Snuffing out academic eccentricity

Today a friend of mine from another university (which I won’t name) told me about an investigation that has just been launched there to determine whether a particular lecturer’s eccentricity is incompatible with quality requirements. The lecturer concerned does not, I gather, find it emotionally right to face his students, and so he lectures with his back to them. It’s really rather a striking image, a kind of pre-Vatican 2 approach to teaching. As I understand it, students have never complained (though it is a matter of some humorous comment), but a visiting quality assurance team found it unacceptable.

I have in a previous post pointed out that a university system should have some eccentrics, not least in order to avoid the potentially boring uniformity that we would otherwise have to endure – a point also made a few years ago in Times Higher Education by a professor from Sheffield University. Conformity in all things, including teaching conduct, is quite likely to breed intellectual conformity and an impoverishment of academic life. I would readily agree that it would not work well if all academics cultivated eccentricity, and I would argue that it would be a different matter if students objected in a particular case or if the eccentricity consisted of a neglect of duties. But on the whole we need to be tolerant of different ways of thinking, and different ways of doing. We need to welcome and celebrate creativity, which often is closely related to non-conformity.

And above all, we need to discourage all those who believe that quality is found in uniformity.

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5 Comments on “Snuffing out academic eccentricity”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Oh for heavens sake, the bloody trick is to get the student to hear the words. Hear them, and I can guarantee you that the students hear this fellow. Nor are not flaming lip-reading.
    How dare a bunch of box-ticking twonks immune someone else’s Method, and if standing on his head while playing the banjo, he is getting results then that is all that matters.

  2. Big Bad John Says:

    That’s the point, Vincent. Is he getting results? Personally, I would find such behaviour very distracting and might, therefore, lose out on some of the pearls of wisdom dropping from his mouth. (In any case, I’m 50% deaf in one ear so I would probably lose some of the content in a situation where the person speaking was facing away from me.)

  3. Jilly Says:

    I entirely agree with the spirit of this post. However, I keep trying to imagine this particular style of teaching, and it’s hilarious. Does he apply his refusal to face the students to the start and end of the class, for example? In which case, how does he enter and leave the lecture theatre? I’m picturing some kind of crab-like manoeuvre, keeping his face away from the students…I do wish this story had been posted before the lecture I gave yesterday, I could have experimented with it as a teaching method!


  4. Put us out of our misery by telling us who this guy is and where he lectures.

    If I am ever in the neighborhood of where he lectures I might try to sneak in to the back of one of his lectures to watch the performance. In any case I could be confident that he would not spot the fact that I was not a fully registered student and throw me out 🙂

  5. kevin denny Says:

    So we’re all agreed that its results that count and if if he is a good teacher, even with his back to the audience, thats fine & dandy. However why should this guy alone be subject to strutiny? I teach facing the class and the university has never and probably will never conduct an investigation into my teaching. But that doesn’t mean it should not.
    I am sure there are teachers & lecturers who are not very good, some because they don’t try,some try but are just not that good. Just like any other profession.
    The challenge is to identify such individuals and help them without some adversarial system of witch-hunts.


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