Don’t be a number

Education Minister Jet Bussemaker has decided that institutes for higher vocational education are too big and need to split up into smaller units. In schools of over 5,000 students, says the minister, there are no longer any personal contacts between staff and students, and students feel like they’re a number. This is probably not quite true — but still, here’s some tips on how to not be a number.

According to the minister, when schools have over 5,000 students, students can no longer identify with the institution anymore. I don’t think the problem is the size of the institution: the University of Groningen has over 30,000 students and that never seems to be a problem. Students have layered identities: they identify with the university, with the faculty, with their degree programme, and with a particular section within that programme. The problem is rather that students can’t identify with the results of megalomaniac mergers with horrendous names like ROC ID-college or Scalda.

The personal contacts probably also aren’t the problem. There may be 5,000 or 30,000 students registered with an educational institution, but at any given time class sizes will be in the range of 20 to 30 students. (This does not apply to lectures, but they will be less frequent in vocational than in academic institutions anyway.) If students feel like they’re a number in a group of 25, that can really only be because instructors have too many sets of 25 students. There need to be more instructors, not more administrative units!

But anyway, there are a few things that students can do to not be a number. Here is a three-step programme that has no basis in any pedagogical theory.

Step One: Attend

The first thing you need to do in order to be an individual rather than a number is just come to class. If you’re not there, I’m not going to know who you are. For some students, attending may be enough to make the step from number to individual: if you’re one of the two boys in an otherwise all-girl class, if you have pink hair and/or a tattoo sleeve, if you have a non-majority ethnicity, if you make a dramatic last-minute entrance carrying three bags, a laptop case, a cup of coffee and you’re on the phone — I’m going to know who you are.

Step Two: Participate

For others, just attending may not be enough. If you’re an average-height white girl with generic blond hair, you’re going to have to do more. I once had four of these girls sit in a row. The two that had their hair to one side were both Sarah, the two that had their hair to the other side were something else. I still have no idea, because they never said a word. You need to actually participate in the class, constructively or otherwise, and draw attention to yourself. That will significantly increase the chances of me knowing who you are.

Step Three: Be Human

But even if I do learn your face-to-name correspondence, you might sometimes just as well have been a number. You need to show that you’re more than a bag of flesh and bones that’s capable of generating appropriate or less appropriate responses in classroom situations. You need to show that you’re actually a human being with some semblance of a personality.

Few things are more annoying than flogging a dead horse for 45 minutes, then calling a break and seeing the class suddenly spring to life in animated conversation. (One of those few things is when the class just sits in silence and stares at their phones during breaktime.) All of a sudden all the silent Sarahs turn out to have a voice, and have opinions, and a capacity for interaction with other humans. It’s that Sarah the Human I would like to teach; that is so much more fulfilling (not to mention easier) than teaching Student Number 1398283.

There’s many ways you can show you’re a human being in class. Maybe you have a sense of humour; use it. Maybe you have a life outside of class; tell anecdotes (preferably relevant to the theme of the class). Maybe you’re having a terrible day and you find this the most boring class ever; say it and show some human emotion. You can also be a human being outside of class: don’t avert your gaze but say hi when you see me in the hallway, don’t whisper and point when you see me in IKEA. (I know who you are; I hold grudges.)

What’s in it for you?

Sometimes you may be perfectly happy being a bag of flesh and bones that generates appropriate in-class responses once in a while. Why should you have to become human? Well, as said, because teaching humans is much easier than teaching numbers, so you’ll probably get much better teaching. And because instructors are much more likely to do something for you if you’re a human being. Whether it’s bumping your marginal essay up across a grade boundary or considering you for a (paid!) student assistentship, your chances increase significantly if we know who you are. But mostly because it will make your everyday university life so much less awkward.

PS. It probably also helps if there’s an up-to-date photograph of you in The System, so that your newly human instructors can try and put faces to names much more effectively. Robbie McDoggie has some tips on how to do this.

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