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In Praise of Showing Off

By 1989 I had been teaching in universities for half a lifetime, twenty one years, arguably my entire time as an adult. I had no training in the job and I had never been faced with any formal assessment of my performance. Then, like the London buses of legend, forms of measurement of one’s performance began to pass in convoy, including “student feedback”, the “RAE”, “QAA” and a a lengthy procedure called “appraisal”. This required me to state what my “aims and objectives” were.

I said that my aims and objectives consisted of the desire to “show off in front of attractive young people”. I was informed that aims and objectives were different (to this day I don’t know what the difference is) and that one way of distinguishing them was grammatically, by tense. I then said that my objective was to be able to go for a drink having successfully shown of . . . . etc. Of course I was persuaded to change all this to something “sensible” and “appropriate” despite my objections that academics were supposed to tell the truth and, obviously, I have no memory of what I then wrote.

I don’t suppose anyone would conceive of responding to that sort of procedure in that flippant and arrogant sort of way now, though anecdotal evidence suggests that thirty years ago there were a substantial minority of us who did. Seen from the outside the assessment of employees’ performance in an institution in receipt of public money now seems normal and inevitable. But then, it seemed impertinent and pointless. And, anyway, we were not employees, but a kind of stakeholder-by-inalienable-right so far as many of us were concerned.

The British claim not to like show-offs. My favourite example of this is a memo from Lord Reith to his sports department at the BBC forbidding any showing of the crowd at a sports event because that would encourage showing off; virtually every broadcasting company since has taken the opposite view. I wish to defend the concept of teaching as showing off, though the concept needs qualification before it is defended. My original appraisal statement might properly be interpreted as what I might call the spoiled child mode of showing off, but what I really want to defend might best be described as the conjuror mode. It consists of showing the audience that a deceptively simple experiment can end dramatically, that a counter-intuitive formula can be proved or that proposition P, which most of the audience have believed since before they can remember, is actually false.

Real teaching of this kind is a form of an ancient human interaction, the relationship between a raconteur or an orator or a guru or a priest with his audience. It works from the audience’s point of view because the speaker has some degree of charisma, in its original sense. And it works from the speaker’s vantage point because he or she can judge the audience as to what they understand or what they need. The idea that this ancient need for interaction is changed by technology is clearly facile. Nobody gets from notes off a computer screen the kind of challenge and stimulus that they get from a person in the same space as themselves. There are many parallels. My father used to take me to the theatre as a child in the 1950s, pointing out that I should try and remember the experience because the theatre wouldn’t exist when I grew up: it would be rendered obsolete by cinema and television because its capacities were vastly exceeded by theirs. In fact, on some statistics, the twenty first century is a golden age of theatre. Similarly, who would have thought in the 1950s that the main source of income for musicians in this century would not be recording, but live performance? The same sort of people, I guess, who in the 1970s thought that cities would decay away to nothing as a consequence of the coming communications revolution which would render obsolete the need to visit a city and the desire to live in one.

The trouble with academics on this theory, of course, is that many of them have neither the training nor the temperament to perform. The quality of most lecture courses is as if a theatre director had selected his actors purely for their knowledge of the text. Thus a good slice of my undergraduate career was spent listening to people who had written important books and articles but gave very boring lectures. On the other hand I could name people who made heroic efforts to be better lecturers and I always thought that sheer enthusiasm would do. If the chap thinks what he is saying is fascinating one can suspend disbelief for an hour or so. But really good lectures were always rare.

I think that the best I ever heard was given by Alasdair MacIntyre. It was about the difference between genuine and fake moralising and involved contrasting the mental universe of the Icelandic Sagas with that of the Nazis and that of contemporary Oxford academics. Later many of the ideas in it appeared in his books, A Short History of Ethics and After Virtue. I remember the last line of the lecture which was, “And that is why so much nonsense is talked in places like Oxford and New York”. He picked up his papers, swirled his gown and swept out of the room, pretending to ignore the standing ovation which the normally languid Oxford audience were giving him. On reflection I think it is important to note that he hadn’t written the books yet. It all sounds so much lamer when they can know what you’re going to say before you start.

