Can We Really Use the Voice We are Taught to Use? | By Maggie Danko

For the majority of university students, each day can be a struggle to keep their head above water. The four years that you spend as an undergrad whirl past you at the speed of light. First day of school, midterms, papers, finals, new semester, midterms, papers, finals. Rinse and repeat four times. Then suddenly it’s over. Between the constantly demanding academic schedule and the search to develop as an individual, it is not often that students take the chance to reflect on what their role is as a student.

The shift from high school to university can be a complete shock to the system for many students, who are used to being coddled, spoon-fed, and told they’re superstars. Welcome to University 101, nobody cares about you. Your prof won’t know your name. You will have information spewed at you in disgustingly large quantities, and then you will be asked to regurgitate it back on the midterm and final. Depending on how well you can cough back information on these two exams will make or break you. Do you question this system or simply conform to the reality of university?

After two years of losing my identity as simply another lost first or second year in the crowd, fighting to memorize as many organic compounds, biological phyla, and calculus equations as my mind could handle, I realized that this was not the only way to learn. At the time, I didn’t question the pedagogical underpinnings of my education; however, when my university journey took a turn and I became a nursing student, I felt suddenly awakened to reflect on my role as a student. On my first day as a nursing student, I walked into a seminar room of 14 students, and we were asked to make a nametag for ourselves, and I felt like I had entered a different universe. I remember thinking, “I get a name and not just a student ID number?” and “my instructor recognizes my style of writing? What a bizarre concept!”

Nursing classes were completely different than anything I had ever experienced. We use a pedagogical method called Context Based Learning (CBL), whereby all our education is scenario based, and peer- and self-taught. One of the highlights of my nursing education is that I know that I am responsible for my own learning. I need to be accountable to myself if I want to succeed. If I don’t succeed, I can’t scapegoat it on a lousy prof; my success is directly correlated to how much effort I put into my schoolwork, because no one is going to teach me the material. At first, this was a rough transition for many of us. “You mean we are paying tuition to teach ourselves?” was a common utterance in first year, but over time, we came to accept this fact. I will even confess that I have come to LOVE it. While some may call me crazy, I will be the first to admit that I can’t imagine learning any other way now.

Through our CBL training, we have had the concept of self-directed learning tattooed to our foreheads. And honestly, I feel sorry for students in other faculties where this isn’t the catchphrase. While everyone enters higher education for their own reasons, I strongly believe that the task of being a self-directed learner and being accountable for your own education and enlightenment is a life skill that everyone should develop.

What triggered my reflection on this topic though was an issue that has been on the front of my mind for nearly a year now. Presently in Canada, to become a registered nurse, you must write the CRNE, or the Canadian Registered Nurse’s Examination. It is a made for and by Canadians exam that has been the regulatory standard for over forty years. However, last fall, a decision was made to abolish the CRNE and have new grads write the NCLEX-RN exam, the current American registration exam for nurses. This change has struck outrage in nurses and nursing students across Canada, and organizations, such as the Canadian Nursing Students’ Association (CNSA) have been very vocal on this issue. The most interesting part of this ordeal though has been that through our student advocacy campaigns, we have been outright told, “frankly, students had no right to be involved in this decision.”  We have no right to be involved in a decision that directly affects us, and our future careers? Not even a consultation? Feedback form? Online survey? Nothing. And we should really get rid of this “sense of entitlement” that we have and remember that we are JUST students, and our voice doesn’t count.

After four years of being taught that I need to direct my own learning, that I need to be accountable for my education, and that I need to be in control of my future and speak up on decisions that affect me, I’ve suddenly been told that my voice doesn’t matter. Ouch. Similarly, the discussions around changes to Lister Hall that occurred over the summer caused me to stop and reflect on whether students really do have a voice. Although we are taught to be self advocates, often by the same people who teach us this, we are subject to their authoritative decision-making.

So my question to you, fellow students of academia, what is the role of the student in their education? Should we merely be sponges that absorb everything thrown our way? Whether this is information from professors, decisions made by higher powers both inside and out of the academic sphere, and so forth? Or are we actually the active participants in our education that we are taught to be?

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  • Sydney

    I felt this was a little pessimistic, while in my first and second year I made an effort to be known by my prof, to ask questions in class, and interact with fellow students. i had an extraordinarily different experience than the once you have described here.
    Its ironic, as when my research advisor and I talk about the classes he teaches his biggest complaint is that we as students don’t pose enough questions and often wont partake in class discussions. University is what you make it, if you don’t make yourself known/heard, you wont be.

  • Kathryn

    I had a similar complex about the contradictions that the university system seemed to support. I took a BFA Fine Art and Design, which, like this writers situation, contained two contrasting aspects:The first two years were easy and straight forward, between the design courses and the art courses I was taking, they provided a pretty basic outline of the fundamentals of art and image creating. They taught absorbtion and name dropping, and exposed you to many ideas.

    The last two years, so called self directed years, were handled a little more poorly. It was like the transition from being spooned to being left to your own devices happened overnight, but worse of all, in the beginning of the self directed years, you were still being given a ‘rough outline’ of the direction you should take. For example, project outline ‘Pick an artist with a style you like, develop work inspired by it’, or ‘Painting is…’. This resulted in a habit of plagerism that was thinly veiled as ‘appropriation’. Some career artist I know still work in that. We were no longer drawing cubes, but we weren’t exactly learning anything either.

    By the last year, I was so turned around and full of bad advice that I literally lost all the intial power for creation I had started with, which had been with me since I was six years old. It was like they already knew the answer to what was ‘right and wrong’ in art, and wanted us to just show our work. That being said, not all professors were like this, but in my case, more were then weren’t. As well, the ‘self learning’ aspect of the education sort of tore holes right through the institution for me. We were taught to be ‘self made’, ‘self empowering’, but in my effort to do so, by branching into extra curricular clubs, meeting those in other creative departments, getting out in the field, more and more I taught myself that what I was being ‘taught’ was obviously a insulated contradiction.

    I could not take my teachers as seriously the way I had when I first started out. I went through a crisis so bad that I quit my vocation for two solid years after graduation before now returning to it. Funnily enough, I have returned to some of the old habits I had been taught that were ‘wrong’, just to be able to create again. So the question is, what’s better, being an ‘educated’ artist, or being an artist who actually creates work?