By Amy Ryder, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
When I receive emails addressed to “students”, watch politicians telling us we can “beat this together” or see #LocalHeroes trending on Twitter, implicit in this language are the ideas of connection and community. I can’t remember a time when the language of togetherness, collective responsibility and community has been so prevalent in our day-to-day lives. Our physical isolation from the people and places that populate our everyday communities has prompted a re-evaluation of what it means to belong, throwing into sharp relief the processes that construct and cultivate our sense of community.
The bewilderment and disconnection felt by many following the requirement to “stay at home” illuminates how much our sense of personal identity and the rhythms and routines of our day-to-day lives are shaped by the ways in which we enact membership to our communities. In my experience, so much of our sense of connection relies on our physicality – on our geographical location, on the shared infrastructure of the institutions we belong to and on our physical interactions within them. At the root of community is, after all, a capacity to commune.
What happens then, when the environments in which we physically create, enact and maintain our sense of community are no longer accessible? With the physical spaces of the university now closed and the student community disseminated across the globe, attention is shifting to how we may retain our sense of belonging.
When I first came to Cambridge to train as a teacher, I had no trouble establishing my connection to Cambridge. The vocational and intense nature of the training firmly established my identity as a trainee teacher and being part of a cohort with a common goal meant that I enjoyed all the academic and social benefits of a cohesive and supportive student community. However, when I returned to Cambridge for my MEd, this time as a part-time student, I found I had to be much more proactive in cultivating the same sense of community.
Although part-time students’ academic needs – our deadlines, supervisions and timetables – are catered for, more difficult to adapt to is the fact that we are, well, just not very often around. Despite spending on average double the amount of time on the student roster than our full-time counterparts, as Part-Time Students’ Officer for FERSA I’ve found that part-time students often report a less intense sense of connection to the university. Exempt from the usual residency rules of the university, we can study from anywhere within a four-hour radius of Cambridge, meaning we need to find ways to connect to university that are not so reliant on physical attendance. Hopefully, sharing some of the methods part-time students have found useful in maintaining a sense of connection to the university can also help those who now find themselves more unexpectedly distant from Cambridge.
- Active Participation
“Participation, participation, participation – as much as you can” is the key to creating a sense of community according to Steven Day, a first-year EdD student. Day continues: “I make sure I read every email; do all the surveys; cast my vote in college and university elections – all the housekeeping. It helps create the student identity.”
Like Day, I try to participate in college, university and the wider academic community online. I join Twitter meets, interact with posts, have contributed to my research centre’s blog and apply for opportunities that I’m able to contribute to remotely (such as the upcoming Kaleidoscope Virtual Conference 2020). Day gives talks on his industrial and academic experience and has also written for this blog. This type of active participation has the added bonus of leaving a tangible, digital footprint that links us – both literally and figuratively – to the university. Opportunities for remote participation and engagement will only increase as university communities move online this term, so I’d encourage you to join in where you can.
2. Embrace Virtual Communication
Part-time PhD student Dr Vincent Lien underlines the importance of social media for making and “keeping in touch with friends”. Having an open and recognisable virtual presence has definitely helped me form connections online. Although it goes against every instinct (I spent my teaching years navigating social media under a false name and profile picture of Sam the Eagle), I’ve found it really useful to use my name and photo on my social media and to state my affiliations and research interests in my bio. This way, we are recognisable to each other from the physical world and common interests are signposted, making it easier to feel part of a community online. Networking and socialising online did take some getting used to, but my rule of thumb is always to ask myself this: if someone else tagged me in this tweet, or emailed me for advice, or messaged me to rant about their dissertation, how would I feel? The answer is invariably ‘included’, and happy to engage.
3. Make Your University a Part of Your Physical Environment
At home, I like to place physical reminders of Cambridge in my study environment. It may sound inconsequential or even trivial, but wearing my university sweatshirt, using my Homerton College mug or hanging my college scarf on the back of my door establishes a physical connection to the university. This is something that Lien and I discovered we have in common. “I adopt exactly the same approach,” he says. “I keep my Cambridge identity a tangible part of my daily life, reinforced by my college membership: books from the faculty, from the University Library; a tote bag of the faculty and the college; my college scarf, rowing club fleece and waterproof…To me, moving Cambridge to my own home keeps me going, too”. I even had a friend who, throughout his part-time masters course, had a picture of his college set as his phone background both to bolster his motivation and to remind him, he said, of “home”.
Under current circumstances, our need for community seems to be both more acutely felt but more physically unobtainable than ever. The fact that many of the actions currently being taken to maintain a sense of community feel novel or alien is testament to the fact that they seek to replace mechanisms that are more often implicit in our daily interactions and environments. It does feel weirder to tag someone on Twitter than it would to wave across the library; stranger to initiate a Skype call than it would to meet in the EdFac café; more awkward to email a coursemate than it would to chat in the break between classes. However, it is these small but vital acts of togetherness that contribute most powerfully to our feeling of belonging to a community, and I would encourage you to embrace them proactively in the new term.
Amy Ryder is a second-year MEd student on the Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature route at the Faculty of Education and the Part-Time Students’ Officer for FERSA. Her dissertation research explores adolescent illness narratives in teen-authored vlogs and traditional YA fiction. She was the Community Fundraiser for the Bristol Children’s Hospital charity before retraining and working as a secondary English teacher. You can find her on Twitter as @amytrrr.