Teaching for Sustainability at RMIT and beyond.

Details are:

Tuesday 21st October in SAB – PD-Room (80.03.001)
From 12noon – 2pm. Details can be found on the DevelopME website:
Sustainability: Enabling Graduates is designed for all academic and teaching staff to:

  • interactively, explore through dialogue and design exercises curriculum refinement or development, with the aim of increasing relevant graduate learning outcomes in Sustainability or embedding sustainability further into the curriculum
  • trial and experiment with a multidisciplinary, e-assessment task design, and
  • examine and explore introductory concepts, praxis and principles ofLearning & Teaching for Sustainability within disciplines and professional contexts – local, regional, and international, that can then be applied to other course and program development or refinement.

Registrations are open until 20th October and inquiries are welcome to Dr Jude Westrup (9925 8377) or

TTpost2There are extensive learning & teaching for sustainability resources on our sustainability pages.  You may like to access these for your pre-workshop reference or for further ideas and inspiration.

So if you are interested in sustainability and education and think you might be:

  • Ready for some new ideas and refreshment?
  • Ready to rekindle your joy of learning after a productive, and long, semester?
  • Then take the opportunity to join academic and teaching staff at the new, experiential, multidisciplinary, multi-modal professional development workshop

then you might want to go along!

Other useful references

TEQSA and the Australian Qualifications Framework promote the importance of being able to measure and evidence graduates’ learning outcomes resulting from their program of study. TEQSA’s approach to Quality Assessments 

The RMIT graduate attribute (GA3) that most explicitly relates to Learning & Teaching for Sustainability is, ‘Environmentally aware and responsive’. This attribute articulates our aim that ‘Graduates of RMIT University will have engaged in processes to develop their abilities to recognise environmental and social impacts and to provide leadership on sustainable approaches to complex problems’

Don’t forget to register (DevelopME website) if you want to attend!

Share your thoughts and questions on sustainability in learning and teaching  in the comments section!
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User Experience Design (UX) and Digital Literacy

Push Pad to Open Automatic door. Right...

Photo credit Dave Stone on Flickr: CC licence

Posted by: Howard Errey, Educational Developer, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

Dr. Jeremy Yuille is a senior lecturer in several subjects/courses at RMIT University in the School of Media and Communications around User Experience Design, Interaction Design, and Digital Design as well as professional practice and studio contexts. This post is a transcription of an interview with him for the Beyond Blackboard Course Shells: “What on earth are they using?” project.

Do you use Blackboard?
I use it as little as possible. In the last course I used it to manage assessment. So it was the place where students had to submit their work. It was the “official” place where the final word on what was going on in the course was put. It worked better than it has in the past.

I’m pretty sure that at least a quarter of the students did not look at anything there, but then I am also pretty sure about the same number did not turn up to the class either! (I’m not sure about the correlation between those 2 things.) It was really just used for the grade centre. I did it to see how it would work. I will probably continue with it as it makes that end of semester work flow go more easily. It also meant there was no physical artifacts to have to deal with and no chance of losing anything.

What other tools do you you use?
In the course of teaching, I have used lots of different tools. Before blogs we had Moveable Type and Typepad. We installed our own instances on the servers here and were managing them. These days, I tend to use something more lightweight. I have been using a Facebook page.  It wasn’t as successful as I thought it would be. I used a “page” instead of a “group” – they are different. I’ve used Twitter and then quickly found out that most of the students at that point didn’t use it. I have used a Google Site and that was disappointing, mainly because I work with design students and it immediately lost credibility no matter what content was in there.

The thing I’ve found that works best is a WordPress site. It is very easy. We don’t have to worry about login or access. I just use the free rather than hosting Other colleagues use it as well.

I have tried getting students on to their own blogs. It didn’t work. I have heard good stories of others doing this. Young people are tending to communicate visually. It might be better to get them doing their own Pinterest or something like that. I would like to get them to write more and better. For us, WordPress is like a link bucket and we use it for reflecting/collaborative/sense-making, and write it in a way that students can comment into it.

I have used Google Docs for sharing documentation with our Singapore students. Their brief  was written in Docs and they could use the commenting and collaboration features to ask me questions about that.

I’m about to use Google Docs this week to teach students how they can do remote interviews for instance. It’s much better than email because you are working with someone on what their interview will look like, particularly if it is to be published. It puts more work onto the interviewee. So the success depends on what the payoff is for the interviewee. Writing input can vary wildly.

I have tried getting students to collaborate on Google Docs. Our students are interesting. We think they are digital natives but they are not – or not in the way that we think about it. In the past I have assumed students knew why this was interesting or why the way you can collaborate on, say, Google Docs is so good. But it’s not until I contrive the situation where you get someone to open it and you edit something in front of them and they all freak out and suddenly they get it. I have done this with staff too. Or you do it on the phone with someone and you are talking to them about it and it’s not until you contrive those “aha” moments that they get it. I am hoping to get students a little bit more in it this year. Google Docs is a bit more stable now. For the last couple of years I have trying to get my colleagues to use Google Docs, while managing the program and that was a challenge.


