Actors go to drama school, politicians have their spin doctors and media consultants to school them in presentation, even businessmen and athletes get lessons in after-dinner speaking. But no one trains university lecturers.
Strange, that. Not for nothing are they called lecture theatres. Lecturers do what few actors ever have to do: stand on the stage alone for an hour and keep 50 adolescents with a collective hangover absorbed. Add to that a dash of wit, a lot of knowledge, a commanding stage presence and write all your lines. It would be a lot to ask from Kenneth Branagh. From your average don it's asking for the moon. How did we any of us ever learn anything?
These thoughts struck me in the mildly Orwellian- sounding Gender Institute of the London School of Economics, of which more later. But clearly they have been applicable to the great names of Oxford. The release of the film Shadowlands has provoked reminiscences from pupils of C S Lewis, commenting on the lecturing style of the author of the Narnia stories and that of some of his contemporaries.
Lewis apparently dictated his lectures word by word like a schoolmaster and was 'visibly annoyed by the adoring hordes of young ladies in the audience'. Times have clearly changed; this has never been a cause of irritation to the male lecturers I have known, more a recurring dream.
His contemporaries did not get a much better press. Lord David Cecil was described as being 'so mannered that his lectures were often unintelligible. The effect was that of a duck quacking'. Do ducks quack in a mannered way? Perhaps on the Isis.
It's a long way, culturally and sartorially, from the Oxford lectures of C S Lewis to the guest lecture at the LSE's Gender Institute by the American feminist Shere Hite, though both make reference to Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Ms Hite was dressed to the nines, posed for pictures as she mounted the podium and had the very un-English habit of continually describing her own work as 'revolutionary', something Oxford dons do only in drink, to their spouses, and usually in a mood of feeling bitterly underestimated. Like C S Lewis, Ms Hite was faced with hordes of adoring young ladies, though she didn't seem to mind.
It was noticeable that the few men there were in the room steered clear of the front rows. Perhaps, having read the lecturer's earlier researches about the sexual inadequacies of males, they feared being made examples of.
The subject of the lecture was 'Sexual Politics and the Family' subtitled, lest latecomers should miss the gist, 'Living Under Patriarchy'. And when she says family, it isn't just any old family.
'We've all grown up with images of the Holy Family, seen as images of Jesus,' she said. 'The problem is there's no daughter in there so if there's no girl, who is a daughter supposed to be? In the Tories taking money away from single women there's always an element of this. You're always an outlaw if you're a single woman. If you get married, you're Mary. Boys, on the other hand, get to be Jesus, the rebel.'
I guess this was revolutionary, though not revolutionary enough for her audience. 'Are you a socialist?' two questioners, both male, asked her impatiently. She refused to answer; but she should have been better briefed. You don't get past the porter's lodge at the LSE without being asked if you're a socialist.
I had my problems with Ms Hite. And, like a bad student, I let my mind wander. I wondered if she had children - if she had a little boy, would they be Sonny and Shere? I knew she had a hubby. Presumably he could talk to women without having contempt for them. So why can't the rest of us? How dangerous generalisations are.
But, marks for artistic impression. In a curious way I think she suffers from the shortcomings of C S and Lord David. The soft-voiced, mid- West monotone was a trifle mannered but, more important, she had as little patience with the chaps as Lewis did with the girls. They were used as figures of fun and sometimes just ignored.
So perhaps the list of qualities for the successful lecturer needs to be even longer. Knowledge, wit, enthusiasm (that most infectious of qualities), a delivery neither mannered nor monotonous, tolerance - the ability to listen as well as impart opinions, and a deliberate blindness as to the sex of the students.Reuse content