I’m sitting here trying to calm down after a particularly annoying session with the students. Now you know that I love students on the whole. I think they are fun and interesting and full of a delightful verve, even if they are occasionally misguided, defeatist or gauche. Usually I can excuse or find sympathy for their quirks and errors. But there is one thing that really irritates me, and that’s when a group session is disrupted by the actions of one individual. Today I had an hour booked with the first year geographers who wanted to discuss ways to improve their essay writing. This worried me a bit at first, as I hadn’t done any geography since I was sixteen, but a little research indicated that in fact all was well. Human geography is a subject concerned with issues of social, cultural and political organization; its main preoccupations are power relations, concepts of space and different means of political intervention. Effectively, it’s the issues at the heart of post-colonial or political literature, without the literature. So that was okay, I could deal with that. There were six students, three girls and three boys, a good group number, and I was armed with a previous year’s exam paper to strike the right note of dread and necessity in their feckless hearts.
To be fair we got through quite a lot of material. But one young woman seemed determined to infect the group with her attitude. If I asked a general question she would quickly intervene (the others seemed to rely on her to answer first) and trot off the most orthodox, obvious response, as if that would close the discussion. She followed this up with a stream of silly, frivolous comments at which she would laugh gratingly. So for instance, we were talking about borderlines and her contribution was ‘Who needs borderlines anyway? They’re pointless.’ The general undercurrent was that geography was boring and dull and she knew all the standard issue answers and was not about to push herself any further; she sapped the energy and commitment of the other students, although they obviously knew her well and weren’t manifestly bothered by it. Well, you’ll all have been in classes with someone like that at some point. I’m sure it was down to insecurity and defensiveness and I will eventually find some sympathy in my cold, closed heart. But not right this moment. Needless to say – although I will say it anyway for my personal satisfaction – I was extremely unamused at her tedious antics and deeply unimpressed by her mind
Now crowd control is an interesting problem at university level. The girl wasn’t so very rude that I could really call her out, and I would have attempted to avoid that in any case as it would have ruined any other group dynamics we had working. Reprimanding one member of a group tends to shut up all the others very quickly indeed. My response is always to up the tempo. I grow very stern, throw questions at them much faster, and try to work them harder. I figure if they are concentrating, there’ll be less wriggle-room for messing about. And I ignore the base elements and openly praise anyone who responds well. But it’s hard to keep a fast class going for an entire hour. Meetings have their own internal rhythm and work best if you can mix it up a bit, with slower patches for reflection and thought in between tougher pressure on them for answers and creativity. If a group gets into the rhythm, concentrates, gets behind the topic, it’s amazing what you can do. But one student, scrambling the airwaves, well, it’s hard to get into, and keep, the zone. The question now is whether I do anything about it. I think there’s nothing to be done but let the situation go. I won’t be seeing those students again, the session was a one-off, and it is probably the only time that all those first year geographers will ever work together. I’m tempted to complain to her director of studies but, in the way of these things, it only rebounds on me and makes me look like I can’t keep a group in harmony. Does anyone know of a good book that discusses ways to handle group dynamics? I could use more strategies if I’m going to have to do this sort of thing more often.
Most students so far this term have been fine – straightforward problems easily solved. But there’s another student who’s worrying me. This particular person worked twenty-three hours a day for the first six weeks of their time in Cambridge. That’s right: one hour a night for sleep. This was always going to end in disaster, and eventually he had a complete breakdown. He returned this term, unable to work at all and still, as far as I could tell, unwell. All he did was sit through his lectures and play snooker in the college bar. I set him the exercise of attempting to work for fifteen minute sessions, one a day. It didn’t matter if he didn’t achieve anything, he simply had to try, and if he did start working, he should stop promptly when the time was up. Daily he would send me an email saying he hadn’t been able to work even one minute. And then, after he’d had a decisive meeting with the college authorities, who told him he had to go home and take the rest of the year off to get well, he suddenly declared that he could work a little. Of course, the situation is more complicated than it appears as there are relationship problems at home, and he desperately wants to stay in Cambridge. But let me show you another aspect of it: his tutor had suggested he find a job and rent a place, gaining himself a measure of independence while he sorted himself out. College would help him with all these arrangements if he wanted. But the one thing that really worried him was how he would fend for himself. In college, he explained, he could go to the buttery for food, and at home his parents would cook. But how could he possibly manage to find food for himself on his own? He keeps coming up with questions like this, but then, when I suggest he could either learn to prepare simple meals or buy microwave dinners, he backs down so fast, it’s as if he never quite believed in his own position anyway. The last time I saw him, he wanted to persuade me that he was capable of getting through the exams, in the hope that I would advocate for him with the college council. It’s an impossible situation but I had to say no. Until he gets to the bottom of his issues, he is destined to repeat them. I wished so much I had a solution to offer him, but finding one out may well be his first step towards growing up.
Sometimes, this job is not as easy as it looks on paper.