The Humane University: Measuring the immeasurable

Last week I attended an event called ‘The Humane University’ at the University of Edinburgh.  The event is not related to my PhD thesis.  My attendance at this event in not a measureable output that my tutors could appraise.  So what was the event about and why would a hard-pressed, under-pressure and busy PhD student benefit from attending it?  I offer the following observations in an attempt to address these questions.

The event

Members of the University and the community were invited to listen to speakers talk about their Humane Universityexperience at university from different perspectives including those of students, administrators and staff. There were four speakers in total.  Over the course of the evening, different groups shared their insight on how they related to the experiences of the speakers, as well to their ideas about the humane university.

Benefits of attending

All four of the speakers were eloquent in their descriptions of a humane university.  Though each speech was useful and illuminative in its right, I was deeply touched by two of them.  One, from a PhD student, painted two pictures from stories about one person – herself.  In the first picture, we were told about this very accomplished, brilliant and well-travelled student.  This student successfully presented an enviable list of achievements to the world.  In the second picture, she described her hidden self.  In the closet, she struggled with illness and problems with confidence.  Importantly, she managed to reach out for help within the university.  And she found support and understanding which made all the difference to her life and career.  Hers was a story of hope in spite of stumbling.  She gave a vivid picture of what went well, when it could have gone so wrong.  The humane within the university system triumphed.

The second speech was about the hard knocks you get within the university.  This was an account from a member of staff.  This person described the exhilaration of active participation in the corridors of the ivory tower.  But this was also a description of the unrelenting pressure of working in the academe.  Pressure to publish.  Pressure to collaborate.  Pressure to deliver excellent results, 100% at all times in an environment where failure is taboo.  Pressure to manage changing levels of expectation for tutors to teach, research, and publish.  Internal and external pressures.  He painted a picture of a search for humanity within the university.  This account was touching.  It allowed me to catch a glimpse of the human side of the expert.

Impact of the event

Within my group we discussed what we learnt from the presentations.  Based on some themes we had discussed, we considered the standards by which we are judged at the University.  The measures that signal that we deserve to be at university.  The outcomes and assessments that signal to us that we are not frauds.  Most of the speakers were first generation and grateful beneficiaries of higher education.  Like them, we acknowledged that we are fortunate to be partakers of higher education.  It also seemed apparent that each individual had a path to follow within the institution called a university.  Some felt that they were very much a part of that community.  Some seemed to think that they are more outsiders than insiders.  Time did not permit us to discuss much about what forms these perceptions of being out, or in, or somewhere in-between.  Maybe that will be a topic of interest at a later date.  Perhaps each speaker’s experience begs the question from us; where are you within the university?  Fortunately, it was not a question we were required to contemplate – at least not to an audience.

Some of us within the group wondered why many more meetings to talk about our humanity are not held at universities.  One of us thought this was because the impact of such activity is not easily measured.  I asked myself, did I benefit from this not easily assessed activity?  Without question, my answer is yes.  I learnt at the event that others have also experienced the compassionate support I have received at the University.  It was good to hear that it is not only students who struggle.  This empowers and motivates me to plough on.  The good, the hard, and the humane is shared in life, and so it should be at university.

As a group, we searched for commonality in experiences the speakers shared with us.  We accepted that difference is part of why we should continue the discussion about what makes the university humane.

About the author

Labake's photoOmolabake Fakunle is a currently PhD Education student at The Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh.  Her research explores student experiences within discourses on the internationalisation of Higher Education, and she has presented aspects of her research at national and international conferences.  More information available is available here.  You can follow her on twitter @LBKFK

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