Friday, 4 February 2011

The four types of Arts undergraduate



Having taught over a hundred separate University Media Arts seminars (even having an INSTIL teaching qualification to prove it) means that I have a few reflections about the group dynamics of classes. In classic Billy style, I've formulated a theory. But is it just a silly fancy of mine?

There are 4 types of undergraduates;

1. THOSE WHO WILL CONTRIBUTE SOMETHING USEFUL. Innately bright, imaginative, informed, confident students - as often European students as British ones. A minority, though there were four or five of them in one of my classes one year. You have to be on top of your game when teaching them. I'm very aware with some that they are actually more intelligent than me, and that I seem like an authority because I've got 16 years more experience than them.

2. THOSE WHO WILL LEARN SOMETHING. Less confident than 1, but always prepared to work , listen and try. Can be cowed by 1s, so teaching is an important exercise in balancing the two groups. Over the course of a year (to a lesser extent a term) they can transform into 1s. As a teacher, I always try to show appreciation and encouragement for their contributions. They are my favourite students to teach, and getting them to understand concepts that are new to them and watching them bloom are the best thing about teaching. My preference may also be because I am operating from a higher level of intellectual confidence than they are starting from, unlike 1s. Unless it's a bad year, at least half of undergraduates fall into this group.

3. THOSE WHO ARE JUST PASSING THROUGH. University is three years of social life and it's actually really quite hard to fail a humanities degree if you put in a fairly minimal level of effort. These students have quickly sussed this out. They annoyed me a lot more as a university librarian, and particularly as a halls of residence warden, than they do as a teacher. There are important subdivisions within this group;

i) THOSE WHO ARE FRIENDS WITH 1s & 2s. Because their friends are getting something out of the class and they have some degree of empathy with the job that you're putting in as teacher, they don't want to rock the boat and will put in a minimal level of effort without ever stretching themselves. I don't mind teaching these students, because I can see myself in them and they usually strike me as quite nice people. On a particularly productive day, when you're teaching in an engaging way, they can rise to the level of 2s.

ii) THOSE WHO WILL DO NOTHING, BUT WHO WON'T ROCK THE BOAT. They won't refuse to do anything that you ask them, but they will put no thought or effort in to it at all. A class can probably carry 2 or 3 of these.

iii) THOSE WHO ARE BORED INTO MISCHIEF. These can really drag down any seminar, especially if they find other people to amuse and divert. Whether you can teach around them depends upon how much censure you can detect from others in the group.

I'd estimate that about a third of students are in category 3.

4. DANGEROUS IDIOTS. You only get a couple of these a year. They generally don't turn up, or quickly drop out.

There's also another category of most CHINESE STUDENTS, with the specific handicap of only being able to speak very limited English and coming from an educational background of no humanities teaching as we understand it, but that's a rather different problem.

With all groups, the watchwords for a productive and harmonious session are humility and enthusiasm. This applies just as much to me as a teacher as it does to them as students. On some days I have more of these qualities than others.

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