Student contact has always given dons that collapsing soufflé feeling

Long before students became potential vectors of infection, academics were inclined to shun their presence, recalls Laurie Taylor

February 27, 2022
A collapsed souffle
Source: iStock

The ongoing strike by UK university lecturers was given a major boost recently by students who, according to newspaper reports, brought plates of cakes and biscuits to the dons on the picket lines. A pleasing gesture of solidarity, one might think – although one can’t help wondering whether any of those on the picket lines were able to offer properly personal thanks to their gallant donors. Did they, for example, know any of their names or any of the courses they might be studying?

What prompts such questions is the uneasy but solid evidence that many university lecturers are increasingly ready in this post-pandemic world to risk the wrath of students, vice-chancellors and education secretary Nadhim Zawahi alike by refusing to indulge in face-to-face teaching. Why confront the hazards of travelling all the way to work and allowing a bunch of relatively unkempt and possibly unhealthy students to invade your personal space when you can stay comfortably in your own book-laden home and enjoy the hygienic safety and push-key control over proceedings afforded by a Zoom encounter?

It is not an altogether surprising development. In my long years of university life, I came across numerous disturbing examples of the extremes to which academics will go to avoid any corporeal contact with those they seek to instruct. I vividly remember the distinguished psychology professor who lectured on short-term memory at my undergraduate university. During his introductory remarks, he was bent so low down that his brow and hairline were only just visible to those in the back rows of the auditorium. But as he slowly developed the distinction between short-term and working memory, he began to sink like a collapsing soufflé, until the only element of his presence that remained was a muffled sound emanating from several feet below the lectern.

Other examples are less dramatic. They include the lecturer in social anthropology who had astutely equipped her tutorial office with a swivel chair. This allowed her to conduct her seminars on the libertarian proclivities of the Samoan islanders while simultaneously observing the mating patterns of the Alaskan geese on the university’s artificial lake.

If one was forced to face real living students in a lecture hall, then getting away from them as soon as possible was at a premium. We used to speak with some admiration of the professor of English who would bring his lectures on Chaucer to a sudden end with a hanging question – “And what was so very hypocritical about the good wife of Bath?” – so that he could effect an escape to the senior common room sandwiches and coffee before any his students realised he wasn’t expecting an answer.

Not that avoiding the sight, sound or smell of real students was confined to lectures or seminars. For although the corridors in my university building were relatively narrow, actual physical contact with passing students was regularly avoided by a series of physical evasions that would have gladdened the heart of a blindside flanker.

I vividly recall an excellent student, Julie, whose developing loss of sight had secured her a guide dog. I wondered how she was coping. “Fine,” she said. “All of sudden, lecturers who would normally ignore me now stop for a chat. But not with me – with my dog. ‘Who’s a good girl, then?’ Are you pleased to see me? Yes, you are.’” (Julie told me in strict confidence that she disliked dogs generally, and hers in particular.)

Matters seem unlikely to improve. Avoiding the sight and sound of real students bestows an ever-increasing range of benefits. In these sensitive interpersonal times, Zoom absolves tutors from any possible charges of sexual impropriety and totally removes the imminent threat of a colleague conducting a peer assessment of your teaching in an actual face-to-face seminar.

Not that everyone is available for a Zoom meeting. Only last week a theology lecturer admitted to his class that he was unable to know the full details of the Holy Family’s involvement in the Nativity. “Sadly,” he said, “there was no Zoom at the inn.”

Laurie Taylor is a broadcaster and wrote the weekly Poppletonian column for Times Higher Education for more than 30 years. He is former professor of sociology at the University of York.


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Reader's comments (1)

The rise of Metagogy I enjoyed Laurie Taylor's article but the attitude to teaching has penetrated more deeply into university structures than he may realise. For many years, senior management in universities has been increasingly made up of academic who avoid teaching and research by taking on what are sometimes called leadership posts. The university leaders that have resulted from this have to deal with the cognitive dissonance between their dislike of teaching and research while running organisations whose aim is teaching and research. The main strategy for dealing with this is what I would term metagogy, where the focus shifts from teaching and research to writing about them. When the government brought in the Teaching Excellence Framework, they probably imagined that this would encourage universities to put more resources into teaching but the metagogical approach meant that in many universities, including Leeds University where I work, put resources in writing documents about teaching. This required giving someone the responsibility for the document and this generally mean taking someone from a teaching role to metagogy role so the resource for teaching was reduced but this was ok as we now had more documents about teaching. A similar process explains the Curriculum Redefined process led by Jeff Grabil, currently Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Student Education. This is a process which puts students and staff at the core but as the main motivating factor is that current approaches too teaching are “too costly, particularly with regard to the time and energy required of staff” is liked to be seen as a success only if it reduces the time lectures spend with students. Students are fairly unanimously in favour of more contact with their lecturers so for them this would not be seen as a benefit. However, if we see this from a megagogic perspective the reduction in contact between lecturers and students is outweighed by the important increase in the number of documents about teaching. Similarly, the apparent contrast between the Leeds’s Vice Chancellor’s statements that “we have forgotten the importance of making members of our communities feel loved” and her desire to reduce staff pensions by a third, should not be seen as simple hypocrisy but as the next stage in metagogy where the people who actually teach and research are only marginally part of the university community where the core staff are those who write about teaching and research. If we did want to bring universities back to their core functions of teaching and research, all academics, not matter how senior, need to be actively engaged in teaching and research.


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