University ‘teaching’ then and now. Part 1

The recent fuss about grade inflation has me wandering a little down memory lane. I have absolutely no doubt that the standard of ‘teaching’ in higher education is far ‘better’ now than it was back in my time. (I’ll explain what I mean by ‘better’ in my next post.)

Those of us who were lucky enough to go to university back in the 1980s had experiences of lecturers who were just so dire that being in class was almost like living through a real-life Monty Python sketch. When I studied chemical engineering in UCD, we had one lecturer who just told anecdotes about his career in the metallurgical business while leaning back in his chair, legs crossed, staring at the ceiling. He always wore a white lab coat during his lectures and for no apparent reason. It’s not as if he ever got up off his arse to use the blackboard or the overhead projector. Another, a well-known business guru at the time, simply used the business pages of The Irish Times as his lecture notes. Not much preparation required there. Then there was the bloke who used to put up an overhead of complicated organic chemistry reactions for us all to transcribe while he looked out the window in silence, interrupting the quiet every now and then with a comment or two about electrons jumping from one place on a benzene ring to another – or something. He religiously got through four overheads per lecture. I often used to think that he suffered from depression – he certainly didn’t seem very happy – but recently I heard that he was an avid sailor so maybe he was just dreaming about being out on his yacht, standing on deck, face to the wind.

One eminent professor mumbled his way through lectures on seemingly random topics, aided by overhead transparencies that he appeared to have written on a rapidly-moving DART. Another, a bow-tied engineering legend, literally scribbled on the overhead projector and, although entertaining, you learned absolutely nothing in his lectures. It was appalling stuff.

But there was unintended method in the madness. The poor quality of some lecturers was the perfect incentive for us to develop our own “independent learning skills” as they say these days. And so, lecture notes, researched and written by students, got passed down, modified and improved from year to year. This was collaborative learning long before that term became fashionable.

Some lecturers didn’t seem to quite know who they were teaching. As chemical engineering students we had to endure one module on electrical engineering – electrical machines and the like – riveting stuff. None of us knew what the hell the lecturer was talking about and he seemed to be under the impression that we were third year electrical engineering students. Despite being clueless, we all rote-learned our way through the course and I am only slightly embarrassed to say that I got 75% in that subject without having the faintest idea what I was doing. It’s one of the few marks I remember – because of the madness of it. Rote learning was alive and kicking in the 1980s.

Nonetheless, I did have some excellent lecturers who were able to make even the most technical of subjects (fluid mechanics, reactor design, mathematical physics etc.) really interesting and they did so because they simply had some sort of lecturing x-factor. They did nothing fancy or innovative – they lectured in a traditional way and they were brilliant. Most of our best lecturers were in the chemical engineering department itself where there was a wonderful family atmosphere and, for me at least, a real sense of wonder and discovery. Chemical engineering seemed to be such a marvellous and creative mix of physics, chemistry and technology. We were learning about phenomena that you’d never have imagined would be the subject of an academic discipline, like the coalescence and break-up of drops and bubbles! I loved it.

Things are very different now: lecturing has become teaching and the modern university is much closer in spirit to secondary school than it used to be. More on that, and grade inflation, next time.

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1 thought on “University ‘teaching’ then and now. Part 1

  1. Even though I shared some of these lecturers between 74 and 78 it does not seem to have been as bad for me. But it was poor. I worked as an engineer for 5 years after graduating and when I was asked in ’83 at an interview for lecturer in Sligo how I felt about teaching I responded something like “Well I’m only 5 years out of college, I remember how it shouldn’t be done”. I got the job.

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