Seminars and tutorials required, in my mind, a very different and more elusive skill. As it happens I did have tutorials with Alasdair and didn’t think he was particularly good at them. Having said that, the best tutorial I ever had was with the philosopher Rom Harré. It was a dialogue in which he asked me to say what I thought it meant to say that “X causes Y” and which proceeded over an hour to construct what was to me a clear and new view of what science and knowledge are. In the case of both MacIntyre’s lecture and Harré‘s tutorial the experiences were doubly life-changing. Not only did they set up trains of thought which never stopped, but they gave me my first realistic ideas about a career. At that point my thoughts on adult life had not not got much further than film star or centre forward for Burnley. As MacIntyre swept out of the room I remember thinking, “Actors only get to say other people’s lines; he gets to say his own”. And I cannot resist remarking that, at the time of writing, Harré (born 1927) and MacIntyre (born 1929) are still alive. Perhaps the urge to communicate is good for you!

I enjoyed the career thus inspired. Most of my teaching was conducted in idyllic circumstances, with good final-year students in year long courses (later “modules”) designed and run entirely by me. I relished the interaction between lectures and seminars, personal consultations and marking and the extras, like field trips and movies for discussion, which I appended. I always thought that if I enjoyed it so would the recipients and I always put some effort into “ice breaking” events meant to ensure that students found the little bits of their lives when they had to see me relaxing as well as stimulating. In all those years there was only one occasion when my teaching was evaluated by someone in attendance. It was a seminar in my module “Sport, Politics and Society”. It was part of the QAA and a professor from another university sat in. I had been warned in advance and had asked the students to make an effort. They were a very good group in any case and they went right over the top, taking turns to present arguments and structure debate, handing out factsheets and summaries. I did almost nothing. The “inspector”, if I can call him that, just gave me a rather rueful look as he left my room and said, “Awesome.” Nice! “Student-led” and “student-centred” learning are great if the students are good.

It wasn’t always that good, but I enjoyed it and I regarded the construction of my year-long modules as the most satisfying thing I ever did, ranking considerably higher than the writing of books and articles. I miss all the varieties of human contact involved, especially as my life mainly as a freelance writer in current technological circumstances could actually be conducted without ever meeting anyone. So why did I retire at the youngest possible age which seemed to shock my American friends in particular? Partly it was because I didn’t like being an employee in any case (and was feeling increasingly like one), partly it was because I had other opportunities and also because there were no financial issues. But I’d be there now if the terms and conditions of university teaching had remained the same.

What went wrong? The most particular annoyance for me was the doubling of seminar size from nine to eighteen allegedly to free up time for research. As if anyone is going to develop the capacity for original thought because they have two or three more hours available in the week! To some of my colleagues this was a technical change, but to me it was the abolition of the real seminar, the thing we should have been most proud of in the English university system. As it happens I ignored it for the rest of my career and nobody challenged my practice.

It was part of a general de-prioritising of teaching. I remember a colleague looking at her extremely poor ratings on student “feedback” and remarking gaily, “I’m really not very good at this, am I?” She had just had a book published which was extremely well received and she couldn’t care less that she was failing in her core duties to communicate her ideas within an academic community. Her remark stiffened my resolve to leave. Students seemed to me to pick up the vibe about the level of staff interest in teaching and became less challenging and more instrumental.

Much of what I have seen and heard in universities the fourteen years since I left seems to relate to what I would regard as proper university teaching much as “value” tinned food relates to fresh food and I think that, just as there are people who have never tasted fresh food, there are people who have not experienced real lectures and seminars. I hope this is just the old man in me (“better in my day”) talking and there are people who are as excited by and about teaching as I was, but I doubt it.

Lincoln Allison February 2018

(An edited version of this article was published in Times Higher Education in 2018.)