Stand and deliver

Students paying high fees will expect high-quality lectures in return. George Watson gives tips on how to meet those expectations

March 10, 2011

Credit: Paul Bateman

So university students will pay higher fees, unless they are poor, and pay them as debts rather than as taxes. Parliament in both houses has decided.

What happens next? If students are to be customers, will they exercise the power that traditionally belongs to those who buy? The adage about paying the piper and calling the tune suddenly looks apt. In any consumer society the customer is king. Tomorrow's student may not be that. But he may be a student prince, and an old operetta could become the tune of the times.

If it does, it will bear no resemblance to student power of the 1960s. That movement was fiercely ideological, and today there are no fashionable ideologies; they expired in the 1980s with the Soviet empire and the defeat in China of the Gang of Four.

The argument now will be about value for money, which is not as simple as it looks. It is a lot easier to get into the National Gallery, which is free, than into the Louvre, where you have to stand in a long queue to buy a ticket, and it is anyone's guess what that means. Perhaps people only value goods and services that cost, but it would be rash to speculate.

European universities may once have been under student control. At least Bologna, which claims to be the oldest, is said to have begun with student halls where professors were employed by those they taught and needed student permission to leave the gates of the city. In that case, student power is nearly a millennium old, although it has no continuous life.

Halls became colleges, and colleges became universities to attract endowments, since nobody is likely to endow an institution governed by a shifting population of adolescents. As for the 1960s, student power collapsed because administration is boring, as students discovered when they joined committees.

The student prince of the third millennium will demand better teaching and more of it; in arts subjects, at least, a trickle of complaints about bad lecturing could soon become a flood. The usual solution was to not go to the bad lectures; but that will look less like an option if you are paying through the nose.

A recent radio debate derided dons who read a chapter from a forthcoming book and shamble away, but that might not be bad if the voice is audible and the book is a good one. As historian Edward Gibbon knew - although not from his year at Magdalen College in 1752 - lectures can be highly rewarding: "The most idle will carry something away, and the more diligent will compare the instructions which they have heard in the school with the volumes which they peruse in their chamber."

My first lectures are better forgotten, and almost certainly are. The very first was at the University of Warsaw in 1957, in a state still essentially Stalinistic, and I remember only conversations after the lecture when charming people told me in faultless English how they had survived the Nazi occupation and the tyranny that followed.

Then a year in the US. By the age of 30, I had decided to make a life of it, but found no one willing to talk about platform behaviour. I recall L.C. Knights, the Shakespearean critic, staring with incredulity when I asked for advice. No doubt I looked and sounded more confident than I felt.

A book saved me like a lifebelt. In the university library there was a shelf about voice, and one of the monographs was interesting. I wrote to the author explaining the problem, and he invited me to tea in South Kensington.

"I am not going to charge you for this meeting," the old man said. "I want you to go back to Cambridge and bite about 3,000 professors."

It was our first and last meeting, and almost the only advice he gave me I did not take.

He spoke of delivery, with exercises to discourage swallowing the voice. There were three tips above all. Put the notes as high as the lectern permits, to raise the chin. Look at the back row after every sentence or two, since voice follows the eye. And do not drop the voice at the end of sentences. He discouraged platform perambulations like a caged lion. I am forever grateful, and wish I could remember his name.

One thing he did not tell me is that you have to forget what you are told. A lecturer cannot think about technique as he lectures: he can think only about what he is saying. In other words, advice must be absorbed to the point that it is taken for granted.

Of the Three Great Rules - put your notes high, look at the back row and do not drop your voice - only the first, which can be done at once, can be consciously remembered and obeyed. The other two can be observed only as a cyclist unconsciously obeys the laws of ballistics. I have no idea how that happens, and can only say it feels wonderful.

The student prince, silent or censorious in the back row, will probably expect nothing else.

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