As I sit in the university computer room, taking Stuart Hall’s advice to begin with the small and look around at what is actually going on while I am writing, I watch an ongoing tapestry of student behaviour around me.
As with the hospital outpatients department referred to in an earlier blog, in many ways it’s impossible to locate precisely who people are. There are, seemingly, students from a wide range of probable global heritage – perhaps south Asian, far eastern, African, European and so on, on the basis of their appearance and how they group themselves. When I say ‘how’ they group themselves, I’m not talking about styles of ‘collectivism’ or ‘individualism’. It’s more to do with dynamics that I think are common to all of us – getting together with people who look like us, who might have something in common with us – people who are looking for IT help because they’re new to the system, perhaps new arrivals, people who we like to be seen with, but also class groups.
This computer room is certainly not a place where everyone sits quietly at their respective PC. Whether by designation or tradition it’s a place where students also meet to socialise or work together. There is some table space without PCs and some arm chairs occupying one end of the room.
I watch a particular group who do seem have some sort of heritage commonality. They are talking a lot; and I can hear definite sounds of a particular British regional accent. They seem all women perhaps between 20 and 40, which I imagine is due to a particular demographic of a particular course. What becomes clearer with time is that they are all working on a task connected with their course. They are between six and eight students, as some of them come and go, occupying two rows of tables. Six of them sit with installed PCs, two work on their devices on the other side of one row, facing inwards. They are all interacting together, exchanging ideas, pointing at each others’ screens and notebooks, looking up and speaking across to the students coming and going, leaning across each others’ spaces. As the event unfolds, all of them, in different ways, seem absolutely on task, talking about what they are thinking, what they will say, what sense they are making, where they agree and disagree, what they have written, how they will present, and so on – sufficiently loudly for me to hear almost every word from three tables further away.
Regarding the other students in the room, in their considerable diversity, I also see other pockets of interactive behaviour. They may look different, dress differently, and have other things on their minds. I hear different accents and Englishes and other languages; but I see no noteworthy differences in the body language of how they interact together. There is no evidence that any group is any more relational – or indeed collectivist or individualist than another.
As I begin to leave, I notice one of the students from the group I describe, whose accent I hadn’t heard clearly, joining another group. And I hear what I think might be an eastern European language spoken, at least for the moment when I pass by, between them.