Manja Klemenčič is an associate senior lecturer in Sociology and researcher on higher education, student agency, and student-centered learning.
Manja Klemenčič is an associate senior lecturer in Sociology and researcher on higher education, student agency, and student-centered learning. By Marina Qu

Fifteen Questions: Manja Klemenčič on Student Agency, Pre-Professionalism, and Small Acts of Kindness

The sociologist sat down with FM to discuss the most pressing issues in higher education today and student agency, even in the smallest acts. “You don’t need to change the entire world already while you’re at Harvard,” she says. “You can do small things every day and that matters also.”
By Michal Goldstein

Manja Klemenčič is an associate senior lecturer in Sociology and researcher on higher education, student agency, and student-centered learning.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FM: You grew up on a small farm in Slovenia — far different than the bustling city you live in today. What was your experience growing up in such a rural area like?

MK: I am known for the saying that ‘You can take the girl out of the village, but you cannot take the village out of the girl,’ and I am still a very avid gardener, with a very small but very heavily cultivated urban garden — edible, mostly edible, not very many decorative plants in our garden. So that was part of my childhood.

It was of course in the country which was under the totalitarian regime with everything that that implies — indoctrination in schools, self-censorship. It was not a very oppressive regime so people were not necessarily jailed, but everyone was cautious about what was said, especially in the public space and in the context of the schooling.

So I’m very sensitive to any illiberal democratic practices, and I’m very sensitive to any attempts of indoctrinating, especially in the context of education or higher education. I resent it, because it stifles intellectual discovery.

FM: You’re going back to Slovenia this year for your research during your sabbatical. What do you think are the main differences between the higher education system there in Slovenia and in the US?

MK: First, we don’t have liberal arts and sciences colleges. Students in high school choose, already, their discipline.

So, choices have to be made much sooner than they are in the context of liberal arts and sciences education. And of course, if something is lost when you do not have a chance to explore interdisciplinarily like we do in the context of higher education.

FM: Is there anything in particular you’re looking forward to during your sabbatical other than your research?

MK: I will be spending time with my parents on the farm. So I’m looking forward to going back to the basics and to conduct research and to write in the context of being in nature and being back to the village and bridging those both worlds.

FM: Your Gen Ed and Sociology courses have consistently been met with positive student feedback, and you have been awarded for excellent teaching in the past. In your opinion, what makes a good teacher?

MK: I don’t presume I have all the answers. I am a very big believer that students learn as well from each other, and that I learn from them as well, and that my role is really to nurture that interest, that curiosity, and support them so they, too, can generate knowledge as part of my courses.

Now, in this Gen Ed, I have 100 people.

I am spending this month meeting with each one of them in order to help them find a topic that they find interesting that they will be spending time writing their three essays on.

I cannot teach nameless students. That’s why I make the effort to try to meet each of them or get to know each of them as much as I can.

I insist on one meeting with me, even with 100. Just that we have one personal connection, because things change if we have spoken. They really change in the sense of even how people react later in the classroom, how empowered they feel in the classroom to participate, and also the way that they are motivated to work on the topic that they have chosen for their essays.

FM: How long have you known you’ve wanted to teach?

MK: It came quite natural to me. I did not know I would want to go into the teaching profession, probably until university, when that kind of calling for being a TF or undergraduate teaching assistant was offered to me.

It became a major part of my academic identity. I did continue research, but teaching became what I have found my pathway and when I found my calling.

FM: What makes you interested in studying higher education in particular or teaching higher education in particular, in comparison to elementary and secondary school studies?

MK: I’m a specialist in higher education because while I was a student myself, I had very poor education experience.

I spent a year in a liberal arts and sciences college in the U.S. my junior year, which has completely changed my perspective of what higher education should be about, how quality education can look like that there can actually be meaningful learning rather than just memorization, rote learning.

FM: Historically, research on education has focused on adult experiences of the student-teacher relationship, neglecting the student’s role in the classroom. Do you think the field is moving toward more student-focused research?

MK: Definitely yes, for a number of reasons. I think the progressive pedagogies are taking ground in K-12, as well as in higher education, which are putting the students in the center of the educational enterprise and are highlighting that students are not just passive recipients of knowledge, but that they they have agency, and they have responsibility, and they can co-construct the knowledge within the context of the classroom.

It is our role as teachers and as education institutions to really help them become those agentic individuals. Because at the end of the day, it is agentic individuals that help our scientists as informed critical citizens, it is agentic individuals that are important for the market economies and the productivity of the economic sectors by being inventive, and it’s also agentic individuals that drive cultural expression.

