Issue 211 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1997 Copyright © Socialist Review

Feature article:A sense of loss

Jonathan Neale

Geoff teaches history at a university in the north of England. He's done it for 20 years. His department has excellent ratings in teaching and research. This is as good as it gets.

I ask him how the other teachers feel now? 'Alienated, afraid, exhausted and angry.' Why? Student numbers have increased massively in the last ten years. Once classes had about ten students. Now they have 25 or more. Once tutorials had four or five. Now they have ten or more­but they're still called tutorials.

Geoff says teachers still see students one to one­when they can get their foot in the door. In principle the lecturers are available at all times. In practice, Geoff and his colleagues all use the back stairs rather than the lift to leave the office. That way the students waiting in the corridor can't catch them. It's not that Geoff and his colleagues don't like students. It's that they already see too many.

What Geoff dislikes most about the management is the endless Mickey Mouse monitoring. He constantly has to fill out forms to tell them what he is doing. He has to fill out forms for the department, for the school of humanities, for the university and for the national monitors. Each of them ask slightly different questions. None of them are capable of understanding what the answers mean in practice. But it's edgy, filling out those forms.

Geoff has a permanent contract. More and more of his colleagues are on five year contracts. Some of them are on one year contracts. They are never quite sure how they will be judged. Does editing a book count for more than articles in journals? What buzzwords do I have to use?

Geoff is applying for a new research grant, and in a letter a friend tells him what words to use in the application­'empowerment, multiple intelligences, critical thinking, multiculturalism, disability and sexual awareness, enabling efficacy, strategic planning, outcome based curricula and applying whole language techniques and Bloom's taxonomy'.

His friend is joking and Geoff smiles as he reads the letter. The 'political correctness' doesn't bother him­he's a man of the left. It's the knowledge that using those words really will give him a better chance at a research grant, because his application will be judged by fools who know so little they can only count the correct words.

Geoff has noticed his colleagues have become very careful about talking to management. The majority now take somebody with them when they have to talk to a manager, so they have a witness for later. And they have learned to put everything on paper, so that when the system fucks up somewhere down the line there will be a record that you didn't do it.

Most workers have treated management in this way for a long time. For Geoff, and for many university lecturers, it's a humiliation. He became a teacher because he was excited by ideas. He had a vocation. He says, 'Our biggest misapprehension when we began teaching was to think educational systems were more or less benign.'

They feel guilty about the students. What makes them feel worst is that students don't read books or write essays any more. When Geoff went to university he had a tutor he saw­alone­every week. He wrote two essays a week for different courses. These were read and returned to him by somebody who knew his name. And he read two or three books a week.

Now students have no money, so they have to work. But when they can get to the library, they can't get hold of the reserved books. Too many students chase too few copies. The library closes earlier now, and closes sooner in the holidays. Reading lists for classes get longer, in the hope that students will be able to read one of the books on the list. But everybody knows that really students only read one or two articles for each class. And Geoff knows he no longer has the time to teach students why reading books is important, or how to read them with care and critical attention.

He doesn't have time to read the essays now classes are so large. So his department, like all departments, has cut the number of essays students write. Five years ago it was down to two or three essays a course­now it's down to one or two.

More and more of the work is being done by teaching assistants. These are graduate students or people who have just finished their theses, employed by the term and paid by the hour. Like all teachers on short term contracts they face a double bind. Officially they are supposed to teach. In practice they can hardly keep their heads above water doing the research which might win them a permanent post.

These people are very competitive­they have reached the top of a very competitive educational system. Now they are under pressure to teach more, fill out more forms, do more research. They skimp on everything. And many protect their backs by terrorising their colleagues, those who might expose the growing holes in their teaching and research. Even Geoff finds it hard not to do the same himself, and hates himself when he does it. The workplace has become a much less friendly place. There is little personal support.

There is a sense of rage as you talk to Geoff, but also a sense of loss. Most workers have put up with alienation for a long time. Geoff and the other lecturers are being turned into workers. They can remember what it felt like not to be a worker.

Geoff says, 'A sense of vocation has been lost. It's become a job.'

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