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Professionals and Eccentrics

When you deliver a lecture course you want people to turn up and listen, particularly the people who are supposed to turn up. And at the end when your performance is evaluated you want them to say nice things, stressing that you delivered on aims and met the needs of those to whom you would be delivering. That would be normal, professional, even inevitable, wouldn’t it? But it was not ever thus. As a final year undergraduate I attended the lectures of A.J. (“Freddy”) Ayer on the possibility of language without predicates. Given that lectures in Oxford in those days were only loosely attached to courses and that all members on the university could attend and given Freddy’s global fame they were hanging off the rafters, over three hundred of them. By mid-term there were only six of us. It was complex and abstract material and there was no compromising with the stupid. Freddy also indulged in a rather odd habit of pointing at the board as if he had written something on it when actually he hadn’t. On forming a friendly conversational acquaintance with him I discovered that he thoroughly enjoyed baffling people and took pleasure in watching his audience diminish down to a hard core. As Wykeham Professor of Logic and the author of a book that had sold a million copies (which he now declared to be “entirely wrong”) he needed no audience satisfaction.

Only two years later I was teaching in the politics department of a new university and one of my senior colleagues seemed inordinately fond of the word “profession”. He used it in rather menacing ways such as, “If you are going to advance within the profession . . . ” and “I think that would find general disfavour within the profession . . . “. I felt threatened by this word use in numerous ways. I had entered the academic world precisely because I didn’t fancy any of the professions with their dress codes and fixed working hours. Many years later I would write a book which was a defence of amateurism. I wasn’t even sure what “the profession” referred to. Was it the whole of academic employment? Or was it our subject, alternatively “the study of politics” or “political science”, the latter a term I was firmly opposed to on philosophical grounds.

Some subjects look a great deal more like professions than others. A test might be whether one could credibly intervene in a situation because you are a professional. Someone faints: “Excuse me, I’m a doctor” is fine, provided you are a medical doctor. Pub argument about Brexit: “Excuse me, I have a doctorate in politics” isn’t going to work. To put this more formally, the “profession” lacked most of the institutional conditions of a profession. It didn’t have particular qualifications, for example: fifty years ago in a new university in a rapidly expanding subject most of my colleagues didn’t have doctorates or even degrees in the subject they were teaching. Instead they had degrees in various combinations of history, law and philosophy. Nor was there a formal entry into the profession or an organisation which defined it.

It is clear looking back that I was not even slightly attracted to the idea of academic life as a sub-class of the “professional”, but because it had space for the eccentric. There were legends of eccentricity which we repeated, dropping jaws and giggling about things that could only happen in the university. The Scottish professor who hid in the cupboard at the front of the lecture hall and waited till people were beginning to assume he wasn’t coming then burst out of the cupboard. (I can’t remember what that proved.) The law professor who staged an aggressive entry by a supposedly cuckolded lecturer who shouted at him and threatened him and then got everyone to write down what they had seen and heard, demonstrating that witness statements in the criminal law aren’t worth much. My friend’s ancient history tutor who raised his plus-fours in the middle of a class and asked what adjectives could be used to describe his knees. My history tutor who carried on developing a bizarre range of photographs while I read him my essay on the the failures of Fascism and Communism in inter-war Britain (“Don’t worry! I’m listening.”). My colleague whose introductory lecture on nineteenth century political thought consisted of accounts of the wedding nights of four great thinkers. Most academic eccentrics were, of course, men because most academics were men and perhaps many women felt the need to prove themselves conventionally. But there were magnificent exceptions, not least the great philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe with her cigars and monocle and seven children. Her range of opinions seemed an almost random collection of the extreme left and right until you listened to her talking about them when they seemed entirely coherent.

One sub-category of eccentric who simply and obviously wouldn’t get away with it now was the hellraiser academic. By this I mean those who were some combination of drunk, very rude or violent. I could, for example, name friends of mine in more than one university who had racked up a list of female students they were going to make love to and male ones they were going to have a fight with on graduation day. It might be difficult for contemporary academics even to believe how much alcohol used to be consumed. One of the best classes I ever taught was an all-female group who used to come to me immediately from a lecture by a distinguished philosopher. “How was X today?” I once asked jovially and heads dropped. “He was . . . . ” (They were very nice girls.) ” . . . drunk?” I suggested and there were silent nods. “He gave the same lecture as last week,” one of them quietly volunteered and we moved on. It wouldn’t have occurred either to me or them to report the incident. Eccentricity at its worst – and a nightmare I think I avoided for an entire career.

