‘Experiencing’ university: A Polemic

Originally published on the University of Reading’s Engage in Teaching and Learning blog:


The University of Reading, like any other Higher Education Institution, is a diverse place, with many stakeholders, but – at least in theory – one mutual mission: ‘our mission is to educate talented people well, to conduct outstanding research, and to promote the responsible application of new knowledge.’

Unsurprisingly, the various stakeholders have diverse, sometimes downright conflicting ideas as to how to achieve the objectives outlined in the mission statement. In between Senior Management, the Centre for the Development of Teaching and Learning, the Admissions and Student Recruitment teams, and – last, but certainly not least – the academics in the teaching units at Reading, it will be difficult to find much common ground, as these groups’ respective agendas will shape their views.

As an academic it appears to be increasingly difficult to voice one’s concerns in this context (or so it seems, anyway), as financial considerations (fair enough!) and ‘wider developments in the HE sector’ (it would be nice to hear of those in advance occasionally, rather than only whenever convenient in response to perfectly reasonable considerations!) may be hurled one’s way at any one time.

The Normative Force of Verbal Imagery

Promotional material is designed to send out messages to an audience that has an interest in one’s offerings, highlighting those aspects that the advertising business regards as particularly relevant to their potential clients’ interests. Our University webpage is nothing but admirably clear about what is good about us and about what should make potential applicants consider coming to Reading as their University of choice: there are many reasons, but first and foremost it is the ‘great student experience’. Academic excellence comes fifth, the relevance and the rigorous standard of our degree programmes does not feature on the menu at all:

Screenshot from http://www.reading.ac.uk/Study/study-why.aspx (12 December 2012)

This observation gives me an opportunity to combine my research interests in the interdependence of language, text, and power with my professional interests as an University educator, and to reflect on what it is that we actually tell our potential applicants.

Human language is a sign system. It enables exchange of information between those who, implicitly or explicitly, agreed on the set of signs as well as its underlying sets of principles and rules. Furthermore, it enables its users to express their views and ideas. This use of language that, at first glance, seems to suggest that one is somehow in control of one’s words as well as one’s thoughts, and that one is able to think and express whatever one pleases however one chooses to do so.

This optimistic view is wishful thinking at best, however. Partly due to its pre-agreed nature, partly due to the all too human reluctance to challenge traditions and practices, language exercises considerable normative force over the mindset and attitudes of those who agreed to abide by the rules of this system. The extent to which language regulates, restricts, and positively reduces our imagination becomes obvious when it comes to the use of metaphors and verbal imagery.

Recent years have seen an excessive use of the phrase ‘student experience’ in the Higher Education sector. This phrase, although objectively neutral (an experience can be good, bad, or inconclusive), has a deceptively positive ring to it: ‘experience’ is a decidedly sensual term, seemingly taking into account as to how one feels about what one encounters in a certain environment. It also seems to imply a certain sense of adventure, of controlled exposure, and of unrestricted subjectivity. In other words, it is a term designed to encourage a consumerist attitude. Those who use this term for advertising purposes are fully aware of this aspect:

Screenshot from http://www.reading.ac.uk/Study/study-why.aspx (12 December 2012)

In turn, however, it is reasonable to assert that those who choose to use the term ‘student experience’ will deservedly encounter an attitude that tends to be self-centred and devoid of responsibility on the side of those who find themselves at the receiving end of such an ‘experience’. This must not come as a surprise, since this is exactly what the term ‘experience’ implies. Advertisers may not care about that, but those who are responsible for the delivery of the ‘experience’ must know this: for it is the normative, thought-structuring force of the metaphor that haunts those who cherish the term’s positive connotations in advertising jargon, but in actual fact rather dislike the expectations of the ‘customers’ who came for what has been promised.

The view of a University education as an ‘experience’ is a paradigm that, with its quasi-mystic and holistic subjectivism, can safely be assigned to the intellectual world of the New Age movement. It has largely replaced harder, more challenging synonyms, including ‘study’ and (now heavily dated) ‘read’, with an implicit assumption that the threatening, industrial implication of hard work may put off those fearful souls who go to University with the aim ‘to get a degree’, ideally with little effort, and certainly with very little actual regard for the world of knowledge and learning that they choose to join for their personal benefit.

