The Easter break, relatively short though it may be, offers me an opportunity to introduce another raft of characters from the Athenian University to join my previous lists of Dramatis Personae/ character assassinations. Here I describe variations on the theme of University lecturers, although of course that title is not meant to say anything about an individual’s seniority, merely that their job is to lecture. These now join my other characters, so far encompassing Group Leaders; Professors; University committee members and committee chairs, as well as members of external grant-giving committees.
Dr Energetic paces up and down the lecture theatre, their arms waving wildly as they try to put an important point across. Not for the sleepy student who wants to be permitted to doze quietly at the back of the lecture theatre, Dr Energetic will make a quick kip after a hard night’s drinking hard to come by. The advantage of a lecturer such as this is that even boring or turgid subjects may come alive enough to render them intelligible. The disadvantage is that strident tones and histrionic actions may merely irritate not inform.
Dr Inaudible’s offering is very different. They may be the most intelligent person you will ever meet, with a solid grasp of every fact they are trying to convey and a neat turn of phrase to illustrate difficult concepts, but if they are not audible beyond the first two rows in the lecture theatre (and disdain being wired up with a microphone), all this is in vain. Alternatively they may be inaudible because they totally lack confidence in the material they have been assigned to teach and want to be unheard and unremarked. Dr Inaudible needs a stiff talking to by those in charge of teaching, plus subsequent follow-up to check that instructions to use a mike have been taken to heart – as well as a check that their lectures are indeed comprehensible as well as audible.
I am of an age to have once been lectured to by a gentleman in a gown. I was exposed to only one such example, I hasten to add, by someone then already close to retirement. The dust – chalk dust- was obvious. For others the dust may be less visible or more metaphorical, but, many lecturers look as if they have been curled up in a corner for many years and are only let out on license for their annual lecturing duties. What they do the rest of the year may be a mystery (in Cambridge of course they can hang out in their college rooms, and may be assiduous in teaching generations of students there). Closely related is Dr Dry-as-Dust, old in character if not in chronological years, probably pernickety and dull, these characters do tend to take their lecturing duties seriously, indeed teaching may be their lifeblood (if not in a style attractive to many) and may be all they wish to do, not least because they aren’t interested in research and possess the leadership and administrative skills of a baby mouse.
Dr Absent-minded has a reputation for forgetting to turn up to lectures. One such I encountered myself encouraged me to come and find him if he didn’t show up, although that was something I found too embarrassing to contemplate. They may also turn up with the wrong lecture notes (a sin I myself once committed, although the class was amazingly tolerant) or forget to keep an eye on the clock and run over the stated time, despite the audible collective rumblings of the audience’s stomachs. They may be an irritating class of lecturers, but they can also be excellent value. Their failings are in their personal organisation not their teaching ability.
When the world was using blackboards, Dr Ultramodern had progressed to the overhead projector. As their colleagues caught on with this they were already contemplating the joys of Powerpoint (or should that be ‘joys’?). Dr Ultramodern is never satisfied with the current teaching tools and no doubt will now be dropping in Audioboos to enliven the lecture theatre, relevant or not, and eyeing Google Glasses with interest (will the teaching budget run to them?). That is the trouble: in an ever-changing technical landscape, this particularly lecturer is more interested in showing off the latest technology than mastering the actual content and delivering it with clarity, a failing that can become tedious for the audience.
Word of mouth commentary amongst generations of students is ubiquitous, and a lecturer who starts off as wonderful – enthusiastic, accurate, charming and comprehensible – can notch up a stellar reputation. This can be unfortunate if they start to rest on their laurels, no longer sweating over their lectures to make them first class, but relying on their reputation and a wing and a prayer to get them through, year on year. This is of course particularly disastrous if the teaching admin are so mean as to give them a new course to prepare. What, they have to start from scratch, mug up some new jokes and prepare new slides? Their reputation may take a rapid nosedive after such an unfortunate turn of affairs.
Dr Careless may have an excellent grasp of their subject, and be hard-working at getting a good course structure with illustrative examples and clear explanations. But where they go wrong is in all those irritating little details – in physics, minus signs incorrectly placed are a particular bugbear; I hated this sort of sloppiness as a student myself, but again I’m ashamed to say it is a sin of which I have not infrequently been guilty. In handouts or in slides these little errors regularly lurk, to the students’ frustration. They do not want (although it may be good discipline for them) to have to check through every equation to ensure that all subscripts are present and correct and factors of 2 or p – as well as those minus signs – have not gone AWOL.
This person believes they are too important to have to lecture, and they are going to make this manifest. They look down their noses at the scruffy audience they have to address, to convey the fact that they are Important Personages who are conferring a favour merely by turning up. Their style of lecturing is peremptory, unenthusiastic but probably efficient enough. But they are never going to convey a love of the subject to the lecture hall because their love is for themselves first and foremost, and they would vastly prefer to be furthering their ambitions by jet-setting around the world than by being chained to the lecture theatre dais.
This one is the ultimate manifestation of Dr I-don’t-want-to-be-here because they aren’t, in fact, ‘here’. The students turn up only to find that their lecturer has indeed got on that plane and vanished, without troubling to find a stand-in (let alone notifying the powers-that-be that they were heading off so that they could find a replacement themselves). Their diary is too full of opportunities they deem more important to permit them to fulfil their lecturing responsibilities; their lack of a sense of duty is such that it never crosses their mind that their own self-importance should be subservient to their obligations to the student body. This one is a hard nut for a Head of Department to rein in, but vital that they should.