One of the embodiments of academic eccentricity in fiction was Professor Furie as played by Timothy West in the third episode of the first series of Andrew Davies’ A Very Peculiar Practice which first aired between 1986 and 1988. Furie is brilliant, aggressive, paranoid and tangential. I recognised in him characteristics of at least four people wandering round the Warwick campus and, since I had played football with the author, asked him whether I was right. He politely and sensibly refused to tell me. But who is the original exemplar and perhaps patron saint of eccentricity? One obvious candidate would be the Reverend William Spooner (1844-1930) who not only invented the eponymous linguistic trick (“You have hissed all my mystery lectures . . . “), but was given to substituting names, such as referring to St. Paul as “Aristotle”. Another might be Joseph Bell who taught Arthur Conan Doyle and inspired the creation of Sherlock Holmes.

But even considering those names suggests that the relationship between professionalism and eccentricity is very complex. The two are in tension, but they are also, to different degrees, not just compatible, but complementary. Holmes (and Bell) have spawned a myriad of descendants in medicine and policing. Popular culture never offers us the by-the-book ultra-normal figure as hero, but always the maverick, the instinctive, the brilliant person who breaks the rules and does things differently. It is eccentricity which is seen as effective. Actually, the Reverend Spooner was claimed by many people to be the most effective warden New College ever had. And Professor Furie came into the story because he wanted drugs that would enable him to work harder – this at the very dawn of research assessment.

This raises two questions about the relationship between eccentricity and professionalism, one very small and one very large. The very small one, possibly of interest only to me, concerns how eccentric I was and I think the answer was that I was increasingly classifiable as eccentric because of my innate conservatism and technophobia. I never changed the size of my seminar groups. I refused to advance beyond “chalk and talk” in my lectures and I haven’t met anyone who actually likes having said to them what is simultaneously being shown on a screen – I always found such presentations maddeningly slow, though I concede such things might be necessary if you have students with poor English. I berated colleagues for emailing me when they were three doors away and could have spoken to me. (How dated does that sound?) I did not have “office hours”, but said I was available whenever I could be found and my door was usually left open for that reason rather than for any fear of accusation. I spent a good deal of effort organising additional events for students, including field trips and social events. Just occasionally my performance may have become a bit wacky. I was once ranting at a large first year audience and working up considerable steam against certain trends in contemporary ideas which I disliked. Rightly or wrongly I had the impression that my audience was “in the palm of my hand” and to demonstrate my fervour I kicked over the lectern as if it were the body of ideas which I so disliked; the incident was a “on-off”. In one respect, however, I was the perfect professional: in all the decades I never failed to turn up at the time and in the place I was supposed to turn up, whether the others present wanted me to or not.

It is still the case that, for example, in Morse and its successors academics are usually presented as eccentric, often as egomaniacs with a marked interest in the occult. But there are many reasons why reality does not live up (or down) to this image. One of them, I would argue, is the expansion and democratisation of universities. If you are a self-confident person at what you perceive to be a “top” university, then you might appreciate some wacky old geezer who calls St. Paul Aristotle. But if you are in debt and wondering whether the whole thing is really what you should be doing and whether you’re up to it then you might welcome the most straightforward and “spoon fed” approach. (My own teaching experiences since retirement have suggested that my ways of doing things are more appreciated in the more prestigious institutions.) Expansion, bureaucracy, “political correctness” all conspire to exclude the eccentric. But I do think there is an absolute need to leave the space for it. In traditional colleges and departments there was often a kind of symbiotic diversity. Some people were very good at being reliable and professional and detailed, others at being memorable or entertaining or inspiring; they often complemented each other very well. A career structure in which you have to tick all the boxes to be promoted – or even to survive – seems considerably less efficient in using talent than what used to exist. Perhaps what should be introduced is a new (or very old) set of ranks so that diversity of role can be encouraged. So let’s get away from the tedious academy full of professors and go forward (and back) to a medieval complexity of rank. Let’s have Wranglers and Exhibitioners and Praelectors and Readers – and Jesters.

Lincoln Allison September 2019

(An edited version of this article appeared in Times Higher Education in November 2019.)