Last week’s Times Higher Education magazine included quite an interesting article on how members of academic staff feel about the start of a new term; emotions recorded include fear, panic, nightmares, trepidation and the whole gamut of angst that you would expect, as well as the more positive emotions like enthusiasm for new teaching and the opportunity to meet and engage with a new group of students.
I was considering writing a blog post recording my emotions about a new term (which, for the record, are torn between not being able to wait to get back into the classroom after two years out of it, and the inevitable first day nerves of starting a new job at a new institution where you’re still learning the ropes), but then I got my next DVD from Lovefilm through the post and settled down to watch it. Said film was Educating Rita (1983), adapted by Willy Russell from his 1980 play, starring Michael Caine as the English lecturer Frank and Julie Walters as Rita (real name Susan) as a non-traditional student who has decided to take her degree via the Open University. (There’s also a wonderful cameo by Maureen Lipman, but I shan’t fangirl.) I use non-traditional to describe Rita not just because it’s a more appropriate word to describe students than ‘mature’, but also because at the start of the film Rita isn’t mature – part of the whole point is the slow maturation process that she goes through, and the conflict this causes for Frank as he sees her ‘getting an education’ and cheerfully (and gratefully) discarding most of the things that made her, to him, an interesting and unique student in the first place.
The THE article mentioned lecturers who have rituals for first classes – playing a particular piece of music beforehand, wearing lucky socks, a specific activity they set students. I think I may just have started my own start of year ritual with watching Educating Rita.
You would be very well advised to ask why, as Frank is, in some ways, absolutely not the lecturer I wish to become – the dipsomania is the most obvious off-putting factor, not to mention the arrogance, the misanthropy and the general disdain for humanity. He would also fail as a role model for these REF-pressured times, given it’s entirely unclear when he last wrote or published anything. He ends up in front of multiple disciplinary committees because of being drunk on duty and eventually singing under the bursar’s window, which in the end gets him sent to Australia (a nice touch, I thought). He obviously thinks the Bright Young Things in his tutorials and lectures are devoid of independent intellectual thought, and that while Rita is glad to learn what to think, what to wear, what to do, she’s essentially swapping one set of restrictive social conventions for another. (Ah, this is the voice of privilege – why would you ever want this set of social conventions, you who have never had the chance to choose whether these are the social conventions you would like to be bound by.)
But, in contrast to that – Frank is also a bloody good teacher. He’s honest. He makes a connection with Rita on a personal level, actually caring about what happens in her life. He balances valuing what she produces as and of herself with pushing her to write within disciplinary norms, and helping her get there. He constantly says that she isn’t achieving because of his teaching, she’s naturally got innate ability – but the problem with innate ability is that it needs to be drawn out. Even though the film doesn’t necessarily show much of that at work beyond Rita’s progress along her academic and cultural journey, things clearly are changing for her. Although the stint at summer school is pivotal in that Frank realises that (to his mind) he’s created a monster, he still continues to work with her, to assist her learning as best he thinks he can, to prepare her for the examination which is her be all and end all.
So perhaps Frank is not the ideal academic role model. But for all his faults, and they are manifold, he is a damn fine teacher. And that is what inspired me about watching this film at the beginning of term – the urge to bring the best out of each student, to connect to each student, to get their minds working and widen their horizons. And if that inspiration comes in a film that reminds me that life in the academic world, and indeed the world at large, is not always perfectly rosy and idyllic - that sounds like a call to take arms against a sea of troubles to me.