“Things were spinning around me
And all my thoughts were cloudy
And I had begun to doubt all the things that were me”
(‘New York’s Not My Home’ by Jim Croce)
These are Jim Croce’s reflections on his time in 1970’s New York where he tried so hard to make it big. Luckily for him (and his listeners), Jim was able to capture those poignant reflections in a song – which to me is a shining treasure (despite depicting such a tarnished experience). I imagine he must have mulled those thoughts over for quite a while before breaking them down into identifiable themes, and eventually letting it all out in his own unique way. “New York’s Not My Home” is a therapeutic snapshot of Jim and his self-reflection as a slightly reluctant migrant seeking musical success.
Similarly, every year, the freshly autumnal Edinburgh blossoms with success-hungry educational migrants – university students. For many of us, they might look like a uniform mass of transients. On closer inspection, we can spot some who have just returned from their summer breaks, and some who are here for the first time. Focusing even closer, we would find out that regardless of their experience, each one of them has just jumped into their own unique stream of fast moving challenges in the new academic year.
Are our students trying to navigate their own way through that stream, or are they – somewhat helplessly – being carried by it? Do they ever stop to spend a moment or two checking if the compass is still pointing in the right direction? Does that “right direction” still seem “right”? Does the stream ahead of them eventually flow into a calm and open sea? Or is it surreptitiously taking them to a thunderous waterfall? Does the journey feel any different from a year ago? If not, how can they be sure they’re moving anywhere at all?
Currently, in my role at the IAD, through the UNFOLD project, I’m thinking up ways of helping students to seek and record answers to these very questions. The job would have been so much easier if I had had a magical capturing device that would allow students to timely and effortlessly bookmark moments of educational and developmental significance for later reflection. With such a device they could take enhanced snapshots of themselves. The enhancement would mean that the snapshots would come out loaded with rich observations about their perception of their university studies.
Not letting idealistic visions off my radar… I’m co-operating with a group of personal tutors from across the University. We’re designing UNFOLD – online self-reflective forms for students to fill in that can be read by their personal tutors. I guess the project can also be described as our best take on the aforementioned magical capturing device.
Throughout their time at university, students can access a sequence of online forms that will follow the stages of their academic journey. Going back to the “riding the stream” metaphor, our aim is to persuade students that self-reflection will turn them into better self-navigators. Acting as a kick-start to self-reflection, each student’s UNFOLD workbook is expanded every semester. While assuming that the process of filling them out shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes, it is essential that these fresh sections are completed before they meet with their personal tutor.
So, what happens when the personal tutor gets access to the student’s online reflection? Is a face-to-face meeting still needed or relevant? Yes, the invaluable face-to-face conversation still takes place as planned. However, the tutor is now able to take the dialogue onto a higher level. The discussion can be more directly focused on exploiting areas highlighted specifically by the tutee. Hopefully, the dialogue then becomes more fruitful as the completed template allows the personal tutor to contribute more richly to each of the pre-highlighted issues.
All in all, is it worth the effort? Let’s imagine for a second that I was a graduating student, who for the last few years had been regularly asked to take such reflective snapshots of myself. First, I could easily access my input from my early days at university. I would be able to confront my initial judgments again, while at the same time re-focusing on some of the moments from an entirely different time-perspective. Those brief revisits to our educational past can be very empowering. Problems, issues, plans and hopes tend to pass the test of time in their own unique and complex way. Having documented and rediscovered some of my earlier footprints, I could plan better for the journey ahead. Secondly, my personal tutor would have been able to provide me with more relevant references, some of which could be based on my reflective records.
And finally, returning to the opening theme of this post… In the light of all of the above, I’m hoping that our graduates would still be recalling one of Croce’s songs, when looking back at their university time. Time, which Jim had hoped he could have saved in a bottle.
“If I had a box just for wishes
And dreams that had never come true
The box would be empty, except for the memory of how
They were answered by you”
(‘Time in a bottle’ by Jim Croce)