From 6-7 July 2022, I was lucky enough to attend AdvanceHE’s Teaching and Learning conference, hosted at Northumbria University in Newcastle. In this blog, Part 2, I will discuss the session I attended on peer mentoring. In Part 1, I talked about a session I attended on duoethnography.
As I mentioned in my first blog post, my colleague Sarny and I split up attending sessions throughout the conference. I chose to join a presentation titled “A quiet, unnoticed form of solidarity” presented by Dr Neil Speirs from the University of Edinburgh. The short description of what to expect did not give much away, so I headed into the session with an open mind.
Dr Speirs is the Widening Participation Manager at the University of Edinburgh. One of his projects involves working with male students from low socio-economic status backgrounds. He also has a strong interest in peer-related pedagogies and the emancipatory nature of education through critical pedagogy. This short introduction to his work settled me in for a very interesting, though sobering, hour.
Stories from yesterday, today, or tomorrow
Over the last 20 years, Dr Speirs gathered stories of experience from widening participation students. Unfortunately, many of the stories that he shared in the session could be from yesterday, today, or tomorrow, as many of the issues widening participation students face have not faded despite the progression of time and changes in our society.
Through this anecdotal evidence, he noticed the insidious presence of classism on campus today, negatively impacting working-class students. His students have described often feeling out of their depth due to their social class, an overall lonely and alienating feeling. Often, they described being bullied due to their distinct regional accent, yet bittersweetly mentioned feeling proud for making it to the fourth year of their course despite hating their place of study. A student recollected, ‘My friends and I saved up to have a nice night out, go to the cinema and get a nice bite out. Someone shouted: “Your kind can piss on the street.”’
Domains of classism
Dr. Speirs drew on the work of Dr. Diane Reay, sociologist and Professor of Education at Cambridge University. She writes that working class students can complete their undergraduate studies with a strong sense of being bruised and battered by the whole experience. She argues that this is due to the classism that students experience, described in the sessions she conducted with students as “a continual project of distinction enacted by privileged students and staff.” Furthermore, we can think about the ‘two potential domains of classism as institutional classism and interpersonal classism’ (Langhout et al, 2007). Institutionally, Speirs wrote in his blog of the same title and topic, ‘we can think of the organisational structures, policies, curriculum, pedagogy, and procedures that facilitate classism. While at the interpersonal level, we can think of the interactions that students have with other students as well as staff.’
Finally, Lott writes that it becomes clear that some students learn that their voices will be heard, that they count, and that they will be recognised; other students will learn the opposite lesson, reinforcing their general experience of exclusion from mainstream expectations and achievements. As we observe this throughout society, Thomas Piketty writes that ‘every society has no choice but to make sense of its inequalities,’ an assertion Spears believes should be translated on campus, where we make sense of and reject these inequalities.
Relationships of meaning and solidarity
Through his work with students and professional interest in peer-related pedagogies, Dr Speirs started cultivating a relationship of solidarity through a peer-mentoring project at the University of Edinburgh for widening participation students.
The project has taken a campus ecology approach, one that strives to create the environmental conditions where widening participation students can excel. Outside of the project, it is harder to say that these conditions are found equitably and uniformly across the university experience. From person to person, service to service, Dr Speirs observed that inconsistency can create gaps in the pastoral care of students, as well as pedagogical practice, which hinders the bloom of students in these spaces.
Inside the project, students can grow through peer-mentoring and in relation to the institution. This undertaking has seen 2,000 first-year students participate so far, along with a further 2,000 senior students as mentors, and it has had a profound effect on students:
‘’Meeting my peer mentor is one of the most precious experiences I have had here in Edinburgh.’’
‘’So I got very lonely, like really lonely and a bit afraid. But then my mentor, well, I was just able to talk to her about how I really felt. I didn’t need to pretend everything was great and I was going out all the time and getting As for everything. It was just like having a friend at the university really, and we are still friends, this was an absolute blessing.’’
Through these relationships of solidarity, of standing side by side with each other, students begin to engage with the emancipatory nature of education and build upon their collective labour, against the “glorification of entrepreneurial individualism.” As Dr Speirs said in his session, this is a key element in the mentoring relationships: revealing the rules of the game. When students form meaningful relationships with others connected to the institution, they are more likely to persist.
“We reject the coldness”
Feeling brave, I asked Dr Speirs whether he has considered expanding the scope to develop a peer mentoring project for staff too, perhaps in collaboration with his institution’s human resources or organisational development colleagues. More specifically, targeting staff that identify as working class, or those we think of as sharing in the working-class struggle, such as casualised staff, graduate teaching assistants (GTAs), outsourced staff, and those on zero-hour contracts.
He responded by saying that all relationships are important. In the coldness of campus life and “distant aloofness”, he can see how the wish for this kind of connection can grow in staff as well. Campus life lacks affection and that’s the unfortunate world we work in, but it doesn’t have to be like that. After all, staff make up the blueprint of the institution as well, one that can be influenced by the relational and dialogical elements of peer mentoring; it re-centres the importance of relationships.
I left the session feeling both inspired and sobered – inspired by the continuing impact this project has at the University of Edinburgh, sobered by the realities that students face up and down the country. It is no surprise a project like this has had success – the drive for connection is in all of us. As educators and creators, we want a campus life that embraces the notion of caring about others; that it is warm, with a humanising pedagogy and full of Freire’s pedagogy of hope and love (Freire, 2021). And it always starts with us.
Dr Neil Speirs, A quiet, unnoticed form of solidarity (teaching-matters-blog.ed.ac.uk)
Freire, P. (2021). Pedagogy of hope: Reliving pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Langhout, R. D., Rosselli, F., & Feinstein, J. (2007). Assessing classism in academic settings. The Review of Higher Education, 30(2), 145-184.
Lott, B. (2002). Cognitive and behavioral distancing from the poor. American Psychologist, 57(2), 100.
Piketty, T. (2020). Capital and ideology. Harvard University Press.
Reay, D. (2016a). Social class in UK higher education: still an elephant in the room. In Routledge handbook of the sociology of higher education (pp. 131-141). Routledge.