In Defence of Teaching

from The Oxford Magazine, Trinity Term, 1996, p.5.


Teaching is getting a bad name. Many of those consulted by the Consultants felt that they were being prevented from doing their real job by the demands of teaching, and much managerial effort in recent years has been devoted to devising trade-off schemes whereby tutors can be relieved of their burdens. It is the understandable consequence of the excessive number of tutorials given and received in contemporary Oxford, but we do ourselves a disservice if we fail to recognise the enormous benefits of a mixed life in which teaching and research complement each other, rather than compete for scarce time.

Even if there were no other benefits, a tutor who teaches has a freedom denied to one who is paid only to research. The weary tutor, hearing his third essay, churned out in only two and a half hours after a rapid scrabble through recent articles in college or faculty library, may doubt it, and dream of a Senior Research Fellowship, untrammelled by undergraduate essays or administrative chores: but few research grants come without strings, and subtle psychological pressures inhibit the researcher from straying very far from his contracted path. At the worst we have State-funded and State-directed research---if that be not a contradiction in terms---and in the next century it may well be a bulwark of academic freedom to receive money from many different sources for teaching rather than deal with a monopsonist State. Even if HEFC were reformed, and ceased to monitor the researcher's output, internal inhibitions would remain. Some twenty years ago I found myself caught up in a historical puzzle, to find out what really had gone on at a meeting of the British Association in Oxford in 1860. It had philosophical overtones, but was not philosophy, and if I had been employed as a research worker in philosophy, I would have found it difficult to justify either to the Faculty Board or to myself spending substantial amounts of time perusing old newspapers and manuscript letters; but, as it was, I felt perfectly happy, justifying my existence by taking undergraduates through Plato's Republic or Prelims logic, and in my own studies following my own bent as I saw fit. I was glad of that freedom then, and counsel my successors to keep tight hold of it in any future arrangements that may be made.

Most of the benefits of teaching are much more direct. It is good to be brought back to the central themes and concerns of a discipline. Occasionally it may save me from a fruitless search for the key to all mythology: often it will set my own thoughts in a new perspective. As I work my way into a subject, I become too familiar with its problems and presuppositions, and lose the sense of how strange they are to the outsider. In trying to get a point over to a naive pupil, I empathize with his mind-set, and re-cast my arguments to make sense to him, thereby developing a stereoscopic vision of the problem, and making it easier for me to question the presuppositions I had hitherto taken for granted. I owe many new ideas to my pupils, sometimes on account of their intelligence, but equally often through their stupidity, which has called out fresh effort on my part, and led me to invent and deploy new arguments to enlighten them.

Even if pupils did not improve my own thinking, I should still want to have them. I am very vain. I think highly of my ideas, and want others to think highly of them too. It is difficult to find people to share one's ideas with (in our circle `to share with' has come to mean `to bore'): colleagues expect them to be articulated in article form, which takes time, and often the ideas are not good enough to warrant being worked up into an article; but undergraduates have few defences, and can be shared with unprotestingly. Fleeting thoughts can be captured, pinned down, examined, often rejected, sometimes developed in a way impossible if our only medium were the written word, and difficult in formal seminars where there is an implicit requirement that every offering must be at least three quarters baked. The Ancient Mariner had to stop one in three to get a hearing: the modern tutor has his hearers coming willingly and regularly through his door.

It might seem unnecessary to reiterate these considerations, but teaching is under attack, largely because we have wrong ideas of what we should be trying to do. Too often we think of ourselves as professionals, machining undergraduate material into high quality products. But we are not machinists: pupils are people, not raw material. We can help them to develop and think for themselves, often by leaving them alone, or letting them go at their own pace, rather than trying to force feed them. We do not need to know the subjects we teach---often we teach better those subjects we do not know, for then not only do we not over-burden the pupil with more information than he can assimilate, but we show him how someone, starting from a position of ignorance like himself, can tackle an unfamiliar problem. And sometimes also the pupil has a chance of proving his tutor wrong, which may be painful for the tutor, but an enormously important step on the progress to intellectual autonomy. It follows, therefore, that quite contrary to the assumption implicit in the Coopers and Lybrand report, it is good for tutors to be generalists in their teaching, and to cover the whole of the syllabus. Had that been so in chemistry, many of the complaints made by R.J.P. Williams in the Oxford Magazine of Second Week would have been met. Some specialist knowledge is required for giving lectures, and lectures should be the primary way of teaching special subjects. But, as pointed out in the Editorial of that issue, it is a mistake to think tutorials should or can provide coverage of any subject. So long as we think they should, we shall be driven to provide ever more, to the great detriment of those being over-taught. Of all the problems facing Oxford at present, that of Too Many Tutorials is the most fundamental. If the North Commission could address itself to that, and succeed in actually reducing the burden, for the benefit of pupils even more than of tutors, many of Oxford's other problems would solve themselves.