What to Do With this Work: A Reflection for Educators

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.

specificity and subjectivity, a reflection

by Tesni Ellis

“We have been driven away from knowing that what we feel is as important as what we think.” – just one of the moments of clarity that Rina provided this morning, for me at least.

Well, team, we’re wrapping our sixth week together and I feel like this week really solidified us as a community. This morning, I heard you each express what you have learned and grappled with so far in this project and placement. You each engaged in the story-writing activity with an approach that was uniquely yours, and it reminded me ever more of the power of subjectivity, the power of personal narrative, the power of “I”. I turn again to adrienne maree brown who cites Grace Lee Boggs: “Transform yourself to transform the world” and then explains “This doesn’t mean to get lost in the self, but rather to see our own lives and work and relationships as a front line, a first place we can practice justice, liberation, and alignment with each other and the planet,” (from Emergent Strategy p. 53). The way many of our exercises have asked you to turn inwards is intentional – I do this in hopes that you explore the power of these activities and questions first so that then you can offer them to our participants. And then they will feel the power of the “I”. And they will experience the power of being asked, for perhaps the first time, what it means to pursue an education, what the value of it is, the ways in which relying on financial assistance affects their educational experiences, and what those experiences reveal about the complex, historically oppressive system of OSAP and higher-ed.

This is why being specific, and seeking particular experiences rather than generalizations from our participants, will be key for us. The systems map of OSAP provides the macro, the overarching, the complexity – we are offering the micro, the nuance, the personal. These two play with and fuel each other to create a narrative that has not been told.

brown writes, “How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale. The patterns of the universe repeat at scale. There is a structural echo that suggests two things: one, that there are shapes and patterns fundamental to our universe, and two, that what we practice at a small scale can reverberate to the largest scale.” (Emergent Strategy, p. 52). I believe that by practicing arts-informed methods, we help ourselves and our participants express that which can reverberate on that larger scale; by asking questions that haven’t been asked and by practicing deep listening, we might create the conditions for transformation internally and in community.

I have been thinking also about this project’s design and how iterative it has been. I’ll admit that as I built the project’s foundation independently last term, while it gave me authority and control, I felt alone in the work. Making decisions by myself about the methods, the questions, and the structure of this research protocol without the input of team who would execute it felt strange and contrived. Even as I left space for the gaps I knew you would fill and focused my energy on what I would teach you so that you could lead, I wasn’t sure how it would go. I had met each of you individually, but I didn’t know if I had assembled a team or a group of individuals. I concerned myself over the tight time constraints we would have, the challenges of creating and working during a pandemic, and the way my desire to enact an adaptive and emergent strategy felt at odds with the pre-determined needs of the project and your placements.

While of course I’m still concerned about creating and working during a pandemic, today and in some of our creative sessions in recent weeks, I saw us as a team who trusts each other and has a common purpose. I hear your questions, see your careful dedication to the project, learn from your perspectives, and appreciate your critical approach to this work. It has deepened the quality of our project in countless ways.

As we shift from learning and practicing to hosting research events and then as we engage in analysis together, I am grateful for your attention, patience, and energy throughout the project. I am very confident that the shapes it takes over the coming weeks will be fruitful, full of meaning, and ultimately will contribute to a powerful account of students’ experiences.

first day reflections for SERT:OSI, a new chapter

by Tesni Ellis

Hi team,

I’m feeling both energized and as I said, out of breath after our first day together. I think that’s a good sign but it is also a reminder that we will all be practicing patience and balancing varied energy levels together this term. I’m hopeful that what we covered today will help us do that. Here are some of those commitments we agreed to as a team:

  • Communication is key!
  • We will ensure we have clear deadlines/timelines and be accountable for our various responsibilities.
  • We will check in with each other to ensure we all comprehend our to-dos, our needs, and our expectations.
  • We will practice understanding and expressing our own boundaries, limits, needs, and contexts as related to our work and goals – clearly, respectfully, and compassionately.
  • And we’ll have fun doing this!

Thank you for thoughtfully responding to all my questions and prompts today. I really do hope that we find a rhythm that works for us all when it comes to balancing engaging on Zoom and in other ways. Please know I am always open to adjusting and making room for us to do our best work in new ways that suit our purposes and circumstances. As always, reach out to me if you need to talk through the workload or anything else.

