My friend and colleague Jim Stewart, who sadly died earlier this year, was manifest proof of the power of higher education to transform lives. His experiences influenced his inspirational teaching and he was deeply loved by the countless English literature and creative writing students he tutored over the past two decades.
Jim was born in the Lochee district of Dundee in 1952. Irish and Highland emigrants seeking work in the city’s jute industry had flocked to the area in the previous century, and living conditions were only just beginning to improve during Jim’s childhood. It was a tough upbringing and he was the first in his family to go to university, but only after working in a string of varied non-academic occupations.
Like many bright working-class kids of that time, Jim didn’t pass straight from school to higher education but when he eventually matriculated at the University of Dundee in the mid-1980s, he did much more than prove he was worthy of a place alongside more advantaged peers.
Another of my colleagues, who was his tutor at the time, said that “one didn’t so much teach Jim as have discussions with him about matters of mutual interest”. Jim then went on to take his PhD on the modernist and feminist Virginia Woolf in Edinburgh, before returning to Dundee.
Woolf had foreseen the gradual opening up of higher education to both sexes and all classes, so that anyone with the potential to take a degree could do so, to the enrichment of us all and in the best use of our national “human resources”. As if in confirmation of Woolf’s idealistic prophecy, he would eventually go on to become an editor of the prestigious new Cambridge University Press edition of her works.
Jim was a gifted scholar and poet, a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement and other publications, a champion of widening access and public engagement projects and the finest teacher I have had the privilege of working alongside.
Jim was passionate about the creativity of language, what it can do to expand our imaginations and empathies and deepen our most human interactions. He believed that access to cultural wealth and privilege, irrespective of background and income, was a democratic birthright.
It was precisely because Jim had transformed himself so much through higher education that he was so well placed to recognise and encourage the potential of others, no matter how disadvantaged. He made each one of his students feel unique and special, inspiring them to believe in themselves, to realise their own creative capabilities and never to fall victim to the falsehood that culture and ideas were useless luxuries they couldn’t afford.
As a colleague, Jim kept the flame of old-fashioned scholarly virtues burning brightly in his own modest and unassuming way – and never compromised them. Although this may have arguably sometimes been to the detriment of meeting the corporate criteria by which modern academics are increasingly rewarded and promoted, it meant that Jim kept his integrity intact.
He was the heart and soul of his department and our most popular and effective teacher, beloved and respected by students and colleagues in equal measure.
With the coming of the teaching excellence framework, perhaps those who prioritise their students rather than playing the peer-review system may get the credit they deserve at last. How to quantify teaching excellence is a hotly contested subject. My advice would be to look at Jim Stewart and work your way down from there.
Keith Williams is senior lecturer in English at the University of Dundee.