Gary Day

November 11, 2005

Learning and teaching? Ah, that's what was once called education. But the problem's the same: how do we teach our students?

They're back. No, this is not the trailer for some horror film, nor does it refer to the return of MPs from their long summer break. I mean our clients or, for those of you still living in the 20th century, students. For the first few days of the new academic year, the average campus looks like a department store on the first day of the January sales.

Which gives me an idea. Since undergraduates don't have to study for a degree these days, just buy one, why make them wait three years? If they can pay upfront, give them a discount and let them have it now. If not, let them have it on credit and charge a high interest rate.

We'd make loads of money and have lots more time for, oh, I don't know, coffee.

But this is such stuff as dreams are made of and our little schemes are rounded with a feedback form. So, for now, there's no escape from teaching.

What though? The Western tradition? No, better to start with the basics, such as how to set an alarm clock. Or even how to tell the difference between the sexes. One student came to see me in the third week of term to ask if I'd got his ticket for a production of Macbeth . No, I hadn't, but his tutor had. He couldn't recall who his tutor was. Male or female? He wasn't sure.

On making it to class, many students are amazed to learn that they should have brought the relevant work with them, and are even more astounded to be told that they should have read it. Presumably, that's because they arrive at university having completed an aversion therapy course against books, known, I believe, as the literacy strategy. If things go on at this rate, there'll be no one left to appreciate great literature, and then where will we be?

Sometimes I fear for this country. Thank goodness, then, for learning and teaching - though personally I could never see what was wrong with education.

All these new-fangled notions are beyond me. I understand that bit about starting from where the students are. I think I can make links between their idea of tragedy - missing happy hour - and Paradise Lost , but how on earth do you get from clubbing, body piercing and getting wasted to Pope's Essay on Man ? As for pedagogy's mystical conceits, well! They remind me of a TVprogramme I used to watch years ago called Kung Fu . It was about a man who wanted to know how he could achieve enlightenment. "Be like the grasshopper" was typical of the replies he received from assorted wise ones. Ah, well, ask a silly question.

One sage has compared learning with trying to swim using a punctured rubber ring. "You learn," he says, "as the tube deflates." Not drowning but learning, eh? I don't want to be pedantic, but what happens if the air runs out before you've grasped the law of flotation? And can you "learn"

literature? From it and about it, maybe. But it's an odd way to describe reading Shakespeare. Perhaps it was the inadequacy of this metaphor that led initiates to abandon it and to talk about "scaffolding" instead. But as I don't have much of a head for heights it's not a term I can use without having an attack of vertigo.

I have reservations about using one word to mean many different things - it shows a worrying lack of discrimination. Not something that troubles the proponents of scaffolding who consider it shorthand for much that is valuable in education: it "keeps students on task", it "delivers efficiency" and it "reduces surprise". Those who say that this squeezes the life out of learning have a point. Another meaning of scaffold is "a temporary raised platform for the execution of criminals".

Death lurks in the metaphors of pedagogues. There's a danger that we pay more attention to figures of speech than to our subjects or our students.

If we must use analogies, then why not music? Start by finding A. To wit, ask them what they can remember from last week. No, Vicky, Gulliver's Travels wasn't the first Rough Guide . Eventually, we're all there.

Different personalities, different keys. And, then, suddenly, we're off. I hadn't thought of this, they hadn't thought of that. A good seminar is like a jam session. Here's the tune. Let's improvise around it. There are some bum notes but there are also a few top Cs. The mind is dancing.

Teaching isn't a technique. It's a relationship, a gamble, an existential encounter. Sometimes it's wonderful, sometimes it makes you want to book into a Swiss clinic. And, after discovering today that only four students out of 72 have managed to read The Oresteia , that's where I'm headed now.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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