5 things my university students have taught me

I’ve been teaching sociology at undergraduate and postgraduate level for over a quarter of a century now, beginning in the late 1980s. University level education in the UK has changed massively during this period.

Here are some of the things I have learnt from my students over the years.

Lesson 1: I’m old, and my life is their ‘history’

When I first started teaching at University level, I wasn’t that much older than my students. In 2018, my first-year sociology students were the same age as my own youngest child. Nowadays, I’m likely as old (or older) than my students’ parents.

The age structuring and funding regimes of UK education means that undergraduate student cohorts are almost all aged 18-22ish. I get older each year; the students are, eternally, aged 18-22ish. Cultural references I once relied upon to illustrate a point to my students are now met with blank faces, and so I have to try and come up with contemporary ones. In this way, my students have taught me a very real lesson about the ‘generation gap’, or how the population is structured by age.

Lesson 2: It IS about the money

I didn’t pay fees for my university education, but for many years, students now do. The introduction of tuition fees, and their rapid increase, means that students ARE more focused on the quality and value of what they are paying for.

Particularly since the trebling of tuition fees in England post-2010, successive cohorts of students have taught me that it IS about the money, money, money. Understandable, for sure, given the context. Yet, too few undergraduate students realise that, the more ‘investment’ they make through their own scholarly activities, the greater ‘value’ their degree course will have.

Lesson 3: Black (& minority ethnic) lives matter

I’m white. I have spent most of my academic career working in a university located within one of the most ethnically diverse cities in England. But the majority of students in my sociology classes over the years have been white, and, even in the current cohort, are white.

Yet, in the last several years, the rows of faces in my lectures have become more diverse: the proportion of black and minority ethnic students in my sociology classes is increasing.

My students have taught me the importance of developing and implementing a more inclusive sociology curriculum. For example, I now use Stuart Hall’s  ‘the West and the Rest’ in critique of ‘conventional’ accounts of how the origin of sociology is linked to the emergence of modernity. Typically, conventional accounts  neglect how European colonialism and slavery were integral to the very growth and character of European ‘modernity’.

Frankly, I’m ashamed that it took me so long to think critically about my sociology teaching in terms of its inclusivity – or lack thereof.

Lesson 4: Pathways & life-jackets

I come from a working-class, council-house dwelling, single-parent family. My pathway within higher education via sociology was largely unplanned. But it has transformed the trajectory of my life. It has been my life-jacket, lifting me above the achievements of my primary and secondary school peers from similar backgrounds.

My students have taught me that, for some, a university education in sociology is their own life-jacket. Students have told me how their choice to come to university, to study sociology, was a deliberate, purposeful, wholly conscious choice. For some, the choice was made to divert themselves from other more accessible but less salubrious, sometimes dangerous, pathways through life. These pathways might have included settling for locally available ‘shit-jobs’. Or pathways such as getting deeply involved in criminal activities, including gangs and/or drug cultures. It’s a privilege for me to be help these students put on their own life-jackets through studying for a sociology degree.

Lesson 5: Transformative memories

For those who go, university years are likely looked back on as amongst the best times of their lives. To be sure, the ‘hard work’ of lectures and seminars, writing essays, exams and so on probably feature rather less in those memories than other archetypal student experiences.

But my students have taught me that, for some at least, experiences of sociology modules themselves can be transformative, impactful and cherished long after graduation. I’ve had an ex-student write me a letter, sending me a poem I could use in seminars on the sociology of old age. I’ve had an ex-student stop me in the street, telling me that now, years later, she worked in management in banking and that the only text book she kept from her undergraduate studies was my Age and Generation in Modern Britain – because she had so enjoyed the module it was based on. I have had a ex-student tell me that, years after graduating, the only essay she kept from her sociology degree was one she had written for my module.

It’s easy for university educators to forget that, maybe, we might be providing these kinds of long-cherished, transformative memories for our students of their university years. That’s a lesson well learnt, at least by me.