Last week I attended Anniversary Day at the Royal Society, during which there was a discussion meeting for Fellows, as well as the President’s Annual Address given in an open forum. This venerable body is 351 years old now, and Anniversary Day always falls on November 30th. The discussion was held in the Society’s Wellcome Lecture Theatre, a large room and as the number of fellows present by no means filled it up we distributed ourselves all around the place – except near the front. FRS’s are no different from any other group of people populating a lecture theatre; the students we teach will recognize that habit of lurking near the back, the feeling that there one is out of the line of sight of the lecturer but somehow the front rows are dangerous and one is in danger of being noticed. For myself, I tend to leave the students to skulk where they feel most comfortable, but not so Paul Nurse (as President) who beckoned us all to move to the front – which we dutifully did.
Crowding round the back of the room is only one of many bad habits that students tend to exhibit in the lecture theatre, not all of which I think could have been seen last week amongst the fellowship. Some of these traits I find more disconcerting than others. I am not sure if there are cultural differences in behaviour between the humanities and the sciences, or even between different strands of science but some, such as the tendency to avoid the front few rows, I am sure are the same everywhere and whatever the subject. Likewise, the habit of coming in late I’m sure is ubiquitous. I suppose one could shut the door on the dot of the hour and exclude everyone else, but that seems a bit harsh, particularly for the 9 o’clock slot. I know there are those who choose to humiliate latecomers by drawing the rest of the class’s attention to them, or insisting they must come and sit right at the front, but humiliation is not necessarily a good way of encouraging either a love for the subject or the act of learning, so I have never resorted to such tactics.
There is the habit of reading a book that I have encountered, both before and – sad to say – during a lecture I have been giving. Not very flattering to a lecturer to find a student prefers someone else’s written word to the pearls of wisdom they are uttering. Again I can imagine ways of humiliating the perpetrator, marching up to them and flinging the book to the floor, but that would strike me as merely histrionic. If a student is too engrossed in someone else’s text, be it Wittgenstein or Barbara Cartland, ultimately it is their choice – and their course work which is likely to suffer. Turning to sins of concupiscence, there are those who persist in snogging throughout a lecture, though thoughtfully those guilty of this have, in my experience, located themselves to the side and back so it isn’t too intrusive. It does seem unnecessary and I am pretty sure there was none of this going on at the Royal Society last week. Commoner than this is the frequent occurrence of drowsiness exhibited by students. One year I had one particular student who did sit at the front, right in front of me, but then dropped off half way through each lecture. I asked them what was going on and it transpired each day they got up early to go rowing (this is Cambridge after all, and someone has to do the rowing), and exhaustion just caught up with them before the end of each lecture. At least that was an honest answer by someone who wanted to engage and learn, but just didn’t have the stamina to do it.
Despite the lack of attention that some students may endow upon their lecturers, it doesn’t stop them voicing an opinion when it comes to the end of term. This may be physically demonstrated or through the medium of the student questionnaires. When I gave my very first undergraduate lecture I had received precisely zero training in the art. It was before even I was a lecturer, but still a mere Royal Society University Research Fellow standing in for a staff member who had left at relatively short notice. The lecture theatre technician greeted me with words of ‘encouragement’, telling me how at the end of the previous course the lecturer (who was a senior professor and therefore presumably pretty experienced) had been subjected to assault by more than 100 paper darts but that that was regarded as pretty unusual and he doubted I would match that. Indeed, this is a record I have yet to get close to.
Some students see the course questionnaires as a way to get their own back on a lecture course they may have hated, or simply failed to understand, by answering the questions with vitriol or what they perceive as wit. One freeform answer stands out in my mind about my lecturing style some years ago. Or rather, it was not about my lecturing style but my clothes style, the comment being ‘Where does she get her clothes from, the Oxfam shop?’ Even if true, this was hardly relevant to my ability to put ideas across. I would like to think my sartorial style is less likely to provoke comment now, but I suspect those were the days when my clothes were subject to regular bouts of baby vomit or mashed-up food casually flicked in my direction by a child learning to wield a spoon for the first time. I am spared those indignities now, and maybe my clothes are the better for it.
It is unfortunately the case that we can’t all be charismatic lecturers who hold the whole class in thrall all the time. Maybe if we were the lecture theatres would be empty at the back not the front. We rely on honest answers from the students in order to help us improve our act. But, facetious answers from students who have slept, snogged or read throughout my lectures are unlikely to be very helpful to me – or to them and their successors.