Why the best academics are just like sperm

September 3, 2004

Variety is the spice of life. Tim Birkhead urges lecturers to discover the joys of eccentricity and leave uniformity to the clones

My spermatozoa measure 53µ from tip to tail, give or take a micron or two. They differ from those of most of my colleagues, whose sperm (I'm guessing here) measure anywhere from 45µ to 65µ in length. Not only are the dimensions of each man's sperm distinctive, the genetic material contained in the nucleus of each one is unique. This seminal example embodies the ubiquitous variation that defines most forms of life. By reshuffling our genetic material, sexual reproduction allows us to avoid the perils of uniformity. Animals that reproduce asexually (such as bacteria, sea anemones and flatworms) are a bit dull and are most likely to become extinct because they lack the genetic variation that might allow them to cope with a changing environment. Since variety is the spice of life, it is bizarre that some of those who work in higher education should be hellbent on eliminating it.

The obsession with uniformity was forcibly brought home to me as I read the recent obituary of writer Ian McKillop, who was praised for the way his mild eccentricity had made him "an interesting and inspiring teacher". I realised that eccentricity was fast becoming a thing of the past. The terms "eccentricity" and "academic" were once synonymous, because eccentricity coupled with a healthy dose of creativity fostered innovation. Eccentricity literally means "off centre" and looking at things from a different angle.

Creativity (or productivity, which is not the same thing) is still much in demand, but eccentricity is definitely out of favour.

Because they are sometimes selfish, inconsiderate and disruptive, eccentrics are viewed as potentially dangerous. In the 1970s, my field of evolutionary biology was transformed by an eccentric. Robert Trivers, a self-confessed manic depressive, was "brilliant" when up and "difficult" when down. He was one of the main architects of what we now call "selfish-gene thinking". His ideas revolutionised the study of evolution and animal behaviour. Today, constrained by government scores and assessment exercises, university departments are cautious about employing anyone with even a hint of eccentricity. It is a seller's market for older, safer, non-eccentric researchers. Since most new ideas come from younger researchers, shouldn't we be worried?

The safe-employment strategy is part of a broader trend for uniformity.

Many academics feel that the powers that be would prefer all academics to be clones, giving uniform lectures in a uniform style, with a uniform structure to feed the uniform notebooks of uniform undergraduates to justify their uniformly good marks.

The recent idea that undergraduate lectures should follow a more uniform format is a potentially retrograde step. Certainly, some lecturers would benefit from specific training in how to give a good lecture - but not by someone who has never interacted with an undergraduate, and certainly not by the utterly naff notion of sitting in on colleagues' lectures in the hope that we will passively imbibe the good bits and reject the rest. What is needed is a few inspirational teachers, preferably from outside the system, to provide solid advice on how to give a good presentation. What is not needed is a blow from the dull cudgel of higher education bureaucracy telling us that all lectures should follow the same format. As the early anatomists knew, there are many ways to skin a cat, and there are many ways to inform and inspire undergraduates.

Undergraduates are human and enjoy the stimulation provided by the variety of lecturing styles and the personalities of those who deliver them. If sperm were all the same, evolution would grind to a halt. The endpoint would be no sperm at all - no fun, no variance and no evolution, which is in effect the same as no progress.

Tim Birkhead is professor of behavioural ecology at Sheffield University.

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