Last week’s Connecting Legal Education hang out took as its theme ‘building communities,’ a fitting tribute to the fledging community of folk coming together on Tuesday mornings to chat all things Legal Ed! Read a summary below and download the slides here
How do we build communities?
Emma and Lydia focused on how we can build and sustain communities during the current situation, not only amongst our student population but also amongst our colleagues. Lydia started by outlining some of the areas of working life where she has built communities (some with more success than others!), and by explaining some of the key factors in building communities in her experience. Authenticity is frequently referenced as a key concern of HE students of a ‘typical’ age, but authenticity in motivation and communication is surely important to all of us! Lydia reflected upon her role as Director of Community Engagement at Leeds as a realm in which such authenticity is required across everyone you’re working with: you need a clear sense of what you want to achieve and why, but also need to work with partners (community and students) to develop your plans – and, of course, adapt over time. Lydia reflected on the fact, like many things, it’s far easier to do this role with a genuine belief in / love for it, rather than doing it for extrinsic motivation reasons (such as because you are forced to, or because you’re more focused on getting promotion through it than on doing a good job for the sake of doing that good job).
Communities might automatically be seen as ‘good’ things, but we need to be mindful of the fact that communities are as much about who we exclude as who we include. Taking Lydia’s beloved Everton as an example of a community: it brings people together physically (through the attendance at games, through getting to know everyone who sits around you, through always going through the same turnstile and always buying the programme from the same person), and emotionally (in Everton’s case, largely through trauma), but it also necessarily excludes (most particularly, that other lot from across Stanley Park). Emma and Lydia reflected on the need to be particularly mindful of this when we talk of building online communities during the COVID-19 situation: whilst many students will be able to be part of that community, we need to consider ways to include those who, for example, are in different time zones, are juggling caring responsibilities with working, or who are sharing space, tech and/or bandwidth with others.
The discussion then turned to how we sustain our staff and student communities at this time, using Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory (SDT) as a starting point. SDT is a theory of motivation: how do we explain human motivation, and how do we tap into it? It rests on a foundation of three basic psychological needs which everyone is said to have:
- autonomy: the feeling of being in control of what we are doing; of having choice in that behaviour;
- competence: the feeling of mastery in skills which matter to us; and
- relatedness: the feeling of being cared for, of caring for others, and of being part of group(s) which are of importance to us
It isn’t hard to see how each of these might be challenged at the moment and discussion within the whole hang out group turned to ways in which staff and students might experience this. For example, students have had their friendship groups quickly removed from them; some are unable to return to families because of border closures or because they are shielding family members; others are living with family environments in which they are profoundly unhappy: all of these are factors which can impact upon their sense of relatedness. Staff, meanwhile, can feel like their own competence has suddenly diminished because of e.g. the sudden pivot to online teaching. Lydia reflected on the fact that we cannot solve or control all of these issues, but that being aware of the fact they are undermining these basic psychological needs can be helpful when thinking about how and what we communicate with both colleagues and students. In particular, we need to not be robotic about this communication or assume that things can carry on as normal, just online. Lydia reflected upon the lessons learned in America following Hurricane Katrina, where many students and staff experienced a similarity swift and traumatic end to ‘normal’ university life. Those who have experienced this consistently recommend more regular communication with your students, even if it is only a brief message to remind them that you are there – this is critical in keeping students ‘with’ you.
Shared experiences between students and staff
The broader group discussion picked up on a number of points raised within the Q+A session, including the fact that relatedness between staff and students has in some cases increased (because of this shared experience providing common ground – giving something of yourself over to students on a personal level is particularly likely to have helped with this), and that feeling competent is likely to be of great personal value to staff (and students!): feeling like you can’t do your work to the best of your ability will, therefore, be difficult to accept.
Further reflections included the need to consider how we help students with their own self-care at this time (see here and here for some suggestions), and to meet students on platforms which work for them or which they are most familiar with (something which can be a challenge when institutional restrictions are put in place, even if there are very good reasons for doing so, and which of course can have implications for staff trying to keep on top of more than one platform).
Future hang outs
The plan was for this hang out to include a discussion around online personal tutoring, but the discussion went so well we ran out of time! So, the plan is to push that to the future – following the break for Easter, we will have these hangouts:
- 21st April, 1100 (BST): Q+A with James Lee, focusing upon assessment and revision
- 28th April, 1100 (BST), Q+A with Caroline Strevens, covering staff wellbeing and personal value, followed by a general discussion around personal tutoring
- 5th May, 1100 (BST): an opportunity for ECRs to present the work which they would have presented at cancelled conferences, symposia, workshops – please email Lydia (firstname.lastname@example.org) to chat about this.
We hope you had a lovely Easter and a little bit of a break maybe – take care of yourselves and of each other, and be as kind to yourself as you are no doubt being to your students.
This blog was put together by Emma Flint, Michael Doherty and Lydia Bleasdale