All Students

Diversity, Voices and Student Representation

Individual and Diverse - Snail Shells

Recognition of diversity is a strange thing. The more connected we become, the more we feel at once individual and the same.

Developing a collective voice on a mass scale for a particular cause is made easier through common connections. Yet realising our many differences is just as simple to achieve.

The push/pull nature of diversity makes the student voice a tricky concept to form and agree upon. The massification of higher education has led to incredible diversity. How can you possible represent everyone as if you’re operating as one voice?

STICKING TO THE ISSUES. FIRST ISSUE, WHAT ARE THE ISSUES?

Perhaps the answer is to support voices and diversity, as opposed to deciding a stance on many elaborate issues. Patrick Wilson asks NUS to “stick to supporting lowering the voting age” and to “keep on affording students their rights”. Since students cover such a diverse range of opinions, moving outside the realm of student issues is tricky.

So why do it? Well, it depends how you view the situation. Since students are human beings with different ideas, backgrounds, circumstances, beliefs, and so on, you could argue that nothing is outside the realm of student issues.

Years ago, someone told me that the remit of the student movement (if you wish to call it that) went as far as considering and supporting matters relating to being a student at a place of learning. Associated issues–such as accommodation and health–were fair game. I wasn’t exactly clear what the unassociated issues were.

Perhaps that lack of clarity is part of the problem. When every concern of an individual is associated with being a student, given the fact that they ARE a student, where do you stop? Which areas should NUS stick with and which should they ignore.

Once you start leaving one issue alone, some students will be unhappy. Diversity isn’t being properly represented, they might argue.

Deborah Hermanns, an organiser for the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, suggests that unions could look to what is done in Germany’s universities:

“The German conception of student unionism is relatively simple: it is to politically represent the student population to the university, to advise on issues such as financial support or visa questions for international students, and to take on wider political questions. These aims are reflected in union structures, which allow for much direct democracy and very little bureaucracy. For example, at Freie Universität Berlin, the student population elects a parliament which in return elects the executive committee. Decisions about campaigns and allocation of funding are made at a weekly meeting which is open to all students.” [Times Higher Education]

Does this extend, limit, or completely change the idea of representation and diversity? Under a German system, are students better served in some areas and lacking in others where the UK thrives?

POLICY PROBLEMS

Wherever you draw the line, policy needs to be discussed and agreed upon with the aim to achieve consistency, balance, and clarity. Patrick Wilson’s article for Lancaster’s SCAN highlights an issue that isn’t new. New policy was drafted and the suggested wording caused the policy to be denied a place. No doubt the policy will be reworded and voted through at a later date. It’s happened before and it will probably happen again.

When this situation occurs (especially over controversial and problematic areas), people begin to discuss why this is good/bad, necessary/unnecessary, too political/not political enough, and so on. Were too many people being condemned or does the condemnation not go far enough? Is the policy not inclusive enough or should it focus on a more focused group of students?

You have to work at diversity. There is no way of guaranteeing success on all fronts. However, an openness to diversity and an acceptance of others, regardless of other factors, is a strong move towards progress. The more perspectives we embrace, understand, and listen to, the more likely we are to see the bigger picture in all its glorious detail.

Katherine W. Phillips explains this nicely in Scientific American:

“Diversity is not only about bringing different perspectives to the table. Simply adding social diversity to a group makes people believe that differences of perspective might exist among them and that belief makes people change their behavior.
“Members of a homogeneous group rest somewhat assured that they will agree with one another; that they will understand one another’s perspectives and beliefs; that they will be able to easily come to a consensus. But when members of a group notice that they are socially different from one another, they change their expectations. They anticipate differences of opinion and perspective. They assume they will need to work harder to come to a consensus. This logic helps to explain both the upside and the downside of social diversity: people work harder in diverse environments both cognitively and socially. They might not like it, but the hard work can lead to better outcomes.”

