On Being a Student – When Lecturers Become Students

by worriedteacher

What IS  a student?

Seems an obvious answer to say somebody who participates in a programme of study.

For me the possible answers become many and complex if we reconsider such terms as ‘programme of study’.  Despite the long history of universities, surprisingly little academic study has been done on the nature of teaching and learning, and the attendant subjectivities of ‘lecturer’ and ‘student’, and even less on the nature of ‘curriculum’.

The problematic meaning of curriculum, and therefore learning and teaching in higher education are the focus of my current ‘teaching’.  Working on a Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching & Learning in Higher Education this semester’s theme is Curriculum Design & Assessment.  We kicked off with a contribution from Dr Kelly Coate (King’s College, London) where she discussed, amongst other things, a framework for inquiring into curriculum.

engaging the curriculum in he

The framework is structured around considerations of knowledge (the aspects of teaching and learning required for competency in a specific discipline), action (those competencies acquired through the process of doing), and BEING (the development of an educational and/or an epistemic identity).

It is this last element of BEING that is perhaps most novel in the framework.  While not explicit in discussions of curriculum it is not so difficult to turn conversation within academic disciplines towards the role of the curriculum in socialising students into epistemic communities (of engineers, scientists, historians, etc.), of being socialised into particular formations of knowledge and methodologies.  It is less common and more difficult to open up space for considering the more existential quality of BEING an engineer, scientist or historian.

curriculum schema

Having shared this framework with students on Monday afternoon I then found myself in discussion over coffee with a colleague, a discussion that focused substantively on this question of BEING a student.  This question of beingness arose because my colleague talked about her own current experience of being a STUDENT.  As we talked the strangeness of the labels ‘student’ and ‘academic’ and ‘higher education professional’ grew stronger and stronger in my mind.  Here I was, in this very moment a colleague,  yet the narrative being shared framed this person across the table as a STUDENT.  This brought to mind the phenomena I had faced often in eight years of working with education professionals as students on doctoral programmes.  Often you could see the very gait of people transform as they walked through the door, transforming from highly experienced and authoritative professionals to STUDENT.  These existential shifts were far more fundamental than simply being the consumers of somebody else’s knowledge, or of engaging with the doing of assignment writing, research proposing, or researching.

Similarly, on Monday afternoon, I sat in a room with colleagues from my own institution who possessed knowledge and skills far beyond my capabilities, yet they were structurally located as STUDENT.

While positivist understandings of curriculum might deny an existential quality to student engagement, as educators we know that the same programme of study can be experienced radically different from one cohort to the next, from one day to the next.  There is no established ground upon which curriculum as syllabus stands.  Both knowing and doing are intimately bound up in the BEING-ness of being a student.


For some more on teh curriculum framework referenced above please see this slide presentation developed by Caroline Marcangelo at the University of Cumbria, UK: