The Need for Cohesive Educational Communities

The concept of a ‘cohesive educational community’ couldn’t sound more of a painful soundbite if it tried, but when I started to think about what I wanted to discuss in terms of an all-staff-all-student community, it was one of the better phrases I came up with (believe it or not).

It’s more than a little frustrating – sad, even – that it needs saying that we should all be working together to deliver the best possible educational experience for students, whether that’s by encouraging and embedding a research culture, by being involved in the delivery of teaching, or by providing some element of vital student or study support. Nevertheless, regardless of the current pressures on the sector, the single biggest issue affecting student experience is the lack of a seamless approach towards education across students’ own institutions.

There will always be unforeseen issues that arise, and there will always be some students who hold their institution to such an impossibly high standard that they will constantly be disappointed. We need to accept that we can’t plan for every eventuality, and that some students will be unaware of the precise nature of many back-office or procedural issues which may mean that they feel that the institution has let them down when, often, it’s the opposite and it’s more a case of ensuring that due diligence is exercised (though such processes should nevertheless be transparent and explained in an accessible manner). But, at every opportunity, we should be aiming to ensure that we do everything we can to work together to deliver the best educational experience possible for all students.

I’ll be revisiting, at a later date, why we sometimes seem to make it so hard for students to love their institutions. This post, however, will focus upon the importance of community and why it’s important to spend time and effort ensuring that everyone involved in delivering an educational experience feels a part of that community.

First of all, it should be acknowledged that ‘community’ as a term and a concept is problematic. A community can be defined by a shared characteristic (something which isn’t necessarily an opt-in, if it happens to be a pre-determined fact), or a shared value. Some individuals may find themselves defined by others as members of certain communities when they certainly don’t feel a part of any such collective group, even if they acknowledge shared characteristics or values. Personally, and it’s probably the folklorist in me, I prefer the term ‘group’ precisely because of the fact it is potentially (and colloquially understood as, if nothing else) something more objective. Yet ‘community’, despite its flaws, seem more appropriate here precisely because it does imply something more than simply an objective grouping. Despite the fact the term is at times subjectively and politically applied, that it is often understood to suggest something more is why it seems the better choice.

Because, surely, when we come together, we should in some way aim to be something more? Something other than just (just!) our component parts. That is in no way to detract from the role and importance of each individual – quite the opposite. The strength of a cohesive educational community must surely be the acknowledgement that each and every individual brings something unique – and therefore powerful – to the table. Surely the most successful community must acknowledge each other’s individual identities? This is of particular importance to educational communities (and similar) whose aims include providing a positive, unified, and consistent approach to creating and enhancing the student experience. Our student cohorts are (hopefully) diverse and interesting, consisting of students from as many different economic, personal, and regional backgrounds (to name a few broad examples) as local and (inter)national politics allow. Their aspirations should be equally as diverse, and institutions should aim, as much as possible, to cater for all of them. And herein lies one of the benefits of having a community made up of so many individuals with their own different identities shaping how they approach their work (whether consciously or unconsciously): because each and every person has something to bring to the table in terms of enhancing the experience of students. Sometimes this is a fundamental part of their role, sometimes it is not.

Most colleagues will, at best, know a handful of objective facts about each other as individuals. They won’t really know what it means to be that person or those persons. And this is why it is important to listen to each other, regardless of grades, roles, and responsibilities; and to treat each other with a minimum standard of respect. I have witnessed several examples of academic colleagues or Professional Services colleagues on higher grades dismiss entirely pertinent and appropriate observations from colleagues on lower grades for no other reason than the fact they were raised by such colleagues. There are perfectly acceptable reasons why some suggestions are not deemed appropriate – but each and every comment or concern should be given equal merit regardless of which member of the broader community raised it. At the very least, there needs to be that mutual respect.

A cohesive educational community shouldn’t just aim to encompass all relevant staff: including the student cohort is just as important. As with staff whose professional expertise may lie elsewhere, there will be some issues of which students should not be expected to be aware until these are specifically communicated to them, just as every member of staff involved in their teaching is not expected to know the finer workings of everything that a student is currently studying from day to day, cross-course/module. But we’re not talking about academic (or other) expertise: we’re talking about the need to involve everyone in a positive community with shared aims – whatever an individual’s engagement with the student experience (enhancing it or, err, experiencing it).

Above all else (and, again, I will revisit this at a later date) the most important measure of success for judging whether we have managed to create a cohesive educational community is whether or not, to some degree, every individual that has been identified as a potential member of that community – staff or student – actively wants to consider themself a member of that community: a group of people with common aims and a shared purpose.

Well, we can dream, right?

This post is based on part of a presentation I gave in April 2018: The Role of Professional Services Staff in Higher (Medical) Education. The talk focussed on thoughts and observations about the experiences of, and challenges facing, Professional Services staff in the twenty-first century environment, and their role in Higher Education communities. Seen through the filter of my own academic, personal, and professional experiences, the intention was to offer some food for thought (and discussion) on the role of identity and its importance in building cohesive educational communities which draw on the professional expertise of each and every individual.

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