REPRESENTING AS MANY METAPHORICAL TRUMPETS AS POSSIBLE

The student voice is sometimes a confused noise, rather than a clear outpouring of flowing sentences. You could dismiss the noise as a pointless waste of time. But wouldn’t it be better to give even more attention to the noise and try to understand garbled attempts at being heard? Isn’t it important to work out which voices haven’t called out at all?

A baby doesn’t make much noise in the first few weeks, other that cries and gurgles. When a baby starts to find its voice, it takes months and years for it to develop. Over time, the voice becomes clearer and we begin to understand a child’s needs and what motivates them.

A child cannot do that on their own. They need help and nurturing. But they do have their own metaphorical trumpet to blow.

The student voice consists of many trumpets. It also needs help and nurturing. There are still garbled attempts at being heard amongst the noise and some voices that aren’t yet heard.

Absolute representation may not be possible, but that shouldn’t stop the push to achieve it, whilst maintaining a relative representation to be proud of.

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Farewell Facebook? Au Revoir Apps?

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For those who move away from Facebook entirely, there are no doubt many others who haven’t left, but do far less on the site than before. Talk to parents, share unproblematic content, organise a few events…’harmless’ use can continue.

For everything else, new tools do the job. Students go where the family aren’t. They seek out specific communities of people. They form private networks away from prying eyes so they can keep in touch with their offline friends.

You don’t need to pretend to be several different personalities online. All you need to do is share particular types of information in particular places.

Say you buy a meal at McDonalds. You don’t explain to the cashier that you sometimes go to Burger King too. You don’t go to Nandos with your mates and announce that you also went with your Mum when she was visiting.

Your actions are public, but you keep the situations apart. Ever had one of those times when stuff clashed? Awkward.

A More Private Public?

When you’re online, you have new safeguards to consider, but it works in a similar way. Information, status updates and messages tend to linger. Plus, it’s easy enough for people to piece the information together and get a better picture of your actions. But when it comes to backing away from family, old school friends, and casual acquaintances, most bases are covered.

Information that you want strictly limited and kept away from particular individuals must be handled away from public services. If you broadcast stuff that you don’t want certain people to see, the safest option is not to broadcast it at all or do it in such a way that (almost) guarantees privacy.

And I don’t mean posting an embarrassing two-second Snapchat photo to someone in the hope that they don’t take a screenshot and share it with others. It means not posting the photo in the first place.

To App Or To Interact?

Facebook shouldn’t be concerned solely about young people who stop using the site. They should also think about those who have changed the way they use the service. Why? Because it changes the way they engage with the stuff that makes money. Everything changes…the way they see adverts, how long they spend on the site, their opinion of the service offered, the quality of the information they transmit, and so on.

When interest dwindles further, or if parents migrate to other services where their kids are hanging out (whether the kids like it or not…?), the knock-on effect could see older users moving away from Facebook too. This is all long-term stuff, which means the company won’t be resting on their laurels.

But is there a truly viable way for any social media players to keep up momentum and remain a solid player for many years to come?

I no longer think in terms of the sites and apps that people use. I’m more interested in the way they interact and the type of things they want to experience. Changes in these areas are potentially more telling than a service that’s popular at that particular moment. All it takes is one minor update or the next big thing to come along and all bets are off.

What are your favourite apps?

Now think about your answer. Will they still be your favourite apps next month? Next year? In a decade?

If you want to influence young people and connect directly with them right now, the big apps of the day matter.

But if you’re more interested in the overarching psychology behind the choices people make and the way people like to engage with each other, it’s time to look deeper than today’s top performer.

We’re Not Stereotypes, But We Share Similar Values

One thing you don’t want to do is assume that young people are wildly different to those in older generations. We all do things differently, but that doesn’t mean we want different things in the end.

People act the way they do because they have developed into that state. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail. No matter how hard we try, we can’t form an accurate picture of each individual. We boil personalities down into stereotypes. But look closely and you quickly see a more complex reality that’s not so easy to summarise.

A Communispace survey found that people’s values stay roughly similar, no matter how old you are. Issues that were important way back are still pretty important now.