I’m excited to work with you all and embark on this Boat-1-meets-Boat-2 adventure. SERT is a project and experience dear to my heart and this next iteration is traversing new depths already. I know we are going to do some meaningful work and uncover insights that will impact the Ryerson community. And you’re the right team to do it with.

uncertain waters

Posted on  by Tesni Ellis

It’s April 2nd, SERT is two short months from completing our project and term as a team, and yet it’s likely we won’t see each other in person through any of that time. How can it be that just a few weeks ago we went to the RIC together and looked at “A Handful of Dust”, contemplating the things left behind, the things accumulated, the things both macro and micro? Is it possible that just a few weeks ago we were setting up our SERT audio-booth around campus and inviting students to talk with us, to share their stories in our booth and on our survey, as we described the goals of our work? When we giggled and admired our creation and saw it in action after many hours of dreaming. How can our bodies and minds process this shift that so quickly and so drastically has us trying to grasp at the memory of simple things like a walk with a friend, a long embrace, a handshake hello?

Since John’s last post in February, it’s hard to describe in detail all the things that have changed. I’ll try my best. It won’t be quite as elegant as John’s, but blame it on the quarantine blues.

We waited for our REB approval to come in, a wait that at times felt excruciatingly long as we were poised to jump to action the moment we saw that “approved” come through. While we waited we planned, we organized and considered all the things left to complete in the project. We went back to our literature. We built our booth! Tristan created our recording device; Gillian created some stunning designs that solidified our identity.

Then the news came – we were REB approved! But for some revisions. We whipped those up and turned our sights on activating spaces with our survey booth and enticing participants to join us and share their stories and ideas about student engagement. From the moment we saw the survey go live, our energy lifted – we saw answers coming in in real time and we dove into the insights already. We looked closely at what was working about the activations, and pivoted where necessary. We shared joyful space together.

We cried when John announced he would be leaving Ryerson for a new opportunity.

We hugged him farewell at the last survey activation – little did we know that hugs would soon be an international faux-pas.

We’d heard of the coronavirus and its devastating impact across the world, but we hadn’t yet understood it was here, amongst us, already. We hadn’t yet understood the massive, sweeping shift to our lives and security and wellbeing that would soon take hold.

We still don’t understand.

On March 13, 2020, Ryerson University announced all classes and exams would shift to an alternative/online format in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, as the spread of the coronavirus was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization. All campus in-person events and gatherings were cancelled as well. In the days following, Ryerson University adjusted operations in efforts to encourage community safety and “social distancing” practices to mitigate the spread of the virus. On March 17, Ryerson University announced a shift to an essential services model, resulting in the complete closure of nearly all campus buildings and services, as students, faculty, and staff adjusted to a new learning, teaching, and community reality.

SERT adjusted, too. Our boat, while navigating unprecedented waters, remained afloat if not a bit stalled, a bit seasick even. We learned how to use Zoom and connect in new ways. We considered the pandemic’s impact on our research methodology as planned, its impact on our participants, its impact on us. We felt it all over. We continue to feel it all over.

But when we see each others faces on our screens, invited suddenly into the intimacies of our homes, rooms, kitchen tables, it feels possible. We remain a team committed to students, committed to our project, and committed to our purpose. And we smile and find ways to laugh and support each other through unimaginable grief, chaos, upheaval in all the ways it is manifesting for each of us individually.

Our interviews may suffer – we may only have a couple participants join us on google-maps-digital-walking-interviews. But that’s okay. We understand students are just trying to make it through. And yet some interesting things can be said about student engagement and distance from the institution or feelings of belonging when we can no longer gather on campus. When we are forcibly distant rather than ideologically or emotionally distant. So, as this team is built to do, we switch directions in some ways and continue forward in others.

Our survey data is rich and exciting and now what remains is to understand it, to pull out the insights and make something of them. To draw connections between what our participants shared with us and what we ask questions about in our ambling team discussions and back to the literature. Will our ideas about “student desirability” be confirmed by those students willing to share time and experiences with us? Will we learn something about the barriers to student engagement and students’ perceptions of their own ability or desire to engage? I believe we already have.

Now, to create something of all this. To analyze, to zoom in and then zoom out and then map and consider and loop back. Each of us is dedicated to seeing the project through even amidst a worldwide crisis – and in some ways it is what’s helping us hold onto reality, some sense of normalcy and purpose (is that just me?).

I couldn’t dream of a better group of people, kind and caring and intelligent people, to go through this with.

Where are we now?

