Photo by lauren lulu taylor on Unsplash

As teachers, our work is inescapably affected by a range of structural features such as the marketisation and commodification of higher education, the erosion of benefits and of pay, and more. Many of these have been amply studied and debated, including on this blog. Today, however, I want to discuss a relatively underexplored dimension of all this – the slow erosion of trust between staff and students.

In a (higher) education setting, trust is an important value, for several reasons. For one, students are typically young adults and being given responsibility – and being trusted with that responsibility – is an important part of the process of growing up. I’m specifically inspired here by an approach to assessment known as ‘ungrading’. Regardless of the merits of the method, Jesse Stommel’s summary of the core philosophy of ungrading is something that needs to be taken extremely seriously: ‘start by trusting students’.

But it’s also a principled point. From a broadly Kantian perspective, one important aspect of ethical behaviour is respect for others as ‘ends in themselves’. While we all may occasionally jokingly remind each other that students’ brains haven’t fully developed yet, it is important to remember that this does not mean that they lack the capacity for autonomy. Indeed, because of their age, it is perhaps more important than ever to allow them to practice, or exercise autonomy.