During the past week, I’ve crossed paths with two of the people who once taught me when I was a student. Apart from the bits where we all tried to remember quite when this was (and so all ended up feeling rather old), it was a great pleasure to recall how they had helped me.
It also got me thinking about why they were so memorable, and what the consequences of that might be.
Let’s start with them.
Both professors (in the broad sense) always struck me as being very friendly and accessible. Both had (and have) world-class reputations in their field, as researchers and as figures of much standing in their respective communities, but they were always interested in what students were doing and in how they were doing it.
In one case, being very proactive about talking with students about their studies and their wider activities, gaining a good sense of what the students were about. In the other, it meant giving students the lead in the classroom and working around their interests and research.
Both of them always treated students with respect and gave constructive advice and feedback – each conversation was treated as an opportunity for all involved including them) something to learn.
Since I first met them, we’ve met from time to time, almost always by chance rather than design (although I’ll admit one of them later examined me for my PhD viva), and their attitude was the same: supportive, thoughtful, constructive. Indeed, in the case of that viva, I came with a better understanding of my work then when I went in because of the questions I was asked and the feedback I received.
Now, you might say: “that’s lovely, Simon, but you’re obviously a deeply intellectual and academically-minded person, so they just picked up on your likely career trajectory: you’re the exception, not the rule.”
Leaving aside the thought that if you say that, then you’ve probably not met me, then I just think back to this week’s meetings with them, both at public meetings. In both cases, they had to deal with questions of a very variable quality, which they did in just the same: acknowledging the question, building on it and treating it with respect.
Indeed, have I ever seen either of them not be like this.
This is all very nice for me, but why should you care?
Three reasons spring to mind.
Firstly and most narrowly, the support I got from these two people (and from others) was a big part in giving me the confidence to pursue higher levels of study. In terms of refreshing the academy, we need to have a wide range of people coming in, and those who teach are a central part of that. That’s also true for new academics, who can really benefit from seeing a friendly face and being introduced to some new people.
Secondly, the environment that these professors created in the classroom was an immensely positive one, that benefited everyone in the room. There was never any trouble in their classes and everyone did the work they were supposed to. By leading through example, they pointed all the students they taught towards the same set of values. Whatever we might think about the power hierarchy in the classroom and however we might rail against it, it still exists in some form, so we might all learn from this.
And finally, it’s worth reflecting on the benefits for both of them.
On the (incredibly rare) occasions when either of them has asked me for a favour, I’ve been more than happy to oblige. And I know I’m not the only one. Both have built up huge networks of contacts and colleagues over the years and their goodwill has helped to lubricate that. Indeed, I struggle to think of anyone who has a bad word to say about either of them, even as they have risen to very senior positions.
This might all seem a bit trite -be nice and things will all turn out great – but it’s still worth thinking about. Just spend a moment thinking about some counter-factual cases: the hard-arse/ass who jostles their top to the top. Which one would you rather be?