Posted on  by John Hannah

SERT 2019-2020 – current state of play

This is the waiting part. Poised and ready to deploy, we await word from the ethics board, and it gives us time to discuss, reflect, collect our thoughts and remind ourselves of the good reasons for doing this work.

So where are we?

Well, we’ve become a bona-fide team now, a group who has formed a kind of micro-culture around ways of thinking and being together, around a set of ideas that have become important to us. And we rooted ourselves in the research traditions where we felt a kinship – a  naturalistic approach to social science, adopting critical perspectives, believing in not only the legitimacy, but the importance of using alternative arts-based approaches to understanding the lives of students, approaches driven by a desire to see things from a new angle, in ways that unearth new questions, that situate researchers inside the research, as participants, mitigating the relationships of power and orthodoxy. We acknowledge the complexity of the human experience and seek not to reduce it, believing that, as Muriel Rukeyser says, “…the universe is made up of stories, not atoms.” A strong foundation for scholarly inquiry with heart.

And we have immersed ourselves for months now in a certain sea of thought about the student experience – interrogating one of the academy’s most beloved concepts – “student engagement”. We’ve read the usual suspects –  Tinto and Kuh and Pascarella and Terrenzini, and we’ve looked at the National Survey of Student Engagement, that foundational tool of assessing how well things are going. And we’ve taken a dive into the more critical side of things by reading lesser knowns on the topic – Julie Wintrup, Peter Kahn, Bruce Macfarlane, and Nick Zepke. We’ve looked at the concept of student engagement from many different angels, studying its contours, resisting an all-out embrace of its virtues and asking if there are more critical ways to regard it all. And this critical perspective comes directly from the  SERT students, reflecting upon their own experience as students and the ways in which they dance awkwardly sometimes with this engagement imperative. To be engaged, to be active in one’s learning seems not to be in dispute. No quarrel with that. It’s a good solid idea. But is there another side? Engagement as perpetuating hustle-culture? Engagement as performativity? Engagement as exclusionary? As amplifying the pressure cooker? As a tool of the neoliberal agenda? As, at best, a poorly understood concept? As a shallow marketing tool? There are thorns on that rose worth exploring. And so that’s where we went.

And in those machinations, we arrived at our own blurry concept that somehow held promise – the idea of student-desirability. What makes a desirable student? What characteristics does the institution deem desirable in students? What is the actual felt experience of students in this regard? Do they feel desired by the institution? Do they feel they possess attributes of desirability? Or are they pressured to perform those attributes? Is this a useful way of thinking about it – somehow more real than “engagement”, more penetrating than “belonging”? We’re not sure. It’s a slippery concept that we’re having difficulty articulating. But it’s worth exploring. And so that’s where we went.

So, how to inquire into these things? What will be our way of inquiry into these questions? That’s what we next dug our teeth into. Methods and methodology, the complex relationship between the observers and the observed, our purpose in all this, not objective truths but personal ones, focusing here, in this particular research context, on stories as the sense-making devices towards which we would focus  our scrutiny, motivated by a desire to simply talk with fellow students, to ask them something meaningful. A survey first. Traditional, yes, but we played with it and imagined some other, less traditional way of doing that, making the survey a kind of interactive event with art, and strange old-telephone technology, and quirky guerilla-marketing stickers, and a homemade audio booth. It’s next level diy-style survey. Who knows if any of it will do anything truly interesting or have the imagined effect of bringing researchers and participants closer somehow. But it doesn’t matter. It was in the making of these things, the imagining of these things that we deepened our thinking on the research process. The pondering of all those diy survey shenanigans gave us a way to talk about what it means to inquire in this way, to interrogate the virtues and limitations of traditional research methods, to just talk about research and what it means.

And then we decided also on “interviews” as our dig-deeper-device. It was the obvious choice – interviews, opportunities for deep, unstructured conversations with fellow students about their lived experiences, their thoughts on “engagement”, a way to test this idea of “student-desirability”.    And here again, we engaged in a kind of spontaneous improv, wondering what was possible, wondering what ways we could take the traditional interview idea and…make it better, make it real, make it ours. So…walking interviews, inviting the student participants to lead us to locations on campus that resonate with them, meeting them on their turf, walking with them, drawing on the promising work coming out of the counseling community exploring “walk and talk” therapy,  eliminating the confines of four walls, engaging the body, reducing formalities that curtail conversation. It’s worth exploring as a method for elicitation of genuine student stories. So that’s where we went.