Expectations, Aims, and Attitudes

If one puts the ‘student experience’ at the heart of one’s advertising campaigns, as Reading does, one should not be surprised if those who choose to take up one’s offer are passive and consumerist in their attitude. Furthermore, the connotation of an experience, with its rootedness in New Age thinking, is also reminiscent of the Human Potential Movement: the ubiquity of references to a ‘supportive, nurturing environment’, to ‘feedback’ and ‘feed-forward’, and to ‘sharing of good practice’ are the most obvious indications of this.

This attitude, however one may feel about this, does come at a significant cost. There is an increasing political and economic necessity to demonstrate that our alumni are highly skilled, independent, and capable of making a positive contribution to our society, appropriate to their level of training. One may be even more aspirational and say: our alumni should not only be able to contribute to the well-being of our world today, but they should be capable of leading and designing the world of tomorrow. Which begs an obvious question: considering that those who join us are attracted by an ideology that encourages feel-good complacency, passive consumerism, and the expectation of entertainment, how does one then manage to turn them into alumni that fit the model description of an ideal Readingite? Can this be achieved without missing out on talented, yet potentially rather less confident applicants?

Ad Fontes! (‘To the sources!’)

The answer to this question may, interestingly enough, already exist at Reading, if perhaps largely unbeknownst to most of us. As part of my professional interest in both the history of the Latin language and in inscribed text, I have recently started to collect the Latin inscriptions of Reading. One of the most remarkable examples of a Latin inscription at Reading can be found on the premises of our very own University, in the quadrangle of Wantage Hall. The North wall of the large quad, facing the dining hall, holds a large inscription, commemorating the dedication of Wantage Hall by Baroness Wantage in honour of her husband, as a gift to University College Reading in 1908:

Dedicatory inscription, Wantage Hall, Reading (7 August 2012)

The inscription reads as follows –

Aulam hanc
coniugis sui dignissimi
Collegii Universitatis apud Radingam olim praesidis
nomini semper servando
d(onum) d(edit)
Baronissa de Wantage
in usum iuventutis
studiis ibi liberalibus operaturae
ut communi ardore alacri sermone
in beatam litterarum ac scientiae sodalitatem
feliciter congregentur.

‘This hall, to preserve the name of her most worthy husband, former president of University College, Reading, was given as gift by Baroness Wantage in 1908, for the use of the youth, to engage in liberal study there, so they, in common ardour and eager speech, may fruitfully assemble for the blessed community of letters and science.’

The inscription is a powerful reminder of a time when reading for a degree at University, at least in romanticising, abstract thought, primarily was about education, not about an experience prior to one’s joining the workforce. The very term education implies liberation, aiming at freedom from authorities that assume the right to determine one’s behaviour in word and deed – this ambiguous potential is precisely what makes education so powerful and threatening at the same time.

The idea of an education at Reading as something that liberates the hopefuls of our society (the inscription explicitly talks about the studia liberalia, the studies worthy of a free spirit) is eminently appealing to me. The inscription urges us to achieve this through the provision of a sheltered space for our studentship in conjunction with an environment that encourages intellectual ardour and heated debate between them, in the presence of the academics of our University.

Embracing this legacy of the earliest days of our University, adapting it to the needs of a globalised world with a pace that is radically different from what it was more than one hundred years ago, is indeed something that must appeal to a studentship that is active, engaged, and willing to be bold and to make a difference after their time at University. We can decide: do we want to offer our students a feel-good experience, a quick trip on the conveyor belt of the skills supply industry, or a space for contemplation, fundamental and thorough learning, and an education worthy of its name?

Postscriptum (Instead of a Conclusion)

There is a well-known rivalry between Wantage Hall and St. Patrick’s Hall at Reading. St. Patrick’s, too, has a Latin inscription on display in its quadrangle, and it would be a shame to omit it from the present context:

Motto of St. Patrick’s Hall, Reading (7 August 2012)

The inscription, underneath a basket of flames surrounded by a circle formed of two snakes biting their tails, reads thus:

Facta non forma.

‘Deeds, not image.’

After the previous considerations, it is tempting to offer an alternative interpretation to this text: how about ‘(excellent) education, not (just a mere feel-good) experience’?

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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