As I start writing this, it is the first night of my last ever Open University summer school at Heriot-Watt. I’ve taught at this school for the last ten years and this pleasant, semi-rural campus echoes with many fond memories.
I walked through the sunken garden this evening and mentally listed every person I’ve worked with in my time here. Most of these people I remember with warmth, but there was the odd, inescapable, irritating character.
One person who was never irritating was Lloyd Trebello. He was my mentor in my very first year: enthusiastic, friendly and a great teacher of chemistry. I worked with him for the first three years. In the third year he was suffering badly from motor neuron disease and he wasn’t able to attend the following year. The year after that I heard he had died. I only knew him for three weeks in total, but I still often think of him, especially when at summer school.
The students generally have an insatiable desire to learn, and they learn in an atmosphere of freedom, civility, equality, respect and, well, fun. I don’t think there is a more ideal teaching experience and, if this is the last OU summer school I do, which is a distinct possibility, then I will miss it greatly. That said, it occurred to me that after ten years it has become familiar and easy and that perhaps it’s appropriate that I find another challenge. (It also occurs to me that this a load of crap.) But as I grow older, and hopefully wiser, I’ve come to realise that the most interesting challenges find me, not the other way around.
Madeline Bell is another person that dates back to my first ever school. I haven’t seen her for a few years now. She is always a group tutor, shepherding her group of 15 or so students through the week, from activity to activity, from lab to lab. I, in contrast, am always an activity tutor, almost always demonstrating the spectrometers in the chemistry lab as part of “Analysing our environment” more affectionately known as Activity B. Madeline is great fun and her groups are always lively, with trips into Edinburgh and raucous evenings in the sunken garden. She refers to me as Professor Dirty thanks to a pub quiz team name we once concocted.
The spectrometer; chromazurol S; daily tutor debriefings with booze; the bright sodium doublet; the pungent smell of the chemistry lab; the good food and hubbub in the refectory; late night antics in the sunken garden; chatting with folk in the lecturn bar; wandering about the campus; emptying out water from my leaky old Mercedes; the unpredictable but often vibrant atmosphere of the last night disco; trips into the centre of Edinburgh; the summer school song that must be sung clandestinely to avoid incurring the wrath of over-zealous senior OU staff.
As I write this last bit, I am home after my delightful last week at Heriot Watt OU summer school. The week was made so fulfilling by the students, as always, but also by many of the tutors, to name but a few: John Shone, Martin Wilkinson, Danny Paterson and Liz McGovern. Liz and I were thick as thieves and were determined to fill the week with charming nonsense, deliberate rule-breaking with a few moments of poignant seriousness. If I have to pick an event that will endure in my memory, it would be the “dance off” outside the union between the blue and yellow spots. Liz was the group tutor for the yellow spots and participated in the dance off to her group’s glee. The intoxicating high spirits of that contrast vividly with the next day’s melancholic bus ride off the campus and to Haymarket. How grim the real world seems next to the fantasy life of OU summer school.
Unfortunately, the OU is having to cut back on spending and all courses that aren’t “making a profit” are threatened with the axe. As such all OU science summer schools will be phased out in the next three years, with the exception of SXR103 at the University of Sussex. I find this shocking as OU students will be missing essential practical experience; a justifiable criticism levelled at OU science degrees at present. The problem isn’t isolated to the OU; across the country universities are considering slicing off their arms and legs for purely financial reasons.
The OU party-line is that ending the science summer schools is actually an exciting opportunity, as it can now innovate in virtual computer-based and home experiments and, possibly, day schools (though surely they’ll be too expensive). This is quite probably true, but these alternatives are not replacements for learning in the lab or in the field with instruction from experienced scientists. Science, after all, is ultimately based on our observations of nature and any science degree must respect that.
So, here’s to my ten years of tutoring and long may OU summer schools continue, with or without me.