Does the inspirational teacher still have a place in today’s academy?

Lincoln Allison was inspired to teach by academics who loved what they did and communicated this to students. But has all passion for teaching been eliminated by creeping assessment and instrumentalism?

August 2, 2018
A mime artist
Source: Getty

By the end of the 1980s, I had been teaching in universities for 21 years: half my lifetime. I had never been given any training and never faced any formal assessment of my performance.

Then, like the London buses of legend, forms of measurement began to pass in convoy. These included “student feedback”, “quality assurance” and a lengthy procedure called “appraisal”. This last required me to state what my “aims and objectives” were. I said that they consisted of a desire to “show off in front of attractive young people”. That wasn’t good enough, since aims and objectives were, apparently, distinct concepts. Not being a medieval theologian, I remain incapable of seeing such fine distinctions. But I was told it was something to do with the sequence of events, so I added that my objective was to be able to go for a drink, having successfully shown off in front of attractive young people.

Seen from the outside, the assessment of employees’ performance in an institution in receipt of public money now seems normal and inevitable. But then, it seemed impertinent and pointless, and anecdotal evidence suggests that a substantial minority of us responded in a similarly flippant and arrogant sort of way. We did not see ourselves as employees, but as a kind of stakeholder-by-inalienable-right. Theirs was not to question our practice. Still, despite my objections that academics were supposed to tell the truth, I was ultimately persuaded to put down something “sensible” and “appropriate” (of which, obviously, I have no memory).

The British claim not to like show-offs. My favourite example of this is a memo from the BBC’s first director-general, Lord Reith, to his sports department forbidding any showing of the crowd at sports events because it would encourage showing off. But virtually every broadcaster since that pre-war era has rejected his rationale, and they are right to do so. There is nothing wrong with showing off, either in sports stadiums or lecture theatres.

But I don’t want to defend the concept of teaching as showing off without any qualification. My original appraisal statement might properly be interpreted as what might be called the spoiled child mode of showing off, but what I really want to defend might best be described as the conjuror form. It consists of showing the audience that a deceptively simple experiment can end dramatically, that a counter-intuitive formula can be proved, or that a proposition that most of the audience have believed since before they can remember is actually false.

Real teaching of this kind is a form of ancient human interaction, with the lecturer akin to a raconteur, orator or priest, holding the audience with their charisma – in the term’s original sense of divinely conferred power when it comes to the priest – and using their skill to judge what their listeners understand, or what they need. The idea that this deep-seated need for human interaction can be fulfilled by technology is clearly facile. Notes or even videos from a computer screen have never given anyone the kind of challenge and stimulus that they get from a person in the same space as themselves.

There are many parallels. My father used to take me to the theatre as a child in the 1950s, pointing out that I should try to remember the experience because the theatre wouldn’t exist when I grew up: it would be rendered obsolete by cinema and television because its capacities were vastly exceeded by theirs. In fact, on some statistics, the 21st century is a golden age of theatre. Similarly, who would have thought in the 1950s that the main source of income for musicians in this century would be not recording but live performance? The same sort of people, I guess, who in the 1970s thought that cities would decay away to nothing as a consequence of the coming communications revolution, which would obviate the need to visit a city and the desire to live in one.

The trouble with academics on this theory, of course, is that many of them have neither the training nor the temperament to perform. No theatre director would select actors purely for their knowledge of the text, but this is how universities choose their own board treaders. Thus, a good slice of my undergraduate career was spent listening to people who had written important books and articles but gave very boring lectures. On the other hand, I could name people who made heroic efforts to be better lecturers, and I always thought that sheer enthusiasm would do. If the chap thinks what he is saying is fascinating, one can suspend disbelief for an hour or so.

But really good lectures were always rare. I think that the best I ever heard was given by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. It was about the difference between genuine and fake moralising, and involved contrasting the mental universe of the Icelandic sagas with that of the Nazis and contemporary Oxford academics. I remember that his last line was: “And that is why so much nonsense is talked in places like Oxford and New York”. With that, he picked up his papers, swirled his gown and swept out of the room, pretending to ignore the standing ovation that the normally languid Oxford audience were giving him. On reflection, though, I think it is important to note that he hadn’t yet written the books – A Short History of Ethics and After Virtue – in which many of those ideas later appeared. It always sounds so much lamer when your audience can know what you’re going to say before you start.

