MAKING THEM FRIGHTENED AND FEARFUL: My lecturing technique at university

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MAKING THEM FRIGHTENED AND FEARFUL: My lecturing technique at university

By chance, I left university lecturing in much the same way as I'd arrived: by slipping out sideways.

Some time in the late 2000s I was freelancing, had done a short and unhappy stint lecturing in journalism (which I felt was taking fees from students entering a dying industry) and every now and again I'd be invited by singer-songwriter Karen Hunter to come and talk to her uni music students.

It was fun and easy, just chatting about how music journalism worked, what outlets were available to them, what not to do and so on.

I think when Karen quit she must have recommended me because at one point I was teaching a third of a course about pivotal changes (and musicians) in Western music.

I did the era from rock'n'roll to contemporary hip-hop.

Over the years my role expanded into taking full-time classes of first, second and third year students. I created courses which were well attended and – according to the student's anonymous feedback at the end of each semester – much enjoyed.

I still sometimes get complimentary messages from former students or cheerful encounters when I meet them in bars, clubs or at concerts.

After they've introduced themselves and mentioned doing one of my papers the first thing I ask is, “Did you pass?”

At that point – they have always said yes – we chat like equal adults, as we always were.

Of course there were a few students (almost too few to mention, aside from the one which follows) who had something negative to say in their survey. I liked “a bit racist” from one student (no further explanation) and “doesn't smile much” (which bewildered me because I was forever clowning around, getting them to sing along to the Exponents' and having a very fine time of it).

It was music after all and at some level it is entertainment, so I believed the lectures should be entertaining as well as serious.

Screenshot_2024_03_10_at_12.25.25_PMThere were odd things: one student said they were surprised that I'd played a song which used the N word. It was Coffee Bar Blues by Peter Cape from about 1960 and the N word was in “cafe negra”. She thought “negra” was the great unspoken and in a couple of e-mails I assured her that Cape simply meant “black” and that Negro was a common term also.

She came back thinking that too was the N word until I explained that it wasn't and if so the United Negro College Fund in the US might need to be told.

She accepted all this in good spirit but it reminded me that by not saying the N word means there are lot of people who, having never heard it, guess at it or assume it to be other words.

But I thoroughly enjoyed the lecturing, meeting the students before and after lectures, reading their work and so on. I liked the marking much less: 100+ essays can take quite a chunk out of your life.

There was one odd skirmish however which looked to land me in serious trouble.

My recollection is it went like this.

There was a major assignment due at noon on a Monday and on Saturday afternoon I was checking my uni e-mails and saw something had come in from a student, a question about her answer or something. She needed clarification and help.

I didn't have the time to address it then but on Sunday morning – and let's be honest, she was cutting it fine and I was under no obligation to be answering such messages on a weekend – I read it again, gave her the information she required and than at the end I signed off with “Now say, thank you Graham” in inverted commas.

A joke, right?

About a week later I received a summons from the head of the school of music to come and see him: there had been a Formal Academic Complaint laid against me which was going to go to the Senate or whatever high-flying committee overseas complaints about sexual harassment, abuse of students, hopeless lecturers or whatever.

I had no idea what this was about but . . . it was from the student I'd helped on Sunday.

Apparently she, as a third year student, was shocked by my response, had never been subjected to such abuse and – as such people always do – took up the case of behalf of others like first year students who might be so insulted, harmed or something that they might give up university on the basis of such an encounter with a lecturer.

Something like that.

It was nuts and I expected the head of the department would laugh it off or come to my defence. Maybe even say “thank you Graham” for dealing with this matter on a Sunday?

But he didn't.

He said we should talk the student down by offering an apology.

I thought we should call her in for a conversation in which I might suggest that in the real world beyond the cloisters of university she might have to deal with much more direct and genuinely abusive comments.

But it just seemed easier to offer her an apology.

So I wrote her a brief letter in which I quoted back to her the horrors she'd had to endure from me: “It has been agreed that I should offer you an apology. I do this now and, as I hope you must know, it was certainly never my intention to make you feel unsafe, frightened and fearful as you have said”.

I concluded “I do now hope that you are able to put this distress behind you. All the very best with your exams”.

I heard no more of it. I hope she has never since had to endure such appalling abuse as she had from me.

At the end of 2021 after about 11 or 12 years as a Professional Teaching Fellow I said to the new head – the other guy left under a cloud I'm pleased to report – that I would like a break from teaching the 2022 summer school in January and February.

We'd wanted to travel for while but Covid had got in the way.

So I stepped out of uni but helped those who were going to take over my class for that short period. And then I thought, that's unfair on them to have to get up to speed on this paper only for me to waltz back in for the first semester again.

So I slipped out sideways and said that they should consider my course theirs now.

I didn't add, “now say, thank you Graham”.

At the start of 2022 we did as planned, we left New Zealand heading for Sweden, England and Scotland . . . just as omicron hit big up that way, Boris Johnson was sliding further into ill-repute with his government on the ropes . . . then the Russians invaded Ukraine.

It was a good time to be up that way.

But that is another series of stories.


These entries are of little consequence to anyone other than me Graham Reid, the author of this site, and maybe my family, researchers and those with too much time on their hands.

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