17 Your most influential teacher was probably pretty quirky

Leoarna Mathias

Don’t you think? My 3rd year junior school teacher Mr Wardley was all arms and legs and loud expression, but he taught me that it was OK to make ‘knowing stuff’ my aspiration, and I have never forgotten him. My university tutor Michael Passey occupied a room mostly buried under piles of paper and never pronounced my name right in 3 years, but had a sense of well-placed righteous indignation when talking about human rights and social justice that is still with me 25 years later.

You get the picture.

I think I have spent the last two days, at the HEA Inspire conference in the company of people who are more, or less, quirky; because, let’s face it, aren’t we all? So Claire McGourlay at the University of Sheffield has bucked the trend and made teaching-only professorship a fine art, by setting her students free to practice from the earliest stages of their legal training, and letting a pro-uno stance (not per una) – doing legal work for those who would otherwise not have it – be her, and her student’s, modus operandii. Twitter could not roll fast enough with the wisdom coming through her words this morning – just check out the hashtag #HEASocSci15 to see what I mean.

With lots of session options on offer after Claire’s key note, I headed in to listen to early-career academic Lewis Simpson from University of Leeds, exploring the use of metaphor in his teaching of Sociology. For Lewis, quirkiness is a backbone of his pedagogy, as he uses chairs or tables, and their component parts, to represent complex theories, and genuinely aims to be “as weird as [he] possibly can”. I quite fancy being in Lewis’ lectures; I reckon his teaching would be big on ‘rememberability’ and low on Hancock-faced boredom – and it was he who had us pondering the relative necessity for quirkiness in our educators. Next up, Alan Hanna from Queens University Belfast described bringing the trading floor inside his institution, so that his business students understand the challenges of making other people’s money grow in a real-world way. It seems so obvious, but I got the impression very few others were doing it, this side of the pond anyway. And Hope Christie and Karl Johnson were driven by personal experience to bring a greater degree of shared anti-worry wisdom to the students on their previous degree courses, as they transitioned into the tough final year. All of their papers, and the many, many others on offer throughout the conference are available on the HEA conference website.

I was lucky enough to share twenty minutes of my own quirkiness as I delivered a paper – in which I characterise myself as a Street Level Lecturer holding back the tide of performativity agendas and neoliberalisation to keep my relationship with students authentic. That this early-career academic got her paper accepted felt like a great coup – to have had a warm reception, amongst such intense diversity, was even nicer. The individuality of each pedagogue I have met in the last two days leaves me feeling encouraged for the future of HE in the UK, no matter the pressures, the measures, or the Green Paper metrics and rhetoric. It will still be us, standing in front of our classrooms, trying to do our best by our students, for a good while to come.

So, thank you HEA, for the opportunity – and the quirkiness.

Leoarna Mathias, Lecturer at Newman University