Posted tagged ‘eccentrics’

Snuffing out academic eccentricity

November 13, 2009

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.

In praise of eccentrics

June 6, 2009

Many years ago when I was a postgraduate student in Cambridge I was walking along one of those rather scenic footpaths along the River Cam when I heard a sudden noise of skidding bicycle tyres behind me, and before I could react properly the cyclist had collided with me. He had obviously been riding far too fast and had not seen me in time or his mind had been wandering. Both the cyclist and I fell to the ground. As I picked myself up I helped the quite elderly cyclist get up also and pick up his bike. He apologised profusely and said his mind had been focusing on a new theory he was developing and he hadn’t noticed me until it was too late. As he got back on the bicycle he turned to me and asked: ‘Could you possibly tell me which direction I was coming from when we collided?’ Amused, I pointed in the direction from which I had also come. ‘Ah, thank you,’ he said, obviously relieved. ‘In that case I’ve had my lunch.’

A little later I discovered that my collision partner was a very eminent (though already retired) scientist, whose work was considered mould-breaking. So I thought that he was entitled to be a little confused about worldly things.

A year later I had returned to Trinity College Dublin as a lecturer, and I remember one evening attending the main College dinner (‘Commons’) and hearing one senior Fellow bemoan the fact that ‘these days, we no longer have any eccentrics.’ As the Fellow in question was considered by most to be a distinguished eccentric in his own right, and as the person he was saying this to was an even more notorious one, I could not in my mind agree that academic eccentricity was at risk. But yet, the unavailability of contemporary eccentrics is a common complaint in today’s global academic community. I hope that it is unfounded, and that we still have people with brilliant minds but little concern for the formalities and niceties of polite company. More particularly, I hope that we both have and encourage those who want to think unorthodox thoughts while living unconventional and unpredictable lives. We have (and must accept) demands for accountability, transparency and performance, but these must not snuff out individuality and oddness. We probably cannot afford to have higher education institutions that are staffed entirely by eccentrics; but we should always have room for some.