In Defence of the Lover

I had an extraordinary philosophy professor when I was an undergraduate. He will remain nameless here. He gained legendary status when I was an undergraduate mostly because of extraordinarily peculiar habits. No one, for instance, had ever seen him wear the same suit twice – students became obsessed with this practice – and we did all rather begin to wonder how big his wardrobe was. He was always impeccably dressed, and had a habit, while lecturing, of staring at individual students for minutes at a time.  From time to time, he would slowly approach a student in class, eyes locked, until he was leaning in, inches from his or her face, hands clasped to the sides of the desk.  He had no qualms about making his distaste for contemporary local and national politicians known, and would frequently go on elegant tirades against them. He also made no effort to mask his contempt for us, the students, which seemed to be based mostly on the fact that we didn't arrive more or less ready to teach the class ourselves.

If he had been asked what his roles and responsibilities in Student Guidance and Support (the title of a whole module in my PG degree in learning and teaching in higher arts education) were, he would have said something along the lines of “why, to teach them about classical philosophy, and disabuse them of the foolish notion that they are remotely intelligent.” He was a jerk, a hothead, an utter misanthrope, and one of my favourite teachers.  The whole experience of him and of his lectures was undergraduate bliss, and I remember it all as well as I remember anything, not because of his contempt for me, or for others, or anything so psychologically eschew, but because of something else entirely.    

“The truly beautiful and noble puts its lover, as it were, at an infinite distance, while it attracts him more strongly than ever", so wrote Thoreau in his June 17, 1853 journal entry.   The else I'm referring to is just this: my professor was a Lover – not of me, not of teaching, not of any other students – but of Platonic methods and Socratic dialogues, and the whole classical canon, from Aristotle to Zeno.  Nothing split his icy resolve like seeing a student moved into questioning their own reality by their encounter with these ancient thinkers.    As far as I'm concerned we can just chuck all the ILOs, KPIs, assessment matrices, scales, feedback modes, and national/international qualification alignment matrices if we do not first and foremost have lecturers who are willing to be dead serious about what they are talking about.  In my experience, this has not been very important in the HE institutional environment.  The human interaction of teaching has become the stupefied, anaesthetised administration of a predetermined learning experience.  I'd rather dig ditches.