Inviting a kindred spirit into a room of one's own 2

February 11, 2005

When a Derby lecturer and an Oxford don shadowed each other for the day, the chief revelation was how much common ground they shared

Ros Ballaster, college and university fellow in English literature at Mansfield College, Oxford, is guided by Mary McNally through the bewildering maze of offices, seminar rooms, the airport-style atrium and the 'twin towers' of Derby University Derby University's "twin towers" are perched on a high and windy hill with a magisterial view over the city and its suburbs. Mary McNally's office is on the seventh floor, and a tiny lift promises that eight people can be transported on each occasion. In fact, four or five squeeze in with difficulty. It seems like a microcosm of the university itself: squeezing quarts out of pint pots.

The English department consists of a row of three shared offices with ingenious erections of files and bookcases providing makeshift dividers between tutors' respective territories. Mary introduces me to her friendly, busy colleagues and we compare experiences.

My teaching at Oxford consists of small classes of up to eight undergraduates from my college (about 24 in total are reading English at Mansfield) who meet in my single-occupancy office; 16 lectures a year for the English faculty, attended by anywhere between eight and 70 students from colleges around the university (optional for them but part of my compulsory stint); and tutorials with up to three students from my own or other colleges centring on the reading and written work they have prepared for that week. Mary's classes are of a different order altogether. In two and a half hours, 40 students listen to an hour-long lecture on designated reading before working in small self-appointed groups to discuss the questions Mary has devised as prompts. They access their course material through course readers and Derby's website, ingeniously called UDo, which has links to useful articles. The seminar room, with its fractious jangling shutters, is empty of books. My students stagger in with great piles of books snatched from college and faculty libraries in the hope that they will provide insight and guidance in their weekly essays.

The discussion in Mary's seminar on women's writing is lively and focused. A handful of mature women students and one bright young man lead most of the discussion with lots of energy and interest; contributions veer between anecdote and theoretical debate, and Mary steers them with good humour and insight to develop and defend their responses. Mary is a small powerhouse, relaxed, persuasive, but always drawing her students back to the key issues in the course. Her lecturing is organised around a series of notes and points, shown on an overhead projector, and she welcomes interruptions and questions.

We are the same generation, Mary and I, though I was first hired in my mid-twenties in the rush of new-blood appointments after years of frozen posts in the old universities and when polytechnics and higher education institutes got the opportunity to take on the coveted title and new institutional possibilities of the university. Derby was one of the last to come in under the wire. Mary's training was at London University and the Shakespeare Institute at Birmingham University and she was hired at Derby in 1993. My training was at Oxford and Harvard universities, followed by five years at the University of East Anglia and then my post at Mansfield College.

There are a lot of similarities in what Mary and I do. We work out, for instance, that we both mark about 700 pieces of written work a year. We both teach material well outside our subject specialism (my own is the 18th century, Mary's is the Renaissance) and we both believe passionately that we should do so, that we are teaching interpretive skills and sharing our enthusiasm for literature in general with our students. We have a common intellectual background, a historical interest in literature fostered in the 1980s "theory wars". We confide our perplexity at students who don't appear to be excited by the materials they are encountering and the academic environment they find themselves in. Within a few weeks of commencing our undergraduate degrees, we both could think of nothing better than reading books for the rest of our working lives. But then those were the days of full grants; the option of signing on in the vacations; and only 10 per cent of school-leavers progressing to degree level. Both of us are interested in the theory and practice of education. Mary recently attended a national conference on pedagogy in literature. After 15 years of teaching, I've just taken a diploma in teaching and learning in higher education. Mary, to my admiration, is learning Spanish at evening class.

But there are big differences between us too: not in personality, attitude or educational ethics, but certainly in our experience and our working conditions. Mary had one sabbatical semester about eight years ago; I am entitled to ask for one term in seven free from teaching and administration to pursue my research. The English department at Derby did not submit for the research assessment exercise. Oxford is an elite research institution. I recently had the luxury of a three-year Leverhulme research fellowship. Despite the evidence from higher education studies that research does not have a significant impact on teaching quality, I want to stake a claim for research as having a significant impact on quality of life.

I have administrative responsibilities in my college (as tutor for graduates) and my university (as convener of taught graduate courses) and a large number of graduate students to supervise. Mary does not have a graduate teaching load at all. Mary's teaching is all by seminars with registers of up to 60 students (and she also administers an entire Shakespeare module that is delivered through website interactive teaching). Mine is largely through tutorials and classes.

I encourage my students to experiment in their weekly tutorial essays to evolve a style they are happy with for the faculty assessment, which is conducted anonymously. I mark a huge number of anonymous scripts each year for the faculty, and I mark student essays in my college throughout the term, but these marks don't count for assessment.

Every piece of work written by students at Derby and read by a tutor is given a mark and counts towards a final degree. I'm doubtful about whether this process of assessment fosters intellectual growth. When I taught within this modular regime, I would dutifully identify weaknesses and strengths, award a mark and return my comments to a student aware that they had neither the time nor the opportunity to adjust their work accordingly. Next semester they would dust themselves off and start all over again, working out what the new tutor considered to deserve a B+.

The central atrium of Derby looks like a large airport departure lounge down to the newsagents, the plastic cafe clear-it-away-yourself tables, and the no-smoking policy. It is light and airy and modern here, and there is a lovely new tranquil oasis of a multifaith centre just adjacent to the twin towers. We peek into a meditation room bright with cushions. We have our lunch in a staff dining and bar area even more floors up. It is fresh food, but it would pall: baked potatoes, salads, panini.

The university, with no accommodation on site and a bus ride from the town centre, falls virtually silent at 5pm, although it revives later for the provision of evening classes for its students. As Mary and I walk from one tower to the other, through bewildering corridors and stairwells to the humanities office (bizarrely situated at a remote distance from tutors' offices), for her to collect post from her pigeonhole, the teaching rooms are all quiet. At 5pm in Oxford, research and graduate seminars begin in college and faculty rooms around the city. I have to broker with my partner to collect children from after-school care so that I can attend two a week, but I could fill up every evening and lunchtime.

All the tutors I met at Derby are energetic, inspiring, thoughtful about their roles as academics, and realistic about the demands of the institution within which they work. Mary and I agree that it would be interesting to continue the comparison and we discuss looking at the differences between our first-year undergraduate courses, that vital period when university tutors in English seek to expand horizons and impart a set of skills and knowledge that will provide the basis of their students' thinking throughout the degree.

In A Room of One's Own , Virginia Woolf introduces her fictional narrator, who visits "Oxbridge", with customary irony: "Call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please - it is not a matter of importance." Mary McNally has an open invitation to come dance on Mansfield's lawns. Just so long as, while there are no books yet written about fictional Rosalinds riding lifts at Derby, I do not have to play the role of the misogynous Professor X.

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