25 February 2006

On credibility

Last weekend I was at an old friend's 59 364/365 unbirthday party. (In other words, he greeted me at the door with "I'm not sixty yet!") Being 61 1/4 I couldn't see the problem.

His former doctoral supervisor was there. That was really nice; my friend completed his Ph.D 35+ years ago, and he has remained friends with J., his supervisor, ever since.

I've only met J. once before, decades ago. He is a world-class expert on robotics, and had just returned from teaching a short course on it in Biarritz. Technically, he ought to have retired a while ago, but he keeps going and gives the impression of being about a quarter-century younger than he is. Crucially, he is a practitioner in the commercial field, as well as an academic.

However, to the point. He was talking about his experience of teaching, and how much he got out of it. He knew nothing of my interest in this, so his comments were completely unsolicited; I was merely a listener. But reflecting on his regular visits to Biarritz, he commented (I paraphrase, I was not in researcher mode and I don't usually take a recorder to (un)birthday celebrations);

'The thing is, that I can relate my material to practice. I can introduce an equation, and say "this is really important! I've used this so many times in the past, and it has really helped us." and, "now this equation is really elegant; but to be frank, I can't recall every having used it in the past twenty years."'
I could immediately relate to the issue, but I confess I had not realised how important it was in a convergent discipline such as engineering. I'd naively assumed that this was positivistic stuff, where ideas and theories either worked or they didn't; and it was a surprise to find him talking, from vast experience, of the prioritisation of "really useful" ideas, and of how these were validated by his reference to experience.

Having real-life practical hands-on experience to draw on has always been an important factor in my teaching experience, principally because for almost thirty years I was pulling an academic con-trick. I was teaching social workers, without ever having been one myself (although with accumulated classroom experience I could have passed myself of as one, and I did have some voluntary work in relevant areas of practice to fall back on.)
  • No, blow the excuses, I was just an academic; I did not know by acquaintance what I was talking about. So I had to fall back on drawing out, and helping to make sense of, my learners' experience. I had authority as a "teacher", but none from experience. On the one hand that made it easy for students (who invariably had some practical experience, because that was a criterion for admission to the courses) to dismiss me; on the other it honed my practice skills in teaching and particularly in listening to them. But if well-grounded practitioners dismissed me as an airy-fairy theoriser, they were probably right to do so.
Now, of course, I teach about teaching; and I've really been there, done that, and learned from it. Perhaps that was the greatest relief in my switch of disciplines, from covert pretence about practice to real experience. But, I hadn't previously realised how potent a factor it was in less emotionally charged disciplines. It made sense when someone asked, "Have you ever had to take a child into care, and away from her parents?" or "Have you ever sectioned anyone under the Mental Health Act?" because I was well aware of the emotional turmoil involved. To discover that the ability to refer to personal experience carried as much weight in engineering was quite a revelation.