"The richness and originality that comes from working with students" via the Connector Programme
By: Polly Wallace-Kruger
Last updated: Monday, 22 November 2021
The Connector Programme is a way for students at Sussex to inspire and actively make change at the University, developing leadership, teamwork and communication skills. Student Connectors work with Staff, their Connector team and the wider student community to find strategies and implement ideas that will enhance student life in different ways. The aim is for Sussex to better represent students and provide what they really want and need at university.
Meet Carli Rowell, Lecturer in Sociology, and Mystique Charles, Sociology Student and Class Module Connector. In this interview, Carli and Mystique speak about their experience of co-creating a new Sociology module.
Connector Programme: Tell us about your Connector work – what does it focus on? Why is this work important?
Carli: My Connector project explores inclusivity within the curriculum and how we can teach differently, in terms of valuing non-academic materials. Class is quite an essential concept within sociology, but historically the discipline has taught issues of class and class inequality from what we might call a top down approach, with elite academics writing about the world that exists beyond the university, meaning often working class lives have been written about by middle class privileged academics. When we actually take a step outside of the university, there's lots of materials and sources that we can learn from and provide an insight into various issues pertaining to class and working class lives. I wanted to create a module that grapples with class inequalities in the UK from the perspective of working class persons, whether they are non-academic writers, whether they are artists, whether they are musicians, for example by using lyrics, podcasts, plays, documentaries as valuable sources of knowledge.
So my motivations were firstly to break away from the traditional academic style and see what else we can learn from engaging in non-academic materials. Secondly, because this module is about class from a working class perspective, I really wanted to have the input and voice of first generation working class Sociology students here at Sussex. For them to think of important topics that they would argue need to be included in a module like this, because I had my own ideas, but actually I wanted the students to have an input as well.
Mystique: Connector projects largely aim to actively make a positive change within the university. This is true of my role as a Class Module Connector which focused on giving a voice to those who are marginalised via the creation of a Sociology module titled ‘Class, Culture and Conflict: A View from Within’. Enabling a more inclusive approach, this project has a meaningful effect on the education of those who identify with underrepresented groups. For example, marginalised groups often work significantly harder to achieve the same grades as their privileged counter parts. It is generally said that students often perform better when they are passionate about the subject and can resonate with its contents. Having a module that is directly influenced by working class students allows for other working class students who take the module to relate and feel included. Similarly, it is crucial to encourage others to empathise with backgrounds outside of their own, generating a wider understanding and tolerance of people who are different from them.
“This project has a meaningful effect on the education of those who identify with underrepresented groups.”
Connector Programme: What is the co-creation relationship between students and staff like, on The Connector Programme?
Carli: I was working alongside four Student Connectors and we would meet more or less every week and I would run through their brief for that week. They would have the brief for the full 8 weeks of the project from the outset and each week we would meet and discuss what they needed to do for that week, any questions they had, any ideas and any changes they wanted to make to the brief. They would go away and work with that brief to complete and meet those aims. For example, in the first week it was as simple as looking at literature on first generation students at university to understand some of the social, cultural and academic challenges they faced. The second week it was identifying topics that the module would look at, next thinking about the materials and non-academic sources we could use, thinking how it could be taught, the assessment etc. It was very collaborative among the students, but with me as well.
Mystique: On the Connector Programme, students work very closely with staff to constructively make a meaningful change. Both Student and Staff Connectors have equal responsibility and input, working together on finding solutions which truly reflect the needs and wants of the University of Sussex community.
Connector Programme: How has working with the Connector Programme impacted your personal experience of working/ studying at the university?
Mystique: Working with the Connector Programme positively impacted my experience as it enabled me to further develop my communication skills. This meant that in lessons I could confidently articulate my thoughts on a subject matter and form meaningful relationships with my peers.
