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What Rob taught Me...(and a few others too)

(This piece was under construction as part of the 40th Anniversary of the Open University Psychological Society-OUPS, when news arrived of the death of Rob Wilde and so it is a celebration of a remarkable tutor, an exemplar of all that was good about the Open University and Psychology and the key lessons he taught me and others)

It was a typical winter’s night, windy, cold and a smattering of rain at a very uninspiring and relatively deserted training centre located in the low end of Coventry. It was also the first tutorial of the Exploring Psychology module, the start of the potential psychology degree. The room was spartan, tables functional and organised in a wide horseshoe. We were a motley crew, eyeing each other up, including amongst us a fork lift driver (who later went on to get a first class) and one who was already in possession of a Doctorate and was working simultaneously on qualifying as a personal trainer (she later got a first, the personal training qualification and got me a lot fitter as well). There were an assortment of women (with and without partners), mums with the full range of children in ages, with and without educational and health complications, dads working and not working, the odd grandparent, professional and aspirational. In short the full cast for a comedy or serious drama, and over time we had both.

Rob was a George Smiley type of chap (the chief protagonist in John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy), one who could pass you anonymously on the street but with the same forensic sharp intellect and the wisdom of people his alter ego possessed. Rob was in the words of my husband a quiet man of deep knowledge. Maybe that is the first lesson, others don’t need to be told how good you are, they will find out soon enough if you really are that good. If not it’s best to watch and learn. It is possible to discover more by listening to the answers to well-formed questions than maybe initially appreciated. This was not a difficult lesson to realize, he valued questions that were genuine and challenging as well as the simple and basic. He once commented that he liked the obvious questions, they were often the ones people wanted to know but were too afraid to ask.

Lesson two: psychology (and its students) makes progress through asking the basic questions as well as some of the more complex ones, but you do need to ask them! Grandstanding I doubt would have got far with him, fortunately we all understood that, we understood he really was that good even if the group was unaware for most of the module that he was the former Head of the Department for Psychology at Coventry University. The environment with its harsh neon lights and basic set up may have been a compromise, but we all rapidly realised there was not going to be anything second best about the acquisition of knowledge. This was a degree of exacting standards and excellence and we had to work for it. We may have arrived as a motley crew but if we wanted that degree we had to earn it, with anonymous markers of unseen exams to impress as well as the tutor marked assignments by him.

Like Smiley, Rob was a revolutionary in disguise. He had the appearance of unobtrusive conventionality but on a regular basis the Course/Module party line was covertly put to challenge; but his opinion was always well hidden, though he was not a blank wall. He was immensely proud of his family and had us all in stiches laughing as he explained ‘flashbulb memory’, an account that involved, his wife, Princess Diana, something about stairs and I think marmalade. He was not a teacher who advocated, so as a student you could not write to his preferred position, rather he expected you to develop a critical stance which was anchored in evidence. We didn’t know the term critical reasoning, he just modelled it and we learned, and maybe that was the most important lesson he taught, to think for yourself. It is the key to success and freedom. Rob seemingly valued those independent thinkers no matter how taxing they were. Throughout his feedback (which was extensive, full of dry humour as well as serious comment) and in every session, as well as providing explanation, he challenged the assumed accepted accounts, even those embedded in the module text books. Like gentle pebbles thrown into a pool they would be lobbed into a discussion with a phrase such as “do you really think....?” and then he would ask for your reasoning. However this was reasoning with a difference, it was about respect for the knowledge earned by others and the limits of its claims, it was about becoming an independent thinking psychologist.

That tolerance of independence extended to supporting students when they questioned some of the basics. I remember getting into a debate by email and phone (he was very good at support, many commented on that) about conducting a Stroop test (where lists of words such as ‘green’ are printed in contrary colours such as orange ink, and the task is to state the colour of the ink), a common enough test in psychology departments and available on the internet. For this part of the module we needed to recruit a sample of the public and run the test and control as part of the induction to experimental psychology. I was questioning the ethics of conducting this study which may generate feelings of ‘ill at ease’ because it is quite difficult to override reading the word in favour of stating the colour. He reflected back how it was important to listen to personal concerns, to listen to the self when things are causing discomfort, he also noted that simply because something had been done previously did not necessarily make it right, but he also asked me how I could mitigate the potential effects, how the concept of harm was broad and complex and the challenges posed by knowledge production when working with people. Finally that I needed to address this in the write up. The ability to empower a student was demonstrated just in this simple event.

