Head to head: Are UCDSU themed weeks effective?

Image Credit: Unsplash licence: Shelagh Murphy

Melanie Kelly and James Fitzgerald debate the effectiveness of UCDSU themed weeks.

YES-Melanie Kelly

UCD is a broad campus, with an extreme variety of people studying and learning new things about themselves and the world around them. In such an environment, guidance is critical, to help students to truly make the most of their time in college.

As such, events hosted by the Student’s Union, such as SHAG week, and the other themed weeks that decorate the SU calendar, are of the utmost importance. These events can help students to understand topics, particularly in regard to sexual health and awareness, that we know all too well are poorly covered in most Irish secondary schools.

When dealing with these topics, the minimum amount of prior knowledge must be presumed, in order to cater to those who are most in need of information. Therefore, while games played at SHAG week events such as “Pin the genital” may trigger snickers from some, they are important in engaging those who have little or no prior knowledge, as well as a disinclination to seek out knowledge. 

This is the ultimate aim of these events, and in educating the student public, their service is invaluable. They also help to reassure the student body that the Students’ Union is actively engaging in student affairs, and promoting the collective good.

SU themed weeks, aside from their undoubted educational benefits, also serve to make campaign coordinators' jobs easier. By having all events for a similar theme take place in the same week, issues regarding a lack of attention being devoted to certain problems are avoided, and ultimately each of these issues are given the proper treatment that they deserve. With the current format for a whole themed week, campaign coordinators do not have to worry about scheduling difficulties, which could make their issues harder to confront. Instead, there are specified weeks in which all issues are treated fairly.

UCDSU themed weeks also help to enliven the at times dry student discourse. Building a sense of in-person community in UCD is difficult at the best of times, and as such, having a common theme to a week, which can prompt discussions amongst students and academics alike, is an excellent way of achieving some level of intriguing discourse around campus. 

The fact that the issues covered by UCDSU themed weeks are usually progressive and beneficial to the wider student body also helps to engender a sense of enlightened student culture around UCD. Many of the themed weeks may draw derisory snickers from conservative groups, such as SHAG week, but the fact that such events can even be staged in UCD is a statement on the SU’s commitments to challenging the status quo, and boldly encouraging the student body to come along with them.

Aside from all the obvious societal advantages in having themed weeks, there are obvious social benefits to such a set up. Incoming students, and those who may not know many people around campus, are provided with a means by which to meet interesting student volunteers, who are clearly actively engaged in college life. These opportunities allow students to come right to the very centre of student debate in the University, while also educating themselves on important issues, with real practical benefits.

Education with regards to taboo subjects in Ireland is famously awful, and so aside from the obvious benefits inherent in giving the student body a progressive, expertly produced introduction to some key topics that are not covered in schools, UCDSU themed weeks also provide a space for people to address concerns that they previously felt unable to. In this way, themed weeks are a key part of UCD’s attempt to become a more active and friendly campus, an image rehabilitation that is desperately needed.

Finally, many students in UCD have never been represented by a body that is specifically elected by them before, in such a manner as the SU. Many students understand that the SU is important, but do not truly understand the good that can be done from student activism. As such, investment and engagement in student issues has been dwindling in recent years. However, themed weeks provide an opportunity for students to see for themselves the work that the Student’s Union does on their behalf. It allows college students to appreciate the tireless work of the Union, and to understand that they truly do have the power to make change in UCD. As the most visual reminder of the SU’s work, it allows students to be confident that their voices will be listened to, and their concerns addressed. In this way, it allows the student body to have faith in their Union, an extremely important function.

To conclude, UCDSU themed weeks are extremely effective in combating ignorance on a number of important social issues, and doing so in a fair, fun and engaging manner. Losing these weeks would be a disaster for the University.

Rebuttal to Yes - James Fitzgerald

It’s interesting to see that my opponent has chosen to defend not themed weeks per se, but the themes that those weeks take. One would be hard pressed to find someone who saw SHAG week topics as something Students’ Unions should address. A

As for the contention that themed weeks make the life of a Campaign Coordinator easier, I think we should examine this deeper. It’s worth noting the fact that these coordinators aren’t all working on a single week currently, and plenty of weeks are around themes such as Palestine and Trade Unions, which don’t have individual Coordinators. More critically, the issue is like the old “Would you rather” question: “Would you rather fight a duck the size of a horse, or ten horses the size of ducks?”. Asking a Campaign Coordinator to put on four or five events in the same week may make their lives easier throughout the rest of the year, but man is the run up to that one week going to take effort. Maybe that suits some people, but it doesn’t suit everyone. I’d take the ten small horses.

