A manifesto for the relational university

Love is the essence of the infinite game, and the essence of love is relationship – the myriad ways in which we reach out to and touch others. Through this connection comes learning, creativity, novelty and growth – core features of the thriving university.

The proposal here is simple. It is that a) we return to 1980 levels of relationship within the university and b) every time we replace a real world encounter with an online tool we create an alternative real world encounter in its place. While I am relying heavily on a comparison between my own university – the University of Auckland – as it was in 1980 and as it is now, I intend this manifesto to apply more generally.

I admit that 1980 is a somewhat arbitrary benchmark. It was my second year at university. It was also prior to personal computers, cell phones, and the Internet; and so most transactions had to be face to face. To aid my memory I have consulted my university’s calendar for that year, a massive document that I and other students actually read – or at least flicked through. I have also received helpful information from colleagues on past and current practices, and been inspired by work investigating the values and perspectives Māori and Pacific students bring to academic institutions.

In 1980, according to the calendar, ‘every internal student shall enrol at the university in person before the beginning of the first term in accordance with the detailed enrolment timetable published in this Calendar’. So we turned up on the day assigned to our degree and place in the alphabet, and stood in long lines waiting to enrol in courses, sign up for tutorials or laboratories and get our library card. If we needed concessions we saw Deans or Temporary Acting Deputy Deans, told them our story and they decided our fate on the spot. Those queues were full of the possibility of a new year. We had nothing else to do but chat, laugh and complain about the wait with the people around us, and so that is what we did.

Lectures were essentially talks interspersed with writing on the blackboard and questions from the class. Handouts of any sort were rare. Occasionally lecturers would show us slides – by which I mean the small cardboard mounted slides that are inserted into a carousel and projected onto a screen. You had to turn up or get notes from a friend. Tutorials or laboratories were almost every week during a one-year course. You got to know people. In first year psychology, you also got to know a rat that you were required to train in order to demonstrate the principles of operant learning.

Then there were the small things that brought us face to face with other people. These included handing in and getting back paper copies of assignments, requesting extensions, asking questions of the lecturer, going to the library to get out books and consult journals, and attending movies and talks which you either saw when they were scheduled or missed out on.

In 2018 the enrolment queues are gone – everything except getting your ID card is done online. Most undergraduate lectures are recorded and posted on Canvas, our online ‘Learning Management System’. While some research has suggested that lecture attendance is not affected by making recordings available to students, other research suggests it is. In discussion with my colleagues and students, it is clear that recordings do reduce attendance. Let’s face it, if you live an hour’s bus ride from university and have just a single 8am or 5pm lecture on a particular day, it would take massive willpower to show up week after week. And there is no requirement to buddy up to classmates to get the lecture notes. You can obtain what you need without leaving home – gosh, you can obtain what you need without getting out of bed. More and more online ‘learning tools’ have replaced in-person teaching sessions. Psychology students now train Sniffy the virtual rat; the live rats are long gone.

As I’ve discussed in a previous blog, the drift away from a university that operates through physical human-to-human interactions has happened gradually, and it’s a worldwide trend. Each move in this direction is quite reasonably proposed on the grounds of efficiency, cost, equity, ‘what students expect’, and sometimes even sustainability – an online process means less paper, less travel and fewer carbon emissions. What is more it isn’t (yet) possible to clearly show that these moves are detrimental to the rich learning possible on a campus filled with actual people. Online learning tools often ‘work’ to achieve the educational goals set. Research on social media has also produced mixed outcomes. While a recent study found that heavy Facebook use is associated with negative wellbeing, other studies have found social networking can enhance people’s assessment of their lives. So while it is unequivocal that people need people, the extent to which full-bodied exchanges can be replaced with screens and audio files is unclear. 

However, just as it is absurd to suggest people could flourish on Mars – no matter what our skills in creating an artificial environment – it is absurd to suggest people can learn, grow, exchange and help each other thrive without embodied encounters. University teachers and researchers certainly don’t believe this – we travel constantly, especially to conferences. And the Internet is awash with articles advising graduate students and young academics of how important and beneficial such conferences are.

We probably can’t (and shouldn’t) go back to alphabetically-organised enrolment queues, trips to the library to consult journals and knocking on a lecturer’s door to get an extension. I suspect the writing is also on the wall for paper-based assignments. So returning to 1980 levels of relationship in the university will take a bit of creativity. Here are ten suggestions for how we could do it:

1.       Offer weekly tutorials or laboratories for every course, unless the course involves fieldwork or other intensive, interactive teaching blocks.

2.       Require that all courses have a 20% group work component and allow at least half an hour per tutorial or laboratory for working on this component over the first few weeks of the course.

3.       Revive ‘office hours’ when lecturers are available for questions – and encourage students to attend these, using online discussion boards as back up only.

4.       Identify cohorts of students who are on a similar path and provide events, mentors and spaces that encourage them to gather and feel as if they are on an important journey together.

5.       Include questions on ‘the opportunity for interaction’ and ‘the ability to form quality relationships’ as part of student course evaluations.

6.       Support university clubs and societies – these are still hotbeds of everything students have always got up to when in each other’s company.

7.       Increase the number of student kitchen facilities on campus and provide low cost meals to encourage students to eat on campus together.

8.       Encourage lecturers not to travel during teaching semesters so they are more available for in-person interactions with students. The money saved could be spent on suggestion #1.

9.       Create multiple beautiful areas on campus using plants, artwork and seating arrangements that encourage staff and students to meet and talk.

10.   Whenever a new ‘online tool’ is proposed that eliminates or reduces the need for a real world encounter, an alternative real world encounter must also be proposed.

Universities have the people, spaces and social mandate to deeply ponder and demonstrate the good life. Relationships are pivotal to that life: investigate a little patch of human happiness and you’ll find some kind of connection at its core. Let’s bring back the vibrancy and possibility that infuses a university in which people experience each other walking, talking, eating and laughing – often.

To receive blogs posts by email, go here