While we are in the midst of All This, pieces of Other News are still coming to our notice. Yesterday I heard of the death of one of the lecturers who taught me when I was a student. You will never have heard of Dr Stuart Warren, but he was the most gifted teacher at whose feet I ever had the privilege to sit. One of my contemporaries described him as “possibly the best HE Chemistry teacher there has ever been.”
Stuart had an uncanny knack of knowing exactly what one needed in order to further one’s own individual learning. On one occasion he asked us to write an account (calling it an ‘essay’ would have been going too far for us chemists!) on “How do we know abc?” (‘abc’ in this case is a highly specific technical matter of chemistry which I will, of course, be very pleased to explain to any non-chemist who has half a day to spare.) The only feedback he gave me on that homework was one comment of three words; he wrote at the end of my effort, “I remain unconvinced” and left it at that. Those three words were a stroke of genius! I spent the next few days thinking, “Actually, I wasn’t convinced either”, went back to the question and sussed it out eventually. Years on, I related that to a member of staff in Chester who said, “We can’t get away with doing things like that anymore!” But Stuart was not ‘getting away with’ anything. What he did was exactly what I needed in order to have confidence in my own ability to work things out, to stretch myself and to carry on learning how to learn. His knack of knowing exactly what students needed was beyond our comprehension, because on other occasions we would ask a question and he would give us the answer straight away; he knew when we undergraduates were not going to get there on our own. His was a remarkable gift.
Stuart had a head start when it came to impressing many of us whom he taught; he was an excellent spin bowler and played minor counties cricket for Cambridgeshire. Very occasionally we persuaded him to turn out for the Chemistry Department team in the University league. This was far below his natural standard but he always took every match very seriously and, without saying anything, raised the performance of the rest of us merely by his being on the team. He was once asked in an interview what he would like to have been had he not become a chemist; his answer: “a professional cricketer, but I wasn’t good enough, [or] I suppose an actor, a novelist or an Anglican minister.” He was an inspiration in the lab and lecture theatre and on the cricket field; if his calling had been otherwise he would have been an inspiration on the stage, behind the page or in the pulpit too. He had many talents and was a lovely person.
I have always tried to live by one piece of advice Stuart gave to some of us whom he had taught as undergraduates. When we became research students and began University teaching ourselves, Stuart told us, “By far the most important thing is to be encouraging. If you can’t think of anything else to say, tell them you like the way they draw their diagrams!”
So I conclude remembering Stuart with a word of encouragement. Staff, realise that students never forget the positive impact you have on them, on their learning and on much else. Students, realise that, just occasionally, your teachers might need a word of encouragement too; so tell them that their lecture was interesting, that they have just bowled a fantastic over or, just possibly, that you like the way they draw their diagrams.
Thanks, Stuart, for your encouragement. Rest in peace and rise in glory.
Peter Jenner, Senior Chaplain