Social isolation from university life

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Ah, how we have suffered this year. ‘Rona really put the brakes on things, didn’t she? The social aspect of the university was totally lost. I’m so happy that we’re back to face-to-face classes, at least for the tutorials, it’s better than nothing. It’s going to be so good to be around other people again!

But wait a minute, I had fucked all the social life in college before the virus. Now it comes back to me. Avoid eye contact when typing lectures and tutorials. Seated looking straight ahead, two seats required between me and anyone else in the class; and that was long before “social distancing” entered my lexicon. Getting to about week four and thinking “it’s too awkward to introduce myself now”. A silence at the end of the obligatory lesson ‘Any questions?’ before a line forms to ask the teacher one by one, God forbid we have to speak in front of the whole class.

“College is awesome, it was the best time of my life, I made so many great friends” – is a notion only conveyed by baby boomers, middle schoolers and people who studied oddly specific degrees . Why do you ask? I have a theory. For these people, the university experience involved a “cohort”. This is a group of students, who (for better or worse) have been lumped together in a variety of backgrounds. At the height of my parents’ generation, they started out as a larger group of about 100 students enrolled in a course in first year, with about half of them succeeding as a group through second year. Indeed, in this context, and in more specialized degrees today, these social groups have formed through fewer students studying any degree and with fewer subject choices. Before someone in the administration building starts foaming, that doesn’t mean there should be fewer topic choices. Putting more students in fewer courses will, in my experience, only exacerbate the feeling of isolation, which is already a problem in some 101 courses with more than a thousand students.

Of course, none of this is helped by the skyrocketing cost of housing, which has forced most students to move out of accommodation near the university. More and more, it seems that the student experience is one of part-time work, punctuated by goes longer to university more distant family homes. It’s no surprise that the prevailing attitude toward college is to cram the most courses into the fewest days possible and to spend the least amount of time on campus. This does not mean, however, that the prospect of a social life at university should be relegated to the past. On the contrary, the increased efforts of many students today to support themselves and travel greater distances to get to campus means that we deserve now, more than ever, to have a socially fulfilling university life.

The transactional nature of today’s corporatized university experience perpetuates a cycle of disengagement that undermines the entire process of teaching and learning. It is absolutely necessary to foster real engagement in the courses we have come here to study. In the best tutorial I’ve had so far; when it became patently clear that, as is the case with most courses, hardly anyone had done the required readings, let alone had the slightest interest in the subject at hand, the tutor snapped. To paraphrase: “If you haven’t done the readings, get the hell out of my class!” I don’t take attendance, so not only are you wasting my time, you’re wasting yours! He forced half the class to get up and leave, and most of them never came back.

It’s the only seminar where I’ve met someone I’d talk to if I saw them on campus today. Our true engagement with the subject, and therefore our discussions with each other, is not the result of management-mandated “attendance requirements” and other unnecessary checkboxes, but of a tutor’s desire that his students are genuinely interested in the content of the course. I suspect that if other tutors took a similar line in attendance and participation, it would inspire similar results. However, this change must begin with paying seminar tutors properly, as well as integrating into their work helping students engage with the subject in and out of the classroom; which would mean appropriate compensation for the work that many casual academics already do, such as answering emails or setting aside time for students outside of class.

Coming out of the pandemic is the perfect time to rethink university social life. Our student body, more socially isolated than ever, deserves more attention than some periodically advertised and squeaky coffee and chat sessions at Fisher or on Zoom concocted by a low-rate HR professional. So what can we do? Perhaps the organic “cohorts” of past times are lost. Indeed, it seems that the contemporary equivalents are only available to those who can afford to pay for them through residential colleges or expensive corporate-run weekend camps. However, it is certainly not up to the middle managers of the university, if they join their minds, to create similar social circles accessible to all.

Why not start by putting more students studying the same subjects in more of the same tutoring classes? This would partly contribute to dividing freshmen into informal “cohorts”. Why stop there? Divide all freshmen into explicit groups of approximately 100, based on their subject choices. Hell, host a social event to get them started! While you’re at it, streamline the location of courses and scholars on campus. Shock! Horror! Could you imagine having classes in your faculty building? The co-location of subject-based classrooms and related departments may well lead to the common spaces of these buildings serving as informal or unorganized meeting places for students and teachers. If ever there was an opportunity to reimagine how college could be a less isolating experience, now is the time to once again transform it into an engaging social environment for the pursuit of knowledge.

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