Earning positive feedback, by Fred Starr

Materials World magazine
29 Mar 2016

Fred Starr recollects...

‘I would have no trouble in lecturing to 200 students’ was the after-lunch boast by a professor from one of our leading universities. It was the mid 1980s and it seemed that the principal aim of university expansion was to hold down unemployment statistics. I was more than surprised. From him I expected the mantra, espoused by author and Oxford graduate Sir Kingsley Amis, that ‘more means worse’. Amis was thinking of people like me, who were benefiting from the Government switch of money from two years of National Service in the Armed Forces into higher education. The effects were beginning to trickle down to the masses, but it was still only a trickle. There were 12 in our metallurgy class, and our Upper Science Sixth at Stockton Grammar had just seven of us round a table.  

How, I wondered, given what had happened to me as an undergraduate, did this distinguished academic intend to find out whether anyone was learning anything? Was he bothered? How would he have the time to mark 200 pieces of coursework, or know who was who from the sea of faces in the lecture theatre? There’s the rub, overlooked by politicians and vice chancellors, in today’s efforts to boost university productivity and bring in more fees.  

The professor in question hailed from a generation in which it was acceptable for some departments to let students drift through university, the only assessment being the end-of-year exams. Teaching was not a priority. It was research. In this way, it was possible for me to fondly believe, until just after the final year exam, that the solubility of hydrogen in molten iron decreased with temperature. But I didn’t find this out through seeing my marked-up and returned exam papers. That was the last I saw of them. After handing them in to the invigilator, I checked with my good mate John J. Moore, now a professor himself at the Colorado School of Mines. I remember his response – ‘No! Hydrogen is anomalous!’ I also remember the blood draining from my face when informed of this major blooper. 

So it was, through John, I realised my chances of gaining a First Class Honours might be limited. It still seems to be common for exam papers to fall into a university black hole after marking. This I can just about understand. The degree that’s awarded should depend on more than what’s done in the exam. But it defies common sense that exam papers from the first and second years are withheld.  

Even the best of us can get hold of the wrong end of the stick, and with my own mix-up over hydrogen, our lecturers would have had at least two years to put me right. But few deigned to set homework or to have any proper interaction with us after class. My habit of asking questions, which was feasible in a class of 12, was regarded as tiresome. At Cambridge, maths is taught to classes of 200, but there is mind stretching homework, with good and regular follow-ups between small groups of students and the junior academic staff. How common is this in the average materials course? How good is the feedback?

It can come as a shock to students when they enter the real world of industry, where one’s boss will be on one’s back at least once a day, and any memos, letters and reports will be given a quick and ruthless once over. By and large this didn’t bother me. My attitude is, as distinguished editors of Materials World will affirm, that if I’m told she or he just doesn’t understand what has been written, there is a good chance that no one else will. It is an opportunity for me to restate things more clearly. Negative feedback can be put to positive purposes. 

I do, however, remember the last request, in my dying days at British Gas, from one of my superiors.  ‘Fred’, he said, ‘Could you do something for us, but make sure you make it less readable than usual?’ So I did. No sentence less than fifty words. My next effort was back to normal. It was my resignation. With a query about redundancy payments.