Teaching and tears
There has been a great little series on Radio 4: "My teacher is an app". Dont be put off by the title, it's actually a rather telling glimpse at how new technology might (or might not) be making a difference to traditional methods of education. It's featured some scarily enthusiatic people singing the praises of having the teacher electronically linked to their pupils computer (so they can see exactly how they make their mistakes -- balanced by professors in the US worrying about the effect that MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses) might have on traditional universities and university employment. Why employ a dozen philosophers at a medium sized state university, when you could get the students to watch the MOOCs from Harvard, and employ just a couple of adjuncts as personal back-up and graders? And how democratising are they anyway (there's an interesting article on that here).
Anyway, the last episode of the series is on at 8.00pm tomorrow (Monday), and it's a panel discussion with four experts, and a big audience, including "the nations ten best teachers" -- one of whom (errr yes) is me. Dont worry, I only agreed to go on after being assured that "the ten best teachers" headline was meant light-heartedly (thanks heavens -- as the thought of really getting up the nose of the thousands of far better teachers than me in the nation was not a happy one). It was all recorded a few weeks ago in the Great Hall at King's College London, where I showed up with a little group of my Cambridge students.
The whole thing took about 90 minutes, but it will have been edited down to just under 60. And I am now beginning to wonder which of my contributions will have made the final cut -- and which, maybe thankfully, not.
There is, I confess, a bit of a worry here. Not because I think I said something I didn't mean, but because over the last few weeks, all kinds of things I've said have been picked up by some bit of the press, then by another, then taken entirely out of context, and then used as stick to beat me. Hard not to be a bit pre-occupied in trying to remember EXACTLY what I DID say, and to speculate what might be made of it. (OK, I hear you saying, do you never learn, Beard?)
I DO remember starting off by asking the panel what exactly a MOOC was. This was quite intentional, partly because anyone who hadnt listened to the whole series needed (I thought) a bit of help, and partly because we use the term in very different ways and sometimes pretty loosely -- and it needed a bit of tying down. But in retrospect it was a hostage to fortune of a question. "So, Professor Beard, you've been questioning the virtues of MOOCs this last few weeks, but you dont actually know what they are..."
I also recall that I had a good-humoured set-to with my friend Jonathan Bate, who is very keen on MOOCs and has just made a Shakespeare online course. I'm sure it is excellent, but I did state pretty firmly (and I intended funnily) that -- however good it was -- it would be a truly nightmare scenario if every Shakespeare student in the world was to access the bard through the Bate MOOC (where was diversity...?). What might be made of this? "Controversial classicist scorns Shakespeare scholar"...? (You can bet your bottom dollar that most of the irony will be lost in the telling.)
And finally I remember saying that no computer course could make you cry and that good teaching was always liable to lead to tears. Now this is a favourite, slightly exaggerated, image of mine. It's meant to capture the idea that really learning to THINK can be hard, uncomfortable and actually UPSETTING ... sometimes it HAS to make your head hurt, and make you feel you can't do it. That's what learning really difficult stuff means. It's not all touchy feely, or continual success and smooth progress. Now the truth is I don't think I HAVE ever made a student actually cry (the tears in my study have been caused by all those other prompts to student misery -- from errant partners to distressing parents or not getting a longed for job). But you know what I mean. Can't you just see the headline though. "TV historian admits to terrorising tearful students". . .?
So, as you asked, shouldn't I have learned? Maybe yes, for a quiet life. But there is something totally dispiriting about policing what you say, just in case someone is going to quote it back again at you, misleadingly out of context. That's what leads to political soundbite culture, where the fearful junior minister will never deviate from the ("hardworking families") slogans on his or her prepared script. And we know how ghastly that is.
So bring 'em on.