A year in social work education

By Sevasti-Melissa Nolas

This seems like a particularly timely moment, before heading off for my yearly dose of Mediterranean sun, to reflect on my year in social work education and what I’ve learnt as a social work educator. I am new to Social Work Education (though my research is in areas of direct relevance to social work), joining the Department of Social Work and Social Care at Sussex in September 2011. It is from this ephemeral ‘newbie’ position, before it morphs into something else, that these reflections come.

What has amazed me, and humbled me, the most this last year is the openness and generosity of spirit that I’ve encountered. During the last year I have had the privilege of working with some wonderful students on our BA, MA and Post-Qualitfying programmes at Sussex who have impressed me with their openness and appetite for learning, their wit and humour, and their reflexivity – all qualities that, as well as making it a pleasure to be their lecturer, group facilitator, seminar leader or tutor as the case may be, I’m sure will stand them in good stead in their (future) practice. All the while I have been supported and guided through by experienced, knowledgeable, but above all generous colleagues: generous with their time, their insights, and their good humour as they answered my many, many questions (some quite lame ones I’m sure!).

I have found a renewed appreciation for the role of tolerance, for difference, for uncertainty, for complexity, that is required for social work practice. I heard the frustration of my post-qualifying students with the analytical models academic research often develops which do not do justice to the messiness of their practice. I agree. And even where we are focusing on the messiness of practice there is still a long way to go in terms of producing an embodied understanding of that practice. I’m a big fan of social practice theorist Sylvia Gherardi’s ‘replacement question’, which I’ve written about elsewhere. It goes something like this (adapted here for the social work context): if someone were to replace a social worker in their role, what would they need to know and do in order to carry out that role without attracting attention to themselves? (A bit like that great Channel 4 show a few years ago, Faking It). It seems to me that tolerance for differences and for uncertainty, and a deep appreciation (not just lip service) for complexity would be key to ‘passing’ as a social worker: holding a million little piece of information in mind, not to mention theoretical, research, policy and legal knowledge, balancing different interests, all the time not knowing if and when new information will come to light, and ultimately needing to make a timely decision sometimes about or for, and at other times with people, that won’t necessarily be popular and that will have a real impact on a person’s (or people’s) life trajectories. And doing this across a number of cases. Imagine it. Just for a second. It makes my head spin.

And then, at the end of the day, despite all this, decisions need to be made, something has to happen. So at the same time as remaining open, being generous of spirit, tolerant of difference, of uncertainty, of complexity, social work has to remain critical, pragmatic and research-minded. I’ve been thrilled to read a number of excellent assignments across undergraduate, postgraduate and post-qualifying levels of study demonstrating such critical thinking and pragmatism. I was most excited when one of my MA students emailed from placement asking me to point her in the direction of research on maternal depression and child mental health, that would help her to be more evidence-informed in her practice. The best part was her response to my email: “It’s reassuring to know I’m not making stuff up, using research in practice isn’t quite as daunting as I thought it would be!”

And yet despite, being a ‘newbie’ to social work education, the most interesting experience for me this year was simultaneously feeling at home. In thinking about the last year one of my favourite essays in social psychology, The Stranger comes to mind. In the essay, its author Alfred Schuetz, describes the experience of being a stranger, “an adult individual of our times and civilization who tries to be permanently accepted or at least tolerated by the group which (s)he approaches”. The essay is an early example of ethnographic thinking – an attempt to make sense of the cultural patterns of a social group, to make visible the “thinking as usual”. Schuetz concludes that “strangeness and familiarity…are general categories of our interpretation of the world” which propel us into processes of inquiry in order to make sense of the world around us. We have succeeded in that process when that “which at first seemed to be strange and unfamiliar” becomes “an unquestionable way of life, a shelter, and a protection”.  While there is more learning on my part to be done, that I’m sure of and I look forward to, the resonance that the above social work topics hold for me let’s me know that I am, perhaps, no longer a stranger.

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June 26, 2012. Tags: , . Social work education. Leave a comment.