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The Pequod
Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Back to School

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Having taught at university level for six years now (I know, I can't believe it either), I'd like to think that I know what I'm doing. I may not give a perfect tutorial every time; I may mismark an essay now and again; but on the whole, I am in my comfort zone when I am confronted by university students.

However, as the television adverts would have you believe, teaching younger kids is a unique challenge. Only those who can, teach students under the age of eighteen. Over the last year, my teaching credentials have been tested in this wholly different way, as I have run workshops for my university's Gifted and Talented programme for pupils aged 11 to 16, and for its scheme to encourage talented students from underprivileged backgrounds gain entry to what is a fairly elitist institution. I found that there was indeed an appreciable difference between teaching at university and junior levels, though not in a way I expected.

Neither workshop was particularly strenuous in terms of its material, the one being a practical session on how to write a blog, and the other involving a series of fun creative writing exercises. But both left me exhilarated in a way I do not get from university teaching. Teaching university students is a great privilege: they are (on the whole) motivated, highly intelligent, articulate. The atmosphere in a good tutorial room is one that can best be described as cultured enthusiasm. Whilst students and the tutor are usually passionate about the material, and hold strong views on it, these are expressed in ways that are intellectual and refined. We use theory to support out arguments, select evidence to explain a text. Our voices never get raised in anger or pleasure. We take it in turns to talk, and listen to each other carefully. The baser emotions of passionate feeling trickle through our words which are delivered with thought and care - as they rightly should be at an academic level.

Not so at the junior writing workshops. With twenty students in the room, these were noisy, bustling affairs. The kids chattered over each other, and although no one misbehaved, conversations happily drifted off the topic I was teaching. However, they were also utterly delightful, with delight meant in the most literal sense. They made me laugh, smile, joke with them. I know a conventional university tutorial has been successful when I come out of a tutorial room with my adrenaline pumping as if I have just been on a run, chasing down mazes of eager enquiry. Even after the best tutorial, though, I've never laughed out loud at the work we have done. Yet the junior scholars were genuinely entertaining, playing my word games and writing fake blog entries with imaginative abandon, joking with each other and with me as they did so. Both workshops were for students who are at the top of their classes, and I am under no illusions that their ability and good nature would not be uniform across a failing comprehensive. Nevertheless, it is good to know that the pleasures of teaching and learning can be sustained at all levels, from the very old (I taught a lady in her nineties for the OU last year) to the very young.

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Posted by Alistair at 3:37 pm


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