As for seminars and tutorials, these require, in my mind, a very different and more elusive skill. As it happens, I did have tutorials with Alasdair and didn’t think he was particularly good at them because he wasn’t sufficiently responsive. The best tutorial I ever had was with the philosopher Rom Harré. It was a dialogue in which he asked me to say what I thought it meant to say that “X causes Y”, and which proceeded over an hour to construct what was to me a clear and new view of what science and knowledge are.

Three clowns

 

Both MacIntyre’s lecture and Harré’s tutorial were doubly life-changing. Not only did they set up trains of thought that never stopped, they gave me my first realistic ideas about a career. At that point, my thoughts had not got much further than film star or centre-forward for Burnley. As MacIntyre breezed out of the door, I remember thinking: “Actors only get to say other people’s lines; he gets to say his own.” And I cannot resist remarking that Harré (born 1927) and MacIntyre (born 1929) are still alive; perhaps the urge to communicate is good for you!

I enjoyed the career thus inspired. Most of my teaching was conducted in idyllic circumstances, with good final-year students in year-long courses designed and run entirely by me. I relished the interaction between lectures and seminars, personal consultations and marking, and the extras, like field trips and movies for discussion, that I appended. My assumption was that if I enjoyed it, so would the recipients, and I always put some effort into “ice-breaking” events meant to ensure that students found it relaxing as well as stimulating to be obliged to spend little bits of their lives with me.

In all those years, there was only one occasion when my teaching was evaluated by someone in attendance. It was a seminar in my module on “sport, politics and society”. It was part of a quality assurance audit and a professor from another university sat in. I had been warned in advance and had asked the students to make an effort. They were a very good group in any case and they went right over the top, taking turns to present arguments and structure debate, handing out factsheets and summaries. I did almost nothing. The “inspector”, if I can call him that, just gave me a rather rueful look as he left my room and said: “Awesome”. Learning that is “student-led” and “student-centred” is great if the students are good.

They weren’t always as good as that, but I still regarded the construction of my year-long courses as the most satisfying thing I ever did – ranking considerably higher than the writing of books and articles. I miss all the varieties of human contact involved, especially as technology means that my current life mainly as a freelance writer could actually be conducted without ever meeting anyone.

So why did I retire at the youngest possible age (which seemed to shock my American friends in particular)? Partly it was because I was feeling increasingly like an employee rather than a stakeholder-by-inalienable right. Partly it was because I had other opportunities, and the financial means to pursue them. But I’d have stayed to this day if the terms and conditions of university teaching had remained the same.

The most particular annoyance for me was the doubling of seminar size from nine to 18 – allegedly to free up time for research. As if anyone is going to develop the capacity for original thought because they have two or three more hours available in the week! To some of my colleagues, this was merely a technical change, but to me it was the abolition of the real seminar, the thing we should have been most proud of in the English university system. As it happens, I ignored it for the rest of my career and nobody challenged my practice – partly because my habit of writing articles for The Daily Telegraph gave me a certain fear factor, and partly because doing more work than my colleagues gave me the moral high ground. But it still irked me that students in other seminar groups were, as I saw it, being short-changed.

It was part of a general deprioritising of teaching. I remember a colleague looking at her extremely poor ratings on student “feedback” and remarking gaily: “I’m really not very good at this, am I?” She had just had a book published that was extremely well received, and she couldn’t care less that she was failing in her core duties to communicate her ideas within an academic community. Her remark stiffened my resolve to leave – especially once students picked up the vibe about the level of staff interest in teaching and became less challenging and more instrumental.

Much of what I have seen and heard of UK universities in the 14 years since I retired seems to relate to what I would consider proper university teaching about as much as “value” tinned food relates to fresh food. And I think that just as there are people who have never tasted fresh food, there are people who have not experienced real lectures and seminars. I realise that the teaching excellence framework is supposed to shift academic priorities back towards teaching by providing a counterweight to the research excellence framework, and I sincerely hope it succeeds. But I suspect it won’t.

Some of its metrics, such as graduate outcomes, don’t relate to teaching at all, while the relation between good teaching and “student satisfaction” is complex, sometimes contradictory, corruptible and dependent on the quality of the students – as well as the lecturer’s aptitude in showing off.

Besides, I think the culture is against the TEF – just as it was against the previous attempts to assess teaching, which were a waste of time in this respect. I hope this is just the old man in me talking, trotting out the cliché that it was “better in my day”. Perhaps the reality is that there are plenty of people in modern universities who are as excited about teaching as I was. But I doubt it. 

Lincoln Allison is emeritus reader in politics at the University of Warwick.

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