Professional, Learning and Social Spaces – and the Student.

A colleague posted a Guardian article on Facebook, it discussed the lack of professionalism in students in the university classroom, how professionalism as a skill has not been taught, or been made part of their study culture to this point. I had some thoughts in response, that move in the direction of what I’ll try in the new semester.

Fist of all I have generally not had too much trouble in this regard, I find performing arts students quite good at professionalism. I suppose this is because an understanding of different modes of behaviour and presentation (through writing, speaking, and appearance) make perfect sense to them. They also understand that whatever you are doing can be shaped for specific audiences, and that the medium can be the message. Yet, I do keep seeing underlying issues: Emails written in an inappropriate style for the subject. Oversharing of personal information in the class. A lack of preparation. Social media finding its way into class.

I can forgive all these, but they ring alarm bells for how the Student might approach a critical moment in presenting themselves. They are bad habits that could effect their learning and career in both the short and the long term. But why are these habits forming, and why are they being perpetuated?

I’ve been considering that part of the issue is an unclear division of connected issues. We imagine that students are just there to learn, but should also behave professionally as if the classroom were a workplace. Also we imagine that that ‘the social’ can and perhaps should be left outside of class. As if the first two go together seamlessly, and the third can be excluded from anything; that there is a clear distinction between professional environment/learning environment/social environment. Of course any sphere of human activity is always, all three.

By way of indicating the confusion, an anecdote. At a meeting to discuss ‘The future of the lecture’, a member of staff described how they had asked students to leave phones in a basket on the way into class, to minimise their disruption to the class. The response to this from students had been positive. However the responses to this from the lecturers, was not as uniform. Some staff thought that the students were being infantilised and were responsible for their own conduct, others thought that the phones should be encouraged and used in class, others that they had no place at all.

A contributing factor in this is that things have changed rapidly in the last few decades. Both learning and work seem to have become less formalised, and social activity has increased its share of our time, attention, and mode of operation. I consider these good things, but it is a new territory that needs to be navigated afresh.

Neither staff nor students have a readymade example of a space that combines the formal boundaries of work, the interplay of structure and chaos which is learning, and the free flow of social activity. Perhaps the closest is in Theatre and the Arts in general, but even that can now disrupted by the same mobile social technology and the shifts in our working and learning environments.

Oftentimes, attempts to resolve this are to resort to nostalgic or mythical notions of what professionalism in work or the classroom really entail. Sometimes calling for a return to strict boundaries or a completely free environment. Neither are useful.

As a result teachers and students alike suffer from a poorly defined overlap. You can see staff and students who prioritise one over the others with various levels of success. I was recently observed by a student to have a ‘laid back directing style’ in a professional context. However this only worked because my collaborators, who I have worked with before are experienced, and we are familiar with each other. So we know how to balance, work, exploration and fun. I can’t do it in class until we really have a sense of each other, and that can take a long time.

So, I’ve been considering a threefold approach, that instead of approaching class as one environment, it should be approached as all three. If you give students and staff a greater understanding of those environments (Their boundaries and benefits), then maybe greater engagement and agency will occur within.





So what do you need for a professional environment?


Dress code: I have no time for uniform, nor representing the values of your ‘workplace’ in your attire. It’s just a form of control. However function is critical. So this is something that people need to let go of, but give guidance for. Let your students know what will be good to wear. If what they turn up in is functional, then it’s fine.

Attendance and punctuality: Turning up and being on time should need little explanation. However, it has to be mutual, staff and students to set the terms and haveto give and take. Also those that don’t turn up, or a serially late (staff included) need to realise that they are breaching both a pedagogical, professional and and social boundary. They may not be taken seriously, the time to bring them up-to-speed is not a endless resource, and it will effect how others in class see them.

Food and drink: This shouldn’t be a usual activity. People having to eat meals at work often is a sign of something out of balance. Either the damages of work, or the ability to manage it. Also the mess that can be created can be a problem for others. So dissuading food and drink is for everyone. It should encourage the notion that you should have prepared for work, and that you can manage your work.

There are exceptions, health, keeping energy levels up and most importantly – treats. Never underestimate the power of a jelly baby as an incentive to work.

Conduct and Communication: This has to be demonstrated, learnt, and maintained. We can’t expect people to know the rules or boundaries of different people, places, and modes of communication. So we do need to take time setting and communicating the procedures, without judging what people are used to. Formality is a good place to start, as it can form a foundation for more complex, subtle and personal interaction. Then if things go out of line, you can revert to formality to resolve issues.



What makes a learning environment?


Preparation: A learning environment is one that everyone has prepared for. Again I think it’s essential that if asking students to prepare, the lecturer has to be prepared as well. Also that preparation should be minimised and focused. Everyone has to understand what preparation really means, it’s not a set of shackles for the class. It’s a starting point for the session. More than anything, preparation is getting a good nights sleep and breakfast before the class starts.

