A Nostalgic Ramble by Sandra Horn

 First a greeting for the Solstice:

  I’ve been a writer of sorts for as long as memory serves me, but my salaried working life was as a psychologist. Having both things going on was (mostly) good, I think. I was steered towards psychology when to the anguish of some of my schoolteachers, I didn’t want to teach myself or be a nurse. Then a new course in the subject was about to start at Brunel Polytechnic. I’d never heard of it. A promotional leaflet was sent round to schools and when my Headmistress saw it, she thought of me. I don’t know why, but it felt right straight away and my interview with Professor Jahoda confirmed the feeling.

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.


Sandra Horn said…
Post kindly rearranged by Blogger! The solstice greeting should be separate from the text to follow!
Sandra Horn said…
except now it is...hmmm. Please ignore my last!
Sandra Horn said…
Thank you, lovely Admin person! x
Bill Kirton said…
Fascinating, Sandra, and I’m sure it triggered lots of memories in fellow AEs (or, probably more correctly, AsE). My contribution to the nostalgia comes from Sid, a worker on a cigarette-making machine in a factory where, on graduating from Exeter University, I worked (briefly) as a trainee manager. The ‘trainee’ part involved working for varying lengths of time (from a single day to two weeks) actually experiencing each job in the whole sequence from receiving and processing clients' orders to blending tobacco, making, packaging and dispatching cigarettes. One day, during the two weeks I spent with him, Sid told me the difference between the two of us.
‘Bill,’ he said, ‘I’m an operative and you’re an executive. As an operative, I spend all my time on this machine, getting to know more and more about it but not knowing much about what goes on elsewhere, so I end up knowing a lot about a little. But as an executive, you go from job to job, learning a little bit about each one and, in the end, you end up knowing bugger-all about everything.’
Penny Dolan said…
Sandra, I do like the sound of your course, and well done to that wise teacher who pushed you towards it/it towards you. The real world practical work placements make such a lot of sense.

As we seem to see each day, planning how something could work in the world but not thinking deeply enough about how it will work in existing real-world contexts is a disastrous approach,

However, back to the past. The diverse teaching styles and staff behaviour made for a very broad and exciting environment, and clearly you and your student friends thrived despite the eccentricities - and despite the dark places one sometimes found within the student experience. (For a moment, I am reminded of Anthony Scher in "The History Man.")

And being a pessimist, I do worry that the new, supposedly more scrutinised and open courses (delivered by screen rather than with feet resting on the desk? contain their own particular perils for the young. But they must all be much smarter and worldly-wise now, mustn't they?

Jan Needle said…
Very enjoyable that, Sandra. I studied drama at Manchester, and basically just drank and wrote plays. And the government paid me to go! Fun fun fun....
Susan Price said…
Here's someone else who really enjoyed your post, Sandra -- and most impressed by the sound of Professor Jahoda.
Umberto Tosi said…
I greatly enjoyed this nostalgic account of your university days. It evoked many memories of my own. There are common threads - of innocent, gratitude, adventure, oddity - although the details of my experiences differ widely from yours. Thank you and happy holidays!
Peter Leyland said…
I love to hear the story of people's lives like this Sandra and it is so good to hear about inspirational teachers like Professor Jahoda and the effect she had on you. I thought I was just going to be an English teacher until, Anne Pennell, an inspirational lecturer at Bedford College on an In-service course showed me how to make a spirit level. Her message was 'can do'. I moved to science and will be forever in her debt.
Lovely interesting post, Sandra! I wish our teachers had been as inspired as yours were, when trying to place a student who was unwilling to do the teacher/nursing options! My school (highly academic) presumed we'd all become teachers - people ended up in the Civil Service... Your course sounds great fun! I managed to improve mine by taking an option nobody else chose as my special subject - got one-to-one teaching in my final year!
Reb MacRath said…
Great post, Sandra. I envy the chances you had.

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