Alongside reading the mandated texts for my PG Cert and writing up thoughts on them here, I’m also noting down my responses to any other volumes that I’ve happened to read along the way that have in some way proved illuminating on the subject of teaching or universities. The first of these was Michel Focault’s 1975 tract Discipline and Punish, and the latest is Kingsley Amis’s 1954 book Lucky Jim. Often cited as one of the first examples of the campus genre, the novel follows the exploits of the eponymous James Dixon, a young unenthusiastic medieval history lecturer working at an unnamed university in the midlands. The book follows his struggles as he is caught between the demands of his students, superiors, his own inadequacies as a teacher and the general chaos of his personal life. I enjoyed the novel when I first read it when I was a history undergraduate at a somewhat similar university. On a second reading it struck even more of a chord, I suppose partially because I now find myself in a professional position while not exactly comparable to Dixons, still not also not entirely removed from it either.
Lucky Jim was written and is set at a very particular time, in the early stages of the expansion of the university sector that followed in the wake of the Second World War. In this sense you could view it almost as a historical novel, a work of fiction written about and to some extent from within an era and place of some interest. This historic moment of expansion is evident in various subtle ways throughout the novel, for example in Dixon’s recruitment (in background he doesn’t exactly fit the profile of a traditional lecturer, a fact which results in much self-doubt through the novel). It’s also evidenced in the character of Dixon’s students. One of them, Michie, is a decorated former tank commander in the war, who has returned to university as a mature student. Michie equally irritates and terrifies Dixon because of his superior military record, his apparent surfeit of historcal knowledge and his constant badgering of Dixon to reveal details of a course curriculum which the latter has yet to write. Dixon fears that Michie will unintentionally reveal his inadequacies to the other students and to his colleagues, an example of imposter syndrome which while deserved in Dixon’s case will be familiar to many rather more competent teachers.
The novel is also feels rather contemporary in its characterization of the internal politics and priorities of British universities. Much of the plot is taken up with Dixon’s increasingly desperate attempts to curry favour with his head of department, Professor Welch, a man who is in equal turns forgetful and pedantic. As a result Dixon’s machinations to impress Walsh are invariably either ignored or grossly misfire, with the fallout from them often bringing him into conflict with other academics, most of whom Dixon maintains a barely concealed contempt for. Dixon is also under pressure throughout the story to produce what would today be termed ‘research outputs’. The novel culminates in his disastrous delivery of lecture on ‘merrie england’ to assembled staff and students, a lecture which rapidly descends into a public lambasting of everything that Dixon dislikes about the university and his colleagues. This pressure to produce will seem terribly contemporary to some academics.
Lucky Jim is of course an exaggerated satire of English university education at a very particular moment in the twentieth century. However like all good satire it is also rooted in a decent amount of fact, inspired at least partially by Amis’s own experiences as a university lecturer and to a greater extent by the experiences of his friend Phillip Larkin, who worked as a librarian at a number of universities including University College Leicester and is often cited as the inspiration for Dixon. The novel is a constant reminder that universities often end up being as much about personalities and politics (particularly the failings of these things) as they do the question of good education or original research, and also that whatever else happens it’s always useful to approach this world with a large reserve of humour.