Speaking Volumes: One-Upmanship

February 20, 1998

David Hellawell on Stephen Potter's One-Upmanship

.I only now realise that I must have read the early lifemanship books as a sixth-former not long after they were first published. One-Upmanship, in particular, was full of academic humour I had never encountered before and I thought it excruciatingly funny. I did, however, begin to have glimpses of the accuracy of its satire when I first observed the groves of academe as a student but it was only on a recent re-reading after over 40 years that I realised not only the profound influence it must have had on my satirical efforts over the years but also how incredibly prescient it was.

Many appear to have forgotten that the former Lifemanship Correspondence College, which moved from Yeovil in 1969, was the embryonic foundation of what became in the 1990s the University of North by North West England. This is hardly surprising as the official university prospectus bears no mention of its correspondence college origins and its vice-chancellor makes much of the confusing mists of antiquity whenever the history of the university is mentioned.

Despite this apparent embarrassment at its humble beginnings, the latest crown of higher education still adheres firmly to the principles of its founder that were years ahead of their time. Tuition fees, top-up fees, qualification fees, entrance fees and exit fees were only too familiar to the predecessors of today's students at NNWE.

Nor would the many now world-famous alumni of the establishment find that the teaching and learning processes had strayed far from the tried and tested methods used so adeptly by such past masters as G. Odoreida and Gattling-Fenn, the first holder of the Wimpole Readership. Admittedly, Gattling-Fenn's seminal work on pipemanship might at first sight appear to have been rendered obsolete by restrictions on smoking tobacco in the tutorial rooms. But this would only be to confuse the surface impressions with the essence of his approach. The key to this was never to venture an opinion but to encourage a stream of oral consciousness from the student by a virtuoso use of his pipe.

This method has been refined by generations of NNWE dons to the point when the pipe itself can be dispensed with. Merely taking a sharp intake of breath between one's teeth or scratching the left ear at the right moment (and timing is, as ever, the key skill) can cause the student to tear up 20 pages of text and/or go away to produce two further chapters.

Similarly, the subtle use of question marks and exclamation marks on submitted drafts can obviate the need for written comments. The student soon begins to read hidden subtleties of criticism in to a ?!? as opposed to a!?!, let alone the blunt instruments of a ??? or a !!!. In these increasingly litigious times the one-up tutor is wise enough never to write a comment that could be used in a libel action. The scrawling of "ugh" in the margins of essays is now officially discouraged at NNWE for precisely this reason.

It is encouraging news that NNWE is making a bid to establish the new Institute for Learning and Teaching being set up to accredit training programmes for lecturers. If the bid is successful we can all rest assured that the principles first enunciated at Yeovil almost half a century ago will soon spread throughout the whole of higher education.

David Hellawell is associate dean for staffing and resources, University of Central England.

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