Monday, 25 November 2013

My perfect student

Feel free to weigh in using the comment facility…

I seem to spend a lot of time agonising about what makes a good academic, particularly when it comes to the teaching aspect of the job. I also occasionally mention the annoying and/or cute things students do as though they're a different species ('I swear, when you look into those big eyes, it's almost as if they understand what I'm saying'). Today for instance, two interesting and interested second-year students came to discuss an essay. They'd thought about issues and had picked useful examples. The one thing they hadn't done was read anything – it just hadn't occurred to them.

So I thought today I'd think a little about what we want from students and how we communicate this. Of course, the first thing to recognise is that all lecturers were students, often for much longer than most of ours will be. I have a BA, an MA, a PhD and a PGC so I've spent a long time on their side of the fence (note to self: there is no fence. Get over the fence). I've seen good and bad teaching and I've been a good and bad student. As all practice is rooted in experience, I should say a little about my time as an undergraduate.

Firstly, I turned up with little idea of why I was there. At no point did anyone sit me down and ask me about the future. I was told to apply to university. I only liked reading books and English classes were the only bearable moments in a miserable and undistinguished scholarly career thus far, so I put down for English and Philosophy (because I'd heard that Philosophers were cool – this turned out to be only partially true). I didn't visit any universities, read any prospectuses or do any research. I picked places that a) I might get in to and b) ones a long way from home. I also passed an audition for Trinity College Dublin's Drama and Theatre course but that's a whole other tale of woe and misery. Needless to say I'd never acted either. After some school-and-parent-related shenanigans including a Cambridge interview which didn't reflect well on anyone concerned, and a less than stellar A-level performance, I ended up at the University College of North Wales on an English course with Philosophy as the minor.

I'd got what I wanted: a place a very long way from home and virtually anyone I'd ever known. I had a box of books stolen from the school library the night before its stock was sold to a book dealer (thanks to the appalled librarian who had 'dropped' the keys in front of me) and the vague idea that I could spend the next three years reading and talking about books. As it happened, that's exactly what transpired. The only problem was the talking bit. Pretty certain that I was far less intelligent, experienced, cool and attractive than everyone else there (an accurate surmise), it took a long time to say a word in class. Any opportunity to speak, it seemed, was an opportunity to prove that I was indeed as dumb as everyone suspected.

And yet… What saved me was the sudden realisation that I was wasting my time. I'd come from a very restricted and insular background in which my opinion on any subject was very much not wanted on voyage, to the extent that I started to think that my forename was Shutup. I cared about everything we were reading about because I was a teenage idealist. Here was the chance to have all those passionate debates I'd read about and seen on TV (I didn't know any university students as a child, so only saw popular culture versions), and instead I was hiding in the corner.

I still remember the moment I cracked. It was a philosophy lecture lead by Maurice Charlesworth, a terrifying, noble and (it turned out) adorable figure. Clearly not a man who had ever endured a pedagogy training session, he sat there in total silence. For five minutes. Ten minutes. Perhaps an hour… who could tell? Eventually someone had to break the awful silence out of sheer embarrassment. That someone was me. 'Er…'. 'Yes?'. 'Er…should we do some philosophy?'. People stared at me. Relieved? Envious? Appalled? I still don't know. 'Alright', he said. 'You start'. Which serves me right, I guess. I stammered something, obviously enough for him to expose us all as teenage charlatans with no real understanding of what philosophy entails and then we were off on a tour of AJ Ayer and the Logical Positivists.

I can remember a little of that class's content, but everything about that exchange made me the teacher I am. I wouldn't dare try the Charlesworth Manoeuvre – still too polite – but I distinctly remember leaving knowing that I had opportunities which I was only denying myself by staying silent. However embarrassing it was, I was determined to talk, whatever my colleagues and teachers thought. I did have one advantage: I was inhaling books because reading didn't feel like work at all. It was only when essay time appeared (very rarely, I'm relieved to say) that I realised that some others found the course boring, or didn't read for pleasure, or skimmed. So for that alone I'd like to thank the school bullies for giving me all that time alone, to be filled with books.

