Teaching magic happens face to face

Scholars who share their knowledge in creative ways need not fear being upstaged by Moocs or TED talkers, says John Gilbey

May 29, 2014

Source: Miles Cole

A mellow evening in spring. Heat from the day-long sunshine seeped from the stonework of the blossom-strewn colleges and the sound of beer being drawn from a hand-pump tempted me into the shadowed confines of an ancient pub. The stone-flagged room was divided up with tall wooden settles arranged to provide a degree of privacy for drinkers – but at this early hour the few occupants were still clearly audible.

Behind me, a tutor was holding an end-of-term social with a small group of students. They were clearly on their best behaviour and, if not exactly trying to impress, certainly hoping to bolster his view of them. One in particular used the opportunity to lay out his novel thesis regarding the presidency of John F. Kennedy, weaving an intricate tapestry of intrigue that would have made Oliver Stone blush. The tutor listened politely, then let his acolyte down gently with the observation: “I think I only met Jack the three times…”

There was an awkward gap, punctuated by the sounds of students swallowing beer and glasses being gently put back on the table, before the tutor began to talk about his personal connections with the Kennedy family. In any other context it would have sounded like monumental grandstanding, but here, in a quiet Oxbridge pub, it seemed just a natural extension of scholarly endeavour – and over the next hour I learned more about the America of the 1960s than I ever thought I could in such a short period. The beer, also, was very good. This was 20 years ago, and it already felt like a threatened habitat, yet it ranks as my gold standard for UK higher education.

If we set aside the possibility that this incident never actually happened – that it was some alcohol-fuelled wish fulfilment brought on by an overexposure to stone-cloistered fiction as a child – we’re left with the awkward issue of how to emulate an educational experience of this quality for the mass market. How can it be matched on a wet Thursday morning in November, in a subterranean lecture theatre filled with 100 pitifully snotty victims of the current campus flu?

That might seem a bewilderingly daunting task, but I think it is one we have to attempt if we want to survive as live, human purveyors of higher education, and not just hand the stage over to heroically theatrical streamed TED talks and increasingly fancy massive open online courses.

Safely distant from my home campus, I’ve tried out various colourful models of knowledge transfer in wildly different environments, including the disarming experience of teaching at summer events for aspiring and developing writers. Assembled as they are from promising ingredients such as wine receptions, workshops and the added bonus of bizarre chance encounters, these events attract dangerously motivated folk who want – indeed, demand – to wring every ounce of value from their time there. Certainly, teaching in this “boot camp” total-immersion model keeps you on your toes – especially when you have to try to respond to questions of profoundly metaphysical weirdness over a pre-dawn canteen breakfast when your body is still craving the first coffee of the day. It shouldn’t be any different from the standard teaching experience – yet it is.

Then there is the model where all the best bits of the academic conference environment – the really valuable networking, random meetings, drink and good food – are offered without the distraction of dire sessions of papers badly read from the screen. My first exposure to this extraordinary learning experience – the “un-conference” – was in the continuous waking-dream that is California’s Silicon Valley, where I found myself deep in the almost mythical halls of the Googleplex talking with a group of urbane tech folk about how my science-fiction writing might presage future technological crises.

I gave an example from my IT career to support my thesis on the dystopian possibilities of one particular area of web development only to realise, very slowly and far too late, that the “Bob” sitting next to me had, quite literally, written the textbook on the subject – after he had invented the technology whose alleged dangers I was promulgating. Suddenly, my mind was back in the pub on that fateful spring evening – but this time as stunned participant rather than intrigued eavesdropper. Thankfully, “Bob” was amused and magnanimously explained what I’d misjudged in my analysis – with cold beer and expansive Texan charm. I learned my lesson, and now try to research and consider my views more carefully before running off at the mouth.

Perhaps a key target of higher education should be to reinforce to each of us – academics and students – how little we really know. Perhaps a regular intellectual slap would help lecturers to reduce our institutional smugness and re-examine our teaching, knowledge base and motivation. And might students be inspired to engage more if the 99 per cent of us who aren’t part of the global higher education elite shared more of our failures with them, rather than just the things we are most proud of? We could call it “inspiration by confession”, and it could positively reinforce to folk the notion that however far we think we’ve come along the path to academic enlightenment, there is always plenty of scope for improvement.

Or maybe we should just try to do more teaching in places where decent beer is available. Just kidding…

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