Too Much Teaching


J.R. Lucas

The latest round of cuts will be painful. There is little fat left. But there are some areas where we are, although lean, extravagant. We are extravagant in our provision of lectures and our use of tutorials. Although we are justly proud of our teaching, it is worth looking at our practices to see whether we could not be more economical in our use of resources without damaging our achievement.

The tutorial system is the pride of Oxford. It is marvellous for an undergraduate to be closeted alone with an established scholar, and try out his ideas on him. No other university, not even Cambridge, can rival our tutorial system. But we go to extravagant lengths. It is one thing for a young man to produce his very best thoughts for the critical attention of wise old age, quite another to churn out a tutorial essay in two hours flat for a weary tutor has heard three essays already that morning, and has the Warden & Tutors' Committee ahead of him over lunch. Nine tenths of the value of any tutorial they have with me, I tell my pupils, they will have had before they come through my door. If they have devoted a week to their essay, it will be the best they are capable of, and any comments I can offer, constructive or critical, will be timely and helpful. But if they started reading for their essay only forty eight hours before, all they can produce is an ill- digested mish-mash of copied down opinions and undigested ideas. It is a good exercise in rapid pre'cis production, but does not warrant an hour's discussion. The girl-friend of one of my pupils five years ago was looking rather jaded, and turned out to have five tutorials that week. I took it up with the Master of her college who put it down to her excessive docility. But colleges have some responsibility too, and ought not to grind down their undergraduates a class in the results of their final examinations (as happened in her case) by gross over-teaching.

Of course, undergraduates are at fault too. They think they are getting their money's worth if they have tutorials, and naturally want as much money's worth as possible. A tutorial seems more concentrated than a lecture, and so a better use of the undergraduate's time. He does not have to waste time while the lecturer explains something for the benefit of someone else. At the end of one of my lectures this term two undergraduates came up to me to ask if they could have tutorials on that special subject. I said that if their tutor got in touch with me, we might be able to arrange a swap next term; whereupon they ceased to come to the lectures; why get up for a 9 o'clock lecture when next term you will be able to get the same stuff individually packaged, quite possibly at a more civilised hour?

There is a vicious circle. Undergraduates have two or more tutorials a week, and therefore have no time to go to lectures, and therefore need more tutorials to be told individually what they have failed to hear collectively. Attendance at Oxford lectures is notoriously bad, and although undergraduates say that it is because we are bad lecturers, that view is not uniformly confirmed by visitors from other universities. Certainly the undergraduates' opinion is not always adequately researched. Two years ago I gave the bread-and-butter lectures on Plato's Republic. There were on a rough estimate about 120 undergraduates in their third year reading the Republic; at my first lecture 40 turned up; two thirds knew in advance that the lectures would not be any use. Of course there are commentaries, and some topics will be covered in tutorials. It could be that we should dispense with lectures altogether, and tell undergraduates to read good books. But books are not always easy to read, and good books are often not read in the flurry of university term. Lectures, besides happening regularly, can stimulate ideas in a way the written word cannot. There is a case, although not in all subjects an overwhelming case for keeping some lectures. But whichever way we decide, there is a great waste of don-power in lecturing to empty benches. Either we should reduce the number of lectures to those that are reasonably attended, or we should reduce the tutorial load on undergraduates so that they can attend lectures in a sensible way.

Tutors are much to blame. They refuse to put themselves in the position of an undergraduate and think what he can be expected to learn and prefer to think of themselves and how much they know. I have sometimes had to sit on a committee drawing up a syllabus and as the reading list gets longer and longer, point out that this is a special subject which will be read by undergraduates in one term of their last year in conjunction with some other subject, and that at most they will spend 42 days of full term on it. In order to read all the recommended books they will have to read 3.5 books a day. Is this really what we want? I ask, and am met with blank uncomprehending stares. Nevertheless, I maintain that the inverse square law correlates the value and the length of a reading list, and that in overloading the syllabus we actually cause our pupils to read less rather than more.

It is the same spirit that leads tutors to think that they must give each undergraduate more tutorials than he has time to prepare for. "My subject is a big one," the tutor says, "and I cannot be expected to cover it in less than 12 tutorials". Of course. But no subject can be covered in twelve tutorials. That is not what tutorials are for. A lecturer can be expected to cover a subject in, say, sixteen lectures, but to use tutorials for coverage is a misuse of them. What a tutorial can achieve is not coverage but penetration. The undergraduate can go deep into some part of the subject, and discover for himself not the whole truth about it but the way he should reason in that particular field. He can get the feel of the subject by going as far as he can into one aspect, and from this he will have learned how to argue in it even though he will not have learned all that there is to learn about it. There is a trade-off between know-how and know-that, and in order to penetrate deep, it is necessary to limit the area of exploration. In consequence an Oxford graduate may often know less about his subject than his rival from Redbrick: we only hope that his lesser knowledge will be made up for by his greater understanding. But we lose this advantage if we cease to use tutorials for their proper purpose, and think that tutorials alone can prepare a man for the final examination, and that the tutor has failed his pupil if he has not given him a tutorial on every subject that may crop up in Schools.

That there are too many tutorials in Oxford is no new discovery. It was one of the conclusions of the Franks Commission, and they recommended that one tutorial a week should be the norm. The recommendation was ignored. It is difficult to implement. Competition between colleges, and in Joint Honour Schools competition between subjects, creates a Prisoners' Dilemma. No one college or one faculty can afford to introduce a regime of only one tutorial a week unilaterally, for fear of seeming to care less for their undergraduates, or of securing a smaller proportion of their pupils' time. Some sort of institutional control is needed, whereby tutors have to tailor what they require of their pupils to fit the cloth of time really available, and can do so in the knowledge that they will not seem to be short-changing them, and that other subjects are similarly abating their demands. We are extravagant in the amount of time we devote to examining, especially the theses of graduates; we are extravagant, too, in our provision of lectures and our use of tutorials.

It takes the best part of a week to read a thesis properly. Some examiners do not spend that long - it is said to be wise to choose as an external examiner someone about three or four hours away by train, so that he will think he has got time to look at the thesis on his way to Oxford but will not have time to spot the mistakes. Even if the examiner devotes several days to reading the thesis, his judgement may not be that worth having. It was felt to be a bit off a few years ago when I declined to examine one thesis on quantum logic and another on a dialogue of Plato on the grounds that I knew nothing about the topic: I was shirking my duty on entirely irrelevant grounds. Earlier, when I was less hardened to saying No, I did examine, I think successively, one thesis on imaginary numbers and another on race relations. I learnt a certain amount, but I cannot think that I was in any position to certify to the university that the candidate had read all the relevant literature. Except in the sciences where the candidate has been working on a closely supervised topic, usually as part of a research team, it is common for neither examiner to know much about the subject of the thesis, and they are wise not to waste too much time giving the thesis the OK, and letting the candidate proceed to his degree. After all, if he has been around for several years, it would be a shame not to let him have it; and on the few occasions when the examiners do refuse a degree, they often get it wrong, and justified appeals to the Proctors have increased greatly over the years.

Oxford has not got examiners with the right knowledge or the time to spare to carry out the sort of graduate examination envisaged by the University. Theses are, at least in many arts subjects, basically unexaminable. We therefore should not pretend to examine them. What we should do is to have a competitive examination to enter our "graduate programme" or a classified examination after one year, and those who passed should be given their doctor's degree after two years research on the strength of a certificate of diligent study from their supervisor and an academic exercise that could be looked at with a minimal expenditure of time.

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