Electronic devices: Yes, keep them on, but keep them out of reach until it’s a break time, or time to use them. They can have a place in learning, just like a pencil and paper. Note taking, documentation, research, but we often don’t know what the appropriate place is. It’s really worth taking time to structure their use and physical inclusion into classes. You wouldn’t ask students to do a physical workshop carrying their books, you shouldn’t ask students to do a focused writing exercise with a twitter feed in front of their eyes.

Focus, Structure and Stillness: A class should be a space apart from the distractions, digressions and intrusions of everyday life. Cultivating the focus of participants, a structured event and the stillness that can otherwise be absent in life can be invaluable. There are exceptions. A class can frequently be chaotic and playful, a digression from the plan, and loud, frenetic and exciting. Perhaps a lot of classes would benefit from this. But I think these build from and return to the context of a stable space.

Something at Stake: Learning happens when something matters, it doesn’t when things feel ‘academic’… So in teaching, something has to be put on the line, or at risk. The subject matter, your professional reputation, the respect of your peers. By allowing something of value to be vulnerable to change or challenge – an idea, yourself or your view of the world – you create the conditions for new ideas and practices to form, and to take hold.

An open context: Alongside something being at stake, something also has to be possible. The learning environment has to be a place where anything can be thought, tried, and evaluated, where the boundaries you’ve built inside yourself can be transgressed, safely and with support. The classroom has to be a place where to quote Adrian Howells ‘everything is allowed’.



Four social stories.


Matthew Goulish was running a writing class:He begins by placing a flower in vase on the table in front of him. He does not explain this, I don’t know why he does this, he does this at the start of every session. I, of course, supply numerous meanings. He is supplying something beautiful, he is bringing nature to the space, he is creating a focal point, he is making me question his actions and my place in the room. This act is a social act, it brings us together. I remember a phrase: Building beauty. No one really wants to work in a place that is ugly, cold, cramped… maybe you can find a room that reminds you of what you are learning, or inspires you, or builds confidence. Maybe all you need to do is begin and end with flowers.

I was working with Ersatz dance company on the making of a show: Before the days begin, everyone meets at a greasy spoon cafe and fills up. The work is arduous for the dancers, but not for me, I’m being ‘a writer’… I don’t need 700 calories. However here with coffee and eggs, we wake up, talk, see how each other are doing, are we ok? Where in those breaks during a class, or at the start and end, do we identify who needs support, or might want to step out, need a talk at the end. Is there a space where people are quietly and discretely seen and heard, acknowledged.

I was co-writing a conference paper with a friend, Penny: I’m writing it with a cup of tea, in my pyjamas, in my living room. Penny is also in her living room, with a cup of tea. I don’t know if she’s in her pyjamas. But we are separated by about 100 miles. We are writing live onto a google doc. This should be difficult, a disembodied typing onto a shared document. But it is the easiest paper I’ve ever written – because we’d tapped in the experience of Co-working or Coffee shop syndrome. The experience that you can work better in an informal busy, social, location than a dry ‘workplace’. If other people are working around you, on other activities, it focuses you on yours. The inevitable distractions and interruptions of cats walking across iPads, children, and washing up only serve to help keep you going.

I was in the middle of the woods, in the middle of the night, in winter, it was raining. I was with three friends – Will, Ed, and Andy: We’ve made a rather small sad fire, and we are sat around the fire, keeping it going in the cold and the wet, sleeping, talking, suffering. We were just trying to make it through the night. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and totally self inflicted. Ed’s house, with beds and central heating was a short walk away… But we had decided to keep the fire going, that central, endless, social action was the task we shared to bond us. What is the endless flow activity of constant reward and deferment, in your class? What is your fire?




By way of conclusion, an anecdote. My son (6), distinguishes between school and not school, play and helping out… yet, not quite. To him they are different activities, that overlap. They don’t quite merge, and become ‘playchores’, but we do however ‘play’ while doing ‘chores’.

On a trip to Exeter Cathedral Isaac gets some pencil and paper and begins to draw the figures he sees in the stain glass windows. While drawing his ‘knights’ he learns about Exeter cathedral and stain glass windows. He chats with me, his sister, his mum, his nan, the cathedral staff, passing children. He passes easily from drawing, to talking, to learning about the Cathedral.

I say he can put his drawings in a book like a proper artist. He corrects me, ‘I am a proper artist’. He is already at work, fully fledged. I confirm his assertion, and then remind him of what he says he wants to be when he grows up, ‘Yes that’s right, you are, you are an artist, and a scientist, and a teacher’. All three at the same time. True story.

Thats all.


‘Sir Mordred’. Drawn from the stained glass windows of Exeter cathedral, named by my suggestion…

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