A Nostalgic Ramble by Sandra Horn
First a greeting for the Solstice:
|Professor Jahoda: https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/jahoda-marie|
Among very many lucky things in my life was being taught by Marie Jahoda. When I’d flunked my O level maths and couldn’t take up my place at Brunel, she wrote and encouraged me to try again, as Faculty wouldn’t waive the requirement, although she’d asked. I did, and passed. She had set up the first in the UK - as far as I know – sandwich psychology degree, from her passionate belief that psychologists needed their feet in the real world if they were to be of any use to humankind. After a year of academic learning, we were all sent off to work in a factory; 3 months on the shop floor and 3 in management, her argument being that, in most fields of our chosen profession, the vast majority of our clients would have their lives shaped by such workplaces and we needed to understand those experiences first-hand. I ended up packing vaccines on a conveyor belt for what was then just Glaxo. Repetitive and uninteresting work made more than bearable by the team of kind, lively, intelligent women I was with. They welcomed me and looked after me, one or another doubling up their work rate to sort me out if I got behind, and treated my presence among them with gentle humour. ‘Millie swore, write that down,’ said with a grin, was one thing I remember. I was ‘bumped’ on my birthday, as was everyone, with Agnes the Forewoman presiding anxiously – ‘Be careful! Don’t hurt her!’ They brought me chocolate and buns, as everyone knew that students didn’t eat properly. The pay was pathetic, slightly topped up by a ‘bonus’ if we hadn’t had any time off that month, but they were all incredibly loyal to the firm. My time there was a big contrast to that spent in the personnel offices among snide, sexist blokes. I learned a lot!
I remember debating cultural relativism with Professor Marie, and arguing for it. She countered by describing female genital mutilation and asking me if that was a cultural tradition I wanted to uphold. I’d never heard of it up to then. I was floored, and muttered something like, ‘Well no, but the principal of allowing for cultural differences is right – with exceptions, of course.’ I felt a fool, but she made a point of approaching me afterwards and saying, ‘I enjoy debating with you, Miss MacDonald.’ She set the way I conducted all my working life – I hope – rooted in experiential learning and a qualitative approach to research, for a start. She also made me a committed anti-FGM supporter and I have also highlighted the issue in a play and in poetry.
Marie had collected an interesting bunch of lecturers around her for her great experiment. All very bright, innovative teachers and not one of them an exactly mainstream academic. Morning lectures often started in a classroom and carried on in the coffee shop round the corner. We were encouraged to question, argue. Marie sometimes asked a student who smoked for a cigarette and insisted on paying for it while commenting that she didn’t want to encourage something that was bad for health. When it was Rag Week, she told us to enjoy ourselves and if we got arrested, we should not bother our tutors, but call her instead. I picture her arriving at the police station, a small woman in a cape, the light of battle in her eye, to spring us… One Senior Lecturer used to teach while sitting on a table, feet up, propelling himself slowly round on one cheek of his bum with one hand while throwing a piece of chalk up and down with the other. I wish I’d paid more attention to his words (he was absolutely brilliant!) but the spinning and the will-he-drop-the-chalk anxiety sometimes got in the way. He once told us that he nursed a secret ambition to be elected President of the British Psychological Society and give his inaugural lecture on the topic ‘People are Funny’. How I wish he had!
Our techies were equally eccentric and amazing; always helpful, always with clever solutions to problems, often building their own innovative kit. One was very tall, one rather small. Tall adopted a flirty approach to female students. He always had a huge box of mint imperials to hand, which he would produce with a knowing smile –‘Have a pill.’ He also had his own names for us – Daisy May, The Comely Wench, etc. It didn’t occur to any of us to be offended. If anything, we enjoyed the banter and found it both flattering and funny. How very unsuitable it would seem now; imagine the complaints, the disciplinary action, the termination of employment. I’m an ardent feminist, for goodness’ sake, but I look back on him with fondness. That was then.
In very stark contrast to our jeans-and-sweater clad lecturers were the two imports from Physiology and Biochemistry, our subsidiary subjects. The physiologist was an immaculately-turned-out woman with matching everything and a voice ten times more queenly than the Queen. She would use a technical term, pause, look as if she had something nasty in her moth and say, ‘Or, in the common parlance…’. We were quelled by her. The Biochemist, on the other hand, was a grumpy bloke who had obviously been dragooned into teaching this bunch of weirdos and didn’t like it. He must have expected his own students to sit up straight, call him Sir and write down everything he said. He was apoplectic when someone challenged him about something (without waiting to be invited and without the Sir!), and he punished us by reeling off complex formulae about biochemical pathway malfunctions which had an effect on the brain, at the speed of knots. Maple Syrup Urine Disease, anyone? Phenylketonuria? The only bright spot was when he described Cri du Chat Syndrome and I recognised it as the thing my Great-gran had once told me about, caused by the child’s mother being frightened by a ferret when she was pregnant. He wasn’t interested.
The 4-year course was, in essence, a long experiment in complex learning, and we were the experimental subjects. We were taught mainstream psychology, with a social psychology slant, and a whole lot more as well. I remember once having my eye-movements tracked while I read a scientific paper and then being questioned about the content. The study highlighted differences in learning style between those who tracked across line by line and those who (like me) whose eyes skittered about. Skitterers tended to take in the essence but not be too hot on details; line-trackers were the reverse. Another study involved being presented with a buffet lunch at which all the food was the wrong colour and having our reactions and what we had tasted recorded. We also trialled a programmed learning text, which was a bit like those adventure stories with several possible endings depending on how the reader answered questions along the way. There were ‘rewards’ for getting things right – very B.F. Skinner in origin – and what we learned was that (a) it was mind-numbingly boring, and (b) fact by fact by checked fact is no way to learn intellectually complex material. Very useful to know!
Until Brunel had its University status confirmed and moved out to the purpose-built campus at Hillingdon, we were sometimes in temporary classrooms, such as a disused cinema in Acton. Tip-up seats, (nicely upholstered), a balcony and a strangely sloping floor all added to the ambience.
Do I envy today’s students and their tightly-organised learning experiences, their formal relationships with lecturers and tutors, the checks and balances, the rules, the health-and-safety issues that protect them from being smoked over by their teachers? No (except the smoking), although I acknowledge that it is safer for them now and that The Great Experiment would not be for everyone. I am enormously thankful that I was a part of it. I just hope they have as much fun as we did.