Howard Jacobson: The students never fell asleep during my lectures. Quite the contrary, in fact...

They had just discovered student rights, as though a student who never studied can be said to have a right
Click to follow
The Independent Online

So the University of Oxford intends to get students to sign a contract - assuming they can find a student capable of reading a contract, or one able to sign his name - legally binding them to attend lectures. Good. Lecturers have to give lectures, why shouldn't students have to go to them? The usual student argument - in so far as there is such a thing as a student argument, as opposed to a student grievance - is that most lecturers are so boring they are a torture to endure. My own experience as an academic was contrary to this. I found most students so boring they were a torture to teach.

I knew I was coming to the end of my career as filler of those bottomless vessels we call young minds when I caught myself nodding off mid-lecture. Mid my own lecture, I mean. There I was, in the upright exegetical position, to all intents and purpose in full pedagogic flight - "The Prelude" open on the lectern, one arm extended scholastically - fast asleep. It goes without saying that the students didn't notice. "Zzzzzzzz," they wrote down in their notebooks - those who had notebooks. "Zzzzzzzzzzzz."

Some dutifully reproduced these somnolences in their exam papers. Question: In 1797, Wordsworth made a number of visits with his sister Dorothy to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's cottage in Nether Stowey. Paying particular attention to the fractured stanza'ing of the Lucy poems, what contribution to Wordsworth's poetic did his encounters with Coleridge's evolving associationist philosophy make? Answer: Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

This isn't a joke against myself. When I say that my students couldn't tell the difference between me awake and me comatose I am not inviting you to believe that I was tedious. Not for me to say I was an inspirational lecturer, but, since no one else is saying it, I was an inspirational lecturer. Not an inspirational teacher. In a one-to-one tutorial situation I would find myself reviewing the whole of my life until that hour, everyone I had ever known passing before my eyes in silent, melancholy procession; and in seminars I suffered migraines, loss of memory and panic attacks. Put me before a group in excess of 1,000, however, and I could transform erudition into carnival. I danced for them, I sang for them, reader I turned cartwheels for them, and that was just for the Persistence of the Pastoral Eclogue in Augustanism. By the time we got to Coleridge and Nether Stowey I was spinning plates. So no, what caused me to fall asleep in front of my students was not familiarity of thought or dreariness of presentation on my part, but dullness of intelligence, drabness of dress, deadness of curiosity, on theirs.

They were pissed, that was part of the problem. At a nine o'clock lecture they were pissed from the night before. At a two o'clock lecture they were pissed afresh from lunch. And those who weren't pissed were otherwise rendered vacant. Drugged, sexed, pinball-machined, love-bitten, headbanged. These are the late Seventies I am describing, so they wouldn't have been as variously zonked as students are today. Nor would they have been quite so ill-turned out. The blazers and cravats which my generation had worn to lectures had long been thrown away, but the industrialisation of student dress was still in its infancy. No one, for example, would yet have turned up to lectures in trainers. Pit boots, yes, trainers no. And the iPod had not been invented. Already, though, the political conformance of attire was inimical to intellectual receptivity, and for the lecturer - we so often forget what the poor lecturer has to gaze out upon - it was depressing beyond words. I lectured in a suit, myself. Sometimes a waistcoat. And, of course, a gown. It was a mark of respect. It showed I had not just fallen out of bed. Whereas my students had not been to bed.

They gawped, they yawned, they didn't jeer because they couldn't spell it, but there was the beginning of that resentment in their eyes which goes with egalitarianism -- not drinking at the fount of knowledge but haggling at the marketplace of entitlement. And they had just discovered the relativity of value. And student rights, as though a student who never studies can be said to have a right. So I fell asleep. You tell me what else I should have done.

Years later, a student at this same institution - pure coincidence: I was long gone - successfully prosecuted a suit against it for failing to make adequate provision for his needs. The lecture halls were too crowded, he maintained. There had been errors in his assignments. How there can be errors in an assignment when all value is relative and there is therefore no such thing as truth or error, I don't know. And why was it called an assignment, anyway? What was wrong with "essay"? Or does the word essay with its implications of effort and endeavour impose too great a burden of expectation upon the student? He won, regardless. Thirty thousand smackers, he got. Which was about 10 years' salary for a lecturer when I was lecturing. The consequence being that no institution of higher learning in the country can now consider itself safe from student disaffection or discomfort.

Hence Oxford's decision to turn the tables and make it possible to prosecute a student before the student gets round to prosecuting them. Smart, I call it. Needless to say, students don't. Not least, they complain, because they haven't been consulted.

It was the idea of student consultation, as I recall, that finally finished universities off as places of serious enquiry or research. You don't consult those to whom wisdom is still to be imparted. You don't ask the baby to comment on the breast.

Nor, come to that - for student consultation has also contributed to the ruin of our education system - do you get the baby to fill out a form, marking how well, as a nursing mother, you have performed. It isn't equipped yet with the wherewithal to judge. I know, I know - Melanie Klein, good breast, bad breast. Feed in the wrong spirit and that's your baby buggered as an effective being. But I am not aware that Melanie Klein believed the baby should be empowered to sue the mother. And come the day, as it surely will, when children take legal action against their parents for inadequate or overcrowded parenting, then parents will just as surely have to contract their offspring to responsible infanting.

That's all Oxford is saying to its students. You want the tit, you ingrates? Then sign on the dotted line saying you agree to suck on it.