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Sunday, 6 January 2013

*That* Business

Many of you will have seen the story about me printed in the Times Higher.  I pass no comment on its quality.  Today's newspaper, tomorrow's chip-paper, and all that.  I'd rather not have had to do even this but I could see people (including one person I know) leaping to condemn me without bothering to question what may have been omitted from or lain behind the article (no historians, they...).  Today I even got an abusive post-card from Edinburgh, which the sender courageously omitted to sign.

All I am going to add (with names removed and typos left in), the apology posted to the students before the original (and more even-handed) version appeared in Nouse, our student newspaper (indeed drafted before I knew that any story would appear).  (You can read the Nouse version on line if you're that bothered.)  All of the elements of this apology were passed to Nouse before the story ran, including the medical aspects, which, while important (especially the loss of perspective issue), I'm not hiding behind; it was a stupid thing for me to do/write.  Nor do I see them as something to be ashamed of, though - I've lived  with them as far back as I can remember - and am happy enough to 'go public' about that.    You might want to remember that both this and the previous announcement where made entirely in-house, only to course members, none of this was published more widely by me, beyond that environment.  Til now.

Really it's a non-story.  Frustrated and depressed professor berates his students in somewhat ill-advised language; then apologises.  And ...?  .

Here is my apology:
I want to apologise to you all for the tone and some of the content of my last announcement. I also want to make clear that this apology would have been made anyway; it is not dependent upon the fact that some of you have reported it to Nouse. For reasons that will emerge, with a clear head it became clear to me that my comments undermined my general point; I should not have made them in the way I did. It was unprofessional and offensive of me. I unreservedly apologise to you all. I also apologise to my departmental colleagues; they take their teaching extremely seriously and should by no means be tarred with the same brush as me. I am very sorry that I have lost the respect of at least some of you, though I fully understand your reaction.
I would like to say two things which may explain if by no means excuse. First, my outburst was born of frustration, and because I do actually care.
  • I care deeply about my courses
  • I care deeply that you learn something important that you can take away from the course not just into the rest of the degree but into later life.
  • I care that you get value for their money, qualitatively as well as quantitatively - as I too clumsily said in my message. I think it is obscene that you - or any students - have to pay fees for higher education and I have published my view on this many times. That was what I meant be 'obscene sums'; it was not intended as a comment on students' wealth or otherwise.
More personally, I care because I fear that there are people who have not had the advantages that some of you have had (or that I had) who would be making more use of the opportunities available; people from my own background. That is a personal view, and a political one, partly stemming from spending eleven years teaching mature students who had missed out on education first time. It doesn't excuse my outburst by any means (let me make that clear), and I don't expect you to agree, but I hope that you can see that it is a genuine and sincerely-held point of view.
So, quite apart from feeling (maybe wrongly) that the effort that I put into my teaching was being wasted, this was very largely what led to my outburst.
It is no excuse, I admit.
Second, I have long suffered from a mental illness (depression), one symptom of which is a tendency to lose perspective and to make angry outbursts like this. This and my particular case, are well-documented. After years of suffering from it, normally I manage my condition pretty well but because of an unusually high concentration of work (several extra teaching sessions, meetings and - of course - marking your essays and my 3rd-years'), I had been unable to get my repeat prescription and so had not been medicated for over 24 hours when I made the VLM announcement. With a clear head I can how offensive what I wrote was (at the time I meant sarcastically - not that that makes it any better - but with no intention to offend).
None of that excuses what I did. That is clear. I do hope though that, as would be the case with any of you, that you might cut me a little slack on those grounds.
I do think, nevertheless, that it is regretable that you took the story to Nouse rather than to [head of department], or [Chair], or [2nd-Year Senior Tutor]. [They] have taken this very seriously, as they would have done had the complaint been brought directly to them. I should have preferred that, so that I could apologise properly to you alone (as I am doing, and as I would have done, anyway), rather than, as is now the case, having to make the details of my mental health available to the wider University public. I hope that that is punishment enough!
Once again, though, I am very sorry.
You can draw your own conclusions.


  1. For the first time in my teaching career (which started with one of your courses) and in my fifth lecture of all time, I had 2 students walk out in the middle of the lecture. These same students then came asking questions they would've known the answers to if they'd only stayed till the end. It annoyed me immensely! Somehow, the lack of respect for a young academic like myself is still more understandable than that for someone like you. I'm now embarking on a series of 16 lectures and I worry about my response to a similar situation. You've clearly endured long and while your words 'may' (I don't think they were) have been 'not very PC', your sentiment is certainly spot on and no doubt shared by many.
    I hope some of the solidarity shown by your students on the THE comments board helps.
    PS: The article itself was an excellent example of the shoddiest kind of journalism. Not even chip paper methinks!

  2. In the program I teach in, students fail the course if they miss more than one week of lecture. Most universities here are required to take attendance and students must be dropped or fail if they miss more than whatever level the department or university sets. State universities here require it because the state pays the university per course enrollment and the state wants it money well spent.

  3. Junior medievalist8 January 2013 at 08:24

    I have lots of sympathy with this. We work very, very long hours, and even tiredness (leaving aside the problem of depression, of which we in academia have an unhealthy share) can make us lose perspective. You've just marked 40 x 3000 word essays and are embarking on 50 x 2000 words. You spend 6 hours of your Sunday writing a lecture for the following morning, updating the VLE, then dealing with administrative issues for the REF, before realizing that it's now too late to phone your parent/sibling/bedridden grandparent/ best friend, because you were too busy working. Again. You then go to give said lecture (to write which you postponed, again, your personal life), to a quarter or half-strength audience. And then, come essay or exam time, you field e-mail after e-mail essentially asking questions that were answered in the lectures. The only surprising thing is that more of us don't lose our rags, more often.


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