Learning from Students

I’ve been teaching in universities for a while now. I got my first full time lectureship in 2002 and taught anywhere from 50-130 students a year until I joined the Aga Khan University in 2018, where we have a maximum of 15 students per year. The students have demonstrated a range skill levels and prior experience and I think it’s fair to say that while I don’t know all of my students equally well, I pretty much like every student I’ve ever taught. Even if I found them a bit difficult during their studies, I don’t dislike them as people. I have been lucky enough to stay in contact with many of them over the years and one of the great joys in life is not only watching your former students go out and do interesting things, but also learning from them. Sometimes they do things that are absolutely central to my own interests and it’s been exciting to listen to them and realise that now they know a lot about things that interest me.

Learning from graduate students isn’t surprising. Doctoral students, in particular, work at a pretty advanced level and they become experts on the topic they study. So it should come as no surprise to anyone that I have happily co-published with a number of my former PhD students because they are extremely good in their fields and it’s nice to maintain some kind of professional intellectual relationship with them. Masters students, similarly, can often be impressively knowledgeable on their dissertation topic. The best students take advantage of the opportunity to read as much as they can get their hands on and they embrace the chance to talk about everything with everyone. Once we start working outside of universities, the chance to have open ended conversations about the concept of culture or the philosophy of good and evil can be more restricted.

I could easily write multiple blogs about the incredible things many of former students have gone on to do with their lives, but here I wanted to write about three who have provided steady entertainment, made me think and possibly even taught me to be a better person.

Rizwan Asad was in one of the first cohorts of anthropology undergraduates I taught at Durham University. In my mind, he is still a fresh faced, very young adult, but of course, he’s not so young anymore, though he still seems to look remarkably youthful. Using the name Riz, he is the man behind the blog called Chocolates and Chai (https://www.chocolatesandchai.com/).  I initially read it just because he wrote it and I wanted to support a former student by reading and liking his post. It turns out, he’s really good at blogging. He’s funny, informative and engaging. I have never considered myself a foodie, and I don’t think I really am, but he writes about food in ways that cause me to question whether I am indeed, a closet foodie. I remember the first post of his that I read was about a chocolate dessert. I hardly remember the details, and I have to admit I don’t think I was very interested in the actual food, but he used food as a starting point to talk about life. Maybe I read more than I should into what he says, but he seems to weave lessons about living one’s life and accepting the good and the bad with equal grace into every recipe and restaurant review. As long you’re not looking for recipes with apples, eggplants/aubergines or coriander, then he’s probably got something for you. And along the way, I defy anyone not to crack a smile a few times while they’re reading.

At the other end of my time at Durham, I had a hardworking student named Farah Samuel. She did her MSc in Energy and Society and was committed to returning to her country, Pakistan, and helping to solve some of the critical energy and environmental problems. After successfully completing her MSc, she took a job with Code for Pakistan. It’s an odd organisation that brings software developers together to develop innovative technology solutions to Pakistan’s public services. It’s one of those audacious enterprises that intentionally aims for the stars in order to start getting us to the moon. It turns out that Farah also has a great sense of humour. She doesn’t blog as regularly as Riz, but she’s a pretty active Tweeter (@farahsamuel), and she has recently become a powerful contributor to Dawn, one of the biggest English language daily newspapers. Her recent article on the climate crisis reminds us that we can’t afford to take our eye off that looming challenge. She’s one of those students that wasn’t afraid to voice her opinion, even if it contradicted that of her tutors. We need students like that, even if sometimes they can be challenging. Every time I read one of her blog posts on the Code for Pakistan site, or one of her tweets, I feel like I’m reading the words of someone who understands the most serious problems facing all of us and we should all listen more carefully to what she has to say.

Finally, I want to pay my respects to a former student who doesn’t do a lot of blogging and doesn’t tweet, at least not under her actual name, but she’s a prolific Facebook contributor. She posts humorous things and serious things. She ran a vegan restaurant in Middleborough for a while that I never managed to get around to trying, sadly. She’s given me advice on dogs (we share a passion for lovely Labradors) and we’ve compared notes on parenting. When my wife was about to give birth to our son, I apologised to a class that she was sitting in, that I would go ahead and keep my phone on in case my wife needed me to come home urgently to take her to the hospital. I don’t remember the exact words she said, but she and one of her friends looked at me like I was an idiot and something about what they would think of me if I dared to turn my phone off while my wife was pregnant. After my son was born, I was giving the students an example of the structural sexism that exists even in places where no one will openly say anything sexist. A colleague had a child two weeks after my wife and I had our son. She was taking an extended parental leave. At the time I didn’t know how long she would take, but in the end, she took about a year and then returned on a partial contract to spend more time with her child. I told the students that I took the parental leave to which I was entitled– at the time, two weeks, but I was back at work. I would continue to write papers and do the things that would get me promoted. While my colleague, unless we put in some measures to recognise this time, would run the risk of seeing her publication record slow down and she wouldn’t have the chance to sit on the right committees and do the sorts of things that get people promoted. I was expecting my students to respond by saying this was outrageous and institutions needed to have explicit policies that could allow parents to take some time out for their children without potentially sabotaging their careers. They didn’t react that way at all. Instead, Shirley said that my colleague will always be able to catch up and write more papers, but I will never get the time with my adorable baby boy back. When he grows up, I can’t ‘make up’ the time I didn’t spend with him when he was a toddler. I admit, I was a little shaken by what she, and others in her class, said. I went home and I spent more time with my new born baby boy. I have often thought about what I missed in my pursuit of a professional academic career. I’m not at the lofty heights of academia, by any means, but I’m established and I am proud of many of the things that I’ve done. But those students, and especially Shirley, were right. There is time for a career. There’s no stopwatch on getting to be full professor within a particular time. If I had never been promoted, I might still have had a very satisfying academic career. But when I look at my teenage children now, I do regret the time I spent in the field when they were younger. I regret the time that I spent at international conferences and workshops where I didn’t bring them with me (I did sometimes, but not nearly enough). If I’d listened properly to Shirley all those years ago, I might not be a full professor, but I would have had something else and I would still have been very happy with my life.

Riz, Farah and Shirley have all kept me on my toes, whether they know it or not. I like to think that I helped them to be better anthropology students, but in the end, I’m not sure that matters nearly as much as what they’ve done for me. Each of them enriched my life when they were sitting in my class and I’m not embarrassed to say they continue to do so long after they have moved on from formal studies. I could write loads of posts about my other impressive students. I won’t because there are other things I want to write about and I know that none of them needs my approval or praise to be remarkable human beings. I am, however, grateful for all of them. They have all given me stories to tell and things to think about and that’s not a bad gift to give one’s teachers.

Finally, I am glad that I still have plenty of years left to work with students and lots of opportunities to both teach and learn.

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2 Responses to Learning from Students

  1. Shirley Tregonning says:

    I am incredibly happy to have had a positive influence on your life with your children. There is absolutely no doubt that you had a powerful influence on many of your students, we were all lucky to have had such a dedicated lecturer.
    I now work outside the field of anthropology and still sell vegan food. However, my studies certainly help me to make sense of the social, cultural and medical influences on the food we eat.
    Now then Steve, any chance I can influence again, only this time you to consider veganism? Lol
    😂😂😂😂 Take care buddy. Regards, Shirley.

    • anthrosteve says:

      Well, I don’t know if I could manage veganism. Vegetarianism is certainly not beyond me, though, so if I can persuade Chisaki, then it could happen. I think it would be hard to have a different diet from her. But don’t be shy about trying to persuade me (and other)!

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