This week I managed to go swimming again. I would like to go every week but most years I literally only get to the pool on a few days of a few weeks, when things are not so busy.
I like it best when the sun shines down through the Victorian skylight at the pool and projects luminous, oscillating and morphing window shapes onto the sparkling blue water.
Local residents go free on certain days, and I always appreciate what a wonderful resource this is for health and well-being. Swimming (at least the way that I swim) is such a gentle and contemplative form of exercise, unlike running, jogging and gyms – all of which I dislike.
For the last lengths of my session I always swim on my back. This is so that I can look up at the view through the skylight, sometimes staring into dazzling sun, or clouds, into blue, grey, or billowing white.
I always like it when, as I am gliding, almost effortlessly, through the water and making my way along my lane, I see an airplane, silenced by its distance and by the glass, also cruising through the blue, an echo of myself.
Meanwhile, at work I had the privilege of hosting an end of term staff session called ‘Journeys’. Here lecturers and a wide range of university staff come together and talk about their own journeys to and through higher education.
The aim is, in part, to build greater understanding across the staff team, but most importantly to reflect on our own diverse journeys as ways of increasing empathy with our students and their own journeys.
What is it like to, not just leave home to study but to travel to another country to study; to study in a second language; to feel like the only person who is ‘like you’ on your course?
Exchanging our own journeys as staff often means sharing warm and rich and amusing stories, but also sometimes hearing about shocking and challenging experiences.
Every time we have held one of these sessions it seems that everyone has gone away feeling as though we have deepened our bonds and created new ties in our staff community.
But it is also easy to see how being candid about our own experience quickly leads to increasing our empathy with students, and thus enhances our professionalism as conscientious staff, keen to help our increasingly diverse student body as much as possible.
Finally, the fact that these sessions are based on anecdote and memoir makes them an important addition, salve, or alternative to the plethora of ‘objective and scientific’ graphics, stats, numbers and diagrams that all-too often dominate our understanding of ‘the student experience’.
These are all very important. e.g. stats can be used to hold government to account, even if quantitative analysis remains open to interpretation. Graphs can quickly and visibly alert us to important areas of concern, shortfalls etc.
However, by their very nature, they also omit much of the unique and individual story or ‘journey’ that is every student’s real experience, a journey that we, as staff, have all already made in our own undergrad or post-grad years – albeit in a different time, and thus a different world.
On reflection (and to conclude), it may be worthwhile thinking more often of people, not as ‘this’ or ‘that’ type or kind, gender, class, age, race, culture, sexuality, statistic etc. but rather as someone who is always on a journey, perhaps even as someone who is and always is a journey. This too might be a useful way of further honing and practicing empathy.
To illustrate this week’s post, I’ll try to find some kind of relevant moving image: