What weighs us down?
Recently, the CBC published a report suggesting that 66% of Canadian University students report feeling lonely. When university faculty and administrators hear figures like these, we may be inclined to come up with some institutional response: a new program or initiative, or an add-on or retro-fit to something we already do. But such a bureaucratic response, however well-intentioned, I think, will always fail when the need is for meaningful relationship not only between students and the institution, but also among students, between students and their teachers, and between students and support staff. Bureaucracy nearly always favours efficiency over relationship and efficiency depends upon universalizing student need – as if all students need the same things and as if all student needs may be met through institutional initiatives.
Students whose needs are not met - who don’t conform to whatever abstracted construction of “student” an institution is currently working with bear a heavy burden. To find support for difference, to find individual faculty or staff willing to work with students as individuals with unique and nuanced needs can be really tough. And too often, I think, we label students as problematic when they challenge our ideas about who they should be and what they should need. Universities are medieval institutions and they change at a glacial pace.
Sometimes, we, professors, become more caught up with the subjects we are researching and teaching than we are with the lives and needs of our students. When we make this mistake and, in our interactions with students within and outside of our classes, privilege “content” over relationship, we make it harder for our students to learn, but also and more importantly for them to thrive. We participate in a culture that values efficiency over people.
When an institution – and its faculty and staff – treat students as widgets moving through an education machine, we participate in their dehumanization. We help to create conditions in which students are likely to feel lonely and, because thriving depends upon the quality of our relationships with one another, help to create the conditions also in which learning, growing, and changing are more difficult and less rewarding.