A Sassenach Soliloquy

Wednesday, September 22

In what other context would you pay to be lectured?

My first degree was in Mathematics. That meant lectures were spoon-fed to us. By its nature, Maths necessitates lectures and lecture notes being structured, and written down. Some lecturers took this to extremes, literally writing, over the course of ten weeks, a small book on the subject on the board for us to copy down. However barmy that may be, the other extreme - talking, digressing, illustrating but not structuring - was far worse. There was just one example of such an approach at Sussex, and marks for his courses were consistently poor. As ever, the best exponents struck a balance between these extremes.

So my first archeology lecture, and my first experience of having to concentrate and take my own notes was a new experience. Clearly its a skill I'll have to learn quickly. I think I did fine this morning, but throughout I couldn't help think what an archaic form of 'teaching' this was: he talks, and we listen. Was this what school was like 80 years ago?

Although clearly knowledgeable and reasonably personable and approachable, our lecturer did not seem a teacher. His passion for the material did not come through, and neither did any motivation to teach. I understand that for many faculty lecturing is a necessary evil done to gain access to the time, money and environment needed to conduct their research. However for me, and many others, this is a place of learning; but where is the teaching that accompanies that?

This raises many questions about the nature of Universities, and subsequently the way in which they are funded. I am a paying customer of Edinburgh University, and as such I am entitled to expect a certain quality of teaching. Yet no doubt little teaching training goes on here, just as it doesn't in higher education institutions nationwide. But can we, as customers (with top-up fees now a reality, undergraduates fall into that category too), influence the market? I fear not, since the product we're buying - education - isn't the same as the product our future employers will look for, namely a degree from a prestigious institution. What that means is that, for example, Oxbridge (and, to only a slightly lesser extent universities like Edinburgh) can continue to charge the highest rates whilst not delivering the highest quality of education, since their brand will ensure a future employers interest. It would take a generation - at least - of poor teaching to erode that brand, and similarly it will take many years of outstanding teaching to put, say, Luton on the employer's radar. The playing field of this open-market is not a level one, and whilst it remains so bored faculty will continue to give boring lectures to bored students. My motivation levels are inevitably high at the moment, so that's not me - yet - but it could be, and given the financial price I'm paying for being here, I think I'm entitled to expect a little better.


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