by MJ Wright, SERT 2019-2020
Reflect on this research
If you are interested in working towards remedying some of the problems that students discussed in our research, we encourage you to spend some time reflecting on themes found in our work. The core problem of the pursuit of desirability is not one that can be fixed by changing programming or language. It is a deeply personal problem that will manifest differently in every student’s life. It is embodied in the way they perceive themselves and in the complex relationship they have with the institutions they learn and work in. In order to shift these ideas for students, we must first look inward to the ways issues of academic desirability affect our own thoughts and experiences.
Think about your own undergraduate experience. Did you feel desired or undesired by the institution? Where did you get this sense of desirability? If you felt desired, what privileges did you hold that allowed you to have this academic desirability? If you felt undesired, what helped you persevere through your undergraduate experience, despite this feeling?
If you are a post-secondary staff member, how do you feel your sense of desirability as a student plays into how you conduct yourself now? Do you do work right now that could allow students to feel more desired?
If you are an educator, do you work to make your students feel desired? Is there a pattern to what students you appreciate or celebrate? Does your recognition of students ever go beyond assigning grades to their work? How can you give students the opportunity to be more than passive receivers of knowledge and really feel they have a place at the university?
If you are a student, do you ever feel desired by the school? Where does the source of that desirability/undesirability come from, your teachers, your peers, from the institution itself? Do you participate in any action that allows students to develop higher senses of desirability? Do you see value in being desired by your school?
Acknowledge the tension students may feel between pursuing academic desirability and engagement
A core barrier students feel to their engagement in opportunities and events is the pressure to maintain their grades. Getting good grades and being active in class is the main route students see to achieving desirability, which they feel is necessary for their success. While engagement is obviously not divorced from student success, and existing literature suggests there is a direct link between them, most students identify a clear difference between how they understand what it looks like to be engaged and being desired.
Students who do not feel desired academically may not have space for any engagement at all. All of their energy may be devoted to school work, to achieving enough to feel that they are successful. They want to engage, sometimes even knowing exactly where they want to participate, but they have no capacity to do so, with the work of school and taking care of themselves being the only “human processes” for which they have the time and energy. This tension could only amplify if the educators and staff do not acknowledge this difficulty they may face. Students will thrive when given space to feel like human beings who are trying the best they can, not always having the obligation to perform in ways that are compatible with what it conventionally looks like to be engaged or desired.
Students have the impression that engagement takes place on campus. The school that this research was done at, Ryerson University, has a reputation as a commuter school, largely bringing in students who live across the GTA. This means that engagement is inaccessible for students who need to travel home and may not have time to stay on campus outside of their classes. This understanding of engagement and desirability may be different in different schools depending on the existing culture, and may be worth exploring how your students understand the concept before applying our research.
Are there other ways of making students feel desired aside from celebrating their academic achievement?
One of the students we spoke to did not connect with desirability in the same way as the other participants. She works on campus and has found community and support from this role, so she feels desired in this space. It appears her ability to be appreciated as a whole person at the university allows her to bypass the notion of desirability as strictly related to classwork, and she feels much more comfortable at Ryerson overall. The university currently does not create many spaces where students can be appreciated for the sake of appreciating them in this way. Instead, students are only commended for what they do or provide the university.
Additionally, undergraduate students are not often inspired to be knowledge creators, only consumers of knowledge. Engagement often takes the form of continuing that consumption, with networking and lecture events abound, while research and education opportunities that would give the student a chance to really develop their skills are largely lacking. For a variety of reasons, many students will not be able achieve excellent grades.
The problem we are left with is that the institution not only desires only a specific set of students in the population, but they also only value specific parts of students, namely what they provide the university and the grades they receive, and how they follow the status quo.
It is the work of faculty and student affairs to create a culture that will counter that existing dominant notion in the majority of students minds.
The term “desirability” may feel impersonal. It is a term that is often tied to commodification and performance of self. Use of this term and its connotations is intentional, as “academic desirability” can only occur in the commodified space of the institution. What it means to be desired could change from student to student, and many ideas are bound to it. Much like all humans, students want to be loved, to have purpose in their lives, to be meaningfully contributing to something outside themselves. Students will live and work for years at a university, and the institution owes it to the individuals who are paying great amounts of money to attend to provide a space where they feel desired in whichever way they need. Not just to appreciate the accomplishments that bring value to the school, but for being hard-working humans who are trying the best they can.
Explore more accessible ways of creating engagement opportunities
The majority of our research was done right before the shut-down in Ontario due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The writing was done during the quarantine. While students emphasize throughout the research that physical locations on campus are where engagement happens, this idea may have shifted when physical campuses became inaccessible. However, there may be a mental barrier for some students to overcome in regards to what they believe engagement is and is not. Some staff may have found more success than ever before using digital platforms to run events and information sessions.
Creating community and connection is more difficult over digital platforms than at physical gatherings, but this increased difficulty means that we should be all the more intentional and thorough when creating online engagement opportunities. If done thoughtfully, engagement will be made accessible to more students, especially if travel to campus or anxiety with large groups is an ongoing barrier. Students now have the opportunity to engage in the comfort and privacy of their own home. Alternatively, the emphasis on events taking place online may also leave students without access to modern technology.
This concept of academic desirability is still in its infancy, and we have surely just scratched the surface of how this concept may manifest in the lives of post-secondary students. We encourage all education professionals, staff, and students to consider this notion of desirability and to consider ways of not only engaging students at your school, but to make them feel desired as people while they are students.