Photo credit Max Crowe on Flickr: CC licence

In what particular ways are students not as savvy online as we might think?

We have found that they are not as critical as we have led to believe. This means they tend to be consumers on information but their appetite is not broad. They don’t tend to look widely. It’s a bit like they come here on a diet of junk food.

When it comes to content creation I am still quite surprised by my students because communication design or graphic design happens with digital technology. But these are offline solo processes. So that doesn’t map really well on to them having a lot of experience working with people online. Just the idea of being networked isn’t a large part of their online identity.  There is a student I am noticing at the moment who does seem to have a large networked identity and I think that is because they have been working outside in the fashion industry. That student is aware of what the value of a networked identity. Whereas a lot of our students have not had a lot of experience outside of school and they have no sense of what a networked identity is. And that then flows into a lot of digital literacies, for example, how do you work with someone, why is it valuable to even work with someone online? With studios it is challenging to get them to interact face-to-face let alone online. One of the things we still find hardest to teach are these kind of soft skills. We need to think about these as digital soft skills with the first question being: How do you form relationships with people?

What were your your intentions in using Facebook?
Basically, lowering friction; reducing barriers. Previous informal research in class showed me 99% had it in common. If I put things there it is easier to get them to see it. Then, once you’re on there, you have all sorts of other features. So I created an equivalent of live Tweeting during lectures. I created a back channel and have a series of guest lecturers and would have a live feed on the page. The students who engaged with the page and attended the lectures tended to benefit, although that didn’t show up on the student survey scores. But I suspect that the students who attended didn’t do the survey – what can you say? This is the first time the course had been taught and we had a only a few survey responses and those were mostly negative.

Technically the students could have input into the Facebook channel, but I am not sure they are aware enough of that practice. We could run a whole course just on back channels. We could foreground it a bit more or put it on the screens like at conferences. I suppose they get it because they see it on things like Qanda; but I am yet to be convinced that they have actually taken part in something like that. That would be different. At present they are just spectators. They are quite sophisticated spectators but are not overly critical. When it comes to making something or contributing, those skills are not as developed.

How do we help students find the practical experience?
I don’t think it’s happening explicitly in our systems. It is starting in first year where they have taken on the task of expressing literacies in transition. So much of this is about being able to communicate with the written word. I am a little bit gobsmacked that the middle aged lecturers who are teaching courses about digital design are far more sophisticated users than the student — who we have been lead to believe are good at doing stuff online. There is a mistake there and we haven’t quite cracked that. We need to know: what is their understanding of this medium?… or how can we get them thinking about engaging with the network? Some of the things they are doing in primary schools now are going to lead into networked literacy. So that is 15 years before they get to university, and hopefully between now and then we will begin to understand and observe some change.

With design there is a large part that is embodied. But it’s not just soft skills but also how you look at situations and perceive different ways of framing things. There is a large amount of embodied knowledge in these platforms. When you first open a Google Doc and start synchronous editing – no one forgets that. Those moments when the penny drops. Those kind of threshold learning experiences. They are embodied and yet because we think of it as virtual we think, they will just get it. We think that students will jump into these sort of environments, yet their literacy with them is so low. If you have had experience of seeing an edit war in Wikipedia then you have a different perspective on that Wikipedia page and all that’s behind it. This week I will show students an edit log of an interview I did with someone, so they can see how it all happens. One of the challenges here is how to pull someone into the experience of using something without them actually using it. How do you simulate their use in order for them to experience what it means to use it and see the payoff?


Photo credit Vanessa Bertozzi on Flickr CC licence

You can tell someone, “Oh it’s great you can collaborate with someone.” But collaborate is a big word that means so many different things. However, the first time you do collaborate and you see that the work is better because you collaborated, then you understand what collaboration means.

For me it’s that the digital platforms are fine (there are challenges with clunkiness and access). It depends what they have experienced physically. I am interested in the role of video. Some of the platforms that have been developed recently like Adobe Voice. I will be exploring more time-based rich media.

How could learning design learn from UX?
With Marius Foley and Blair Wilde we are working in how you take the studio online. The Internet pipes are now all connected. You can now go online, press a button, and start a blog or whatever. It’s still a bit clunky but much better than it used to be.

This raises questions. How are you then able to stand back and put an experiential skin across all that? How do we create an experience that is as rich as sitting in a studio or us having a conversation now? They are interesting challenges not just in education but commercially as well. I do think UX can help here by framing embodied experiences so that people learn by experience. Experience is interpreted through your embodied interactions with the world. It gets more abstract through a piece of glass when online. Experience seems to change when you talk with someone or listen to someone talking. There are different cues for connecting with humans than connecting with information. I am interested in this and don’t have all the answers.