And, as we wait for ethics approval, we are anxious to get started on all of this. And as we wait, we contemplate and begin designing our approach to analysis, finding our position on this in a way that coheres with our foundations and our approaches to “data collection”  just described. There’s an obvious path here towards narrative analysis, a preference for stories as the unit of scrutiny, stories in all their context and complexity, not reduced to codes or themes.  We are inspired by what for us is a kind of guiding work by Petra Munro Hendry, The Future of Narrative, in which she writes: Narrative research has held out the promise of providing a more complex and complete picture of social life. Furthermore, it highlights the ways in which culture and society shape and are shaped by individual lives. It also provides what seems like a more egalitarian research relationship that honors the intersubjective modes of knowledge production, but we share in her struggle about how we can represent the stories we hear, make sense of them in a way that does not reduce them to parts, and do it in a way that has some trustworthiness. And we’re also perturbed by her idea that, as narrative researchers, we can become …so busy capturing “experience” that we can’t listen. We have so many strategies for “getting it right” that the real experience is obscured. How will we represent what we hear from our student participants? We’re not sure yet, but we are predisposed to non-traditional forms of representation, forms based in art. So that’s where will likely go.

So, we will have these things in mind as we make our next moves, learning the modes, and philosophies and techniques of research, but also humbled by our responsibility to honour what Munro-Hendry describes as the “sacredness “of it all.

NOVA Activity: What is “Student Engagement”

Posted on  by Tesni Ellis

Captured from our SERT session November 2019

The so-called “non-objectifying visual analysis” (NOVA) exercise is a tricky one to explain and facilitate – I’ll do my best to write it out. To begin NOVA, each of us draws an image in response to a prompt – in our case, for our first NOVA we considered our personal definitions of student engagement.

So, how the activity works. Each of us writes an explanation of that drawing of ours, creating a written response to the same prompt. Then, the drawings are circled around the group and another team member interprets the drawing, writing an accompanying note in response. So, first the drawings are interpreted by someone else without their accompanying explanation. Next, the drawings and their creator’s explanation are circled around the group and again, a fellow team-member responds to these – this time responding to both the drawing and its accompanying explanation. 

Finally, all the responses and original drawings are returned to their creator – providing them with two interpretations, one that had an accompanying written explanation and one that relied on purely the visual. The insights that come from this exercise continue to astound me – we’re confronted with the ways in which interpretation is highly subjective, with the ways in which drawing alone can evoke something unique that writing does not, and the ways in which the researcher’s personal interpretation or explanation can only tell one part of the story. Reading the NOVA exercises always gives me a bit of a thrill – it helps us practice the art of interpreting others’ stories and data without supposing there is any “one” or “real” truth to be discovered. The exercise helps illuminate the biases or perspectives the researcher brings to their participants’ stories and that cannot be separate from interpretation – and neither should they be. It’s also a great activity to practice sharing perspectives on the same thing as it illuminates the ways a group is thinking similarly, differently, and creates a space for new ideas and connections to emerge, new ways of describing or illustrating a thing to be made.

Here’s what we made out of this first NOVA exercise for SERT 2.0

Research and Ethics

Posted on  by claire.lowenstein

Heading into my second week as a research assistant with SERT I’m feeling pretty good! Over the weekend we were told to look up the TRI Council Policy and complete modules meant to better familiarize ourselves with its information. Some of the policy’s guidelines for ethical conduct of research seem fairly obvious, like “respect for persons” and “concern for human welfare” but put into practice it’s a lot more nuanced than it seems. Our discussion during our SERT meeting revealed that the question of ethical research is far more nuanced than it seems. At one point during the meeting Jon and Tesni gave us a hypothetical: if we were sitting on a research board, would there be any absolutes for us that would automatically deem a project unethical? (And therefore unworthy of study.) We found even the most basic rules challenging. In theory, the idea of informed continuous consent should ground every research project. But in many foundational psychological studies that have revealed untold truths about the nature of human behaviour, deception is built into the study’s research design. Even with something as seemingly self evident as the promise of not inflicting harm on participants becomes complicated if we consider that drug companies offer money to participants willing to test new medication with potentially harmful side effects all the time. Does the cost of one’s your health outweigh the financial benefit of participating in these studies? For a lot of people the answer is ‘no’. But even so, should we disregard these studies because of the questionable ethics employed to achieve its results ? What if the knowledge produced from the studies helped prevent or cure illnesses plaguing millions of people? This is where our ethical boundaries are tested. We came to the conclusion that projects have to be assessed each based on their own merit. As for our own SERT project, our discussion left me with a lot of questions. How can all of us come to an agreement on a shared ethical code that can both guide our project and secure approval from the board. Will this code get compromised if the results we are see aren’t what we had hoped for? How do we keep that from happening? How do we keep from getting attached to participants who choose to volunteer with us? Is an emotional attachment to our participants necessarily a bad thing? In theory isn’t one required, if as stated in the TCPS, our responsibilities to participants include “respect for persons” and “concern for wellbeing”. Or can all of this threaten the ethics of our work? I have a feeling these are questions we will be grappling with for awhile.


