Selectively deaf: sometimes we have to stand against student voice..

Professor Jack Heinemann · University of Canterbury · July 2021

For far too long academia has patronised students, seeing them as beings that need to be moulded and formed through the larval stages of sycophantia and apprentice, then cocooning just in time of our old age to become “upholders of the legacy-ites”. Now we complain of being patronised by students, describing them as consumers. Neoliberal user-pays policies weren’t the best way to adjust the academy’s attitude, but the attitude was due for adjustment.

Student voice helps to keep the balance, and continues to move us in the right direction to further improve the student experience. Sometimes though, it can conflict with the academic “freedom of the institution and its staff to teach and assess students in the manner that they consider best promotes learning.”[1]

Two contemporary clashes on academic matters at the University of Canterbury are illustrative.

(1) Our students have successfully, and with solid arguments and research behind them, argued for the universal use of lecture recordings. If we offer a learning environment that looks like a lecture, it must be recorded for viewing at other times. Meanwhile, my colleagues complain that students don’t attend lectures and they link that outcome with lecture recording.

(2) Our students oppose a move to stop the automatic archiving of final examination papers in the Library. Resistance to this practice was successfully stifled in part by student voice for many years, but that voice is losing some effectiveness because of the accumulating research that shows that without proper guidance these resources in general may be more detrimental than helpful. However, student voice is largely the only reason the practice has yet to disappear.

I won’t use this forum to litigate these issues or to imply that there is a definitive point of view on them. They are presented to aid the discussion of the intersection between institutional autonomy and academic freedom, with the latter being the freedoms of staff and students. They are not always the same freedoms.

Non-academic matters

We know that tertiary teachers can be racist, sexist, and agents of cultural assimilation. They are assisted in this often by looking and belonging to the communities of power and majority. When the tables are turned, however, conflict can arise because a teacher doesn’t belong to the communities of power and majority but the students do.

In a stunning essay titled I’m a professor. My colleagues who let their students dictate what they teach are cowards, Professor Koritha Mitchell of Ohio State University talks of being both black and a woman in front of a student body that expects to see power and prestige looking white and male.

My very presence makes some of my students uncomfortable because I do not fit any picture society has given them of an expert. My students, after all, have grown up bombarded with the message that people who belong in authority — especially authority based on intellectual accomplishments and expertise —are men, usually white men.

Discomfort is her reality. It is not her intention to keep it to herself, because otherwise she could not exist.

I challenge my students simply by existing. And this has made me realize that avoiding controversial topics is the worst way for my colleagues and me to react to this insecure, fear-inducing moment in academia.

Where student and staff voice grates in the rubbing, how can academic freedom help? In this session I look forward to working with students to identify how all three voices of academic freedom can co-exist, confront, and thrive.

References and footnotes

  1. Education and Training Act 2020