Beauty and grace in academia: Where has it gone?
Beauty and grace in academia: Where has it gone?
There is a scene in the movie “Agora”, set in the late 4th century Roman Egypt, where Hypatia, a teacher at the Platonic school for future leaders, also a female mathematician, philosopher and astronomer, is talking to her students.
She has a question about the universe that has her perplexed, and she invites the students to explore this with her. There is an equality between Hypatia and the students that is quite exquisite, where no one person is more than the other. The learning is for all equally so.
Each time I watch this scene I feel ignited within, and resonate deep within myself this to be the true quality that is education and learning.
I considered my own experiences of studying within the education system and in most cases I felt an emptiness or a disconnection in the process. Although I ticked all the boxes, learned the material and got the grades, there was always something missing. I did not feel inspired, it was more like jumping through hoops that meant very little to me – but how could that be, for we were talking about learning and about the world?
There were three moments in particular that I recall intimately that showed something different from all my other experiences in education. In the first instance, I attended an online session in a postgraduate unit held by a teacher that had extensive industry experience. Usually, in all my other units I would attend and the lecturer would talk through the slides in a very dry fashion, but in this particular session it was almost like the power-point presentation was superficial. The lecturer made me talk. That’s right, she made me talk.
The lecturer posed a question and directly asked me to talk from my experience. I was horrified, broke out into a hot sweat, fumbled over the headset to find the microphone button, and began to speak.
What happened surprised me. I answered the question and, in fact, was able to articulate better than I had imagined.
My answer triggered another student to speak, and then another, and then I piped in again of my own free will, and eventually the lecturer moved to the next slide and it started all over again. This is how it was for one hour. So much expression – all drawing upon the lives and experiences of everyone. Some students were managers in industry and the wisdom they were able to share was amazing for me, for I was not working at management level. And what I was able to share supported the managers to understand life more on the operational level.
At the end of the hour, I felt alive . . . and inspired. I discovered that there was a lot I could contribute.
This experience in my Postgraduate Unit is one that I will never forget. It was an amazing marker of what it could be like to contribute as student and teacher at the same time. We were not in ‘teacher’ and ‘student’ roles, no one was dominating or withdrawing from the discussion and we weren’t being filled up with information like we were empty vessels. It wasn’t all about the theory and if it was about theory we were asked to answer from our lived experience.
Without doubt, I knew now there could be beauty and grace in academia.
More recently I have observed on a couple of occasions, teachers with their students at high school. I observed the delicate rapport between teacher and student, and whilst it was obvious the teacher was leading the group, it wasn’t done in a way that disempowered the students – all were treated with respect and appreciation. One teacher in particular shared with me about how he had not bought into the curriculum as much, and although he can get a slap on the wrist, he said he had to be led to a degree by the students and their passion and desire for learning. What I felt from these two teachers was in fact they were led by connection first and foremost.
When we bring Love into education, everything changes.
Let me share with you my own experience working with students. In the last 2.5 years working at a University I took a role that involved presenting engineering topics to inspire high school and primary school students. In the early days, when public speaking was very new, my biggest worry was that they would ask a question I could not answer. Over the years I have observed that it is a common fear for lecturers, and when I posed my concerns to them, many shared their secrets; ways I could save face and hide the fact that I did not know.
I decided that the façade just wouldn’t work for me, so I presented myself more honestly and without any embarrassment at all that I wasn’t an ‘expert’ in this field.
I chose topics from the engineering world that naturally inspired or amazed me, and I spoke from knowledge learned, stories, movies and of course my lived experience, asking students to share from this too. It didn’t matter if the students knew more or different to me, and of course at times they did because they have their own experiences and learning, but this brought a richness to the session which would not otherwise be there. I didn’t need to present as an expert because I could present from the passion that I feel within. And in all the presentations there was only one instance where a student chose to provoke, and it really wasn’t a problem at all.
Now let me share with you an ‘inside story’ about University: in most instances, the academics genuinely want the students to succeed and they care about the work that they do. Perhaps the oppressiveness of the education system has worn them down, perhaps they appear to have hardened to cope in the high stress environment, perhaps they don’t present the lessons in a way which inspires, but believe me when I say this, what lies within is a heart of gold. I hear the conversations of concern about students, I hear the tiny things that the academic will notice about a student in class, I hear academics longing for student engagement and dynamic class discussion, I observe the dedication they bring to their work, and feel the genuine desire for students to succeed not just at University but in their careers and lives as well.
But all does not rest with the teachers; in fact, the need for them to perform and to be the expert must be eliminated if the gorgeousness of learning is to be unleashed from its shackles, for students have a very big part to play in the delivery of true education.
In the many presentations I have done and observed, the students typically hold back, refusing to engage.
This is so common that now, in my own presentations to students, each session will start with building trust and letting them know that their hour with me is not about right or wrong but about exploring engineering as it surrounds us in our world. Developing trust does not start by telling the students to trust me, they have to feel that they trust me, and they assess my every move in determining whether there is a freedom for them to express themselves without repercussion. So my role in all of this is to be myself and bring love and connection to the students – the rest unfolds naturally.
So if I am witness to all of that potential, and yet feel an emptiness and holding back in education, then I must ask what is really going on? Where has all the beauty and grace in academia gone?
It hasn’t gone anywhere, it has just been hidden under a fog of curriculum, pressure for academic performance, the high stress environment, and most importantly, the rules of teaching, otherwise known as pedagogy, of which there are many.
Collectively, there is a vast amount of knowledge within the academic community when it comes to discussions around teaching and learning, but really in its simplest form I can say that connection and genuine care must be at the heart of education and from there teachers and students alike will be privy to amazing experiences and insights that follow.
If we do anything, we must bring back beauty and grace in academia.