Later he realises that he should have taken a sick day and stayed at home. Doing those classes felt like he was doing open-heart surgery and he was about to collapse at any moment with a scalpel in his hand. Seminars can be hard enough even when you’re fit and well, mentally sharp, and know the material well, and none of that applied to him today. The classes are on Ethics, a first-year lecture course that Bill Porterfield has been forced to do.
Forced, because Bill Porterfield is no great expert on Ethics. In fact, no-one was quite sure what field Bill Porterfield is an expert on, outside of his interest in Robert Langston. So Bill doesn’t want to do Ethics, and the department doesn’t really want him doing it either, but nobody else in the department has any expertise in Ethics, or any interest in teaching it, other than Verna Leach, but she can’t be trusted with it. So it’s Bill who has ended up with it this year.
The reason why no-one in the department specialises in Ethics is that whenever a new Lectureship comes up, either the analytics get to choose, or the Continentalists do. The Continentalists always choose someone on the basis of how Continental they are, so none of them are ever suitable material to take a fairly analytic course like Ethics – the analytics certainly don’t want to let a Continentalist or a postmodernist run a course like Ethics, because it would immediately be turned into Applied Political Protesting With Incoherent Ranting Analysis.
The analytics, on the other hand, although they know, every time, that they should hire a lecturer who can fill in some of the teaching gaps in the department, always end up going for whoever they think is the best researcher, who’ll publish the best papers, improve the department’s research standing, and provide good conversation about the sort of philosophical topics the analytics are interested in. (Luckily for Bill Porterfield he’s been in the department for decades, and has never been subject to these criteria.) This means that no ethicists ever get hired, because people who do Ethics are usually considered a bit second-rate and woolly. Of course there are some very good ethicists around, but they’re all at better places. Grayvington never gets any good ethicists applying, and anyway, most of the analytics want other metaphysicians to talk to, not ethicists. So they never hire any. Thus Introduction to Ethics is always badly taught. It’s been passed around from one person to another, and often they try to foist it upon a new lecturer, as long he or she is an analytic philosopher.
As the newest analytic lecturer Ren had been tapped up for it himself, but although he had suggested at his interview that Ethics was an Area of Competence for him, after he had been given the job he made it clear that he barely knows any Ethics. There’s meta-ethics and normative ethics, isn’t there, and, er, that’s about as much as I know. Moral statements are just boo or hisses, I sort of know that one too. Of course I could mug up on it, but seeing as you want me to teach other courses, plus there’s the TITE I have to do, it doesn’t really seem feasible that I should do that one as well, I’d have to spend the whole term in the library, bang goes all the papers I’m trying to finish up and get out to journals, if Bill did it last year then I’m sure he could do it again, such an experienced member of staff, he must know it well by now. How many times has he taught it previously? At least six times over the years? Well, there you go then, be a shame to take it off him, should be a doddle for him. Glad that was so easily sorted out.
But he hasn’t got out of having to take seminars for it, and that’s what he has to do today.
Having taught a lot of seminars as a grad student, and having talked a lot about seminar teaching with other seminar leaders, he is aware that there are three types of seminar groups: the Rollers, the Fords, and the Funerals. The Roller groups are those where there’s a sufficient proportion of students who are keen, smart, interested in the topic, have done their preparation, and most important of all are happy to talk, and debate, and listen to each other, and who don’t need much prompting or correcting, and can handle being disagreed with. Even two such students can make a seminar group a good one, a seminar that purrs along like a Rolls-Royce, never breaking down. A Roller seminar is a pleasure to teach, which you come out of feeling refreshed, or at least not too different to how you felt when you went in.
The Funerals, the seminars everyone dreads, including the students, are the ones where the students won’t talk. Sometimes it’s because they haven’t prepared, haven’t done the readings, or haven’t even been to the lecture. Some students are just shy. Some students are very unsure about their philosophical skills and knowledge and are too scared to speak up. Some students are very unsure of themselves in general. Some are a bit dim, at least by University standards. Some are intimidated by the seminar leader. Some are hungover. Some just dislike the philosophy staff, and consider talking to them uncool. Some are enrolled in other departments, and are taking just the one ‘subsidiary’ Philosophy module because their department forces them to take some courses from other departments, and they have no clue what’s going on; they just want to say nothing and scrape a pass.
