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A Powerful Experience -Memories of OUPS from Professor Frederick Toates

Professor Frederick Toates

A Powerful Experience -Memories of OUPS from Professor Frederick Toates

Interview by Lorna Rouse


How did you become interested in psychology?

I was doing Systems Science at University in London and I had a research project which involved the eye and how the eye works and so I got interested in biological systems with a psychological flavour to them. I liked the biological application more than the pure systems theory or the systems theory applied to chemistry or engineering. I read Norbert Wiener’s book on cybernetics and that confirmed my interest. Then I read an article in the Observer about a difference of opinion between Sir Cyril Burt and Stuart Sutherland, who then was Professor of Psychology at Sussex, in which Stuart Sutherland said that what we need is more people from a Systems theory background in psychology. I contacted Sutherland, got an interview at Sussex, then transferred into Psychology at Sussex University and never looked back.

Did your Systems background help you?
Absolutely it did because I used the ideas of systems theory - cybernetics to try to understand how psychological behavioural systems work.


When did you first become involved with the OU?
I got a job at the OU in 1978, mainly teaching Biological Psychology. OUPS really only came to my attention in about 1983 - Lilli was responsible for that. Lilli invited B.F. Skinner to London to speak, I went along and I met Lilli who got me teaching at an OUPS weekend school on Biological Psychology, so that’s thirty one years of association with OUPS.


Do you think that OUPS has changed much in the time that you’ve been involved?
It’s certainly got more streamlined, it’s more professional, partly because of the appointment of Irene, it has become in some ways easier for us. In the early days I used to carry around my hand-outs in a suitcase, quite literally, I used to carry them on the train from Bletchley up to Bedford and then across up to Nottingham so the idea of reproducing all the hand-outs and sending them, it was just paradise compared to doing them all myself and carrying them up in a suitcase. Of course then there’s the online bookings and the whole use of new technology, but I don’t think the basic principle has changed much. There’s still no alternative to face-to-face tuition. I don’t think the students have changed that much if at all - they’re still as enthusiastic, still as challenging and it’s still as enjoyable a task to teach them I would say.

So do you think the role of OUPS is still the same as it was in the early days?
I think it is - to give support to students. It is becoming more difficult because of the economic situation. There are fewer students now compared to then on our weekend schools so in that sense it’s more difficult, but I think that the students are much the same as ever, they’re still fired with the enthusiasm to learn and it’s great to teach them.


That’s interesting, so you don’t think OU students themselves have changed, the nature of the people who are studying?
I think that the evidence is that they have changed somewhat in that in the early days we were mopping up a large population of school teachers that didn’t have degrees and now that teaching is a degree profession we’re getting teachers that want to change direction. Otherwise, I see the same wide spectrum of people here from different backgrounds, much the same number of eccentrics the same number of everything here that ever was, I don’t think that’s changed much at all.


Has the psychology degree changed a lot?
Well yes it has and I regret that Biological Psychology has been dropped from it. The whole thing has changed in the sense that summer schools are now not really what they were. They’re on the way out because they’re too expensive and I think that’s a bad move. I mean when I joined the OU it had been created not many years earlier. It was the brain child of Harold Wilson, Jennie Lee and others, and it really was a land of milk and honey you could do what you liked, it wasn’t bureaucratised in the way it is now and OUPS somehow benefited from that.


Do you think that the role that OUPS plays will change in the future?
I think that there is a strong need for the role that OUPS plays because the OU can be a very lonely place. In some ways the need for OUPS is greater now than it ever was, with no summer schools and fewer face-to-face tutorials, I think there’s no substitute for things that are face-to-face. Social interaction is all part of a university experience, you build up confidence dealing with other people, now in my view you can’t do that with a computer terminal, you really can’t.


Do you think face-to-face interaction is the main benefit of OUPS ?
It has so many benefits but I think students remember and understand things by virtue of social interaction amongst other things. You remember some crazy question someone asked at a tutorial here or a joke someone told. It’s all a means of understanding and I don’t think that computers can ever substitute for it. I don’t want them to ever substitute for it, I’m a Luddite!


What do you get out of your involvement with OUPS?
Oh an immense amount, an immense amount of positive reinforcement, an immense amount of intellectual stimulation, of self-worth, social approval and a feeling of having done a job well. OU students tell you what they think and if it’s good it’s very good, if it’s bad they’ll tell you. Compared to conventional undergraduates they’re much more confident and expressive. They are lacking self-confidence in many cases but they also know how to express they’re opinions. They’re paying good money to be here, they’re not here because mum and dad want them to be or because they’re expected to go, they’re here because they want to be here and they want good value for money and if they don’t get it they’re likely to tell you, more so than conventional undergraduates in my experience. So the rewards are immense. Meeting Lilli at the Skinner lecture was one of the most significant things ever to have happened to me in my life.


Have you had a favourite speaker?
Well Skinner because of his fame I suppose. That’s a tricky one to say whether there is one in particular – Robert Ressler, the Director of the FBI Behavioural Sciences Unit sticks in my memory as a very impressive speaker on a very powerful topic.


How did Lilli persuade Skinner to come and speak for OUPS?
She went to Harvard one day and she saw ‘B. F. Skinner’ on the door, so she knocked on the door and Skinner said
‘come in and have some tea,’ and so she said ‘I want you to come to OUPS’. I think she charmed speakers, she had the total self-confidence to go and knock on Skinner’s door and say ‘well we want you to come to OUPS,’ which he did.


What direction would you like to see OUPS take in the future?
I’d like it to take the same direction it’s always taken, whether that is realistic now in this economic climate, where costs are going up and with the reorganisation of the timing of the courses is such that unfortunately we coincide with the conventional academic year. When we were out of synchrony it made life much easier. We’ve somehow got to accommodate this new situation. Maybe we need to broaden our appeal much more to all sorts of other people like A-level students, for example, who want or are planning to go to university. Maybe we need to have events that are so broad that we appeal to a very wide audience with a few key speakers defending various positions, debates, discussions, that sort of thing. Maybe we need to have poster presentations because some people only get their funding if they’re giving a presentation of some sort. We need to explore and think outside the box.


Is there anything else you’d like to tell me about your experience with OUPS?
It’s a very good one, a very powerful one. One of the most relevant, important experiences of my life has been OUPS.

This interview was originally published in the 40th anniversary edition of News & Views, June 2014.

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