We are proposing a masters for experienced designers. It will teach design skills that are not so much about usability but about how to be better leaders in organisations. It will be entirely online and we don’t yet know how we will do that. It’s a really interesting opportunity. If we can do it well, I think they will borrow a lot more from cinema and sound design than they will from computer and user interface design. We know how to bolt stuff together, so then how do we make it affective?

 Share your thoughts and questions on “User Experience Design (UX) and Digital Literacy” in the comments section!


Image of popular social media logos wearing graduation hats

Are you teaching at RMIT University in 2014? Do you have an active online presence with your teaching – either within the Blackboard learning management system or beyond? You may have received a postcard in September for the staff educational technologies survey.

Please tell us your views on using digital technologies for teaching and learning at RMIT. It takes 10 minutes and we’re keen to hear your experiences. Click Here (RMIT login required)

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We are listening. Strategies to increase survey responses rates on teaching.

Picture credit

Picture credit

Posted by: Meredith Seaman, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

The problem…

We talk quite a lot about student feedback here on the blog, but the specific aspect I want to consider here is appropriate, fair and reliable ways to administer institutional surveys on good teaching to students. In particular I want to examine what could be done to increase survey responses so the results are more meaningful. The challenge in getting students to participate is more significant since surveys moved online, despite the obvious benefits of ‘anywhere/anytime’ for students to complete the survey instruments, and associated efficiencies for the Institution.

With low response rates it can be just a waste of everyone’s time as we need a certain sample size to viable and useful.

The research….

Investigations from the period of transition when many surveys moved online in the United States emphasise the following:

  • … “an important factor in response rates is students’ belief that rating results are used for important decisions about courses and faculty.” (Ballantyne, 1999)
  • Institutions should “encourage instructors to show a personal interest in students completing the forms (e.g., instructors could mention the forms in class, let students know that they pay attention to student responses, or send personal emails to students reminding them to complete the forms)” (Johnson, 2002)

While I’d definitely think twice about sending a personal email to your students, research is consistent that it is important for teachers to set up the context for students to complete the survey. For response rates to increase strategies are required at a range of levels. There is however, consensus that teachers have a role.

Given that the challenge is bigger than an institution sending out disembodied emails or offering iPads. How might we make it a meaningful process, a better experience for our students, and get more reliable data?


Pulling together different ideas from Schools across our College, to do it well, we need to show we are listening. The in-class process might go something like this:

Sowing the seed

Before survey time sow the seed early on about the importance of their ‘feedback’. You could highlight earlier in the course that such surveys inform a range of activities and decisions from university management down to the classroom. You could highlight a couple of specific changes that you have made in response to past survey responses and Student Consultative Committee discussions and so on.

Spending time with your students unpacking the notion of ‘feedback’ more generally is another idea. You might want to emphasise the different types of feedback that students get in your course, such as: from peers, on learning activities, on assessments tasks etc. You could also build on work you are doing with students on their skills to provide constructive feedback, such as giving peer review and feedback on learning activities and assessment tasks etc.

Summarise the Course

At survey time you could summarise the course to date.

e.g. In week one we…  in week 3 we found such and such a concept difficult…, in week 6 we … and finally, reiterate where you’re heading in the remainder of the semester. Helen’s recent post on ‘Going with the flow’ provides a model for this kind of activity. You might want to highlight how have you listened to your students (current and previous) and adjusted your learning and teaching plan.

Set aside time in class: (or in an online space)

Delivery in class time might be tricky, but in terms of getting response rates up it is well worth the time investment. It will show generosity if you allow class time, and that in itself emphasises that you take the process seriously, and are listening. It has been reported that 84% of Australians now have a smart phone, and 71% of those also have a tablet (Horizon Report 2014), and surveys can be completed on these devices online. If these stats seem inflated for your cohort, you could allow time for students to go to the library or build into an existing lab class.

Leave the Room:

It’s important that after all that, you leave the room. It highlights that the process is fair, provides thinking time, and creates a space for their comments to come to the fore.


At RMIT City Campus the Course Experience Survey (CES) survey is open to students from the 20th of September.

More on the CES at RMIT

Ballantyne, C. (1999). Improving university teaching: Responding to feedback from students. In Zepke, N., Knight, M., L&ach, L. and Viskovic, A. (Eds), Adult Learning Cultures: Challenges and Choices in times of change,  WP Press, Wellington, pp.55-165.

Johnson, T. (2002). ‘Online Student Ratings: Will Students Respond?’ Paper presented at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, 2002.

NMC Technology Outlook for Australian Tertiary Education – A Horizon Project Regional Report 2014

Share your thoughts on strategies to increase survey responses rates in the comments section!

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