The task was to think about how we spend our time during a working week, divide that time into categories and plot on a timetable what the ideal university week would look like. Due to the staff:student ratios (heavier on the student side) the conversations were mostly concerned with what students do in their working hours. We did this in four groups, mixing up staff and students, and then fed back to the room about what we’d decided re parallel timetable, what one thing in our current timetable we would most like to change and what non-parallel university impediments stand in our way.
What I took away from the discussions is that we generally want three interrelated innovations:
(1) enough structure in our weeks to facilitate a constructive and efficient work life, but
(2) not so much structure that we have little or no control over how we work, and
(3) more crossover of activities when it comes to studying (and teaching).
The main issues motivating the desire for (1) seemed to be the difficulty of making effective use of a working week. The thought was that, especially in the case of an arts and humanities degree, the perceived lack of (for want of some better terms) focus or direction makes it hard(-er than it needs to be) to establish a routine conducive to good work. Other contributing factors included the centralised timetable and the great variety of things that need doing; I’ll come back to both of these as they link into the desire for (2) and (3).
The proposed ways of implementing (1) were varied. One group suggested teaching should just take place in the morning (or before 1pm), so that good working routines could be established, and that the rest of the day should be left free for more flexible, ‘self directed’, work. Another group suggested that raising the standard six hours of teaching time to ten would provide a more useful framework for studying generally.
So it does not appear to be the case that people find structure and routine inherently unhelpful or oppressive. On the contrary, the desire for structure and routine in our Parallel University was evident from the conversations. However it was felt that our current non-parallel structure was not conducive to an ideal work life. Which brings me to (2) – the desire for control over how we work (but, as we established, within a flexible framework).
Issues motivating the desire for (2) included the often inconveniently organised timetable we are given (resulting from the need to fit into the university-wide centralised timetabling system) and the disparate nature of the activities in which we engage. The depth of thought needed for work done in universities requires time to really focus on whatever it is that is being worked on. When there are lots of different things going on at once (e.g. work for different courses, different kinds of work within one course and ‘extracurricular’ activities) it become difficult to give the appropriate amount of attention to each activity. All of this combined with timetables that often break up the day in ways that do not allow us to organise our own time means that it can be difficult for each of us to work in the way we’d like to work.
In both the case of (1) and (2) it was felt that funding and space (for independent departments) were the main impediments to providing this sort of flexible structure. It was also noted that the same structure is always likely to fall short of ideal for some people. One staff member noted that they preferred to teach in the afternoon because they wrote better in the morning, so perhaps a degree of compromise is a necessary aspect of timetabling. But possibly who we compromise with could be changed, i.e. not everyone in the university.
The third thing I thought people wanted for their parallel university was ‘more crossover of activities when it comes to studying (and teaching).’ By this I mean there was a variously expressed desire for the things that we do to feed into each other a bit more. This came across in some peoples wish for ‘creative time’ in their week. That is, time spent talking informally about ideas, doing undirected reading, and all the other things that unofficially feed into a degree, or research. Another way this manifested itself was in suggestions about how teaching might be different. Lectures in particular were discussed in relation to this, for English at least. As they are not explicitly or formally reflected on after delivery, their usefulness is possibly equivalent to reading an essay with the same content, which would be quicker and allow for more to be extracted – so the thought goes.
Suggestions about how (3) might be achieved included more student-led discussion series, essay exchanges, reading groups and, importantly, more time spent linking up different aspects of the degree. It was suggested by one student that this would have to come from the staff as the current university culture, amongst undergraduates at any rate, would not support this sort of engagement. Changing the way assessment works was raised as a possible factor in this. One thing more crossover would achieve is to lessen the difficulty of managing a great variety of projects at once – one of the aggravators of (1) and (2).
The final thing I’ll mention is that there was the suggestion, or rather the sensitivity to the fact, that the ‘self-selecting’ group that attends a Parallel University workshop might not be qualified to speak for the wider group its hypothesising changes for. I would say, however, that there is still significant value in collecting the views of people who have spent time reflecting on their experience of university and examining the reasoning behind their views. It seems to me that this is what the Parallel University is doing. If so, great! If we all spent a lot more time thinking about what we think we’d probably think better, a good foundation for a university, parallel or otherwise, I would guess.
Anna Symington, English and Philosophy, Yr 3