Does Curation Make Us Less Critical?

Posted on  by bilqees.mohamed

After reading the article titled Curation as Storytelling, I learned the role that curating plays in influencing and affecting independent thought. The article presented many intriguing ideas one of which deems curators as playing an integral part in the economy and knowledge production. Before reading this article, I always considered the practice of curating as limited to artistic forms. This perception was quickly challenged by the articles position that stated that that stories don’t hold intrinsic value, and unshared stories are “basically like rubbish, lying around without any value” and it is the role of the curator to revive this story from the garbage bin and to give it value. This idea challenged me a lot. From a post-modern perspective, stories are integral to the way we challenge the worlds social and political construction. As curators, I found it interesting that are positioned in a unique way- that they aren’t completely rejecting the possibility of stories, but rather validating and making stories consumable. This troubled me in a way, because of the rejection of the values of stories that can exist without categorization. Also, the imposition of the curators’ belief systems, biases, suggests a power imbalance that impacts human agency, capacity to define the value of individual stories. At the same time, I wondered how much of the world has been curated for us and even when we think we are taking the most progressive and non-categorical stance/view/opinion- whether we are co-opted in the knowledge economy by vying for the validation that our stories will make change. And if change is part of the knowledge economy that is predetermined by standards of what change should look like and which change should occur. I hope to revisit these thoughts during my time with SERT.


A new angle on desirability: desire lines

Posted on  by John Hannah

Desire Lines: the hidden ways students maneuver higher education

You’ve seen them – the well-worn footpaths through stretches of grassy fields, or openings in fence-rows where folks have pushed through in shortcut, or trails made visible in the flattened undergrowth through thick forests. It’s evidence of people’s movements, visible feedback about peoples’ route choices through space that violate the designed options presented before them. It’s hard to say exactly what they may represent – the obvious being simply the collective desire to travel according to the most efficient pathway. But I think there’s more to it. Desire lines can be an expression of conformity – humans, like other organisms, taking their cues about movement by the traces left behind by others. The subtle imprints of what may be a random route choice by one human, one day, become magnetic to the travelers who come after. And so it goes, the trail becoming hotter and hotter according to that phenomenon whether it is a good trail or not. It’s a concept known as stigmergy, a kind of herd mentality. Or, perhaps these desire lines simply represent a kind of obvious logic, the clear and most efficient way from point A to point B – something missed by the architects or designers of that space. Or, more interestingly, they could be manifestations of defiance, a kind of collective middle finger to the authority of whoever said the path must here, the stairs must be there. Designers are (or should be) interested in this evidence, whatever it may represent. The architects of the world think deeply about the principles that lie at the root of their designs, things fundamental and important about the human condition and our  place in the world and the meaning of our built environment. And so, to some extent or another, our spaces have these echoes inside them as they are created in the minds of thoughtful designers. And when they are actually created in the world as real places, people are released into them like gerbils in a block maze. The choices we make inside those spaces say something important about the extent to which those lofty, spiritual architectural goals were true, or met, or understood. And the spaces demand either a kind of compliance with the rules of that space, or acts of defiance, acts that express alternative desires. Desire lines – such a poetic concept of human movement and choice. 

