Becoming what you want to be Dr Denise Batchelor, London South Bank University

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1 Becoming what you want to be Dr Denise Batchelor, London South Bank University Keywords Voice, vulnerability, becoming, being Summary In semester two I used a London South Bank University (LSBU) learning and teaching fellowship to test some theoretical ideas from my doctoral research in a small-scale empirical project. Entitled Recovering the Student Voice, the project aimed to deepen understanding of the student voice. This casestudy concerns one part of the project: Becoming what you want to be. The project s overall aim was to listen to students talking about their experience of the first semester in their own way and from their own perspective. The publicity stressed that participants would not have to complete forms or questionnaires. The project was grounded in a particular understanding of student voice, which is that the student voice comprises three interrelated elements: a voice for knowing, a voice for doing, and a voice for being and becoming. The underlying hypothesis was that a voice for being and becoming is less valued and validated in contemporary higher education, and more vulnerable, than voices for knowing and doing. Yet it is fundamental to the successful realisation of those other two voices: if a voice for being and becoming is unsupported, voices for knowing and doing become vulnerable. The possibility of attaining integrity of voice is undermined. Institutional context LSBU is a large post-1992 university located in Southwark. This project was linked to the university s priorities of improving student retention and enhancing the quality of the first-year student experience, and to the focus of the LSBU Student Support working-party of the Higher Education Change Academy.

2 A time for change The project took place in addition to the existing personal tutoring arrangements at LSBU. These are not standardised centrally, but contextualised within different faculties so that the needs of the University s diverse student body can be addressed as fully as possible. The LSBU learning and teaching fellowship freed some time to focus in depth on a particular dimension of student support: listening to students. Detailed description of intervention Population The sample was self-selected, and comprised 21 full-time and part-time day and evening undergraduate and postgraduate students on vocationally orientated courses both within and outside the Business, Computing and Information Management (BCIM) faculty. The participants ages ranged from eighteen to forty. Nine students were male and twelve were female. Fifteen students were interviewed individually, four chose to be interviewed as a small group and two opted to be interviewed as a pair. Publicity The project was advertised on flyers, on the BCIM student intranet and on the electronic screen in the foyer of the London Road building. I visited several first-year seminar groups to explain what the project was about, and publicised it through the International Office s database. Germination A voice for being and becoming, the voice of self-realisation, is to be found at the heart of recruitment literature for higher education. LSBU s advertising strap-line, displayed on posters, buses, trains and station platforms, is Become what you want to be. This invitation is printed against a background list of professions. In the advertisement, the process of becoming is interpreted primarily vocationally, and linked to successful career development. Two questions gradually took shape, and became the starting-points for the part of the project that forms this case-study. Firstly, how do students understand the process of becoming? Secondly, what spaces are offered to students in a new university to develop a voice for being and becoming, or is this voice assumed to develop automatically as the inevitable concomitant of voices for knowing and doing? I set out to discover whether students themselves interpreted the invitation to become what and who they wanted to be primarily in vocational terms, or whether other possible aspects of meaning for being and becoming were live and important for them. I hoped to learn what the process of becoming meant to students intellectually, personally and professionally as they progressed towards realising their ambitions. Implementation Unstructured space Students are often encouraged from the outset to formulate clear objectives and goals, and to plan how they will achieve them to know with certainty who they are and where they are going almost before they start. There is a risk that an over-

