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How does Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Feel?

Kathleen Quinlan

For years, I had been running workshops in which I asked university teachers to reflect on their most powerful learning experiences, drawing out key principles of learning.  We then compared their experiences to principles that were well-established in the literature.  Time and again, I noticed how emotionally charged their learning experiences were.  As they told their stories, sedate academics became animated, their voices and body postures conveying anxiety, passion, excitement, pride. Clearly, memorable learning experiences engage learners emotionally, not just cognitively. Yet, this principle was largely absent in the literature on learning and teaching. That gap inspired How Higher Education Feels: Commentaries on Poems that Illuminate Emotions in Learning and Teaching (Sense Publishers, 2016).

After reviewing the nascent literature on emotions in teaching and learning in higher education, I developed a unique research method. To capture anecdotes and reflections directly in an emotive form, I solicited existing poems on this subject (from poets who were either current or past higher education students or teachers and had written about their educational experiences). Following a widely distributed call, I selected 138 poems that were engaging, well-written, accessible, and relevant to the theme. Sixty-six (66) are written from a teacher’s point of view, 53 are written from a student’s point of view, and 3 are written from a parent’s point of view.  Guided by existing literature, I grouped poems thematically into chapters and invited a relevant expert to comment on each chapter.

For students, the entry and transition to higher education is particularly emotional. As Katie Thornton writes in the opening poem, “It is a most peculiar sadness, leaving for the first time. It is/ an ending of something you have/ always known… But it seems to me that on the whole it is not right to mourn./ Because in the morning/ – after that first night alone -/ doors open.” Students experience anxiety, hopefulness, excitement, and anticipation as they seek those doors to belonging in a new world, beyond the communities and home they left. Each step along the way – making new friends, turning in assignments, passing exams – requires that they “take a breath” (as Jenni Curry puts it in her charming poem), bracing themselves for disappointment or the pride of success. The poems illuminate emotions that are situated in relationships with peers (awe, curiosity), with teachers (respect, frustration, gratitude, inspiration), with the subject they are studying (boredom, excitement), their home communities (homesickness, alienation), the place where they are studying (attachment) and their own sense of self (anxiety, fear, grief, joy, pride).

Teachers experience a range of feelings toward their students… these include pain when they cannot help students in need

Teachers experience a range of feelings toward their students and encounters in the classroom or during consultations outside of class. These include pain (frustration, guilt, helplessness) when they cannot help students in need – students with a variety of personal or academic challenges.  Suzanne Roberts writes that feelings toward some students’ circumstances, “would split the cage of your chest in two.”  Teachers also can experience pleasure and pride when students succeed.  Janet McCann writes, “I like/ to think of them, my students, taking off,/ waving their mortarboards,/  knowing just how to guide their crafts aloft.” 

Classroom encounters can be confrontational, challenging, and exhilarating and these are often connected to the intricacies of the subject itself. Carol Tyx, for example, delights in discovering poems with her students, “There’s a sacramental quality to receiving an Emily Dickinson poem: all we need/ is a bit of bread—a crumb dipped in the wine of metaphor—and it becomes a/ whole loaf, a risen body. All we need is one poem—and it fills a whole class.”  But teachers also struggle with the drudgery, particularly of marking and teaching the same introductory material over and over.   Like students, they also feel anxious about their performance, manifest in anxiety dreams, rebellion against peer evaluations, and concerns about managing difference in the classroom. They are also concerned about changes in the broader landscape of higher education that threaten the values they hold dear.

So, higher education is about much more than just rational, critical thought. Emotion matters in university because education is a fundamentally human activity. It is relational and emotions are central to human relationships. How we feel with and about others shapes the quality of those relationships. Teachers can consciously try to strengthen the positive emotions associated with key relationships in higher education: between students, between student and subject, between teacher and students, between the students and their changing sense of self and the broader social, cultural and physical environments in which they are learning.