A Sociological Autobiography: 20 – The Best of Students!

The University of London’s inter-collegiate, intercalated B.Sc in ‘Basic Medical Sciences with Medical Sociology’ (I think) straddled the 1980s. I made its acquaintance very early on, in 1975, although I was not among its founders. It survived until 1997 and during that time afforded an exceptional teaching opportunity for we sociologists employed in London medical schools. After completing their two years of pre-clinical study, medical students were able to do a year of specialist study leading to a B.Sc degree to complement their MB,BS. Limited MRC support was available on a competitive basis. A handful of renegade students – say, 10 per annum on average – elected to focus on sociology. This sociology option was for many years stigmatizing: I can recall students granted MRC funding turning down their places due to pressure from appalled parents (invariably doctors). Those who stuck to their guns, doubly selected (for medical school, then by us), were as pleasurable to teach as they were talented. In years before grade inflation took root very few dipped below upper seconds and many won firsts in a discipline virtually unknown to them beforehand.

Among my fellow-teachers in the mid- to late 1970s were Margot Jefferys, Sue Thorne, Peter Draper, Karl Figlio, the two Davids, Armstrong and Blane, and Sheila Hillier. There was a core unit on sociological theory (Marx, Durkheim, Weber and a variable fourth), and other options on ideology and health, health policy, social factors in health and illness and, at a later date and very much my baby, conceptual foundations of modern sociological thought. Each student also did a research-based dissertation, a number of which were later published: of ‘my’ students, David Davies published a survey of GPs’ attitudes towards epilepsy (International Journal of Social Psychiatry) and Rosemary Boynton of GPs’ attitudes towards HIV/AIDS (BMJ).

The initial intakes were pioneers who put their faith in our fledgling efforts. There were perhaps two motivations. The first was a critical interest in the society they had come to inhabit, a genuine, radical curiosity. The second was largely psychological: as I was to discover as a personal tutor at the Middlesex, more than a few medical students had been shepherded by doctor-parents into the medical school pen without ever really making a choice for themselves; moreover, to ‘drop out’ would be seen as a catastrophic deficiency of will and worth, either by parents or by the students themselves. A year out was time to breathe and take stock. My advice remained constant. If you have no better ideas for an alternative career, stick with medicine (which will likely appeal more in the clinical years); if you decide you want out I will back you to the hilt. I can recall almost all the students, if not always by name.

I taught theory – Weber and, on and off, Habermas – and the whole of the conceptual foundations unit. To teach is to learn; more than that, it is to be able to condense, synthesize and convey. If I may say so, we teachers are prone to under-estimate or under-sell our skills. I constructed my unit as a labour of love. We moved from orthodox positivist and Popperian philosophies of science via Lakatos, Kuhn and Feyerabend to … well, Bhaskar. I read Bhaskar’s Realist Theory of Science within a year of its publication and was enthralled. The student I asked to prepare the relevant seminar, incidentally, read, noted and succinctly presented ‘the whole book’. Now that was impressive, but by no means exceptional. From the natural we moved to the social sciences in general and sociology in particular. From Weber via Brentano and Husserl to Schutz (whose Phenomenology of the Social World remains a great if neglected read); Garfinkel’s ethnomethodological recalibration of Parsons (with whom he studied); the later Wittgenstein, not altogether, in fact ‘against’, Winch’s re-write in The Idea of a Social Science (my copy of which was nicked – we had to teach from books we had personally purchased); Gadamer’s hermeneutics; through and out of Adorno and Horkheimer’s critical theory to Habermas; the omnipresent Foucault (a flawed genius in my view); the ‘postmodernism of Lyotard, Baudrillard and … I am almost salivating here. If any former B.Sc students chance upon these reflections: you were one-and-all very, very special! I recall one nine-hour seminar, the last six hours in The Green Man in Cleveland Street. It will be apparent that these remarkable students were part and parcel of my own thinking.

New teachers joined us over the years: Paul Higgs, Nick Mays, Nicky Britten, Charlotte Humphreys, Nicky Thorogood … I am sure I have forgotten some. Others left: Karl Figlio, talented chalk to David Blane’s talented cheese at Charing Cross, like David Tuckett before him, wound his precarious way to psychoanalysis and is now esconced in Torrington Place, UCL.

What sticks out in my memory? Fragments. Falling asleep in Margot’s Hampstead flat after a B.Sc party; students serenading us with revolutionary songs in David Armstrong’ garden; Tim Willocks’ shy and halting interventions en route to his ‘first’ (once Madonna’s lover, he made his mark as an innovative therapist for drug users and a celebrated novelist); Adrian Renton, Tim’s mate and piercing blue-eyed possessor of an extraordinary, improvising and independent mind; the interminable to-and-fro of debate in the The Green Man; Lee David, whose dissertation research on menstruation I have already referred to and still use in teaching (you can only find what you have pre-decided it is pertinent to look for); South-African-born Alan Schamroth from the Middlesex who as a GP has offered placements to so many Emory students over a decade or two; the guy, whose name I really do not recall, who took time out to make money ‘busking’ along the south coast and whom we only rumbled when, trying to justify his non- appearance, he claimed that his fifth grandparent had passed away; and so many more.

I confess that I was jaded after twenty or more years of teaching this B.Sc. Moreover much had changed in and out of medical education, a topic I shall doubtless revisit. But there were sad aspects to its demise. The first was predictably institutional: as the University of London’s constituent colleges and medical schools devolved, they engineered strategic ways to ‘seduce’ their students to ‘stay at home’. More poignantly, second, I found myself on the wrong end of a feminist ‘assault’. Two students had been actively encouraged by another tutor to challenge the dearth of female scholars on my reading lists. They had every right to do so of course. When I responded however, I was accused of tokenism. I found it fatiguing. It insinuated an unresolved – and not easily resolvable – tension into what had for so many years been such a pleasurable meeting of minds. For my babyboomer generation most philosophers and sociologists in the ‘canon’ were men. More recently feminists have both rediscovered and re-habilitated a number of women scholars and made their own voices heard, hugely to our benefit. The students and I readily talked made our peace, but something had changed.                 

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