Why we should be wary of thinking students just want to have fun

Dr Nicola Rivers and Dr Dave Webster. 

This post is borne out of hearing some in the HE sector talk about the puzzle of student engagement. This is a serious and worthwhile endeavour. Amidst the plethora of good ideas, and a lot of them relate to forms of active learning, however, we have heard the notion that what students need is for us to ‘make learning fun’.

What kind of miserable, spoilsport, party-pooper nay-sayers could argue against ‘fun’? Well, you’re in the right place. Before we even get to the notion of ‘learning as fun’, isn’tthere something a bit, well, naff about the idea of ‘fun’ anyway? You might argue that ‘fun’ is the pale shadow cast by joy. Surely ‘fun’ can’t pretend to even share the same psychological spectrum as bliss, joy and elation. Fun is the church band playing, joy is a brief revelation of purpose, as the sun shines through momentarily parted clouds onto your tear-stained face. spongebobFUN

Pleasure isn’t fun either. Pleasure has a jouissance, derived from transgression, whereas ‘fun’ is the clean-scrubbed, safe-for-work version. Fun is the zany co-worker, a ‘you don’t have to be crazy to work here but it helps’ sign on their desk, with a hilarious novelty tie. Pleasure is laughing at the people who think they are fun. Pleasure can be dirty, or cruel, or reckless, but it seems to exceed ‘fun’ anyway.

Of course the first, but perhaps not the most troubling, danger of ‘fun’ in the teacher is the risk of getting the tone wrong, and making students cringe with a depth of embarrassment they have hitherto reserved for their parents’ attempts to be ‘cool’ in front of their friends. The ‘fun boss’ of David Brent’s Office, or Mr G in Summer Heights High, both serve as examples of the comedy staple – those who think they are funny, engaging, and popular – while clearly they are not.

More seriously though, the worry over seeking to ‘make learning fun’ is the possibility of not seeing the undertaking at hand from the student point of view. Students are seeking access to life-changing cultural capital: a serious business, and while we may use a range of techniques to pique their interest and ensure they are engaged, there are good reasons to be a little wary of having ‘making the sessions fun’ as a core goal.

There is also a level of privilege inherent in being able to be the ‘fun’ academic in the first place, whilst simultaneously maintaining a sense of professionalism or seriousness. Although breaking down barriers between lecturer and student can in many ways offer opportunities to increase student engagement and destabilise harmful hierarchies, what about those lectures for whom the presumption of seriousness or even competence, was never a given? Students have been known to give BME and women members of faculty more negative feedback than their male colleagues, both in face-to-face and virtual learning environments, suggesting that the normalised vision of what a ‘serious’ academic should like is limited to a white male. When those who don’t fit this narrow mould; due to their race, age, gender, class, sexual orientation or being differently abled, are struggling just to be viewed as equally competent, being ‘fun’ can seem like more of a risk. As Sam Carpenter has suggested, women are frequently associated with being ‘nice’ or ‘nurturing,’ whilst their male colleagues benefit from being seen as ‘smart’ and ‘decisive.’ In these circumstances then, being seen as ‘fun’ only adds to the sense of lacking professionalism, potentially undermining student engagement rather than encouraging it.

Although of course seriousness doesn’t necessarily negate ‘fun,’ and pleasure in learning, suggesting that learning experiences must be fun in order for students to engage also plays to unhelpful stereotypes about students themselves; namely that they are at university to doss about and avoid getting a job for three years. Anyone working in HE or encountering real life students on a day-to-day basis knows that this is patently not true. The vast majority of students now work outside of the university, often in poorly paid and insecure jobs, in order to be able to afford to live, whilst others have caring responsibilities and yet still maintain a serious focus on their studies. In such situations, suggesting that students are principally motivated by ‘fun’ seems not only misguided but also deeply patronising. Students may take great pleasure in learning that is transgressive, risky, and transformative, but that is a far cry from ‘fun.’

[Dr Magennis responding to the Times story ‘Three-year degrees encourage ‘high-drink, low-work’ culture, says Sir Anthony Seldon’:]

Screenshot 2017-08-25 16.29.59.png

By all means, use quizzes in class, or online, engage students via video, blogs, and get students involved in creating knowledge and practice, but do it for the learning. If students learn, if they can find a way to access the discipline and find themselves part of it, they will find potentially profound satisfaction, and maybe even joy, in that. But let’s front-load our preoccupation with being the facilitator of their learning, rather than an entertainer.


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