Experiential education & student engagement: a few pre-conference paper thoughts

For the past few weeks, I have spent a large proportion of my time pacing backwards and forwards and talking out loud. My audience of two, Valentino and Hugo,  have – save noisily munching on a bit of hay – been generally well behaved and respectful. But then they are guinea pigs and will do anything for a lovely handful of veg and a bit of pear.

Guinea Pigs: a wonderful audience, especially when your human family is a little sick of hearing about pedagogy...
Guinea Pigs: a wonderful audience, especially when your human family is a little sick of hearing you go on about pedagogy…

It’s pre-conference paper time. Which means a nervous few days, putting the finishing touches to slides & notes and generally practising what I’m going to say to anyone who will listen.

On Friday, Newcastle University is holding a one-day symposium: Negotiating Recent Reform in Higher Education: the Question of Student Engagement. The symposium is hosted by Dr Anselma Gallinat, Dr Lisa Garforth and Dr Adél Pásztor, and will focus on the intensification of organisational reform in English universities in the post-Brown review era through the lens of ideas about student engagement. The keynote speaker is Professor Susan Wright, an anthropologist and internationally-recognised expert on audit cultures and the neo-liberal university.

Aside from the fact that I will be in the company of a fantastic line up of educators, students and researchers, I’m delighted to be speaking at the symposium because its going to be a day of many ‘firsts’ for me.  It’s going to be the first time that I speak publicly about my passion for and use of autoethnography, the research methodology I’ve been exploring over a year. It’s going to be the first time I expose extracts of my personal diaries to an audience. And it’s going to be the first time that I discuss my view that experiential education allows for a new type of ‘teacherhood’ and engages students, academically and emotionally, on a different level.

The idea for the paper was sparked by this:

“someone outside the firm once described you as a ‘warm hug'”

At the end of each year, I ask my clinic students to stick a blank piece of paper on their backs and then we all walk round the room writing positive things about that person on the paper. No-one can see who has written what and we use different coloured pens to add another layer of anonymity. I get involved too. What do we write? Well, mostly it’s fun things that have happened during the year, like someone getting their first car or the time a client interview went really well,  or positive personality traits like being a supportive team player. Some of the comments might seem a little random (‘amazing festive jumpers’, ‘loves a photo opportunity’) but each one reflects the shared history of the group.

When I got back to my desk last year and took a peek at what my paper said, I was struck by the comment I’ve shown above. It sat with me for a while and it still sits with me now. For a long time I had been advocating that experiential education – learning by doing, students working in a live working environment as part of their studies – was different. I argued that it had an ‘otherness’. But I struggled to be able to articulate why that was.  And after that comment it finally hit home. I think it boils down to the connection that clinicians/supervisors have with their students that goes beyond the traditional conception of what it is to be a ‘teacher’.

On Friday, I’ll be utilising extracts from my diary and drawing on personal experience to make the case that in experiential education there is a movement from teacher to mentor, colleague and even friend.

I can’t wait to get going and to listen to the other speakers on Friday. It’s going to be a really interesting day. For those on twitter, the hashtag is #HEreformNcl.

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