And younger people aren’t sharing their life stories online. Most of their private and personal matters are not broadcast. Mistakes can be made and promises broken, but we’re not witnessing a rise in explicitly open individuals who don’t care what others read about them.

We may be happier to communicate online that in years before, but the tools weren’t previously available. Advances in technology allow us to do things we couldn’t do a year or two ago, let alone decades back. These technological advances change actions and experiences far more than they do values and opinions.

No matter where you end up in years to come, the app won’t change you, but you might change the app.

Actions and Experiences

5 Dreadful Pieces Of Student Advice (And Why You Need To Stop Following Them)

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Not all advice is equal. Even the best intentions don’t make for the best suggestions.

What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve been given at university?

You may have heard some of the following before. Don’t get sucked in!

1. “1st Year Doesn’t Count.”

When all you need to do is pass, you may think there’s no difference between getting 40% and 70% or higher. Just do what you need to get through and spend most of your time enjoying everything else.

Bad move.

Putting in the effort helps you to progress. Without it, you won’t be so prepared for the next year, when your marks do count. There is no easy way to catch up either, as a lot of the process is about technique and practice and abstract links. You can’t bring yourself up to speed with a bit of cramming and rote learning.

Dismissing the importance of your first year is one of the most misguided and dangerous pieces of advice around.

2. “Sign Up For Everything.”

No matter how tempting it is to do ALL THE THINGS, it won’t help your CV (or your schedule) by signing up to every society, every cause, and every extra-curricular activity you can.

Commit to just a few things and throw all your enthusiastic weight and interest into them. Make it count. Aim to come out the other side with great stories to tell and a sense of achievement.

By challenging yourself to be awesome in a small number of areas, you’ll likely have better experiences and you’re sure to look better on paper. Nobody cares that you were in seventeen different clubs; they care that you did amazing things in one or two of them.

Pro tip: Among the things you already have an interest in conquering, find at least one society or group that you think will push you in a new direction. The worst that can happen is that you’ll discover you have absolutely no interest. In which case, find another new path and see what happens. Rinse and repeat until something clicks. With an open attitude, it shouldn’t take long to find something that delivers.

3. “Only Concentrate On The Study.” / “Push Toward A First.”

Some students don’t sign up for everything. In fact, they sign up for nothing. Their degree journey is all about the magical First Class Honours.

Whoa there! Firsts are on the up (more on that later…) and a top grade is no guarantee of success and fame and wealth and [insert amazing thing you want here].

Yes, getting the top mark is fantastic. I wouldn’t want you to aim lower for no reason. But neither should you ignore everything else around you in your pursuit of that grade. In short, do your sensible best, not your perfectionist best.

I’ve spoken to students (and parents) who worry that they’re heading toward a 2:1 because they have been concentrating on other activities to the detriment of their study. But in many cases I hear, students are not so much ignoring their study, but rather improving skills and employability achievements.

One person, developing his own business, was worried that his academic work would drop in quality, risking a 2:1 over a First. Putting aside the risks associated with starting any new business, the potential gains on paper are bigger than the difference between a First and a 2:1.

I recently spoke to a mother who was worried that her son had gone from an almost certain First to a much more likely 2:1. Apparently he was spending a lot of time building up a writing portfolio, which had been getting in the way of his study.

But with his sights set on journalism and having managed to be published in various places, including one or two big names, the difference between a top mark and a good mark isn’t so important. The new achievements should more than make up for it.

4. Anything Too Specific – “Never do this…” / “Always do that…”

The diversity of university ensures that there are loads of things you can do and loads you’ll never manage to do, even in the three or so years you’re there.

All those lists on the stuff you should NEVER do as a student, or the things you MUST do before you graduate, are just a way to get you clicking on a link.

It’s like when a mate tells you the best club in the area. You may agree with their opinion and you may not. But that’s all it is. An opinion.

Be cautious of anyone advising you of a dead cert. Their advice may prove right for you in the end, but you shouldn’t assume it will. Blindly following risks stepping into disaster.