Carli: One of the really nice things was that the students had so many ideas about the module, its content and how it could be taught and delivered. Importantly about the topics to be included, because as much as I had a skeleton draft outline of the module, they came up with ideas that I hadn't considered or thought about, maybe combining 2 weeks together or adding in X or Y and also suggesting what would be interesting to look at. This included suggesting areas I found interesting but I wouldn't have expected students to have found interesting; for example about the history of class in the UK, I think that's really important, but I thought perhaps students might find it boring. But actually the answer from them was no, that's really important. So I think the most enjoyable part and the biggest thing that I will take away from this for the rest of my academic career would be the richness and originality that comes from working with students on ideas around big questions, like what is important to look at when we're exploring this broader theme of class because they opened up my eyes to some of the topics that they wanted to explore.
Connector Programme: What impact has your Connector work had on the student body?
Carli: The first thing would be that the module is just in its very early stages because it's due to run in September 2022. So in terms of the impact, I think we might have to wait a little while to see that in terms of the broader student body. But I think for those four Student Connectors that I worked with, and I can't speak for them, but they did say that they really enjoyed it and it was really interesting to see how teaching and courses are constructed very early on and it gave them an enhanced understanding of how knowledge works within the university. As well as having some tangible work experience that they can draw upon when thinking about their future careers, whatever that may be, as well as applications for jobs. So I would say the most tangible thing would be the practical skills that they could then apply when searching for jobs. I also think the students felt valued and their thoughts, ideas and suggestions were valued. They were happy to just be able to put their voice into a project and to make suggestions about how this project is going to be taught and assessed. I think that is so important.
Mystique: Throughout the project I have achieved a variety of transferable skills which will help me in the world of work outside of university. This includes the ability to conceptualise, design, research and deliver creative material; develop leadership, teamwork, communication and problem-solving skills. Lastly, develop practical skills such as professional communication, IT competency and gathering feedback. However overall, I would say the biggest achievement is being awarded the opportunity to play an active role in the creation of a coherent, insightful sociology module, positively impacting the student body through the universities teaching content and practices.
“The biggest achievement is being award the opportunity to play an active role in the creation of a coherent, insightful Sociology module.”
Connector Programme: Has anything about your time as working with the Connector Programme surprised you?
Carli: How much students can add to the formation of the curriculum in terms of their ideas. When you have an idea for a module like you know what it is, you're thinking about creating it, but then you think, oh, will other people get it, will they be interested in it? Will they be as excited about it as me and also will they have much to add to it? But actually they shared all of those characteristics. I think there is value in including students in early discussions of module design, for topics that they feel are important. That's not to say academics should just teach what students are asking for, because sometimes they don't know what they need to know. But just having them engage in those early conversations, I guess the more creative stage when you're thinking about what the possibilities are, I found that really enriching, and that's something that I will continue moving forward with the module.
Mystique: My specific project began during exam season so what surprised me the most was the degree to which I was able to push beyond the parameters of my comfort zone and really challenge myself to achieve the success of helping create the module on time.
Connector Programme: How would you sum up your experience as a Student/Staff Connector?
Carli: I really enjoyed the project. I was really excited about it each week. I genuinely looked forward to the meetings with the students hearing their ideas at the end of the project. They delivered informal but really well put together presentations and explanations of what they had done and pulled together a final ‘module programme’ if you will. I think the most enjoyable thing was working in collaboration with students, which arguably you do in a seminar room, but you're still leading it and I think that the power dynamic was flipped and they were leading me and I really enjoyed that and those conversations. Also, working with a small group is quite nice and intimate. Seeing the students drawing from their own personal experiences, lives and biographies and using that to help them create and come up with ideas for the module is amazing to see.
“I think that the power dynamic was flipped and they were leading me and I really enjoyed that and those conversations.”
Mystique: As a Student Connector, I would sum up my experience as a constructive, encouraging step towards improving the success and wellbeing for future students here at the University of Sussex.
The University of Sussex Connector Programme - how students and staff make positive change together.