As I think I’ve mentioned on here before, I was the sort of undergraduate who would give a personal tutor in the modern university nightmares.* Quite apart from the complete lack of social skills and the regular bursts of disappearing into a black hole, and expending so much energy on writing, music and low-level student politics rather than academic work, when I did focus on history I went to virtually no lectures.** It just seemed so pointless, going along to hear someone summarise the textbook when I could work through the material much more efficiently on my own and set it against other reading (and the nightmare moment, when I wondered if I was really in the right place, was when one lecturer cheerfully announced that the lectures would give us all we needed to know without any need to read anything else).
The lectures I did attend (sporadically, I must confess) were those which promised something that wasn’t in the textbook. Most often, before I got into the final year and the courses became more research-focused (so the textbook hadn’t been written yet), this meant going along to the short series of lectures, or just one-off seminars, given by postdocs and junior fellows; I still remember, with remarkable clarity, Miri Rubin’s anecdote (later to feature in Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture, 1991) about the woman who stole the host from church and hid it in her beehive, only to find that the bees constructed a wax chapel around it. This yet-to-be-published research from young scholars felt real and exciting in a way that the mainstream lectures, designed to offer a proper introduction to the current state of the subject, never did.
The other classes I bothered to attend were in some respects at the opposite end of the spectrum: in place of the originality and ambition (and probably insecurity and nervousness, looking back, though I wasn’t conscious of it at the time) of what we now call ECRs, these offered the accumulated wisdom and authority of someone who had already been eminent for decades by the time I arrived. I can’t remember the exact title of Christopher Brooke’s class: something like Issues in Early Medieval European History. It must have been either Issues or Problems, because that was what first attracted me – the idea that this was going to be about debates and uncertainties, rather than a lot of information with occasional gestures to complexity. I’m not sure what relation it bore to the History tripos, as I never actually worked out how the whole thing was supposed to operate, but it certainly lacked the direct connection to a named exam paper that the other courses had. In retrospect, either this was an advanced seminar that I had no business gate-crashing, or it was something intended only for those with a special interest in medieval history (always a bit of a minority field) – or, it was a way of allowing Professor Brooke to continue to teach without disrupting the smooth operation of getting students through their degrees with a minimum of fuss.
Looking back from a world in which even changing the Recommended Reading for a unit requires the completion of a form, the Intended Learning Outcomes are specified to within an inch of their lives, and we all have to write additional guidance for students on how to do well in the exam (and apparently “show that you understand what I’ve been talking about” is not an adequate bit of advice), the experience seems even more extraordinary than it did at the time. There was no syllabus, no set reading, no list of topics; the Professor would simply turn up, and say something to the effect of “I think we should talk about Wolfram von Eschenbach. Let me tell you why I think Wolfram von Eschenbach is fascinating…”, and continue in that vein for the rest of the hour.
I must confess that, other than an enduring affection for Wolfram von Eschenbach, I have forgotten much more of the content of those classes than of, say, Miri Rubin’s lectures on the eucharist in the late middle ages. What I haven’t forgotten is the experience: for an astonishingly naive first-year undergraduate, this was what university was supposed to be all about. Professor Brooke looked like a history professor ought to – but still more he spoke like one, unfathomably erudite but always engaged, interested, even playful when it came to talking about history and historiography. As another of this month’s late lamented almost put it, “If you think you are too old to teach, you are”; Christopher Brooke seemed as if he would happily carry on talking about history to students for decades to come. This wasn’t particularly appreciated by the students, presumably disappointed by the lack of direct relevance to their essays and exam preparation, and some weeks the only people in the room were a visiting Japanese professor (whose awe was tangible) and me. The professor either didn’t notice or didn’t care.
My own approach to teaching ever since has been to try to offer something that the students won’t be able to get anywhere else, to make the exercise worthwhile: cutting-edge ideas, an overview of different perspectives and the points at issue rather than a single view or a synthesis, random speculations on the basis of whatever I’ve been reading recently. I’m aware that, by doing this, I may be reducing the chances of some students doing much reading on the side, because they’ve already been given a range of views rather than just one, but I trust that my presentation is vague and superficial enough that they have to do more reading – it’s a schematic outline, like the map of the London Underground, not a detailed account. It also means that I feel especially uncomfortable about the innovation of recording lectures; these are performances in the moment, not intended to be listened to again and again when the flaws and hiccups will become increasingly obvious. I am not Miles Davis, in so many ways; you really don’t want to pore over multiple recordings of CLAS12381/22381, Lecture 15 to see how in 2015 I wandered off on a completely irrelevant discussion of Weberian sociology for five minutes, whereas in 2013 it was something to do with Braudel.
But I am sufficiently socialised into the norms of the 21st-century university that I can see why Issues in Early Medieval European History (or Problems, or possible even Themes) could be considered problematic; a direct descendant of the Rankean seminar that scarcely still exists even at graduate level. In the hands of a different teacher, it could have been disastrous – and in terms of giving students what they (felt they) needed, in terms of support for their exam preparation, it was disastrous, even if it gave us something much more valuable. Most students are not future historians, so courses cannot be orientated solely towards that goal; and we certainly don’t have the resources to put on additional courses for the minority of students who might appreciate them. This realisation predates the introduction of fees, let alone enormous fees; we have recognised the limitations of the ‘sink or swim’ approach, and our responsibility for the full education of our students. Just putting them into the presence of brilliant scholarship isn’t enough – even if we felt certain that we have sufficient supplies of suitable scholars.
Even my current Thucydides course, which has at least a touch of Brookeian improvisation about it, is thus equipped with the full panoply of ILOs, aims, objectives, schedule of topics and bibliography – and would be even if this were not a university requirement. I would feel uncomfortable about creating a course called something like Debates in Roman History or Some Random Historical Issues, and would never simply arrive at a class and decide on the spur of the moment that I feel like talking about why Frontinus is a fascinating window on Roman mentality. But that doesn’t stop me sometimes wanting to…
N.B.: for a more direct experience of the great man, see this interview from 2008. Including this line on the growth of bureaucracy – “Well they’re surrounded by a culture of over-regulation, and there’s a fearful amount of what seems to be mostly a waste of time. I mean some of it isn’t a waste of time; some of it is designed to give greater fairness to students, and obviously one must respect that, but a great deal of it is just bumf.” And this perfect statement of his teaching philosophy: “I was brought up as a matter of dogma that an academic should be doing both and should be revealing to his pupils the fruits of his research in some form or another, showing them the cutting edge of the academic life in the process.”
*Yes, it’s possible that I gave some of my actual tutors nightmares, but that’s a different issue, and my fuzzy sense is that we now spend far more time worrying about our students as a professional duty rather than a personal choice.
**Which does, I know, put me in a very weak position when trying to emphasise to my personal tutees the importance of attending scheduled classes.