3 prescribed idea of a student diminishes the space students have to come into themselves. The project was about making space for students as individual persons. Through its structure I sought to create a space for them to talk about their experience in their own way and from their own perspective, in a series of face-to-face individual and small group interviews. The timing and duration of the interviews were determined by the students, with the length of an individual interview averaging between one-and-a-half and two hours. Interviews were tape-recorded with the participants permission. I was surprised at how long students spoke. The interviews took place in a shared office at LSBU. My room-mate was never present when they were scheduled. Because I imagined that particular physical contexts might encourage or inhibit certain modes of voice, I hoped this room would provide a more informal and relaxed setting than an impersonal public space. I wanted to reduce as far as possible any overtones of power in the lecturer:student relationship, or any emphasis on lecturer and student roles, however unintended, that meeting students in an empty classroom or committee-room might spontaneously engender. As my part of the room contains books and pictures, there were several potential conversation points naturally to hand that would not have been available in an empty classroom. It was easier to break the ice, for me as well as the participants. These brief margins of lead-in time were valuable spaces for orientation, chances to form mutual first impressions, and opportunities to try to intuit the best way of putting a range of individuals with different personalities at their ease. My concern was to try to establish an atmosphere of trust in which participants would feel able to talk with someone they did not know about areas that are in themselves difficult to think about and describe. These introductory borders of communication increasingly set the tone for the interviews themselves, which developed naturally out of them. One of the questions students were asked was What does Become what you want to be mean to you as an individual? Within the word-limit here it is not possible to capture the richness of their responses in their own words, but a summary of four of their ideas follows. Reflections The respondents all focused in different ways on their own personal philosophical interpretations of the state of being and the process of becoming as well as on their vocational goals. A personal invitation The openness and directness of the challenge to become what you want to be was experienced as an exciting invitation full of hope and possibility. The strength and positivity of the invitation had a powerful appeal, not only to 18 year olds but also to mature students, those returning to study and those hoping for a second chance after educational setbacks or failures earlier in their lives. Students interpreted it as a form of promise. The invitation was experienced as reaching out to students as individuals. They commented on the welcome opening for the individual and the personal which it offered. Some mature students had interpreted the invitation as a direct challenge to change direction, giving up the security of a job and income to become students again.

4 Vulnerability and becoming Such a raising of hopes in students, if unsupported, can create unexpected vulnerability. The participants experienced becoming what they wanted to be as a complex and demanding endeavour. The process of becoming, interpreted as coming into one s self, is unique for each student. Activities of self-knowledge and self-realisation need experimental spaces and vocabularies in which they can be constructed and expressed. They need time and attention to engage so that students do not feel they are failing in a context geared to success. There was a sense from the participants that there was a difficult and hidden underside to the process of becoming what you want to be, and a belief that this hinterland needed to be concealed and negotiated alone. Some students thought that experiencing the complexities of becoming indicated that they were failing, and that expressing their anxieties would only confirm this publicly. They expressed a need for unstructured spaces where they could explore the uncertainties and difficulties that formed an inevitable part of the process of becoming what they wanted to be. Conflict and becoming Underlying an invitation to become what you want to be is a challenge to make a choice. Students recognised that choosing to pursue one opportunity for becoming involved forgoing other possibilities. During the interviews students sometimes explored the alternative possible selves they might have become but had relinquished in favour of pursuing their present courses. They had all experienced the complexity of choice, and were aware of different directions their lives might have taken and other possibilities for becoming that had been rejected. The idea of becoming suggests liberation and fulfilment because of the underlying assumption that students are becoming what they want to be, but the reality of becoming can also involve conflict. It emerged that students on vocational programmes are not necessarily vocationally focused. Some students performing well on such courses may recognise what they want to be but choose to suppress this self-knowledge. Participants described how their families had exerted pressure on them to choose particular courses because they would guarantee secure, highly paid employment in the future. For these students, becoming what they ostensibly wanted to be entailed not being fully who they were. The personal tension this caused them could foster thoughts of dropping out. Expectations and becoming Students were aware of the danger of disillusionment. This was to do with negotiating a satisfactory reconciliation between their prior expectations of higher education and its reality. Participants alluded to an initial jarring between their internal and external worlds as they strove to match their pre-existing dreams of university life to the actual experience of being there. They wanted a space to express this rather than worrying in isolation and contemplating withdrawing. Effectiveness of intervention or change A possible reason others might want to do this too, depending on their own and their institutions understanding of personal tutoring, is that personal tutoring is sometimes carried out by exception, and perceived as a resource primarily for students with problems. Students who appear to be successful may not request a personal tutoring meeting. What does becoming mean to you? sought to appeal to all students as an open question that transcended any categories into which students might have been

5 placed or any labels that might have been ascribed to them, whether by themselves or others. It sought to connect with them as persons, and to focus on the personal dimension of the phrase personal tutoring. Limitations The limitations of this case-study are apparent: it was a small-scale enquiry, and it might be argued that it is not representative. However, probing the idea that there is a normative student or a unitary student experience was one of the project s aims. I hope that something of the participants diversity came through in their own voices as they talked about one particular dimension of their experience of being students. Future developments Practical As a next step, I hope to develop this project by adopting a suggestion made by four of the international participants. They suggested that a website should be created on which existing and intending students could express the kind of ideas they had discussed in the project, and have a conversation with each other. Writing I am currently in the process of writing up the project at greater length and in more detail, expanding on the outline in this case-study. The theoretical background of the project has been set out in an article entitled Vulnerable Voices, accepted for publication by the journal Educational Philosophy and Theory.

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