For a person such as myself who has dyslexia and all the subtle as well as obvious challenges that come with it as part of their profile, the most difficult lesson was learning to read and write. I had not actually appreciated prior to the course that I could not really read; it is amazing how far one can get without it, but also how it limits life and opportunity. Writing, or inability of, I already knew about.... The Open University was a remarkable place for students such as I, books ring bound so they were flat, came also as audio versions so I listened and read, technology such as Dragon Dictate, was also helpful, and for me tinted lenses did reduce the fatigue and gradually for reading I became reasonably proficient - after a fashion. However the writing bit... that was something I had to master and reach the standard. It was not going to be enough that I had good ideas and understood, I needed to meet the same standard as everyone else; writing really was a challenge.

That I can write this is largely down to the fundamental foundation work Rob did. Later tutors built on this work and enabled me to develop an academic voice [in chronological order the Exploring Psychology project team at Bath Uni 2008, Sue Neiland (Developmental psychology), Hazel Hart (Biological psychology), Lyn Gulliman- Turner (Critical Social Psychology) and Liz Blagrove/Alan Pechey (Cognitive Psychology) Cognitive Psychology project team Sussex University 2012] but the key was the initial foundations. Rob said it took three attempts by him to get through to me. He secured some additional writing tutorials and took me to task (he had done something similar for others in need of direction). I needed to understand what a reference really was; the famous quote was a question by me “What exactly do you mean by a reference Rob?” Back came the reply, ”Ah that is a problem if you don’t understand that”. What I learned, it was not cherry picking bits of the work of others to support your predefined argument (a politician’s or poor academic’s approach) it was genuinely engaging with and describing (in the words of the Exploring Psychology module team: conflicting, complementary and co-existing) work of others and allowing their ideas to drive your own thinking. I learned about the importance of focus; his face was a picture when I showed him the mind map of a question he had set me. It literally spanned, albeit in large print, a couple of metres. The comment from him “now I understand the problem” was a significant understatement. So through questioning he got me to identify the important essence of the mind map and how to structure the question, to define and describe, to use illustration appropriately to evaluate and suggest directions for the future. I learned the role of a tightly worded introduction that covered all of the above and of an effective conclusion. What I learnt was that it is only possible to write clearly if you have thought through your ideas clearly and stick to the point. This was exemplary teaching, he made me do all the work and I learned. Others had tried to communicate this in the past when I was failing, but he was the one that actually analysed the problem and explained it all.

For all his students who came to tutorials, which were in general well attended (given the time and location an achievement- for those in prison Rob went out to them), Rob put effort in. He did edited notes for us on a CD disk so we had something to work with for exam revision, but also as a model of how to make notes. There was no PowerPoint, it was him, us, a flip chart and sometimes projected images. A few years later at the residential summer school, a group at lunch were discussing tutors (as students do). It turned out 3 of the 6 of us had been taught by Rob in different years. There was unanimity on how good he was, and how his support had been valued when circumstances were challenging. He went well above and beyond the requirements of the job and was committed to the principle of The Open University and protecting its reputation, only those who met the standard passed. He had from what I recall little time for dumbing down and the business drivers impacting on education. This was an important lesson, the need to maintain clarity on your standards, to seek out and to emulate the best you know in your own work, not necessarily doing what is expedient, but to be realistic as well, pragmatism is important.

I am not sure how he would have viewed the financial changes to Open University funding and fees, but I think he would have ruefully noted that a key proportion of the women (including me) and some men sitting round the table on the winter’s night in 2007 would not be there today. £15,000 is too high a personal and family price to pay for a chance of freedom and the associated health benefits for many of us round that table, and I think that would have been a source of disappointment to him. He was proud of his former students and used their stories to encourage us. He had a knack of talent spotting (unconventional prospects) both in the main job at Coventry University and the Open University, hooking people up and allowing them to show what they had. Perhaps this was the last lesson, there are many ways to shine, but allowing others to do so is the rare gift of the truly great, and I hope in the fullness of time all of those lessons he taught me (and others) I will be able to apply in my work as a psychologist. I (and my family) and undoubtedly others were indeed lucky to be taught by Rob, and like all good teachers his teaching lives on through contributing to the changed lives of the person who was the student and those around them. In the end I suspect that would be the thing that pleased him most about his time in education and in particular the Open University, that his legacy is a living one.

In memory of Rob Wilde (1948-2014) former Head of Psychology, Coventry University and Open University tutor and examiner who passed away 23rd May 2014.

Angela Thompson went on to achieve a 1st Class BSc (Hons) Psych (Open) degree and subsequently was accepted onto the MSc by Research/PhD programme at the Psychology, Behaviour and Achievement Research Centre , Coventry University on a fully funded scholarship.


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