Silent study space at KU Leuven

Silent study space at KU Leuven

In the world of twitter, snapchat and even blogs, long-form journalism struggles to maintain its role in the exchange of ideas. As for traditional forms of academic discourse, even there we’re being persuaded to seek out the sound-bite, the idea in ‘a nutshell’ and told increasingly that our expectations of students to write academic essays and dissertations are ‘irrelevant’ for their futures, a future of work, that is.  Time is short, the competition for attention is fierce and contemplation is ‘idle’.

Just as modern medicine (or in truth, modern work expectations) has abolished recuperation (symptoms blocked? good, then back to work), all is a rush, time is short, there’s more to do. More incessant chatter in which to engage; always on lest we suffer from FOMO (fear of missing out).

And in learning too, the pace, deadlines ,rushing from lecture to lecture, taking test after test and no time to digress. But also too the faith in ‘groupwork’, that all is social, teamwork and collaboration as an off the shelf formula and not an emergent, natural configuration to suit particular circumstances, particular needs. The irony of the decreased role of the individual in an economic model which is supposedly based on rampant individualism, or perhaps in truth individual greed, collectively manifested and incorporated into a system that harbours no real dissent.

I was in Leuven this week, at a meeting housed in a student ‘learning centre’. A refurbished old building divided into different types of space; bookable groupwork rooms, media editing studios, cafe and ‘silent’ study rooms. Of course as we approach the exams period it might be little surprise to have seen that large, silent spaces were the ones filled to the brim with students, books and laptops around them, pens in hand, scribbling, typing, reading. Not so much use of the ‘group spaces’ or the ‘social learning hub’. And the silence (self-policed)- wonder how well that would translate to other countries’ youth! But still, the need for study space is something many of our institutions often fail to provide. Carving out space and time to be able to think, to read, to engage, not with each other but with our subject, with the knowledge and the literature of our disciplines. Perhaps of course it’s only human nature to put off what we have to do to the last minute, to leave all the studying to a cramming session before the inescapable deadline of terminal examinations. After all, haven’t many said “assessment drives learning” and this is it at its most basic?

But , I don’t know, I wonder if instead we’ve been in denial about what it is to really learn, to really engage with our subjects. Learning is something that happens at a deeply personal level, not just in struggling to get our ‘brains around’ making sense of things, but also in that need to keep re-visiting, to keep re-engaging with ideas that can be challenging and to feel the sense of achievement when it does finally ‘click.’ Has our ideological obsession with group-work, our churning out of standardised forms of assessment (and this includes off the shelf projects, not just the stereotype of MCQ examinations), modularisation and, on the other side of the relationship, the frantic need to ‘contain’ teaching, assessment and feedback into as few hours as possible to meet the expectations on us of research output, of producing enough measurable deliverables to meet our annual quota, led us astray?

‘A room of one’s own’ might be stretching it, but what about just a desk? What about  time as well as space (after all I am a physicist and know that dimensions are related)? Students with part-time jobs are increasingly becoming effectively part-time students with full-time jobs, struggling to keep up.

Quiet, uninterrupted, individual, contemplation is a vital component of sense-making and equips us to make far more effective use of group time, allows us to get deeper, to take stock before we reconvene.   Our timetables scatter classes across campus, no longer confined to a single college building, a department, or the mythical membership of a scholarly community. Short-term goals, targets to be met, never returning to modules past.

Keep us busy, lest we get ideas.