William Poole reflects on odd gifts received during his years as college tutor

In my last column I wrote about presents given by tutors to their students in the 17th century.

This got me thinking about presents from students to tutors, as I looked around my college room at the various oddities I have accrued over the years.

One of my colleagues has managed to get lederhosen and a good bargain on a horse out of his students. I haven’t yet elicited leathers and livestock, but I do maintain a little museum of academic gifts.

Of course, there have been many bottles of hooch, all of brief life, the best being a bottle of poitín that made me hallucinate happily in college for a fortnight.

Some of the more permanent offerings reflect student travels just after finals: a Tibetan hat, some carvings from Sudan. Sometimes the objects are supposed to appeal to my own interests – an early piece of chemical glassware, a compass, an extraordinary mathematical instrument purportedly found on Prospero’s Isle.

Sometimes offerings are slightly reformist in intention. I cannot abide students who act, and so I got vengeful theatre tickets from one year group; I despise priestcraft, and so one devotee proffered an early patristic text that she thought might reconcile me; one student, frowning puritanically at the empty bottles punctuating my shelves, thrust a year’s supply of green tea into my hands. I have it still.

I talk to friends who teach in other places and styles, and it seems to me that it’s mainly the tutorial system that elicits this kind of gift-giving. We’re certainly not the only teachers who get presents, but there is a custom of the leaving gift here, and I suppose it stems from our rather personal system of teaching.

The tutorial relationship is like that between a coach and a team playing a competitive sport. What makes the tutorial system work is that the coaches who coach the sport, and the judges who judge it, are formally separate entities: the tutors teach a given paper in tutorials, and the students are then examined by members of their faculty other than their tutors.

This is an important psychological characteristic of our system: tutors help students compete, but they do not judge the competition. They can celebrate and commiserate as a club; their biases cannot help or hinder at the point of assessment.

Recently my faculty has broken this unspoken rule-of-play. Now students sit at least one paper taught, set, and marked by the very same people, centrally, and delivered as a class, not through tutorials.

I assume several other faculties have already done likewise. A great pity. It is hard to fairly mark students whose identities are completely transparent to you, and who are writing about something you have taught them, and on which you probably have firm, not to say paralysed, views.

As for the students, they know all this too, and it cannot encourage independence and confidence of thought, let alone loyalty or affection. It is a shame that we have crossed this line, while pretending, as usual, that we have not done so.