17th September

Letter to a New Student

A friend asked recently: "You work in a university, what advice would you give to a new student like Hannah?" His daughter is preparing to start a course at the University of Sheffield. Poring over decisions like what things to take to 'uni,' Hannah is also imagining what it will be like to leave home and begin her degree course. My first thought was to admit that perhaps I am actually not the best person. The student experience today is fundamentally different from what it was 30 years ago when I was in Hannah's position. One of the dangers of being a university teacher is of losing touch with the memory of what it meant to be a student. Students today not only pay to study, they work while they learn. Chatting to a current third year student while she served me in the college bookshop, I asked her if she thought about further study after her degree. "I'd like to do an MA... but I'd have to save up first." It really shocked me. Of course, that's how students have to think. There is something deeply humbling in the thirst that young people have for learning regardless of its cost. Anyway, I am stalling. This is for you, Hannah, and new students anywhere who are thinking nervously about the prospects of university life.

1. Listen but don't be silent

In the early part of the 20th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche gave a series of lectures on the future of educational institutions. In his fifth lecture Nietzsche imagines a foreign visitor trying


to make sense of academic study. The visitor asks how are students connected with the university, what is their point of connection to thinking and knowledge. The narrator in Nietzsche's parable responds: "By the ear, as a hearer." The lecture continues but the visitor is astonished and asks again: surely listening isn't the only way that a student is connected to learning. Nietzsche's professor reiterates that undergraduates are connected to the university: "Only by the ear... The student hears."

Much of the architecture of higher learning is dedicated to reinforcing the image of Nietzsche's obediently silent student. Students sit in row after row of seats all directed toward the stage and the lectern. It is also impossible to have a proper group discussion in a lecture theatre - they are designed for monologues not dialogues. Nikolas Rose once told me of a session he would do at the beginning of the academic year that tried to make this authority structure explicit. He would turn up to a large first year lecture in sociology, take to the stage, open his file of notes and place them on the lectern. He would look down at his notes but say absolutely nothing! Often latecomers would arrive apologetically with umbrellas after being soaked by an autumn shower. Someone near the front would say, "It's alright - he hasn't started yet." They found their seats. The expectant students waited silently, pens poised, for Nikolas to say something. He said nothing. One year he managed to say nothing for 40 minutes. When the excruciating silence was


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27 September