Absence-minded, professor

January 24, 2013

Regarding your news item “Don’t you kids know who I am?” (3 January), which covered the criticisms made by Guy Halsall, professor of history at the University of York (quoted as describing himself as “probably the most significant historian of early medieval Europe under the age of 60”), of students who failed to attend his lectures. Is not the underlying issue here one of the potential incompatibility between research interests and undergraduate-level teaching?

In the same issue, you carry a news story referring to the growing preference shown by the university sector for academic staff with doctorates (“Doctoral-level thinking: non-PhDs need not apply”). In it, Stephanie Marshall, deputy chief executive (research and policy) at the Higher Education Academy, appears to consider that those with doctorates equate to “the most capable staff … on the books” who can “give the best possible experience to students” (although to be fair she does recognise that alternative non-research routes can be of equal merit).

Since undergraduate or first-degree students are by far the largest source of income for most universities, they should be the prime consideration when recruiting staff.

While Halsall is reported not to have responded to requests for comment regarding his outburst, one can only surmise that the reason many of his second-year students failed to attend his lectures is that they could see no advantage in doing so. Perhaps the lectures were more angled towards Halsall’s research interests than the curriculum underpinning the course’s stated learning objectives and desired outcomes.

Understandably, in the absence of a full explanation, I do not know if Halsall’s current research-driven lectures meet the course format or not, but certainly he should elucidate by way of a reply.

However hard it is to accept by those who love their chosen research within their subject areas, perhaps students’ deference to opportunity cost and choice should be respected. Many simply wish to be placed in a position to succeed post-graduation and may not perceive this to include education outside the stated course boundaries, however distinct the content and quality.

Bob Nancarrow, Henley-on-Thames

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