From where I sit - In praise of undergraduates

August 18, 2011

Early in June at the University of Reading, I marked my last undergraduate exam paper - 47 years after I graded my first, as a callow "teaching Fellow" at the University of Sydney. The final script was only fair, just another 2:2. Yet appraising it was a moment of deep nostalgia for me, setting off a flood of happy memories that might seem at odds with the tone of my often curmudgeonly reflections on academic life "from where I sit", here in Perth, Western Australia.

What joy and instruction my meetings with undergraduates have brought me across the decades. Like many of my colleagues, I have been remade - as a historian, writer and human being - by my students. They demanded that I read and think, learn better to distinguish what mattered from what did not, be ready to listen to their intelligence and sensibility, and not allow myself to be imprisoned in my own.

Particularly inspiring were those first-year students who for 25 years I taught in large lecture classes of 250 or more. Australia has suburban universities to go with its suburban essence; students generally live at home and, in these days of paranoia about "useful" employment, may be at "uni" only for a limited number of hours a week, spending the rest in paid work. Any lecture programme therefore desperately needs smaller tutorials, where groups of 10 or 12 can get to know each other as well as learn better to love their intellects and discipline. On these occasions, the job of the "teacher" is to foster what happens naturally in college-based tertiary education, that is, simply to allow minds to meet.

How well they did, in my experience; one example being the initial first-year tutorial I taught at the University of Western Australia after moving from what I feared was the considerably more sophisticated Sydney. I'd set my students a sonnet by Pieter Geyl about history to read. The "expert team" got our debate started with an anti-sonnet of their own, amplifying and criticising Geyl's ideas. Their inventiveness symbolises the potential that first-year students carry so effortlessly and eagerly. In the Australian system, they are keen to meet their cohort, but they also want to get into the tough stuff, the long books, the difficult ideas, the serious essays. They have high expectations of themselves, university and the world. They want to get on with knowing.

Of course any decent teacher accepts that there will be failures, students with whom connection does not happen. I remember a youth who would later play rugby league for Australia, and who hated my tutorials' mixture of texts, image and especially (my choice of) music. Half an hour in, perhaps fearing he would miss the train back to rugby practice, he always got the shuffles, but somehow never put them into words. Except, that is, at the final tutorial, when he expostulated: "Why did we have to have the music?"

Nostalgia, then, but also some regret and complaint. Few senior staff, preoccupied with their research grants, now teach first-year students. Tutorial numbers are unmanageably doubled and trebled from a generation ago. The essays are halved in length and number. Meanwhile, overpaid administrators, pumping out the newspeak propaganda of "centres of teaching and learning", have the effrontery to claim that undergraduate education is getting better all the time - yeah. By my reckoning, in contrast, universities do less nowadays than they once did to help translate young minds from suburbia to the stars. In this development, staff, students and all citizens are the losers.

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