Why teaching can harm the planet
This has been the first week of the Cambridge term and I have been launching one of my favourite lecture courses. This is a series on “The History of Roman Britain” for third years (Part II students, in our jargon).
Despite the title it isn’t mainly about archaeology. I have to confess that I retired from proper “dirt” archaeology when I was 21 – when the pleasure of spending a fortnight in a field, sharing tents (and more) with a load of other late-adolescents and consuming vast quantities of alcohol suddenly seemed outweighed by the hard work, the hangovers and the sheer discomfort of a soggy campsite after a week of rain.
The course does include a bit of dirt. But it is more literally about the History of Roman Britain…and how it has been represented from the Roman world right up to now. Tacitus rubs shoulders with Asterix, Cassius Dio with Manda Scott and Rudyard Kipling.
One of the highlights is watching some well chosen clips from the dreadful Channel 5 drama-doc of Boudicca made a few years ago, in which the Romans are cast as some ersatz American, Halliburton-style, corporate capitalists smooth talking the noble (but dim) Brits into parting with their valuable natural resources. Actually not a bad analogy, some of us may think.
“Launching” a course demands a lot more than just writing the lectures and checking that the relevant books are in the library (new books on Roman Britain come out almost every week). There are documents of all sorts to be prepared, boxes to be ticked, risk assessments to be carried out.
Another highlight of the term will be a Saturday visit to the Museum of London to look at the Roman displays and talk to the curator about the practicalities of museum organization. (The moment when the students discover how much a museum case actually costs is always a good one. . . ) But, in order for a few academics to join forces with a group of responsible 21 year olds in a museum 50 miles away, we have to go through all kinds of health and safety procedures, listing their email addresses, checking mobile phone numbers, uncovering their secret disabilities. No – no-one does this for them when they go clubbing, but this is education and different rules apply.
But at the start of term, the real work is getting the “handouts” together. In fact, over the last week, I suspect that more time has been spent by me and my fellow course organizers – not to mention a long-suffering secretary – slaving over a hot xerox machine, than thinking about the intellectual point of the course.
We get judged on our “lecture handouts”. Mine are usually very much below standard. One sheet of passages from ancient texts, xeroxed, stuck and pasted and re-xeroxed – plus some of the best or most out of the way bibliography, and a couple of fuzzy images – is my norm. I don’t usually do badly on student evaluations, but on “quality of handouts” I am afraid I often score “nul points”.
This term I am, however, turning over a new leaf… with loads of beautifully typed (by me) bibliographies, course descriptions etc etc . I counted up that at the first lecture we had handed round to the 50 or so students taking the course, more than 1000 sheets of paper altogether (oh yes – at a large font size, just in case there’s a partially-sighted person taking the course; that’s another rule).
Pretty soon, I guess, we’ll be doing all this electronically and running course message boards, blogs and such like. But until then the forests of the world are underpinning the education of the young.