So we have to foster this agency in students already in higher education contexts, and that doesn’t happen if we are just lecturing at them, without involving them, and valuing them.

FM: At universities across the country, there has been a growing push for students to focus on pre-professional studies or choose concentrations that align well with post-grad careers. Do you think this is a positive or negative shift in higher education?

MK: It’s so difficult; I don’t think we should be judging students of making choices one way or another. Because we never know what is that student’s background and where they’re coming from and whether what they have to do is they have to find a way of earning the money that they will be supporting themselves and their extended family that rely on their income in order to be able to live decently.

I respect when people have a need to have financial security and not depend on others, and that’s a legitimate reason for me for seeking a well-paying job. And that does not mean that this student has abandoned doing good or having social impact.

FM: What do you think is the most pressing issue facing higher ed at the moment?

MK: Where should I start?

Student debt associated with the rises in the prices of higher education is widely considered one of the key issues in higher education in the United States, specifically. Because it’s also tied to the question that many are posing, is higher education worth it? Is it worth the cost? Is it worth going or do there exist credible alternatives to higher education that will become more accepted by the employers? Alternative forms of gaining credentials for different types of jobs?

Access to quality higher education is a global concern and has been always very high on the priority of the student unions, especially with the rising prices of higher education.

Post-Covid, mental health crisis is something that has been mentioned also outside the United States, the European context. It’s something that’s being discussed among student leaders globally, and has not been properly and fully addressed yet.

FM: In your letter to students in the Harvard Gazette, you write, “Your everyday activities in your campus job or in student groups, as small as they seem, are an indispensable part of Harvard.” Why do you think these activities, which often come secondary to students’ academics, should be prioritized?

MK: Often when people come to a place like Harvard, and they’re accepted in such a small number to such a selective institution, they have very high demands on themselves on what they expect for themselves to do and be and to achieve.

I was just hoping with that message, to tell students not to worry that much. That small things matter, just the same things that they do every day — small acts of kindness, a service to other students in some way — that they actually make a difference. You don’t need to change the entire world already while you’re at Harvard. You can do small things every day and that matters also.

When scholars research student workers or when they research even student leadership, student groups on campus, they often focus on how this work impacts the student. They would portray student work as a way of alternative tuition assistance and professional networking opportunities or CV building, and skills development.

They disregard the fact that students in those roles actually have an impact on others as well, that they’re doing meaningful work.

Students have immense contributions that they make daily to the lives of others.

FM: Last semester, I was a barista at one of the cafes, now I’m a bartender at the pub. It’s just fun and ends up being what I look forward to.

MK: You choose the spaces where you want to be in that role and what you want to do and it has to be recognizing this is for you. But it is as well, you can make somebody’s day a little bit nicer by interacting with that person who comes to your space as a barista, connecting with them human to human. It makes a difference.

FM: In your Gen Ed, you probe the controversies of higher ed institutions, including Harvard, asking students to analyze the ways that Harvard might stray from its values. Have any ideas about ways to structurally change areas of the university continually come up amongst students across the years?

MK: The topics in my courses are as diverse as there are Harvard students with a variety of interests. So it would be difficult for me to really see some common topics that have been persistent and unresolved. Usually what would happen is students take them, that they discussed in the course, and somebody addresses them down the line, like Andrew Pérez and James Bedford did when they were part of the team establishing FYRE as the pre-orientation program for first year students.

FM: How do you aim to create an environment for your classes that makes students feel comfortable to challenge each other in debates, especially in the midst of growing cancel culture tendencies within the classroom?

MK: We as a class have established a number of norms by which we abide in order to be able to encourage and support constructive disagreement in the classroom.

The first one is that we try to see constructive disagreement as an act of care for each other’s individual and our collective learning. It’s not about winning an argument or hitting another person down by winning the point in that argument. It is really about trying to unravel the variety of the arguments and evidence to support those arguments on very complex issues that divide our societies.

And we have the norm that nothing that is said in class goes outside the class, necessarily. Everything stays in; we do not quote anyone on what they have said in class outside without their explicit permission.

And especially, I don’t disclose my positions on any of those issues because I am still a teacher and in a position of authority and I do not want to indoctrinate. I want people to teach and be willing to discuss issues from all possible perspectives.

— Magazine Editor-at-Large Michal Goldstein can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @bymgoldstein.

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