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Discontent with the content: Edinburgh Uni English Department under review

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Saturday 6th November 21.46

As English Literature students, we are well aware of the stereotype of a lack of contact hours. We are, of course, in a very different position to STEM students, requiring hours of lab contact, while we merely need a quiet place to read. However, the decision of the university to upload pre-recorded lectures online, and to continue to deliver some student’s tutorials online, has left many of us doubting the quality of teaching we are receiving. While all around us restrictions have eased, and clubs are back to full capacity, it is hard to understand why we are still being subjected to online learning. 

We were urged to return to university under the expectation of ‘hybrid learning.’ and promised in-person engagement. However, by the time timetables were released, and the disappointing lack of in-person teaching was revealed, many students had already acquired accommodation in Edinburgh. Of course it is important that students physically return to Edinburgh for the core modules that are being delivered in person; however the bi-weekly in-person modules means that every other week I have a mere two hours of in-person contact, which leads me to question why I am paying for accommodation in Edinburgh. 

The first week of teaching prompted more confusion around the Critical Practice courses. Promised bi-weekly live Q&A sessions are our only engagement from these courses, minus one-off workshops. This led to a great deal of confusion amongst both students, and lecturers delivering the Q&A’s. While I am sure general technical difficulties will be ironed out as the course continues, it was not an encouraging start, particularly amongst the context of general confusion about hybrid learning this year.  

The re-opening of cafes and social learning spaces, however, has brought a positive change, meaning that Autonomous Learning Groups can now meet in person, supplementing the in-person contact for the week. While last year we undertook these collaborative projects through our screens, the difference in engagement from these now being in-person has been significant. 

Lectures, as one of the last elements of University set to return to in-person, remain a point of contention. Third year student Jessica S. highlights the hypocrisy of lecturers in our First Year strongly emphasising the difference in performance between students who attended live lectures in comparison to those who merely watched the recordings. I personally remember certain lecturers refusing to record or upload their lectures for this very reason. This year we are somehow expected to accept the quality of pre-recorded lectures as being on-par with those we received in our First Year, in-person. Jessica also notes her discontent that her significant tuition fees are not being taken into account, a feeling many students would identify with. Paying upwards of 9K for four hours of live contact a week, with sometimes only two delivered in person, has resulted in feelings of resentment, particularly after such a compromised Second Year. 

Dr. Alex Thomson, Head of English and Scottish Literature, emphasised the positive change from last year in the delivery of in-person seminars, and in-person workshops for the Critical Practice courses. Despite the concerns of students who are not receiving as much in-person engagement as we would like, Dr. Thomson stresses that a significant 75% of Honours seminars are taking place in-person, and that there are hopes for an increase in semester two, which is yet to be confirmed by the University. While Jessica articulated a concern that I personally share, about the academic advantages to attending lectures in person or live online, Dr. Thomson was able to highlight many of the positives of the online pre-recorded approach, an encouraging counter-argument to the notions which our lecturers stressed in First Year. Lectures can be accessed and replayed at any time, to allow for other commitments, and are more accessible in this sense. Dr. Thomson notes, however, that when possible in line with the University’s decisions, the department expects to return to full in-person delivery.

With regard to the discussion boards for our Criticism courses, Dr. Thomson let me know that the department is currently reviewing the format, taking on student feedback to implement live camera sessions, instead of the live discussion boards we had last year. He emphasised that the department was looking into the technical difficulties of these sessions as a matter of urgency, which was an encouraging note of the university’s awareness of our concerns as students. As I edit this article, the department has now implemented a live camera format for the Q&A sessions, in response to student feedback favouring the approach used for the Criticism course.

Finally, while I highlight my concerns as an English student, I am also aware of the adjustment our lecturers have had to undertake during the past few years, and the effort many of them have put into online learning, under compromised circumstances. Dr. Thomson’s comprehensive and encouraging response to my concerns has drawn my attention to the way that students and staff can work together to resolve these issues that we are facing, and will continue to face as we shift to post-Covid University life.

Image via Wikimedia Commons