Walking with students

12 Oct

I have been experimenting this semester by holding “walking meetings” with students rather than meetings in my office. I was inspired by listening to a talk given by John Paul Lederach – albeit he has the advantage of the beautiful Notre Dame campus for his perambulations with students. But I also like walking and find it a useful antidote to the sedentary academic work-style.

The “walking meetings” are one-to-one start of year meeting with MA in Peace and Conflict students. It is an opportunity for me to get to know the student a little bit, and an opportunity for them to share any questions or concerns they may have.

So why do it? Well, the primary reason is because I like it. I would rather walk around campus than sit in my office. But there are other reasons too. I want to break down – as far as possible – the student/teacher distinction and to engage in a mutual activity. Many of the students are coming to the UK for the first time, or are studying at a UK institution for the first time. Many come from educational environments where there is a very hierarchical relationship between student and teacher. Some students might find the office environment intimidating: it is “my turf”, a desk sits between us and it is full of books which they might think I have read. I certainly haven’t read them all or anything like them all!

The dynamic of walking with someone is very different to a desk-bound meeting. For a start, we are side-by-side rather than face-to-face. We are both engaged in a shared task – navigating our way through a busy campus and its surrounding streets. We can talk about the weather, squirrels, the campus deck chairs, and other ice-breaking non-academic issues. And there is a park next to the campus which is often filled with weird public art that induces mutual wonderment.

Obviously there are a few pre-conditions. I ask the students if they are comfortable with this approach and it may not work with some students with disabilities. And it depends on Manchester’s weather. But so far, I have only had to have one office-bound meeting because of the rain. The start of term weather has been surprisingly clement.

There is a great literature on walking and its relationship with social, political and religious movements. Whether it is Robert MacFarlane’s work on “old ways” and the folk and social history of walking routes, the persistence of pilgrimage routes, the historical importance of the Ramblers’ Association in challenging the privatisation of the countryside, or political marches by Gandhi or Mao, it is clear that walking is not just putting one foot in front of the other.

But mostly I do it because I like it.

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2 Responses to “Walking with students”

  1. Landon Hancock 12/10/2015 at 7:47 pm #

    I’ve started doing this with a few grad students, for much the same reasons you have. Since I already know my PhD students, it hasn’t had the same effect, but it does help get the creative juices flowing when discussing issues like their research papers or potential dissertation projects. Like you, I’m enjoying the good weather, unlike you, i will be put out of business by interminable amounts of snow rather than rain. l…

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