Micromanaging at the uni
Students are a harried workforce
When I first walked through the door of the Student Service Centre, my stomach squirmed with unease. ‘I’m worried people will see me as a dysfunctional student’, I texted my friend.
The answer popped up on my screen almost immediately. ‘Don’t overthink it.’
That Thursday afternoon was the first time I attended the SSC’s study support group offline. This is where students who are struggling with their academic performance share their problems and give each other advice. A little like Alcoholics Anonymous, where we share our sins of not being academic enough.
I signed up for the group because I felt that I was not efficient enough. I have readings, essays, exams, and additional self-teaching materials: they come back at the beginning of every week, when I’ve just finished the ones from last week. Life is a constant loop.
As for the students in the support group, their lives are a loop as well. Every Thursday, we met at the SSC, and our problems repeated themselves again and again. Failed an exam in the last block? The same thing happened in the next one.
I can still remember the first meeting: Siri, a bachelor student of economics and business economics, burst into tears halfway through. But what I remember best of all is not her tears, but the fact that she apologised.
In the support group, you could hear ‘sorry’ all the time. Students like us are basically sorry for everything, from being so stressed that we failed an exam, to not getting to the meeting on time. I mostly heard people apologise for things that were beyond their control. Saying you are sorry means you take the responsibility for failing, but how could someone be responsible for their girlfriend’s bad mood, or for being sick?
I mostly heard people apologise for things beyond their control
Slowly, it started to dawn on me. The UG website says the group is for students ‘who have all the right intentions but lack the discipline to actually act upon them’. But what I’m hearing is really not a lack of discipline in the sense of ‘obeying the rules and controlling oneself’. There’s something else going on here.
It is about us wanting control and failing to get it. It’s about the education system telling us we’re doing well if we jump through every hoop.
However, not everyone was born for jumping through hoops. Even at the circus, not all animals jump through hoops: they each have their own strength. But if the ability to jump through hoops remains the only criterion, then many other animals will be excluded. And that’s what is happening here. As always in the system: there’s one rule that applied to everyone, and those who fail are ‘dysfunctional’.
Looking around me, the students I’m meeting here at SSC are probably the most academically motivated I have met at the UG. If they weren’t motivated to improve their academic performance, they simply wouldn’t have spent two hours a week here, facing their inner demons.
They should be functioning great in this place where we acquire knowledge and try to broaden our horizons. But the reality is very different.
‘I couldn’t sleep because I was so anxious about getting an essay perfect enough’, Victoria shared in a café near the Harmonie building. Our group had the tradition to meet up before the formal meeting, and emotions would run high even then.
There’s one rule for everyone, and those who fail are ‘dysfunctional’
‘I feel like I’m alone and detached from the world’, she continued. ‘My girlfriend is facing problems and I want to help her. I have exams and essays, and I also want to help my family, but I don’t know how to do it all. I did nothing in the end.’
Siri was in a similar situation. She couldn’t understand what was happening: ‘I actually love reading, I love what I’m studying, but…’
To her, some of the assessment measures felt almost punitive: she failed a difficult economics exam in the previous block and had to retake it in the following block. However, she already had three other exams that semester. This extra resit was not only difficult to cope with in itself, but also occupied time she’d otherwise use to prepare for other exams.
The Yerkes-Dodson Law, the notorious inverted-U curve, explains what happens in these situations. With the proper level of anxiety, people tend to perform well, but too much pressure leads to decreased performance. Every student is at risk of being dragged into this vicious cycle: you failed once, then you have to face double the problems, with an accumulated pressure level, and that’s why you fail again.
The more I spoke to my group, the more I felt that we are not really students at all. Instead we are employees, a harried workforce that is being rushed and judged by the numerous tasks we are supposed to perform.
The subtle difference is reflected in what was actually bothering my fellow students: it’s not that we were not acquiring enough knowledge or making progress. The problem is that we were being deemed unqualified by assessment mechanisms such as examinations. That stress is real and you can see it all over the university.
What makes the situation worse is that the problem has also passed to teachers. The first time I received an answer from one of my professors around midnight, I was surprised and showed it to my roommate, who is also from China: ‘So people here work overtime, too.’
Micromanaging only worsens the problem in the long run
But it wouldn’t be the last time. I regularly got announcements and emails from professors late at night. And in many courses, professors are setting assignments like ‘weekly literature summaries’ to ensure that students have actually read them.
It’s a thing you expect to see in an unhappy workplace: increasing micromanagement, just to make sure reluctant employees do the minimum. It might solve the problem in the short run and students may start working harder. But it will only worsen in the long run: now professors have more homework to review, and more administrative work to do.
On paper, the university wants to teach students to gain and produce more knowledge. But academia – like any other education system – has gradually become a rigid system of assessment.
I read UKrant and learned that first-year students earned two fewer ECTS than in previous years. And I think about my group members in SSC: it’s just data in a report, but it’s also their hours of preparation in the library, and their heartbreak as they read their grades in Nestor.
The SSC is the painkiller that helps the students ‘without discipline’ cope, while nothing is done about the underlying cause.
I ask myself if this can be remedied. Even while writing this paragraph, the voice is still there: ‘If you cannot provide a solution for what you are questioning, then what’s the point, huh?’
Honestly, I don’t know.
Your own pace
A few months after the first meeting, I had a conversation with my instructor, Anna, about this. She told me that the SSC is trying to help students ‘focus on what’s really important to them and to focus more on their progress rather than their grades’.
‘Students today are facing lots of changes, so it’s okay to take time to adapt to those, and to go at your own pace’, she said.
‘But does the university allow them to do so?’ I asked.
We both laughed.