Next time someone says you HAVE to do it, by all means go ahead, but only after you’ve considered it for yourself and you’re happy to do it on your own terms and for your own reasons.

5. “Don’t Panic…Degrees Are Getting Easier.”

The preliminary results of the latest Times Higher Education Best University Workplace Survey contain many comments from academics that say increasing numbers of students end up graduating with a First or 2:1.

These comments, no matter how true, fuel advice to chill-out and not put too much effort into your work.

The ‘Don’t Panic’ bit is fine, but the reason not to panic doesn’t sit right. I’ve even seen online conversations that say you’d have to be an idiot not to get a 2:1 or better. That’s insulting to everyone; those who don’t manage the grade as well as those who do.

You may be tempted to try getting away with the smallest amount of work possible. The tactic doesn’t save time in the long run and does more harm than good. If you’ve not found enjoyment in your studies to the extent that you’re trying to minimise your workload like this, what do you really want from this?

So yes, try not to panic. But no, don’t expect your degree to be easy. If you do, the reality will likely emerge at precisely the wrong time.

Explore ways to make your effort effortless and your challenges enjoyable. You’ll be better placed to find an enjoyable flow in your work. Your degree will feel easier, but by no means will it be easy. The relaxed flow will, instead, be testament to your attitude.

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Is “Just Get Words Down” Good Advice When You’re Struggling to Write?

When you’re struggling to get an essay written, should you just write whatever comes into your head? Does the advice to write first and think later really help?

James Hayton isn’t a fan.

My main issue with chucking out words in a rush is when there is a lack of context. Freedom to write anything in a quick burst has a time and a place.

When you’re faced with a blank page, you may be tempted to start writing, no matter what the outcome.

Free writing can work out, but there are caveats:

  • It depends on what you do before and after the free writing – Just like an all-nighter only allows a single draft with simultaneous editing (if you have the time for that at all!), rattling off an essay in a flash without giving it much further attention is a mistake. Rapid writing of a first draft (or any piece of text) should only ever be considered a rough start. If you lose the drive to work with the text after your initial approach, rapid writing is not for you.
  • If you don’t have enough understanding or knowledge beforehand, the rapid writing won’t help – You need to be clued up on the subject you’re writing about. A lack of plan means a lack of content, no matter how quickly or slowly you choose to write.
    If I had to write an essay on the fifteen century, or astrophysics, or igneous rocks, or symbolism in Shakespeare’s tragedies, I would be crazy to blast off some random text in hope that something may work. I don’t know about these topics enough just to start writing. In fact, I’d be unhappy writing an academic text in any field straight away, even if I knew a lot about it. At best, I’d make a few brief notes on what I aim to argue alongside the points I wish to make to support the argument as well as discussion of counter arguments and potential issues that arise.
  • The individual isn’t equipped (for whatever reason) to edit the content once it’s written – This can pose a problem when half the material is rubbish or guesswork or errors or a combination of all these things. Without a clear grasp of how and why you need to edit, a bunch of text spewed out as quickly as possible is not a good place to begin.
  • Should you be writing down whatever comes to your head, or making brief notes and outlines based on what you wish to include in the work? – Preparation is key. The advice to ‘just write’ is problematic because people can assume it means to write stuff without a plan. Even a bare minimum can make a huge impact. Think before you type.

I see no problem with getting the words written down when you are confident that you have editing capabilities (and are not just looking to hit a certain number of words). Likewise, it’s no big deal when you already have a clear idea of what you want to say. As Hayton explains, the writing needs to be tight. Just one misplaced observation or assumption can drastically alter the tone, impact and clarity of your writing. However, the first draft doesn’t have to be a place for that.

Any piece of advice, no matter how popular, is not going to work for everyone. And just because ‘everyone’ does something, that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Getting the words down fast shouldn’t be recommended to everyone, but I’m equally sure that it is a mistake to recommend it to no one.

What do you do?