THE WORST TEACHERS IN THE WORLD
Nearly 40 years ago, between 1976-1978, I had a lecturing job in a Cumbrian Technical College, teaching what was variously known as Liberal Studies and General Studies. The students were all working in industry, and they had a day release structure, meaning for one day a week, they went to the college to study appropriate technical subjects (car maintenance, nuclear instrument calibration, footwear technology etc) and then receive their ‘liberal’ input from the likes of me. In that 1970s period, I was teaching a huge range of students; from boot and shoe operatives of both sexes, to girls working in catering, all aged around 16 or 17, and also exclusively men in their 20s and 30s, studying the old Higher National Diploma in subjects like Physics and Engineering. Somewhere in the middle of that, I lectured to a lot of young BNFL (British Nuclear Fuels Ltd) instrument mechanics, who were both invigorating and at times utterly appalling in their outright and quite redundant racism (not least because there were no black people or immigrants of any kind, to be so righteously indignant about, in West Cumbria, 40 years ago). The same teaching job as I experienced it later in the mid 1980s, had a very definite insistence on imparting confidence-building practical skills: things like getting them to give a talk on how to plan a weekend’s camping, or how to cook a 3 course meal, or how to collaborate to make a short video camera film. But the earlier teaching, although it had a notional syllabus and a notional Aims and Objectives, which was actually based on a pretentious and preposterous Linnaean biology model (A Taxonomy of Educational Objectives) was completely laissez faire. In fact it was so laissez faire, it was a bit like my recently described chewing gum machine gone mad fantasy, where its entire contents poured out after only one coin was inserted. Teaching General Studies in the late 1970s, was, if you were an idle bastard and a deviously elusive merchant of a college lecturer, just too good to be true.
The educational objectives when it came to Liberal Studies, were to take these students, whose technical subjects and sometimes stern work discipline, might make them narrow and unthinking and possibly retrograde and conservative, and infuse some touchingly nascent gentleness of liberal opinion into them. At the far end of the idealistic scale, you were meant ‘to encourage a tolerance of the diversity of the different means of artistic expression’ meaning introduce them to very high culture as well as debatably lower culture. So you might, if you felt suicidal, read James Joyce to them (ideally not Finnegans Wake) and right after play some Dvorak String Quartets, as well as comprehensively comparing and contrasting late 70s punk poetry, and the lyrics of Ian Dury, and local brass band music, and Easy Listening a la James Last or Klaus Wunderlich. Likewise there were audio-visual slide shows of The History of Art available in the college, and once I made the grave mistake of showing some Sellafield instrument mechanics the lurid and disturbing works of the 20th century Surrealists. The whole scene is described at length in my novel Radio Activity (1993) and includes the AV booklet’s suggestion, that I should induct the students into Practical Surrealism, pace Dali, Ernst, Magritte etc, in real time (that last expression wasn’t used in 1977 and it was a better world as a result). What they meant was that after the slide show, I had to give them an elaborate paper-folding, origami style exercise, of such complexity and endlessness, they were all massively intrigued, if totally baffled by what it was about. Then just as they were well advanced with it, and sweating not a little from all that industrious craft, I was advised to walk round and screw up all their efforts, and fling them leeringly into the waste paper bin! It was meant to be Zen satori, Rene Magritte-style, a paradoxical outcome writ large, but some of the instrument mechanics definitely wanted to murder me as a result, and at least one 16 year-old lad burst into tears as the sweet little paper object he had made was already very dear to his heart.
