A room full of students who won’t talk is the academic equivalent of getting very constipated and consequently having to try desperately hard to force some pooh out. The atmosphere is rather strained, like everyone’s girlfriend or boyfriend has left them for their best friend, but we’re not mentioning it. In his early days, when he was a less experienced seminar leader, Ren would end up losing his nerve when faced with a Funeral and just start giving a virtual lecture instead. That was easier to do with his own lecture courses, where he could talk intelligently for hours about the topic and at least give the students some useful information, even if they’re failing to develop their own speaking, arguing and critical skills. But that wasn’t so easy to do with a course that he didn’t know that much about, like Ethics. Although he exaggerated his lack of knowledge of Ethics in order to avoid having to lecture in it, he is pretty hazy on the details, and he isn’t about to do any more mugging up on it than he should have to for a first-year seminar.
He wouldn’t have been able to cope with a Funeral today at all, except that there is a reading for this week, which he already knew, and which everyone was supposed to have read. Which, of course, most of them, in all three of today’s classes, haven’t, because it has never happened in any Philosophy seminar at Grayvington ever in the modern era that more than three students have attempted to read the set reading, and usually they’ve only got through a couple of pages. After the third page the reading could consist of nothing but entries from the telephone directory, and nobody would say anything about it.
‘I’ve sort of skimmed it, didn’t have time to read it properly’ was what students usually said. In this situation one thing you can do is to go through the reading, slowly, with the students, section by section. This isn’t just a time-filling tactic, it’s a good way for the students to learn. He remembers one of his old undergrad lecturers who used to take the students line by line through Aristotle. You need good students for that level of analysis, though. No point trying that with Sarah from the University Ski and Champagne Society.
(Also, if you, as a seminar leader, go into class with a reading you don’t know that well, then reading it slowly allows you to get a grasp of what it’s about as you go, and you can pretend you know it. But it’s a bad idea to try to wing it with a reading you don’t know at all, and any seminar reader fool enough to do it once never does it again.)
Ren hasn’t re-read this week’s reading recently, but it’s a piece he knows fairly well from his teaching experiences as a grad student. It’s a paper by Judith Thomson arguing in favour of abortion. Suppose somehow a violinist gets attached to your body, and uses your body for sustenance. To remove the violinist would kill him. Don’t you still have the right to remove him from your body? The argument has a lot of stages, so Ren can take the students through it slowly if he needed to.
He didn’t need to with the first group, which is always a Roller class. There were at least five good students who joined in with the discussion. Normally Ren tries to bring out the non-talkers as well, but today he didn’t have the energy, it was a struggle enough just to stay awake, and he let those five get on with it.
That went well, but by the end of the class he is feeling terrible, exhausted, with a parched mouth, and his injured leg and arm ache. He has to change rooms for the next seminar, so he goes off limping, hoping no-one will notice, to the next room he has to teach in, which thankfully isn’t far away. He sits down and rubs his leg under the table. The ache is making it hard to concentrate, and the hangover isn’t helping much either, and he is virtually asleep on his feet. He doesn’t know how he is going to get through the next two classes if they aren’t good groups. Especially the last one. Groups that meet later in the day are always the worst, and so far in the course that group been keen to play up to the stereotype.
The second class is less good than the first. It’s a Ford. A Ford Focus, at his estimate. Not a Mondeo. In fact, a somewhat older Focus, really, with squeaky brakes. It could have been a brand new Mondeo, or even a slightly used Roller, except that it is spoiled by a student who doesn’t understand things properly, isn’t keen to let anyone else speak, and gets on everyone’s tits. Normally this would annoy Ren, and he would make a concerted effort to quieten this student down and bring others in, but today he doesn’t mind so much because at least someone else is doing the talking. Talk away, arsehole, he thinks. Tick tock. Tick tock. Occasionally he says, ‘Let someone else speak for a change, Phil,’ but inside he’s raising a Lucozade toast to Phil.
He lets them go five minutes early, pretending that’s a favour to them, and sits there wondering whether he has enough time to rush to the cafeteria to get a Lucozade. God, how he wants a Lucozade. The cravings an alcoholic feels for another drink are but nothing compared to his craving for a Lucozade. He could taste that sweet amber liquid now, pouring down his throat, with its molten bubbles, soothing all his fears, enveloping him in a warm glucose glow. He wishes he could ask one of the students to get him one. He’d gladly pay twenty quid if someone offered him one right now. Or even the worst machine coffee ever made. He should have bought a Lucozade before the classes. There is no way he can make it to the cafe in time now. If it was yesterday, there’d be just enough time, but today his left leg and arm – especially his leg – are are so painful and stiff that it would take him half an hour.
The glorious thing about a Lucozade, he thinks, is that you can just have it there, in public, in class, and drink it right in front of everyone without them batting an eyelid, without them knowing that it’s reviving you from the dead (for a while, at least) like a magic elixir, charging up your brain like a vodka. You couldn’t do that with a beer. Or a vodka.
As he waits in the empty room, he wonders whether he could risk taking a peek at his bruises and mounds. When he last had a chance to, in his office, they’d become spectacularly horrible. Better not, though. Don’t want a student to walk in while I’m peering intently down my trousers with a look of horrified astonishment on my face.
The third class trickles in. There are only seven there. This gives him an excuse to start five minutes late, as they wait for more to come. No-one does. Sometimes a smaller class can be a good thing, it makes it feel more intimate, and usually it’s the sulkiest, energy-sucking students who haven’t turned up, which improves the atmosphere, and the good students enjoy the increase in the average IQ of the room.
But sometimes, usually with a Funeral class, a lack of numbers is a bad thing. The students who have turned up are not much better than those who haven’t turned up, and they start to panic. You can see it in their faces. I should have gone home, their faces say to each other. Sometimes they say it out loud. ‘I should have gone home too,’ they’ll say, in a semi-whisper, perhaps hoping the seminar leader will say, ‘You can go home if you want, today’s class is sort of optional.’ They’re worried because they don’t know the reading, they don’t know the lecture material, they think they’re no good at Philosophy, and they don’t like talking in public, and now it’s going to be much harder to hide.
Then, at seven minutes past the hour, after they have finally started, another student comes in. Ren is glad, because it sort of justifies his decision to wait five minutes before starting, even though late students shouldn’t really be waited for. He can see the look on this student’s face as she walks through the door. Where is everyone? Oh shit. Is it too late to sneak off? No, he’s seen me. Damn it, I should have gone to the bar, now I’ll have to say something and I haven’t a clue. That’ll teach me for being conscientious. In future stay in the bar. Ren agrees with her. In future, stay in the bar.