UCDSU themed weeks do a terrible job of showing students what work the SU does, as they are a cobbled together set of themed workshops, panels, and socials. The majority of work done by the sabbatical officers is made up of case work, providing basic services to students in bad situations, and lobbying within UCD’s structures.

No one who seriously wants the SU to do well is saying SHAG week topics are bad. We are saying that they don’t have to be crammed into one week.

NO-James Fitzgerald

The perennial issue of ‘engagement’ with UCDSU is generally a tedious one, brought up at election time by some wannabe Campaigns and Engagement officer who has run out of buzzwords, or a newspaper hack who couldn’t think of a more interesting question. That said, buzzwords, impassioned speeches, and clichés aside, a Students’ Union that looks like the one envisioned by current officers such as President Ruairí Power and Campaigns & Engagement officer Darryl Horan, and the one promised by the continual highlighting of past radical actions, requires a hell of a lot more engagement.

When discussing engagement and themed weeks, the usual thing to do is to judge themed weeks by attendance. By this metric, we can say that Trade Union week performed relatively poorly, and Sexual Health And Guidance (SHAG) week went swimmingly. This is a flawed outlook. UCDSU exists to improve the lives of students in tangible ways, and to represent them politically. Not that SHAG week did not do well, but its success should be measured in how many of the attendees learned something that will improve their sexual health or understanding of consent, and in how many students were recruited to help with any SU campaigns on SHAG topics.

Oftentimes, the cohort who attend SU organised classes on consent or sexual health are relatively well informed, and less in need of such advice in comparison to the much larger cohort, who don’t attend, so simply knowing the number of people who showed up isn’t enough to gauge efficacy. The other question is that of the people who turn out to a Sexual Education themed quiz with prizes, how many can the Welfare Officer hope to mobilise for a SHAG themed campaign?

As for the less action packed Trade Union Week, the same questions can be asked. Did the students attending information evenings go on to join Unions after? And can they be relied upon for support should strikes and other forms of labour action come to campus? It’s hard to say.

The most engaged with political action of UCDSU so far this year has been the October 13th protest outside of the Dublin City Council offices, calling for the resignation of Owen Keegan. That date had in fact been set weeks in advance, as Power (correctly) predicted the budget would not do much for student renters, so the day after budget day seemed like a good shout. Keegan’s snark and inaction on the issue of student accommodation came as a blessing, as a pre-planned protest on the budget would have received a small fraction of the attention that the final action took. Instead, the protest received the support of TCDSU, IADTSU, DCUSU, NCADSU, People Before Profit, Labour, Social Democrats, and Sinn Féin.

The reason I bring this up is to show that forward planning is useful, but can only get one so far. The willingness to, at the drop of a hat, change the theme or focus of an event or week is a great way of mobilising students. The University and College Union is holding strike action soon. Why not connect the Trade Union week events with that, rather than with an arbitrary week set months in advance? Most students might not read the news much, but they read it more than the SU emails.

Another reason to give up on themed weeks is that most topics come in a variety of levels of involvement. Take SHAG, as it is after all the most obvious example: consent and sexual health workshops should be early in the year, when freshers are both more likely to attend SU events, and haven’t had too much opportunity to make poorly informed choices about their health. The same is true with Trade Unions, as many working students are already working when the semester starts. There is nothing wrong with having a bit of fun with these early events so that it doesn’t all feel like 101s on student issues, but having a workshop on drug safety after a trimester and a half of going out seems kind of pointless.

The final reason to give up on theming weeks is that different weeks just hold different weight in terms of what students can or wish to do. Week three is a wonderful week for a particular cause, as it’s early enough that students aren’t giving up hope, and there aren’t many assignments yet. Week 12 is for cramming, so nobody has much time for activism. If I were tasked with choosing which week is which, I’d hate to feel obliged to pick a topic for week 12 or study week, consigning it to low attendance.

Rebuttal to NO - Melanie Kelly

Attendance is obviously a key metric by which to judge the success of any UCDSU organised event, and as such high attendance at SHAG week is of course a mark of success. I believe the other writer is asking for perhaps too much by wishing to know just how much each student engaged with the material, as this will of course vary for every student. Just because not all people engaged with the lesson in the same manner, does not mean the lesson was useless.

The other writer also asserts that having workshops on safe drug use after students have started going out is redundant. This is nonsense. If we are to treat all people who have erred in the past as unsalvageable wrecks, then we are left with very few people to engage and educate. Is information on how to avoid unpleasant experiences not more valuable to those who know how unpleasant these experiences can be, and wish to never go there again? Therefore, the scheduling argument the other writer propagates is ridiculous at best. 

Themed weeks are effective in engaging the student population, and whether this takes place in week one or week twelve is irrelevant.