You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. That’s what they say, anyway. But as someone with little to no experience leading horses, I’m not convinced I could get it there. When I asked a CMS exec what they wish they knew, if they could go back and do it all over again, they had one answer. “How do I get students more involved?” A noble endeavour. There’s a lot of answers to that question. I’m going to share a three today and three next week, and in the process expose the secrets of Labyrinth. I’m rather looking forward to it. 


The most crass way of engaging students is to hit them when they’re vulnerable, and that’s the first week of term. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, students return to school ready to commit, assured that they’re going to work harder this term and be more involved, because they want to be here. They’re going to make new friends, go to lectures, and get better grades. It’s a fresh start. Get them to an event, show them a good time, and they’ll come back. Get them to three events within the first three weeks, and you’re stuck with them. How do you get them there? Ask them. Celebrate them, both before and at the event. Follow up with them afterward to see how they liked it. It establishes you in their mind as something they want to stick with. The longer they do, the longer they’ll tend to. This is marketing, and that’s how it works.

Give Them What They Want

But like I said, it’s crass. And cynical. This is slightly less crass and cynical. Find out what they want, and give it to them. If they want to get blitzed and throw up in an alley, hold a pub crawl. If they want to sharpen their edge, have a debate. If they want to eat cake, let them eat cake. This approach works really well, too a degree. After all, not everyone wants the same things. I call this method crass because it satisfies elemental desires, but little else. Absolutely give people what they want whenever it’s in your power and doesn’t harm anyone, but we rarely want what we think we want. There’s a king-sized Snickers bar on my desk right now. I really want it. I can practically taste it, but if I eat it I’ll be up half the night from the sugar, and be grumpy tomorrow. I want it, but I don’t want to want it. So our desires are more complex than pub crawls, debates, and the odd trip.

The Two Questions

I’ll finish up today with a good one. Answer their two questions. Every Classics or Medieval Studies student has the same two questions, occasionally supplemented by a third. These aren’t the only two questions they have, but they’re the ones they all have in common. First, “How do I survive the next week?” With midterms, assignments, language tests and papers all bearing down on us, we push to survive the next week, and often can’t see past that.Next week brings more assignments and due dates, so we’ll worry about that when we get to it. Answer this question by finding ways to help each other survive. Study groups, language workshops, tutoring, and even a proofreading circle (within the bounds of the academic integrity guidelines) are all a good way of making sure students don’t just survive, they thrive. Make one or more of these things an answer to the question, and it’ll be an answer to their prayers.

The second question is “What do I do after my degree?” The Humanities are often touted as having a particular problem answering this question, but it’s the same in every faculty. Once you’ve spent your four or five years, and you graduate, then what? This is much harder to answer, especially since you don’t know yourself. So find people who do. Your professors and alumni have all graduated with the same degree, and they’re making something of themselves. Your grad students have an advanced form of this question, but can discuss the merits of grad school. The Centre for Career Action works every day to answer this question for students. If you wanted, you could have a talk per month by someone with the relevant degree who’s doing well in the world. Can’t find anyone local? Find someone online and have them do a Skype interview over a projector. Find four of them and do a Google Hangout panel. The answers are out there.

That’s three (technically four) ways to get students out and involved, using everything from marketing to granting wishes to being helpful. A lot of what I do here at Labyrinth is trying to help you answer your two questions. That’s what Newsreel is about. That and cool shiny things we dig up. A lot of it is just about showing people how the experience is valuable, and that involves all of those. Catching them at the right time, making sure you can offer them something they want, and understanding the kinds of questions they’re asking, so you can help answer them. In other words, it’s about putting them first. That’s what gets people out. More next week.

Jim Tigwell is a keen observer of human nature with terribly blurry vision. Figure out his two questions or get him to answer yours by chatting with him on Twitter.

2 thoughts on “Leading a Horse to Water

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