After that, it was easy. I decided quite consciously to overcome my natural shyness and DO STUFF: before long I was on demonstrations, writing for the union's papers, taking part in student politics, taking a turn on stage. Tempus fugit, it seemed, and the answer was carpe diem. Not that I'd have put it like that. Very stressful, of course. Terrifying in fact - but the alternative was a form of non-existence. I admired those who did it all naturally, though later on I wondered if most of them were more like me than anyone admitted. Perhaps we were all faking it. Perhaps those who aren't faking it are the ones of which to be scared. I once asked David Miliband whether there was enough self-doubt in politics: when he didn't understand the question I knew he was a bad 'un.

Which brings me by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and my original question: what is the perfect student?

For me it's these qualities:
1. Enthusiasm.
2. A healthy degree of self-doubt.
3. Determination and the awareness that it's your education rather than ours.
4. An ability to put aside social cares and fears
5. A degree of obsession.
6. Curiosity.
7. Intellectual dissatisfaction: accept that you don't know everything, but never accept that this isn't a possibility.
8. Empathy.

Note that I don't give a damn about employability. A student who wants a degree certificate and nothing more is intellectually dead. What he or she really wants is training, and that's not what I do. To me, a student with the qualities listed above is already an ideal candidate for any job.

Note too that I haven't listed 'intelligence'. Apart from the fact that I distrust any of the common measures, I've seen too many bright but lazy students coasting through. I've far more time for the hard-working struggler scraping passes than quicksilver insights of people living by their wits.

You only need to do two things to succeed in my classes:


The first is easy: start simply, and do a bit at a time. The second is harder, and it depends on me and your colleagues to make the class supportive and stimulating. But it also depends on you: you've got to make the effort. Sometimes we do make things too easy here, particularly by shaping classes around the assumption that students haven't done the independent work required. It avoids embarrassment but it lets students down in the long run.

Personally (and I know this is predictable) I blame the government. Its education policy aids the pursuit of league tables over intellectual development, while its industrial policy prefers conformist drones rather than quirky weirdos, which is a mistake. So students come to us without having made a life-changing choice, and expecting education to be a matter of grades and clear answers handed to them.

I wasn't the perfect student at the beginning nor the end, as my postgraduate tutors will happily tell you (not that my education has ended). I deferred to authority too much and struggled with the more abstract reaches of my subjects. But I was aware of my faults and determined to compensate for them. I had no concept of education as a route to money or a career (wisely, it turned out) and so in a sense had no external pressure to succeed. What was work to some was adventure to me, even when I got things wrong. I feel sorry for my students, despite most of them being clever and funny and interesting. They're trained to see education not as liberation but as the key to more distant goals: it's something to get through rather than the end of the quest itself. I didn't care about the future, so I was free in (privileged, bourgeois) way my students largely aren't. Their degree means different things: £50,000 of debt for a start. No wonder risk-taking isn't at the top of their list.

In the end, all I want in my seminars and in students' essays is a sign that they've thought about what we're talking about. I don't want to hear my ideas echoing back to me. What I'd love is a question I can't answer, or a student bringing up an article I haven't read. It happens, but not enough.

Have I ever had a 'perfect student'? Yes, several times. There are always some near enough, and I'd like to say this with added emphasis: they aren't always the ones who come out with First Class degrees. Some of the top-marks students are experts at playing the game, whereas some of those with Seconds or even Thirds have wrestled with the challenges of a complex and exciting subject to the best of their abilities. Some achievements can't be graded (something I'd like to tattoo on Gove's face).

The question is: how do we bring back the magic?

1 comment:

Ghislaine said...

two things? (Read. Think. Talk) Or is that an observation test?
I really agree about the 'talking' (and the other things, too) - it was far too long before I stopped thinking 'I want to know x, but others might think that is a silly question'. As it turned out, it wasn't a silly question, and other people said to me 'I'm really pleased you asked, because I wanted to know too).
The perfect student, for me, would be the one who comes to workshops because he/she cares about the subject and wants to do well. And is willing to believe they can improve. And who doesn't believe there should be a handout.