Sunday, 16 May 2010

Are Some Things Too Important To Be A Specialist Subject ?

Stan Tottman was one of the finest teachers I ever met. He was the Head of the English Faculty at Goldsmith’s College of the University of London when I did my English degree there in the mid 1980s. It worked out that I think I was only ever in one set of seminars led by Stan, and they were about the poet, Gerard Manley-Hopkins. With other lecturers you could go in feeling rough, and just coast through the session. Not Stan. He told you beforehand exactly what you were going o be covering in the session, and if you hadn’t done the pre-reading them you would be sunk, and would get nothing from the sessions. If you tried to sit back and let everyone else do the work he would be on your case. Yet if you did prepare properly, and did share your ideas and opinions, then he would challenge you, cajole you, and basically stage manage the whole group so that he wasn’t teaching you, you were teaching each other. Only gifted teachers can do that. By the end of the seminars you would come out feeling mentally drained, and yet energised all at the same time.

However, after this, I could never bring myself to try to answer the Manley Hopkins questions in the end of year exam, or my finals , always opting for something else.

You see, I thought that I had been given so much by these sessions, the process of trying to cut it all down, to condense it enough to make a coherent essay was just too reductive. So either Stan’s seminars had been a failure, since I felt unable to write about Hopkins in the exams, or as I prefer to think, they were a glorious success.

What has this to do with the price of tea ? Don’t worry , bear with me and I’ll get there.

Last Monday I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. No, please, I’m not asking for sympathy. I’m OK, and as long as I have the sense to listen to my doctor and the Practice nurse, and to stick to their advice I’m sure I’ll continue to be OK. But it is going to mean some changes of lifestyle. One of the changes is that I’m trying to just get out of the house for a decent walk everyday, or as many days as I can manage it. Yesterday I went to a local nature reserve called Kenfig Pool. You see, I like butterflies. It all started about 10 years ago, when my twins were 5 or 6. Close to our old home we saw a beautiful looking butterfly with round eye patterns on its wings. They asked me what it was called, and I had no idea. So the next day we took a book out of the library and found out. So then we started looking out for all the other different types we could find. The girls stayed interested for a few years, but I’ve kept up my interest ever since.

So, as I say, yesterday I went for a walk in Kenfig Pool, and my youngest daughter came along to keep me company. We didn’t see many butterflies, to be honest, a small white, a speckled wood, and an female orange tip. When we saw this one I went off on a lecture about how the female looked very like a small white, because it lacks the distinctive orange tip to its wing that the male has that gives the species its name. Jess then asked me why I never took British butterflies as a specialist subject in Mastermind. I had to think for a minute because actually it would fulfil pretty much all of the criteria I’ve ever used to select a specialist subject. Its finite – there are about 60 species of butterfly regularly seen in the UK – I already have a halfway decent knowledge of the subject – I already own a number of books on the subject, so it wouldn’t break the bank. The only meaningful answer I could give was pretty much the same reason why I couldn’t write essays about Gerard Manley Hopkins – I would find it too reductive a process for something so special to me. Not that I’m saying that any of the other subjects I’ve learned in my time weren’t special, but not in the same way.

As an aside, by way of coincidence, a good quizzer called Jane Anne Liston, whom I met in the Brain of Britain semi-final last year, did actually take British butterflies as a specialist subject in the semi final of the 2007 SOBM of Mastermind. Very well she did too, as I recall.

Of all the reasons we might have for rejecting potential Mastermind subjects – because the subject is too wide, because its too hard, because its too boring, because its too unusual, because its too popular , for example, I wonder how many of us have ended up rejecting potential subjects because they are too important and mean too much to us ?


Anonymous said...

I was once advised - in the brief moment when I considered applying for Mastermind - to be careful when choosing a specialist subject, for I would come to hate it: that is, the enforced study of the sort of detail required would destroy any casual interest, and do unto the subject what GCSE study does for a novel. After some reflection, I discovered that there was no subject about which I cared enough to study it deeply, but not so deeply that I could bear to destroy that interest. This was one of the three reasons I never applied for Mastermind (the others being that I have surprisingly large gaps in my general knowledge borne of always having quizzed on teams, and that I have insufficient time to do everything else in my life anyway!).

As a question writer, however, my corollary to your point would be that, on the occasions that I allow myself to write about my deep(er) interests, I try to improve the quality of questions on them from the merely superficial. For example, I have chafed for years at law questions that take something of fundamental important to all of us, and reduce it to a few mostly obsolete and arcane terms, a few word etymologies, and the number of people on juries. Whenever writing law questions, therefore, I try to write about actual everyday law: the courts that hear cases and their procedures, the key principles of the main areas of law, and some notable figures of whom more people should have heard - quiz as education, if you like.

Londinius said...

Hello Rob,

Nice to hear from you again. I don't know that I'd compare learning a Mastermind subject to studying a novel for GCSE in its effect. For me I found that my interest in all of my specialist subjects has probably been enhanced by sudying them in that way - although as I say I could never have done it for butterflies.

I think its really about choice. For example, I hated "Jane Eyre" when I studied it for A Level, but then I might have hated it any way if I had just read it for pleasure. More likely, I might never have actually chosen to read it for pleasure in the first place.

I think that you make a great point about writing questions about your own deeper interests . And yes, why is it that you don't get that kind of question about law ? It had never struck me before I read your comment, but thinking about it you are absolutely right. On a personal note I do from time to time ask questions in my own quizzes about particular interests of mine, but these are the kind of question that I find I have to take particular care over, since what I think of as an interesting question may be just far too difficult for anyone lacking that particular special interest. I think a little of my own interests goes a long way - the last thing I'd want is , whenever its my turn to make the quiz, people groaning and thinking - Oh God, another quiz about London, butterflies, radios, the Olympics , Kings and Queens . . . you get the drift.

Tony Whelpton said...

I too was a student at Goldsmiths, but many years before you. In fact, from 1953 to 1957 I was in the same group as, and in 1955-6 shared the same digs with Stan Tottman, who you describe as the best English teacher you ever had!
And in 2009, at the age of 76, I was a contender in Mastermind, only being beaten by a future Mastermind champion, a Scots doctor called Gary Grant, whom John Humphrys accidentally called Gary Cooper! My specialist subject was the life of the French novelist Honoré de Balzac.
Tony Whelpton

Londinius said...

Hi Tony,
Sorry I've only just seen this comment. What a small word! I still stck with what I said about Stan.

Thanks for dropping by