Celebrity dons can be a big draw for some courses. Nicholas Pyke talks to them

You've seen them on the telly and heard them on the radio. Even if you own none of their books, you've almost certainly glanced at an occasional journalistic offering in the papers. So ubiquitous are they, it is easy to forget that the Schamas, Jardines and Motions of this world still talk to students from time to time, and occasionally tutor them. In the case of some celebrity performers, it is hard to remember that they are academics at all.

There is, however, an extensive list of Masters courses taught by people whose reputation extends well beyond the senior common room. And the advantage of an MA is that you get rather more attention than the average undergraduate.

Poet Laureate Andrew Motion will soon be tutoring on the creative writing MA at Royal Holloway, for example, where Justin Champion, presenter of ITV's Kings and Queens, teaches on the MA in renaissance and early modern Europe course.

Students at Birkbeck, an arm of London University which specialises in part-time courses, can expect to meet AC Grayling, the philosopher, critic and prolific author of newspaper columns.

Peter Hennessy, political historian, author and constitutional guru takes part of the the MA in 20th century British history at London's Queen Mary College. Professor Lisa Jardine takes time out from writing and broadcasting to teach "Writing Lives from Letters: The Archives and the Production of Historical Biography" on the Masters in Research course at Queen Mary's Centre for Editing Lives and Letters.

The historian Professor Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, a BBC Radio 4 regular, teaches on Queen Mary's MA in Metropolis and Empire, a course shared by the departments of history and geography and the school of English and drama.

Moving away from London (where celebrities seem to congregate), Warwick University is doing its best to create a collection of its own. Professor Andrew Oswald, the Warwick economist who showed that inequalities in pay have a damaging effect on national morale, teaches on the economics MA there.

Warwick's new MA in writing is full of big names. Aside from the course leaders (award-winning poet David Morley, and journalist Maureen Freely) there is a steady stream of visiting writers who spend a week or more with the students, lecturing and holding master classes. These include poet Geoffrey Hill, Maria Vargas Llosa, AL Kennedy and Jonathan Coe - graduates of the university - Derek Walcott, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, and biographer Michael Holroyd. No doubt this is one reason the course is already so popular: after just one year it is six times over-subscribed.

For the students, studying with the famous can be a rewarding opportunity. Annie Watkins, who is doing a PhD on Samuel Richardson, is a former pupil of Lisa Jardine at Queen Mary. "It was very obvious that she was a star," she says. "She has this ability to make you feel very comfortable with her. You just devour everything she writes. I found myself wanting to impress her a lot. I came to Queen Mary predominantly because of Lisa and she's still the first person I'm drawn to in the prospectus."

There are pitfalls, too, though. Academics and writers should fight against the cult of hero worship, however tempting it might seem to boost one's book sales, says David Morley. "One of the things I have seen as an external examiner is that writers who have too much ego sometimes teach out of their own work."

Andrew Oswald, too, plays down the importance of personal profile: "I'm kind of British, really. I never think about it too much. I don't rate it."

There might also be concerns about the level of commitment to be expected from a busy, prime-time don. Take this account of the lecturing technique employed by a celebrated contemporary writer at a red-brick university: "Because he was so busy doing other stuff, he just read out from ancient photostats," explains a disgruntled former student. "He would stand and read from yellowed bits of Xerox done in the early Seventies."

For Germaine Greer, who has left her post at Warwick University and will be teaching at Newnham College Cambridge in the coming months, celebrity status caused more trouble with fellow teachers than with students - most of whom try their damnedest to appear blasé about anything to do with academic staff. "The worst thing about being a celebrity academic isn't the behaviour of the students, it's the behaviour of the other academics," she says. "When The Female Eunuch came out, a whole lot of people who'd never even spoken to me were all over me, saying things like 'you'll have lots of money now, you can buy me lunch'. Why would I want to do that?"

Professor Laurie Taylor, a visiting professor with Birkbeck College, has spent much of his career teaching on MA courses with such enticing names as "Contemporary cultural diversity: paradoxes and paradigms" and "Spaces and places: the political and symbolic in human ecology".

But, like Germaine Greer, he has found that the level of academic suspicion rises with the level of public renown. And MA students, he says, are among the most suspicious of all.

"Undergraduates never read newspapers or watch the news so they have never heard of you. In fact they never read books either so there's no way they could have encountered you unless you're a member of an esoteric indie band. MAs, though do know a bit and they're pretty determined to get you. It is almost as if by virtue of appearing in any public place, some newspaper or radio programme, you automatically sacrifice one point of IQ. They assume you're not a serious scholar," he says.

Taylor continues: "Undergraduates have to sail through courses as if they're not interested. As soon as they start an MA they have to be terribly serious and adopt a theoretical position. You're a post-feminist or you're a post structuralist feminist. MAs tend to have an ideological badge. They're pretty much opposed to anyone who's not quite serious, I find. I think they found me profoundly inauthentic. I used to hate it. I used to hang around in the corridors before going in to see the MAs.

"At undergraduate level you could always find an article they hadn't read. It's not hard to keep ahead of them. MAs are indefatigable consumers of esoteric articles which can be lobbed like depth charges or Molotov Cocktails, which you can hear fizzing on your desk in front of you. They're devoting themselves to the life of the mind. Therefore they're more scandalised by anybody allowing themselves to be embraced by mammon."

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