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Dr Nicky Morrison welcomes new undergraduates to Land Economy

last modified Oct 23, 2017 07:30 AM
Dr. Nicky Morrison is the Deputy Director of the Land Economy Tripos and a Fellow and tutor at St Edmund’s College. Nicky welcomed new Land Economy undergraduate students to the Department at the Tripos Induction. She gained a lot of inspiration for her talk by being part of the University’s new Centre for Teaching and Learning meeting for Directors of teaching and Senior tutors where they discussed the meaning of ‘Diversity in a collegiate University’. Below is a copy of the speech that Nicky delivered to the new first year Land Economists.

A degree is not a commodity — what do you want from it?

You do not just come here to obtain a degree — you want an education and to develop life skills that will go beyond the lecture hall. Whilst you are here, your confidence and interpersonal relationships will develop. Your identity will also be shaped — not just how you perceive yourself but also how others start to perceive you. Every one arrives feeling unworthy — we perceive ourselves to be weaker than every one around us. Yet hard work and practice builds confidence. Our role as educators is to guide you — strengthen your aptitude to learning and understanding — think for yourself, explore new ideas and make the most of your time in Cambridge.

The selection process into Cambridge University is skewed and we are fully aware of that. We positively select students with certain types of innate behaviour and this gets aggravated. We select the perfectionists — the best students in your school year. You are used to being the best — so you arrive and all too often you start to feel not good enough. An ‘imposter syndrome’ creeps in — you shouldn’t be here… you haven’t got what it takes.

Yet we are fully aware of this. Good support structures are in place, which is the key strength of our Cambridge system. In Land Economy, all of you as Part 1A students will take the same core papers. Lectures will start off your learning process. They will provide you with a critical overview of relevant literature, key ideas and concepts. Each lecturer will have a different style of teaching. And each of you will have different styles of note taking. The key is to look over your notes and hand outs afterwards. Read through them and consolidate key points — and stay on top of this work.

Small group supervisions will provide you with opportunities to clarify uncertainties with your supervisor and build your confidence. Supervisions are an active dialogue. It is not passive learning so do not feel compelled to write down everything the supervisor says. They are an important source of feedback so you can develop your ideas and arguments. Hand your essays in on time and before supervisions to get the greatest amount of feedback comments. You need to also carefully listen and take on your supervisor’s advice — essay means ‘give it a try’. Take risks too with your ideas as the essay marks are solely indicative and will not influence your end of year exam marks. Also don’t feel supervisors’ criticism is signs of failure — as it is meant to be constructive criticism. Use the library too — do not just sit in your room and rely on the internet. Be critical of what you read and think for yourself too.

Everyone has different working styles and you will learn what yours is and you will naturally develop it. Also you can turn for help by meeting your College Director of Studies (DOS). These beginning and end of term meetings are one-to-one where you can talk exclusively and privately about your academic concerns and receive constructive feedback.

What makes studying in Land Economy special?

It is a special learning environment because it is a small department. You will receive not just your DOS and supervisor support, which is organised within the Department — but also you can readily tap into peer group support as you are comparatively small cohort of students. Second year and third year Land Economists will offer advice and support too — so take it.

You will get a sense of belonging here. Wear the Land Economy badge with pride within your colleges. Even if you are a singleton in your own college, you can readily link up with others in different colleges.

There is a transition period between school and starting at university — and we are fully aware of this and each lecturer, supervisor and Director of Studies will be bolstering your confidence right from the start. All of us will also be looking out for signs that you may be feeling anxious, vulnerable or excluded. It is our role to make you feel included, support your learning process and motivate you.

What do we expect from you?

We also want you to be independent learners too. Unlike at school, we will not be constantly checking on you. You will need to plan your own time and be organised. You need to check emails from Martin Dixon (Director of the Tripos) and myself, your different supervisors and director of studies as they schedule meetings and alert you to information you may need to know and respond to etc. You need to keep up with work pressures, particularly essay deadlines and manage your time well. The pace of Cambridge University’s normal teaching term is fast. The pace is intense and organisational skills are absolutely key.

What makes Cambridge so special?

Look around you. You are also part of an international setting. See how many of you are from overseas, are of different nationalities. Despite Brexit results, our University’s motto is a total commitment to remain open and to positively encourage and celebrate diversity. We thrive on diversity and equality. We are also keen to challenge old images of the university — ivory towers / lofty heights that can create a false impression of alienating others.

Imposter syndrome and self doubt are common among all — we want to foster identity and a sense of belonging. An open and honest engagement means that every one — especially you as new comers can feel a sense of belonging here, fit in quickly and make that transition.

There is a massive jump from school to university undoubtedly, yet our role as educators is to nurture self-belief in your abilities. You will find that support through your peers, lecturers, supervisors, Director of Studies and also personal college tutors. Yet it is also up to you to create your community and care for each other. Our student body creates the university’s unique student experience and that sense of belonging here.

What else will you gain from being here?

Resilience — the ability to bounce back and stronger each time. You have been naturally pushed from your school to be the best — be at the top. Here too we reward academic excellence — and you will arrive and feel this competitive environment. You will put undue pressure on yourselves and strive to be conscientious. Yet it is also important that you develop a strong work life balance throughout term. This will be unique to each of you — and for you to find and work on that balance.

There is obviously ‘the magic of traditions’ at Cambridge University. Yet these traditions can propagate the views of elitism and class systems. Certain students may create toxic competitive environments as well. We are aware of that. You all come from different school backgrounds. Some may appear to make the transition from school to university quicker than others. Yet facades can also be created and every one can experience some form of doubts. The key is engendering responsibility — to look out for each other. Land Economy is a small department so this is readily achievable but we all take responsibility to make this happen.

We are also very aware that each school and each pupil has different styles of learning and that research evidence clearly shows that we all do better if we work together. We are constantly thinking in our Department and across the university about what is the right way to learn? How should we construct, deliver and assess our syllabus to get the best teaching and learning outcome here?

The University’s newly created Centre for Teaching and Learning, for example, is working on suggestions on how to improve our exam system, why gender imbalances exist, for example, why are girls more hesitant to start with once they arrive here? Why do implicit biases (unintentional impression formation and judgements) exist and how do we to address them? At present, we have a high stakes end of year exam system (your ‘finals’). Yet our Department and the University through this newly formed centre is constantly reviewing alternatives, thinking about the way exams are structured, the way assessments are carried out and how to change syllabuses to get the best out of our students.

Finally, you are not the only newcomers here today. Professor Steve Toope, our new 346th Vice Chancellor arrived in Cambridge this week too. Take a look at his Inauguration speech on Monday 2nd of October.

He stressed that our shared purpose binds us here in Cambridge and that we want to create the best experience that the University has to offer. He also (inadvertently) referred to the importance of many of Land Economy’s key research areas that are essential to tackle global challenges that we face. In particular, he stressed the need for a greater understanding of regulatory frameworks of land ownership and understanding economics of land use change.

At Land Economy, we are not teaching students to just recall and regurgitate.

Instead we aim for problem solving that enables students to have tools of the trade so you can perform well at university and also in your chosen future professions. We are educators — and we want to create a good education and all rounded Land Economists. Support structures exist so draw on them and flourish well here in Cambridge and thereafter.