'Poor Tim, he wasted his chance'

On 5 October we published an article by Tim Clist, in which the recent graduate said his three years at Warwick University were a waste of time. Germaine Greer, his one-time seminar leader there, responds to his criticisms
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Tim Clist wishes he had dropped out of Warwick University. He believes that the time he spent there was "the worst three years of his life". He should be so lucky. Because he spent only seven or so hours a week in classes, he fell into a morass of boredom and apathy for which he is seeking to blame anyone, everyone else but himself.

Tim Clist wishes he had dropped out of Warwick University. He believes that the time he spent there was "the worst three years of his life". He should be so lucky. Because he spent only seven or so hours a week in classes, he fell into a morass of boredom and apathy for which he is seeking to blame anyone, everyone else but himself.

Other English students were publishing magazines, writing, performing and producing plays, films and videos, running radio stations and rock bands, doing original research, working out, training, losing one faith and acquiring another, getting into debt and out again, vandalising GM crops, demonstrating against globalisation, hobnobbing with poets and writers, making the friendships and initiating the collaborations which will form the basis of their creative lives. Poor Tim missed out on all of it.

Two of his fellow-students, who took the same subjects and graduated as he did this year, are at present living in my house. They have no recollection of a Tim Clist. I do remember him, because I was his seminar leader for one and a half hours a week during the 10 weeks of the autumn term. I it was who tried to explain to him that indoctrination is not what universities do. Proper universities (as distinct from converted polytechnics) are not schools, and he was not a pupil any more.

He was supposed to have become a student, but clearly he never did. A seminar leader is not supposed to program her students to share her views but to lead discussion. The quality of the discussion depends not on the leader but on the students. It is not the seminar leader's job to fire students with enthusiasm; if they do not have that already, they shouldn't be there. Clist only ever contributed to the discussion when he was asked a direct question, which he would answer languidly and dismissively, barely shifting his habitual sneer.

There are hard truths behind Clist's criticism of humanities teaching at Warwick, which could be discerned behind humanities teaching in any university, including the best. Humanities students are under-resourced in every way. Clist dismissed one lecturer as "elderly"; he might with more justice have complained of being taught by Graduate Teaching Assistants only a couple of years ahead of him. He complained of being in classes of 12 in rooms no bigger than a garden shed; he might have complained of GTAs roosting five to a room, with a single computer between them, who carry out their heavy teaching load in borrowed rooms.

Last week, the staff room was locked for two hours because a class had to be taken there, and none of us could get to our mail. If I look out of the window of my shed-sized office, I can see a huge building that is getting huger as something even bigger is built on to the back of it, yet hardly anyone seems to be around, while our corridors are constantly thronged. I am not sure what happens there, something to do with advanced business studies.

On the top floor is a vast boardroom with facilities for all kinds of visual presentations, which is usually empty; I have to steal the overhead projector from our one seminar room and project images on to my office wall. Once the machine is in the room, no-one can get in or out, and I have to perch on the desk.

The conditions we have to teach in are unsafe and possibly illegal, but there is no suggestion that anything will ever be done about it. We could try to secure private funding for a decent building but, even supposing we knew how to go about it, none of us has time.

Humanities students do not require the same kind of expensive support as students in the sciences, but they do need books and periodicals. Clist said nothing about the inadequacy of the library in which he supposedly spent most of what he regarded as free time. I spend hours writing the letters that will get my students access to better libraries, but I was never asked to write one by Clist.

What he does not understand is that, as a university student, he is a junior member of a research community; what a humanities department needs from its staff is publications. Publications require research and humanities research cannot be carried out in a campus library which has to spend most of its budget on multiple copies of core course books. The lecturers whom Clist found "unfriendly" were probably under the gun for the Research Assessment Exercise. Clist would be surprised to learn that contact hours are not actually what we get paid for or promoted for. If humanities research were properly supported, there would not be a conflict of interest, but it isn't and there is.

Our secondary schools have become crammers; pupils processed by a now highly efficient system arrive at university as if on a conveyor belt. Even so, some will develop the kind of intellectual passion that will inform their adult lives, and others, like Clist, will not.

If Clist had taken a year out, he might have come to realise why he wanted, needed to have three years at a university. As it was he expected his teachers to motivate him, which is not their job. A year of work, whether loading supermarket shelves or banking, would have concentrated his mind. He might have decided not to go to university after all, which would have been no loss to either party and would have made his place available to someone who knew what to do with it.

Germaine Greer is Professor of English and Comparative Studies at Warwick University

Comments