Thursday, February 14, 2013

I'm a Professor, I don't know anything at all and I'm proud of it

'The liberties of England and the Protestant religion I will maintain.' Which royal figure made that claim when he landed at Brixham, in Devon, in 1688?”

Do you know the answer? Hurry up. It's very important!

A poor student on the quiz show University Challenge got it wrong recently and was humiliated by quiz-master Jeremy Paxman who said "No I’m sorry that’s the wrong answer and you know it’s very wrong. It’s only out by about 600 years or so. Anyway no, it’s William of Orange of course, William III.” The 20 year old student spent most of the rest of the game with his head lowered in shame. And now Paxman is being accused of being a bully.

I always hated University Challenge. When I was younger, I found it intimidating as it seemed to be full of posh kids who were unbearably clever. BUt I loved the parody of it in The Young Ones with Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry playing the upper-class kids from Oxbridge "We're going to smash the oiks!".

Paxman plays the role of a sneering, superior psuedo-academic rather well. But he is an imagined television creation of an academic, very far from reality. With that persona he would never, ever cut it as a lecturer at a real university. His feedback forms would be appalling. Students would be in tears outside the secretary's office and his Head of Department would email him to send him on a training course on how to interact with students, designed to humiliate staff who aren't pulling their weight. His efforts to get promotion would be futile, until he changed his ways.

Similarly, the whole premise of University Challenge presents a kind of fiction about what students are like and what is valued at universities. For most students, facts are useful things but nobody (apart from a few people who have not gone to university) is especially impressed if you have committed lots of them to memory. Why on earth would anyone need to have information about who said what quote at their fingertips, when Google could provide the answer for you? Such "rote learning" is instead viewed as the lowest form of intelligence, sadly associated with certain countries which have communist- or Ayatollah- style leaderships. "They know a lot of facts, but they don't know how to apply that knowledge or be critical of it," is something which I hear again and again about overseas students. Just above "knowing things" in the hierarchy is "knowing where to look to find the answers to things you don't know". But even this is very low down the skill-set.

Instead, at British universities, creativity, interpretation and criticism are heralded as supreme. Brains are not meant to be filing cabinets to store information, but tools that do amazing things with bits of information. I suspect that my brain span is rather small - I know very little about the world, and even fewer facts. My memory is appalling and one of my better talents (apparently) is to conduct a conversation with someone without paying attention to a word they've said. I view my brain as being a bit like an old computer with not a lot of memory. I suspect I'm close to full, and every new bit of information needs to be rewritten over an older piece of information - hence, every time I meet a new person, I forget about someone I've already met. Naturally, this makes me very careful about the sort of information I attend to, and the part of my brain which does work quite well, is always asking "Do you really need to know this? How useful will it be?"

So facts, such as whether William I said that quote or not, are surplus to requirements. And I would never go on University Challenge or any quiz show for that matter because I don't know any facts, I would come last and Jeremy Paxman would sneer at me and say "Call yerself a Professor? You aren't fit for purpose!"


Paul Brownsey said...

Well, I enjoyed being on UC but it was always difficult to explain to people that whatever knack I displayed recovering obscure information about the battle of Carchemish or whatever had virtually nothing to do with what went on in universities.

theguyliner said...

I tend to remember only the most useless of things: what I was wearing on a certain day five years ago; the Knots Landing theme tune; Smash Hits quotes. Actual facts and figures I struggle with, and I seem to have a very limited capacity to retain information about my favourite things. I cringe massively when asked if I can recommend any books or authors (I write for 'a living', so this gets asked a lot), because I almost always forget a book as soon as I've read it. I have a couple of stock answers on standby now, even though I've probably read better since. At first I used to think it was because I was thick or inattentive, but now I realise I've just got other things to do and think about – I'm using all my memory in the 'now'.