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The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1943

Confessions of a Demonstrator

page 22

Confessions of a Demonstrator

At the beginning of the year, the Stage One Science Demonstrator sees his students fresh, keen and eager to learn. At the end, the academically-finished product. Does he feel pleased with what he sees? Can he look on the multitude and say—a good step forward in their education? By their year's work they have been better fitted to occupy a responsible place in society. Can he think that the viewpoints they have obtained will help them throughout life?

Like Hell he can!

If he is a conscientious Demonstrator and believes that attitudes as well as examination answers are important, he will feel very disappointed with his year's toil. Still a Demonstrator is only a Demonstrator for a year. For most, one year is sufficient. The causes, ideas, attitudes with which he hoped to impregnate impressionable youth have been abandoned or subdued. The whole system, he generalizes, is at fault. No one particular individual is responsible. All by their inertia and passive acceptance of the prevailing mode contribute. Yes, even the student, who assists that process making for larger classes and impersonal lectures, by taking an interest in his subject only as a corner of a degree, or by accepting and recording uncritically every word and thought uttered by the infallible lecturer.

So does the Demonstrator reason and leave. Occasionally he takes the occupation seriously and makes the sad mistake of staying two or three years, hoping and waiting. When he then departs, he feels the years are wasted and goes back to the farm, disillusioned.

Of course one year of demonstrating is a valueable and eye-opening experience for any young upstart. To have his idealism anf belief that the people on top act according to rational and not purely emotional considerations shattered is a good leveling process. He sees once more his close relationship with common dust.

The general process goes in stages, something like this. Before his first practical class he thinks, "Well, what do I know? Do I know more than they do! What sort of questions will I be asked?" and in a shiver of nervous apprehension runs over the section of theory covered by the trac. In one of the largest reference books he can find, carefully memorizing all those tricky little ideas he thinks may crop up. He enters the first Prac. As likely as not the first thought is, "A dumber-looking lot I've never seen." He's right, but he doesn't really know it. Ah no, not yet. Not till next week does he realize how bad they really are. But I anticipate the story. What really greets him is a crowd of people suddenly thrown into a laboratory, and having found their places, standing by them in remuninative perplexity. Sooner or later one or two get the idea and start in to toil. Others see them and their social instincts being strong (in actual fact probably only about average but artificially inflated by wartime enthusing) feel the urge to do same thing. So they read the first paragraph on the sheet before them which says—do this, this and this—and they do it. Not content with performing each operation once, they try them all several times until they have so mastered the technique as to have spent ninety minutes and fathomed the first two lines. Then the questions begin. Strange questions. Not at all academic. Things like " Can I smoke?" and from the very bright and bold," What's that thing over there in the corner?" All questions are followed by a servile " Sir" and the Demonstrator begins to feel his importance. At last he's found a niche in life. He's big.

So much for the first Prac. And the first week. By the second some realize that here is a new phenomenon they've come across—they don't quite understand what they are, or are supposed to be doing, so they refer to the textbooks and ask questions. Others, secure in the knowledge and truth revealed by their school exercise books feel that all is chaff. By the fourth week the multitude are page 23 roughly sifted into three classes, the bright, the plodders, and the dummies. The bright have ceased to call the Demonstrator Sir, and ask him fearless questions. The plodders call the Demonstrator Sir, and put down what happens in the text books. The dummies also call the Demonstrator Sir but furtively direct their questions to the nearest neighbor.

The weeks pass by and the Demonstrator no longer worries whether he knows enough or not, and the students on their part begin to chat. The atmosphere becomes more friendly. Those who can do intelligent prac. work are easily picked out from those who cannot. The first examination paper serves as a testing ground for their theoretical knowledge and the Demonstrator has the trials of the people who think
(a)he sets the paper and
(b)he knows the questions, and/or
(c)he marks it.

When the marks are released he sees the effect of "swot" or otherwise. The results are surprising. Good students down low, poor ones up high.

It is shortly after this, in the second term, that he begins to criticise his department and University bitterly. All its faults become manifest to him. He sees the inadequacy of the staff to cope with the large numbers of students and he sees the inadequacy of the building, the equipment, and the facilities. These things worry him and maybe he inquires further and finds the basic cause to be lack of University finance. This, he sees as an urgent problem, and wonders what can be done, and why hasn't it been done. He will also probably realize that the classes as constituted at present carry much dead weight. Lazy or unintelligent students who keep back those more able to benefit by teaching, abound. Then the examination system—God of the University—comes in for criticism.

Soon he finds that there is little he can do about these things, but as problems they remain very much alive in his mind. The things that could have been done and have not, then become apparent. How University teachers have tolerated such large heterogeneous classes he cannot understand. He may even become militant about these things and seek to improve his own or his department's position. It is then that he really meets inertia and conscious misunderstanding.

At this stage his best plan would be to go away and quietly read J.C. Beaglehole's "History of the University of New Zealand" and get his problems in better perspective. He would see then that his is not the only mind concerned with such questions. He would see than that his pet piece of canker is only one small part of a peculiarly haphazard growth, which has not only dead, dying and diseased branches but also bears some fresh young and luscious shoots. Of course he does not do this. He either weathers the weight of his progressive ideas and settles down to a servile non-critical existence or retains his militancy and leaves.

A personal note. As one who has done neither of these exclusive alternatives I feel myself called upon to explain this anomaly marring an otherwise perfectly good argument. The reason is clear. At an early and immature age I read J.C. Beaglehole. Quite what he meant I don't rightly know. Still it must have affected me somehow. One day, perhaps, when exams are over, I must re-read that book.