Charisma crosses the generation gap

21st November 2003 at 00:00
My younger daughter - a student at Glasgow University - waxed enthusiastically about her Scottish history lecturer during a recent telephone conversation. He was inspiring, interesting, a learned and experienced expert in his field and, to top it all, a very nice guy. A special individual by all accounts.

Amy's superlatives about this splendid character stirred something deep in my brain. Wow! It was a eureka moment! I tentatively queried: "His name isn't Ted Cowan, by any chance?"

"What?" came the stunned response, "How did you know?"

Well, would you believe it? It turns out that this charismatic professor of Scottish history taught me in 1973 at Edinburgh University. Weird, Amy said, with the astonishment of the young. Brilliant, I advised, was the best adjective to describe the situation.

We were both caught up in the excitement of the moment although mine was somewhat tempered by the arithmetical calculations and my incredulity that it really was 30 years since I had attended lectures in the David Hume Tower lecture theatre. I have to confess to envying my daughter sitting under the tutelage of such a very fine educator but at least it's a step up from coveting the cheap price of booze in the students' union.

This experience again encapsulates for me what is the single most important ingredient in captivating the interest of pupils and students. Charisma. I know that this may cause those without it to bristle with annoyance but, sorry, we can't dodge the issue any more. What is charisma?

It's difficult to define but it's the ability to engage the interest of the learner at whatever level. A key ingredient of that interaction is the extent to which you love your subject and how successfully you communicate that enthusiasm with others. If you don't love your subject then you are doomed. In a sense you are a hypocrite - how can you expect your students to flourish in a subject which no longer inspires you? You duly perform your duty and your learners see the credibility gap when you pontificate one thing and do another.

Hmm. OK. Maybe I've gone far enough on that one. A charismatic person also consciously scratches beneath the surface and is genuinely interested in the life of the learner beyond the class listings. Another thing, you must give away something of yourself.

A good way of doing this is through humour. Funny wee anecdotes are sprinkled throughout Professor Cowan's lectures, observes my daughter. She made me laugh when she recounted one of his tales.

As a primary school pupil, part of his weekly routine was to listen to a religious education radio programme, apparently aimed at a Scottish audience. The disciples all spoke in very broad Scottish accents but Jesus, naturally, had a highly cultured proper English accent.

The students laughed but swiftly picked up on the serious point, thus drawing them into the process of learning in a light-hearted manner. Humour is a much more successful visual aid than overheads and Powerpoint presentations. We all gather little personal narratives which we can use to good effect in the classroom, whatever our subject.

But what is the most amazing thing of all? Not that a mother and daughter were both taught by the same lecturer, however much we are enthralled by the idea. It's the fact that, 30 years later, this guy is still causing the sparks of interest to fly in his lectures.

There's lots of cynicism about and people do get jaded - some of them even think that they are entitled to be thus after long years of service. But the pupils and students are new and eager to learn and they deserve the very best of teaching. I haven't been teaching for 30 years but, when I reach that milestone, I hope that I too will still be able to weave a touch of magic.

Marj Adams teaches philosophy, psychology and religious studies at Forres Academy.

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