It was entirely up to me how I taught General Studies in the 1970s, and aside from the attendance and the marks I gave them, no one ever queried what or how I was attempting those wondrously taxonomic aims and objectives. I was a part timer, but ultimately I was a part timer doing a lot of teaching, and thus effectively I was a full timer. Full time Liberal Studies lecturers were obliged to do some sort of further training at a nearby university, even though once they had done it, they could keep on teaching whatever they wanted, and as ineptly and idly as they liked, so long as they filled in the registers, and dished out a few marks for the register records. In accordance with this charming and fairytale laxity, the interviews for the part timers were so perfunctory, they were simply not interviews, and you had been given the job before you walked through the door. I was asked by a jovial bloke called Des Bix in a tie and a sports jacket, whose principal passion in life apart from the busty, seductive and provocative middle years college librarian, proved to be Algorithms, no more than when I could start and how many hours could I take on. Bix was Head of Liberal Studies, but he didn’t describe the job at all, not even in two minutes discussion. I was not required to provide references, and Des and his department accepted that I had a degree as the only necessity for my part time teaching, but they never checked whether I actually had a degree. These days the possession or faking of a degree, could probably be established by 5 minutes of googling and emailing a university admin department, but then only an actual degree certificate or umpteen phone calls and letters, would have proved things either way. After that, the only attention you got was if you didn’t fill in that sacred item, the register, or if you did something grave and worthy of censure, and even that was rarely fatal in terms of your invulnerable sinecure.
In the meantime, some of the full timers on relatively large salaries were getting away with murder. There was a video room at one of the 2 sister colleges where I taught, and a booking register that was kept in Reception. One of the very amiable and elderly Liberal Studies chaps was called Benny Stitt, and he rode to work on a 1950s motorbike, and wore an antiquated skid-lid that the kids always laughed at. And guess what, every single week of all 3 terms, there were Benny’s inimitable initials, and good old BS had booked the video room for at least 20 hours. Meaning Benny Stitt did nothing but watch telly for 2/3 of his whopping salary. Some of the bookings were Open University programmes on Cosmic Creation and Molecular Physics, and given the only real passion in Benny’s life was competitive ballroom dancing with his wife of 30 years, called most appositely Bunny Stitt, he doubtless slept through most of his teaching. Other full time tenured lecturers had fanatical hobby horses. One of them, a lantern-jawed and steely gent of about 50, with very much the look of a sullen chimpanzee, also ran a profitable dairy farm 10 miles off. He could only do this because he did no preparation whatever for his job, but principally showed his many students slide shows on his pet obsession, namely 1970s Maoist agriculture. He was as you can imagine, far from being a Maoist communist, but I think he most definitely loved and even revered, the Cultural Revolution’s slavery cum beehive side, and would have definitely liked to have organised his undisciplined college students to work for nil wages on his dairy farm.
However he wasn’t in the same league as the very worst of the part timers.Sometimes they got so desperate at the colleges, they took on retired schoolteachers in their late 60s, including retired junior schoolteachers, some of whose notions of modernity, sexual politics, societal theory, everything that matters, given they were all born around 1910, stopped somewhere close to 1934. One ex-junior school head, a craggy, beefy man of 68, aptly called Nobbs and who had actually taught me 15 years earlier, when I was 11, had 2 very singular hobby horses. One was everything to do with standing committees and quorums. Nobbs would give 10-part dictated lectures (write this all down, please) on how to organise a committee and a sub-committee, and a focus committee and a running committee and a walking committee, and a dormant committee and a temporary committee, and the sundry riveting applications in the dramatic West Cumbrian Parish Council milieu (dog fouling anybody, street lighting anybody?) of which he was a seasoned representative. You can imagine how pig sick the HND guys in their late 20s and early 30s were, as they informed you that Nobbs was the last of their day release lecturers, from 6.30pm to 8.30pm. Quorum procedural etiquette at 8.15 in drizzling midweek November 1977, when your eyes were drooping like fishing lead sinkers, and you were all but brain damaged from a full day of soporific lectures and physics practicals?
Nobbs’s other obsession, was, believe it or not, all things to do with the subject of… bread. Back in 1977 when there were no such things as electric bread makers and certainly not in Neanderthal West Cumbria, Nobbs made his own crusty bread back home for himself and his doting old wife, who was also a retired teacher. So, when he’d run out of charismatic facts on sub committees and standing committees, Nobbs would tell his students over and over about the joys, and not forgetting the excruciating pitfalls, when it comes to making your own staff of life.