First published 25 December 1991, New Straits Times (reprinted in Nothing is Sacred)
The quality of teaching at our universities has been much talked about in the papers lately. Early this month, Dr T. Marimuthu, former Universiti Malaya professor of education and now Member of Parliament, was quoted as saying "not all lecturers who have been trained to teach are interesting lecturers; obviously, some lecturers who have not had that training can be interesting too, because the personality element also plays a part."
The "personality element," as I said, can help, especially the sort that doesn't advertise itself too much like that of the stridently non-conformist type of lecturer. You know, the type who loves to turn each lecture into a performance that entertains more than it teaches. I am not saying that having the ability to perform and thereby turn students on is a pedagogical disease. Those who can do so and really teach at the same time can be an asset to an institution, and a boon to the students. (Never mind that the particular institution would rather not have his type around.) And those who can't? They can always... well, just "teach," I suppose; in G.B. Shaw's sense of the word. (Shaw's well known line goes: "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach.") But, speaking from my own decade-long experience of teaching literature at Universiti Malaya, this kind of lecturer (and I must confess I was a bit inclined that way) can be a hero to a small minority of young souls eager for refreshing breaks from the soporific monotony of campus routine. But he can actually turn the timid or shy majority off.
What can we write down? And what's going to happen in that dreaded hell of an exams hall if he gives nothing solid and regurgitable to write down now? You damn long-haired lout! Useless lecturer! My pedagogic conscience heard the cry of their undernourished souls, and I, for a moment, felt a twinge of guilt for dereliction of duty. Halfway down the steps of the theatre, I suddenly stopped in my manic tract. With one of the Proverbs of Hell just escaped from my mouth ("Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity"), I changed my tack for a parabolic moment of pedagogic irony and fury to say to the class: "Sorry, boys and girls, I've been too carried away by that devilish Blake. Here's some solid exam stuff for you to take down. William Blake (and I spelt the name), Born 23rd November 1757, at 28 Broad street, Golden Square, London (where his father made and sold stockings) - and died on 12 August, 1827, at Fountain Court, Strand, London..."
You wouldn't believe it, the flurry of the biros scratching those virginal pads! When I interrupted the sudden flow of precious information with a half-laughing hiss ("You idiots! You can get that info in any book on Blake in the library!"), those poor undernourished young souls didn't even hear me, so absorbed were they in taking down the revelation much needed for that Judgment Day. "Sir (the fact that they call their lecturers "Sir" is painfully revealing), Dear Sir, give us this day our daily crumb!" Poor kids!
And who can we blame for all this? The system, of course, yes. But the lecturers themselves must not use the 'the System' as a convenient alibi. They must ask themselves: "If the students have a test to pass, don't we too?" Too many of them, I hate to say, are too complacent in their too-comfortable academic cocoons, heavily protected by a wall of research junk and many-times-recycled seminar papers, to even dream of asking that question. Because they know, deep inside them, that they would most likely fail the test.