Happy New Year

The new term starts today, and while I’m determined to hang on to summer as long as I can – even as I feel it slipping between my fingers – there is something perfectly wonderful about starting a new year in September.  When I was in Cambridge there was something even more wonderful about starting in October, but either way I much prefer it to January when most (I originally wrote “normal”) people have to start their year.  At least it’s warm, even in Vancouver, there are still sunny days to linger over, the soft light is still there in the evening, and people are still relaxed enough to have time to talk.

I’ve been teaching full-time since I was 22, and honestly still enjoy it – particularly when I see the enthusiasm (mixed with trepidation) on the bright faces of new undergraduates and graduate students (I enjoy working with graduate students very much, but I prefer teaching undergraduate courses and, to be honest, I’m still unpersuaded of the value of graduate ones).

I’m teaching two third-year undergraduate courses this term, each one twice a week: Cities, space and power, which is a quirky historical geography of urbanization, and Theory and practice in human geography, which is an even quirkier attempt to combine what is usually (and I think mistakenly) taught separately, the history and the philosophy of human geography (what is sometimes called “Geographical Thought”: yuk).  If you’re interested you can download the course outlines and readings under the TEACHING tab.

I don’t use textbooks for either.  In fact I’ve never taught from one.  I don’t see the point: if a textbook covered the same ground why would I need to lecture?  I can see the need for reference books, not surprisingly, and in literature-based courses you obviously have to work with the texts.  I know too that there are subjects where there is such a premium on learning “the facts” that a textbook is indispensable.  I should say that my courses aren’t flights of fancy, but for me the trick is to show students that it’s about so much more than “the facts” – the crucial thing is what you do with all the information, the sense that “I never realised they were connected” or “I hadn’t seen it like that before”.  That’s why the two of the most important things to learn at university – I’m serious – are reading and writing: the ability to read sensitively, constructively, critically, and the ability to write rather than cut and paste.  And that’s not confined to courses in the Department of English.

No doubt all this is a hangover from my Cambridge days, when the formal teaching load was very light but  you were expected to develop your own reflections, ideas and research not just parrot other peoples’.   That teaching style seems to work just as well at UBC but, just as relevant, textbooks are inordinately expensive.  Students are already shouldering enough debt – I find it quite shocking that so many graduates of my own generation, in the UK at least, who paid no fees and were eligible for grants of various kinds, should so readily impose burdens on young people that they never had to endure themselves.  I’ve never been inspired by a textbook, but given the new ones pumped out each year by academic publishers I’m obviously in a minority.

This is all made more difficult than it should be by the absurdly large number of courses undergraduates are required to take in North American universities.  Since so many of them are also working their way through college (I still stumble over calling it “school”),  it’s often difficult for even the most dedicated to find time to read carefully and thoughtfully.  The result is that, much of the time, they necessarily resort to “skim-memorise-repeat” – a practice facilitated by textbooks with their high school parade of boxes and quizzes – so that we end up instilling a culture of coping rather than nurturing a properly critical intellectual culture.

Things are no better when it comes to helping students learn to write.  I grade my courses using a combination of written examination (essays not multiple choice) and term papers.  One of the wonderful things about the highly privileged Cambridge system was that students wrote essays each week that were discussed in small groups (“supervisions”) with faculty or graduate students, and – since no marks were given – they  were free to make mistakes, and to learn from them (and one another).  It made learning a properly collaborative not competitive venture.  And the supervisions were genuine occasions for experimentation: there was no centralised roster of topics, no approved reading lists, and our inquiries were set free from the constraints of any syllabus.  But it was, and presumably remains, an intensive process, and the course-loads here ensure that faculty and students alike are constantly pressed for time.

Shoe Factory

Shoe Factory (Photo credit: stevegarfield)

I do understand that this is no different from the rest of the workaday world, but universities ought to be places where we also learn to slow down – not only to enjoy that soft, late summer light but to feel ourselves think.  That’s increasingly difficult in the corporate university where, for all its slogans and marketing campaigns – UBC once had the truly dire “Think about it!” plastered on baseball caps – efficiency and effectiveness are measured by numbers.  That in its turn is part of a comprehensive withdrawal of trust.  Our contemporary audit culture places such a premium on accountancy – not the same thing as accountability – that everything must be tabulated and minuted.  I’m sure that universities can learn from the commercial world, and vice versa, but we might try to learn the right things from the right companies while insisting that there are also vital respects in which a university isn’t a shoe factory.

Ah me: I started out saying how much I was looking forward to all this…..

But I am.  Really.