Sometimes the outside students in a first-year class are East Asian students from the Commerce Department, or the Physics department. The problem with these Asians is that they’re not used to having to give their own opinion – they want to be told what to think. This is, everyone says, a result of the deference that youngsters are expected to show to their wise elders in East Asian culture. Ren thinks that any such Asian subsidiary student should be made to sign a disclaimer before doing any Philosophy module that says, ‘I acknowledge that the Grayvington Philosophy department contains no wise elders, and the opinions of any elderly (or non-elderly) members of the department are worthless.’
The other problem with East Asian subsid students from faculties such as Economics and Chemistry is that even if any of them are bright (which they are often are) and also willing to contribute in class (which is much less common), they usually have poor English, which means that any discussion you do manage to have with them doesn’t go very well. Poor English may not be such a barrier in a mathematical subject such as Physics, but, with the partial exception of Formal Logic, it’s a great handicap in most Philosophy modules, which are very language-based, and involve making fine and subtle distinctions.
Then there are those students, like El Whino, who do Philosophy because they don’t know what else to do. Students who want to go to Uni but who don’t know what subject to do usually do either Philosophy or Sociology (or English, or Theology, although not that many Unis offer Theology). The better ones do Philosophy, the thicker ones Sociology. The ones in the middle often do English, but outside considerations can sway them towards Philosophy or Sociology – the more progressive ones do Sociology, for the obvious reason, whereas those who vaguely (but unrealistically) aspire to getting a well-paid job in London, but who don’t want to limit themselves to working for The Guardian or The Indy – not that they’d ever really manage to land a job there even if they did do English – do Philosophy.
Most of the haven’t-a-clue-what-to-do students who choose Philosophy discover, sooner or later, that they have neither interest in, nor aptitude for, the subject, and they soon come to realise that the bright kids who do enjoy it are on another planet to them. At this point they switch off, and sourly resolve to keep receiving their grant for the rest of their degree, and collect a 2:2, or at worst a 3rd. Instead of pointlessly studying their texts any further most of them take up more ‘extra-curricular activities’ instead. Some spend their time partying, some throw themselves into a sport or a University society, some seek out more romantic and/or sexual liaisons, or a future husband or wife. Some do things that look good on their CV to make up for their 2:2 or 3rd.
Unfortunately some of these students while away the best years of their young adulthood watching daytime TV, day after day. These are the ones making the biggest mistake of all. In Ren’s view, spending your University days watching daytime TV is a mistake on a cosmic scale, regardless of whether you do it ironically, or whether it’s because you’re constantly stoned. If you’re going to cruise your degree at least have the decency to get some stories out of it. Even if your story is, ‘I was in the Tennis Club and I used to steal from the bar’, that’s better than ‘I used to watch Countdown every day, and every time I would jerk off over Carol Vorderman, and I felt so sad doing it that I’d just come all over the sofa and not even clean up afterwards, so the sofa ended up this crusty, smelly mess and I had to throw it out, but the rubbishmen wouldn’t take it.’
And then there are the saddest cases of all, the students who just lie on their bed all day looking at the ceiling, feeling depressed, and having anxiety attacks. There never used to be that many of these types, but since the progressives took over the school system, and parenting, and everything, and since dual-parent working became the norm, the number of these poor fuckers is increasing every year. This type of depressive manages to do nothing at all except regularly put in their requests for essay and exam extensions – most of them manage to summon up the energy to do this on time. Even the ones who don’t get their extension requests in on time are always retrospectively granted them later on, on the grounds that a depressive can’t be expected to get their request for an extension in by the extension request deadline. (Retrospective extension requests are always granted because depressive and anxious students are untouchable, and cannot ever be failed or kicked off the course.)
So they are a varied group, the students who are doing a Philosophy degree because they couldn’t think of anything else to do. But they do all have one thing in common. Whether they are jolly or sad, they all skip seminars as much as they can, and when they do come they are usually determined to say nothing, and to let others do the talking. So a seminar that has a preponderance of these sorts of students in it will be a Funeral, unless, as everyone hopes, there are a few bright and keen students who can do the talking required.