But what about other spaces we design, the less concrete but no less real spaces humans also navigate – like a higher education. Consider the language of higher education that is rooted in architectural language – learning platforms, scaffolding, curriculum (literally from the latin for “pathway”), instruction, course of study, etc. This is designed space – the actual physical places where teaching and learning take place, yes, but also more abstract space, the internal architecture involved in teaching, in learning, in credentials, in curriculum, in instruction. Like architects, we also root our conceptions of designing these things in lofty and spiritual principles of the human condition, and we try to make our higher educational enterprise according to principles of universal design so that it is accessible to all. But, I’m not sure you’d get anyone to declare we’ve been wholly successful in that endeavour. It can still be an inaccessible situation, an authoritarian, rule-driven place, with many forced pathways, and routes that privilege a select few, are not hospitable to some, make no sense, or are downright barrier-ridden for others. And in that restrictive place, people make choices, route-choices. They push their way through in ways that express their desire – some try hard to comply with the architecture we have designed for them, whether or not it makes sense. Others are driven by a sense of conformity perhaps, following the traces of those who have come before them. Still others express acts of defiance by intentionally deviating from the pathways set out before them in order to expose the flaws in our designs. And some are just simply finding the quickest and most efficient or comforting routes between point A and point B in ways that fit with their own experience. I think these choices are important – the desire lines of students making their way through the spaces of higher education. The challenge, of course, is that these desire lines are not visible in the way that paths through grassy fields are. But could they be? Perhaps we should be better at identifying these traces left behind by students that express something important about what they need, and what barriers they are encountering. Perhaps we should start asking students more questions about the “routes” they take, the ways in which they creatively navigate our various curricula, and then use that testimony to design better spaces. Or we could be better about telling our stories to students, letting them know about the deeper virtues of our good and thoughtful designs so they may be more inclined to bend towards them.  If an architect builds a set of stairs over here but people decide that they will ascend and descend over there, the architect has three possible responses: a) to become exasperated at peoples’ ignorance and try simply to force them towards her staircase; b) to surrender to the newly chosen route choices and move the stairs to accommodate that; c) by contextualising and making known the principles underlying her design, try to convince the people that her choice for the stairs is actually the better one. Choices b and c are likely to be more productive. One can imagine a similar response from us, the designers of educational spaces. When we notice that students are choosing routes that deviate from our designs for them, we should not simply double-down on those designs. We should either get better at helping students understand the deeper virtues of those designs by making known our motivations that inform them. In this way, things like syllabi, and course selections, co-curricular opportunities, and degree requirements, and reading lists will not be perceived as simply arbitrary. And we should also recognize when students are choosing their routes simply because something in our design is flawed. Period. Sometimes we need to explain the reason for the stairs. And sometimes we just need to move the stairs. 


Use of Audio Recordings

Posted on  by mjwright

There are few studies to be found doing survey work in precisely the way we are planning, particularly the use of a phone booth appears not to be found anywhere in the literature. When discussions of audio recording comes up, it mostly in contexts related to ethnography and interviews. “What are the ethical considerations of recording a subject for an interview?” is a needed conversation to be had, but not really the same as having our participants respond to the single prompt we give them in this study. However, using Audio Diaries for research has a lot of overlap methodologically with our approach. In studies using audio diaries, subjects are instructed to verbalize reflections that would usually take on a written format typically. We essentially are requesting students to do one audio diary focused on the topic of engagement and desirability.

In the report “Methodological considerations in the use of audio diaries in work psychology: Adding to the qualitative toolkit” (2016), the method of audio diaries is discussed at length and critiqued. This study intended to understand the benefits and problems of using audio diaries as a way of documenting workplace stress and the affective experience of such. This is not entirely related to our study, as students’ affective experiences within the institution are our key concern!

What the researchers found is that participants generally preferred taking audio diaries compared to writing, with less feeling of need for editing and change what they spoke. Researchers felt that there was more accuracy in the audio diaries, as due to the decreased cognitive processing compared to writing. Responses and feelings are spoken as they come about in someones mind and thus recordings had less structure but more depth in the kind of reflection that was had. This is very appealing to us, as we want to hear student’s feelings and experiences as they are, distilled through as few existing narratives of student experience as possible. By having them respond in this way, we may be able to access that. Additionally, there is an arts-based connection to this methodology, turning what could be just a written respond into a conversational performance. There is a participatory and empowering nature to the way it feels to take ownership over ones experiences through speaking of them and performing them. This combines both, and will hopefully lead to catharsis for some students.

However, something else researchers found was that participants usually felt uncomfortable during the first few sessions, and the feeling of talking to no one was strange and detached. Participants also really felt it necessary to be in a private space as it was uncomfortable to record when someone could enter at anytime. We have set up our study to restrict as many of these concerns as possible, creating a private space that will feel more conversational within the phone booth and still allowing students the option of writing their answer if responding through the phone feels too intimidating. In this way we hope to combat any uncomfortableness that could be felt by students and create a space of dialogue and revelation on campus during our study.