The perpetual ne´er-do-wells

The last year has been….. hard, frustrating, instructive, exhausting… unusual in every sense of the word. The more I socially distanced from my friends, the closer I got, physically speaking, to my laptop. Day in, day out, I sat in front of my laptop, starring at the tiny camera with its bright white light, listening to what friends, colleagues, lecturers said via the headphones in my ears. I didn´t have that many classes the past semesters but what I had plenty of were university politics meetings; From student council meetings to LiLiGoesMental ones and faculty wide ones with professors of all different fields of studies in attendance. Over the last months, I´ve experienced how all different kind of people speak about how the Corona crisis can best be managed to keep the daily business of university going and how they talk about students specifically. This showed time and time again that now, more than ever, the discourse of the lazy, ungrateful but ever-available student needs to stop!

When we at LiLiGoesMental come together every week for our team meetings, we´ve made it a habit to talk about how everyone is doing. Not the small talk kinda version where no one´s really interested what the answer is anyway but the honest, caring, holistic approach of seeing every team member as a human being who juggles various responsibilities at the same time and faces unique struggles. We practice compassion and acceptance because the opposite is simply not an option. We acknowledge that the pandemic, social distancing and online learning have been difficult for all of us, to different extents. And we share our frustration about how the discourse of the lazy student perpetuated by academia has gained momentum over the last year.    

Even before the pandemic, there has been this cliché that students only ever work as much or as hard as is minimally required of them. They hand in texts too late; they always ask for extensions of deadlines and they constantly have to be reminded to do their work. All these generalisations paint students as perpetual ne´er-do-wells. Students who are diligent, who perform high (whatever that means in the context), are the exception. The ones who are allowed to take a break. Everyone else has to prove first that they are deserving of down-time. That they´ve earned to take it slow, to look after themselves. The discourse of the lazy student, as broad and generalising as it is, is perpetuated by the binary notion of good vs bad students. By systemic power that is used to secure one´s own position rather than acknowledge the possibility for change that this power brings with it. By enforcing a system of conduct that cherishes gain over pain.

After two online semesters, this discourse is still going strong. Stronger than it did before: Now the question is not only “How do we make sure students perform well in class and to my liking?” but also “How do we keep students from cheating in online exams and faking attendance in Zoom classes?”  My answer to that is simple and yet apparently radical: How about you don´t? A global pandemic that caused students to lose their jobs, their family members and any kind of positive outlook for the future is not the time to make academia more toxic and hierarchies steeper. Alternatives exist in form of open book exams, asynchronous teaching and a general stance of showing compassion but are too often disregarded in fear of making it “too easy” on students. Let me be clear: Students don´t owe you success. Students don´t owe you time. I don´t owe anyone but myself to try my best in academia. And certainly not at the cost of someone else´s sense of righteousness.

I´m writing about this due the experiences I´ve made over the last three years working as a student representative and being a student myself; I´m writing about this in the context of LiLiGoesMental because it has impacted my mental health. In the best moments, I see my political engagement as an uphill battle to use my voice and make academia less toxic for everyone. At the worst moments, I feel physically unwell to be at uni and know what´s being discussed about students behind closed doors. I´m sick and tired of sitting in meetings and having to listen to university personnel discussing how new technological appliances make it easier to monitor students or explain time and time again that it´s not okay to record live sessions to check who´s been there and who hasn´t.  I can´t keep up with having to prove constantly that I´m allowed to exist in academia, that I deserve to take a break, that I am a human being and thus, worthy of compassion and integrity.

The academic currency is mental health and many of us pay a high price during our studies. We find ourselves indebted to pay our share while trying to make ends meet as is. I had hoped that the pandemic would entail more compassion and less hierarchies. Now I hope that this will be the modus operandi some day still.

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