A highlight but never a headline

May 4, 2007

The privileges of working in higher education, such as developing intellectual bonds, are often overlooked, claims Susan Bassnett

Anyone not familiar with the education press could be forgiven for thinking that academics live and work in a permanent state of anxiety, depression and even fear. I've lost count of how many headlines I have read recently about pay inequality, excessive workloads and harassment. There are stories about lecturers being bullied, stories about the demise of freedom of speech and stories about tutors in despair at being forced to teach students whose basic skills are so poor that they should never have been admitted to a university.

Obviously a shift to mass higher education has meant huge changes in the system, and those of us who started out teaching tiny groups of students now find ourselves with overflowing seminar rooms. Not all the students we teach are motivated to learn. Many have little idea why they are at university, apart from having a good time; some have patently chosen the wrong degree programme, and the spelling and quality of writing of a few makes one shudder with horror.

But, on balance, being an academic is still a pretty rewarding profession.

We grow older, but every year a new batch of students arrives looking exactly like the students of every previous year, and we have a unique opportunity to learn at first hand about another generation, about their attitudes and values and tastes and hopes and fears. It is a privilege that only those working in education can enjoy. Of course, some students are idle and some are unpleasant, but generally they arrive with expectations that we have to strive to meet. Being an academic means being perpetually challenged by younger generations of students, and it certainly serves to keep the adrenaline flowing.

The other day two books arrived unexpectedly. One was an impressive work that came with a note from the author, one of my former students who is now a professor in a leading university, thanking me for moral support over the years. The other, written by another former student who graduated 15 years ago, named me in the acknowledgments in the nicest way. She recalls coming to Warwick University to undertake a PhD and arguing with her supervisor about her penchant for abstract theory with no historical contextualisation. I remember those discussions, and I remember how brilliant she was and how, at times, I would feel very dull in comparison.

Now she was generous enough to go back over our debates and write, half-jokily, that "Bassnett was right". I was so moved I shed a tear and then sat down and wrote to both to thank them for their generosity.

This anecdote emphasises something that the media does not highlight: the genuine bond of intellectual friendship that can develop between academics and students. Every year I am sent Teachers' Day cards from former students in Asia, and every Christmas messages come in from around the world.

Friends in other professions often look enviously on us academics because of the opportunities we have to earn a living through being in contact with clever young people. So next time you find yourself irritated by some underprepared dimwits in a seminar or bored stiff at having to fill in yet more forms or attend another training session to update you on something you have been doing well for years, think of the benefits that can come from close intellectual encounters between generations and enjoy the privilege.

Susan Bassnett is pro vice-chancellor at Warwick University with responsibility for campus life and community affairs.

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