John Cleese’s headmaster is no role model for academics

While learning to work quickly is a useful life skill, a greater gift to students is permitting unhurried excursions and digressions, says Shahidha Bari

March 23, 2017
Matthew Brazier illustration (23 March 2017)
Source: Matthew Brazier

“The first step to knowing who we are,” begins John Cleese’s punctilious headmaster, Brian Stimpson, in the 1986 British comedy Clockwise, “is knowing where we are and when we are”. He looms sceptically over Stephen Moore’s hapless music teacher, who has clearly never had a clue who, where or when he ought to be in his life.

One of the delights of Christopher Morahan’s film is the pitch of Cleese’s performance: the barely contained panic and escalating mania with which he determines to arrive at the annual headmasters’ conference at the fictitious “University of Norwich” in time to deliver his speech at 5pm. Cue a detour on a train heading to Plymouth, a run-in with a truculent sixth-form student, a prang with a police car and an enraged encounter with a Morris 1100 in a sodden field. Sure, he’s mud splattered, his sleeve is torn and he’s wearing somebody else’s shoes, but it is a moment of absolute triumph as the digital clock hits 17:00 and Stimpson staggers into the Norwich lecture hall. Brian Stimpson is a hero – of the sort that record appointments in their Filofaxes as though it were their religion.

Clockwise, one hopes, is a fiction, rather than a docudrama about the teaching profession. But the education industry certainly has a peculiar sense of timekeeping. Seminars, lectures and marking are completed to strict deadlines. On the other hand, essay hand-in times are more flexible – as are academics’ own self-imposed deadlines for submitting our research papers to journals. Outsiders tease us over our extended holidays, but many of us work weekends as a matter of course and are run ragged juggling teaching, research and administration.

Those three parts of our profession each seem to set their own pace. Teaching week in and week out can feel like a treadmill – until the summer arrives with its sunny vista stretching infinitely ahead of us. Admin comes in waves, with upsurges that overwhelm, and then recede. And research so often demands – but is so rarely permitted – a pause to pull ideas together, to review and reassess.

Recently, I was reminded of Brian Stimpson when Jo Johnson, the UK’s minister for universities and science, announced the government’s plan to roll out two-year degree programmes at English universities. The basic logic of the proposal seems to be that doing a degree is a case of the quicker, the better: if we can fast-track students through their studies, we might hasten their routes into paid work and save them an additional year’s worth of tuition fees and living costs.

The University and College Union warns that the primary beneficiaries of this scheme will be private for-profit providers, who will be able to siphon off students by offering speedier and cheaper alternatives to the conventional degree. It adds that the ultimate outcome will be a two-tier university system, invariably unequal, appealing differently to students of different financial means.  

There are other aspects of this proposal that might also cause concern. Students on fast-tracked courses would work intensively throughout the year, with reduced summer and winter holidays. And if lecturers baulk at this model, that is not due only to the horror of having precious research time squeezed, but also to the knowledge that the only way such a system could be operable is with more teaching-only and temporary contracts – which generally exploit and overwork early career staff, curtailing their ability to produce the research necessary to secure permanent posts and promotions.

There is a more abstract idea at stake here too, which is, as UCU general secretary Sally Hunt puts it, the notion that “accelerated degrees risk undermining the well-rounded education upon which our universities’ reputation is based”.

To the pragmatic outsider, this notion of a “well-rounded education” might seem a rather woolly one. And it is true that the romance of taking your time isn’t always healthy. British PhD theses, I suspect, are all the better for being wrest from student hands after the designated three or four years, remembering that they are not intended to be magnum opuses, but works in progress that ought not to fester, delaying careers and requiring already scant research funding to be eked out even further. You can learn to be a “quick study” at university, and this is a skill for which you will almost certainly be grateful for at some hurried point in your career.

But isn’t there also something to this idea of deliberation – which means, of course, thinking, as well as slowing down? Even when our teaching feels rushed, students often surprise us by demonstrating their own accumulative learning: a meandering undercurrent of thought, which moves from seminar to seminar, year by year. Sometimes we are able to facilitate this, allowing for unhurried excursions and digressions, pursued in the cause of intellectual enquiry.

And those extended holidays are also perhaps essential to our industry. Spectacular things can happen to the minds of students during the summer holidays. The surly first years whose apprehension was previously limited can come back to us suddenly capable and confident, their analysis sharper and deeper because a complex idea has percolated, and because life itself has happened around their academic studies and cast new light on them.

Universities may be tasked with preparing students for the rat race, but one of the most important things that we can do is to press the pause button.

Shahidha Bari is senior lecturer in Romanticism at Queen Mary University of London.

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Print headline: Pause for thought

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