View from here: A little air in academia

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The idea of a long reading week conjured up for me rosy-cheeked youngsters in shorts lounging against trees with hard-backed volumes scattered on the lawn, and a 1930s village smiling in the distance. I knew that such events used to occur at universities, but in my 25 years at Oxford had never known one. I also know that some universities have a mid-term suspension of formal teaching for a week, to encourage wider and deeper cogitation. But for science-based subjects, the concept of free-wheeling thought does not fit comfortably with the hustle and bustle that characterises many courses. When would there ever be the time?

For a start, the emphasis on assimilation of huge corpora of facts would preclude, in the crowded eight-week term, any indulgence that did not win the students immediate advantage on their course. The hectic traffic of information, at least in many scientific courses nowadays, seems too precise and too superficial to merit too much pondering. Seven days of immersion into deep issues would be incompatible with a 9 to 5 attitude of merely getting together each day. No, a true reading week would necessitate a complete retreat from daily cares, a chance to think and read and talk at your own pace, or at least a pace not dictated by timetable, syllabus, or the need to catch a bus or meet a friend in a pub. In today's world, or at least in my world and in my biomedical subject area, the whole idea would, I would have thought, been a non-starter. But I was wrong.

It was with some bemusement that I received an invitation from my erstwhile mentor and tutor at St Hilda's College to lead the discussion during one evening of a reading week. I had to provide a reading list of appropriate books on different aspects of a suitable biomedical subject. The girls each then read one entry from the list, in a day or two. When we gathered, each gave a critique of some 20 minutes. And the discussion unfolded from there.

The subject I chose was one that never gets the chance for an airing on biomedical courses, yet is attracting increasing attention and is of increasing relevance: consciousness. Consciousness is of a sufficient intellectual challenge, especially in these multidisciplinary times, to necessitate in-depth thought and much discussion, at a level not the norm in many scientific courses. Here at last I saw the old spirit of Oxford, or indeed any university, coming alive: a desire to get to the bottom of something that belittles a passion just to pass exams. Once again I experienced the sheer joy of free interchange, banter, exasperation, humour, shock, and revelation that can only come when a discussion is unfettered by timing or by constraints on what material should be trafficked. It is what I had originally remained in a university environment for. And yet increasingly, such intellectual excursions are marginalised by a rigid view of education as a crude bartering of facts, a standardised assimilation of specific material for a specific endpoint.

What about the problem with time? Well, the enthusiasm was such that the girls returned to Oxford a week early. There was also the potential problem of space: where to site such an event? It says a lot for the dedication of the tutor in question that everyone was accommodated, and the whole project operated, from her house. This issue in itself would harken back to a Golden Age, where academics really cared about their students, and sacrificed vast chunks of their private lives and time in realising such schemes. But then, the tutor in question is, unfortunately, exceptional. That said, institutions richer than St Hilda's might be able to provide the resources for escaping somewhere for a reading week that did not entail encroachment on one's family. Or the Government, so keen on Education, Education, Education, might consider some grant scheme for students and tutors alike to sit back, take breath, and savour once again the pure joy of scholarship.

As I left at gone midnight, after six hours of intense talk, my brain cells felt that they had been taken to some sort of advanced cerebral aerobics class. But then they have grown less than agile when it comes to thinking on their feet. As I flounder in HEFCE audits for teaching and research, reviews of core syllabuses, peer reviews and the general angst of running a university lab in the late 20th century, I wonder how much we may be missing the point.

The writer is professor of pharmacology at Oxford University.

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