Thanks for nothing: the loneliness of the volunteer lecturer

Head teacher Martin Stephen donated his time to lead a course in poetry, but found the learning environment lacked rhyme or reason

February 14, 2008

I was intrigued to read recently that a leading novelist is receiving £80,000 a year for undertaking some duties in the English department of a certain well-known university.

Not very long ago, I volunteered to teach third-year undergraduates in that very same department, and did so - unpaid - for two consecutive years. To the best of my knowledge, I have yet to receive a thank you, never mind a cheque. (Incidentally, if this tale of woe should prompt someone in the department to give me the choice, forget the thanks: I'll opt for the cheque.)

I volunteered to teach a course on early 20th-century British poetry because as a secondary school head, I was doing no teaching. As someone with a PhD, and as the author of 14 titles, some of which claimed a vague academic credibility, I was also doing nothing to keep my academic edge sharp.

I had to give the course in the twilight hours, but I have never regretted giving up that time. The course was oversubscribed - well over 20 third-years - and the students were wonderfully bright. They put up with the very late afternoon sessions, and forgave me for being a headmaster. I had a great time, and I still cherish the responses taken in at the end of the course that suggested that many of them had had a good time as well.

Yet there was a darker side to my experience. I suppose I should have been flattered that no one apparently thought that I needed any induction to teaching third-year undergraduates. I was alarmed. I was a teacher, with no experience of university lecturing. My induction consisted of being sent the previous year's course booklet, and I was asked to describe my own proposed course on the basis of the other descriptions in the old booklet.

I was given a room (in the mathematics department), a time and a piece of paper with a list of names and some instructions on what to do if someone didn't turn up. Various bits of paper were stuffed into a pigeonhole with my name on it in the departmental office, which I visited once a week for the eight or ten weeks of the course.

&#8220On my rare visits to the department I felt like a ghost, an invisible figure seen by no one and noticed by no one. When I made my last visit to the department to hand in my marked scripts I felt somehow ashamed, as if I had never had any right to be there”

For the first year, assessment consisted of one essay and an exam at the end of the course. In the second year, that had been reduced to one exam, which seemed outrageously inadequate. It became clear from the outset that there was simply not enough time to deal with the course properly, given that there were more students in my seminar group than there had been in some of the classes for 11-year-olds in my previous school, Manchester Grammar School. I offered an extra session each week, in the evening. To my surprise, two thirds of the students turned up; maybe it was the tea and biscuits.

The real crunch came when I had to set and mark my exam. No one seemed to want to tell me anything about this novel experience, so I guessed what I had to do, including working out a mark scheme and a rough approximation between mark and class of degree. It seemed to work - I was told there was a checking system for the scripts - but I have never felt so lonely. I was given the name of a member of staff to ring, but the sum total of that was a call from me after I'd worked out a mark scheme, describing it over the phone and being told: "That sounds about right."

On my rare visits to the department I felt like a ghost, an invisible figure seen by no one and noticed by no one. When I made my last visit to the department to hand in my marked scripts I felt somehow ashamed, as if I had never had any right to be there. Bizarrely, I never saw any two members of the department talking to each other, never mind me, in the corridors.

It was difficult not to compare what my students received with the outstanding education I received in the late Sixties at the University of Leeds. In those heady days, grants meant large numbers of working-class grammar school-educated students outnumbering the public schoolboys. I knew my tutors, who also took pains to know me, and the day was full of lectures and tutorials.

One of my students summed it all up. In one of the extra evening sessions he remarked casually: "You know, we don't feel we've been educated. We feel as if we've just been processed."

Martin Stephen is High Master of St Paul's School in Barnes, London.

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