A Sociological Autobiography: 55 – Teaching and Lecturing

Yet another diversionary fragment, though this is not the first time I have written about teaching. Can I teach, give lectures and papers? I have often wondered. What are the pluses and the minuses? There’s style and there’s content of course. The obvious answer is: ‘it’s not for me to judge’. Nor is the evidence ever decisive.

I once drawing-pinned three individual medical student assessments of my routine undergraduate lectures at UCL Medical School. They were:

‘He’s awesome!’

‘He’s a waste of space.’

‘He never turned up.’

Well! Ok, I was a sociologist doing a stand-up performance for a sizeable audience of smart adults who were less than ready for me (but I had turned up). Why did I pin these mixed reviews up? A lesson to aspiring lecturers: you can’t please everybody all the time, and sometimes a thickening of skin is advisable.

Context, as ever, is pertinent. Teachers can address students whose presence is compulsory or optional; in serried ranks in a large lecture theatre; in seminars, or in one-to-one tutorials; facing summative or formative assessments; or … Keynote addresses and papers can be delivered to senior peers; to junior colleagues; to scholars and experts from ‘other’ disciplines; or to assorted publics.

Is it possible to generalize? Let’s start with teaching.

I think I have always been competent: that is, I have rarely embarrassed myself. In my early days at the Middlesex Hospital Medical School I held my own with Ray Fitzpatrick, David Mulhall and (ok, maybe not quite with the smooth coolness of) James Thompson. Mulhall’s departure and Stan Newman’s arrival changed little.

During the early years of the intercalated B.Sc in ‘sociology as applied to medicine’ designed for University of London medical students, taught exclusively by seminar and celebrated in earlier fragments, I think I did ok. Using my pipe as a prop (you could smoke whilst teaching then), I would like to think I engaged students with abstruse philosophical and theoretical issues. I loved teaching them! After 20 years my enthusiasm dipped a millimeter or two, less because higher education culture and its recruitment processes changed than because a colleague primed female students to charge me with a ‘sexist’ choice of philosophers and theorists to study. When I did my best to respond I was accused of ‘tokenism’. I thought then and think now that while female scholarship has undoubtedly been (and often still is) suppressed it will take time for the ‘rediscovery’ and digestion of this hidden talent to frame and re-map ongoing debates. But then …

I suspect I always was and remain a better bet for undergraduates (Middlesex, UCL, extra-mural London University, OU, Emory, Ithaca) than postgraduates. Perhaps this is a function of practice: I have spent more time regaling the former. I think I have been helped by a positive mindset. Teaching has always mattered to me and I have always thought my subject matter important. Nor have I ever found it hard to respect my students or to take them seriously, even the sods that abhorred me. Crowd control has not been a problem, fortunately. Tricks help, though I have never pre-planned any. For example, when three paper airplanes glided past me at the front of the Darwin LT in Gower Street, I muttered to myself, but loudly enough to be heard: ‘Is that the best they can do?’ In excess of a hundred showered down on me! But a dozen students immediately cleared up and any ice was broken. On another occasion, curious at the reach of the microphone attached to my lapel, I walked up one side of the LT, out the back, onto Gower Street, and returned down the other side of the LT, all without pausing in my delivery. As I re-entered, it was clear that every word had been heard and most were still writing assiduously. Tricks can work. For four of my final years teaching UCL’s medical student intake – by this time, up to 360 – ‘top teacher’ awards came my way. Generated by the student body, I found these genuinely touching: it is after all possible for a sociologist to make sense to at least some medical students.

I felt I performed tolerably when Paul Higgs and I taught our UCL Masters of ‘Sociology, Health and Illness’ without excelling. I have certainly not excelled as a Ph.D supervisor (nothwithstanding the flattering excellence of the likes of Gill Craig and James Nazroo).

I have another observation. When I first taught – in the early 1970s – I was understandably (a little bit) nervous as well as (considerably) inexpert. It is embarrassing to admit to this but I suspect it was not until I was into my 50s (that is, around the turn of the century) that I ‘found my voice’. Worse: I suspect that this applies to my writing as well as my teaching! Some of those I most admire within sociology were so much quicker on the draw.

What about giving lectures or papers to colleagues? It is no longer a teaching role of course: at its worst a monologue, at best a dialogue. I have recounted my earliest, novitiate and highly suspect effort at MedSoc at York (when I was rescued by the chair, Mike Wadsworth). This was the first and last time I attempted to read a paper. I think I have done ok in this field; and one’s peers are among the most exacting of audiences. What are the main challenges? The crowd control mechanisms have to be subtler but I have never felt unduly perturbed. Well, once maybe: the first paper I gave on sex work, at South Bank University, was attended by a dozen or so feminists who openly queried my right to tread brazenly onto their territory. It was uncomfortable; I bit my tongue and parried some harsh interrogations. But the result was positive: I think I won over most of the same feminists, not least with Rethinking Prostitution several years later.

Mixed audiences are difficult. Overly succinct, you lose some, too expansive and you bore some. Whether the topic is theoretical or substantive, some colleagues are extremely knowledgeable, perhaps even about one’s own past contributions, while others whose specialisms lie elsewhere know next to nothing. I like to think you learn to judge balance better with practice.

Lessons learned over the decades? You must know your stuff of course. But I have one key observation for teachers, or possibly it’s a gut feeling: you must respect your audience, however it is composed. Nor is having to work at this is a good sign or omen. Think about it, especially in relation to sociology. Everybody has theories about the society they inhabit, a remark Maggie Archer used to kick off with (and illustrate) when she taught first-year undergraduates at Warwick. We lecturers may generally have better and more sophisticated theories, but the bottom-line is that bright students from their mid-teens onwards, and more surely college and university students, will think of things that have never occurred to us. So we can learn too. Listen even as you talk!

Oh, and subvert and resist any and all institutional initiatives that put barriers in the way of: (a) education, and (b) teaching.

Here endeth …






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