UCD Professor to Students: You dunces don’t belong in University

A story, from the Irish Times, to lift the spirits. After all, if we at Gript can’t cheer a Professor telling a bunch of layabout students that they are illiterate dunces who don’t belong in a University, well, dear reader, what are we even for?

Dr Paul Stokes, a lecturer in the sociology department, delivered a tirade of criticism against his students during a recent lecture after some of them had complained to college authorities about his teaching.

Videos seen by The Irish Times show Dr Stokes saying he didn’t know how they got into UCD and “I’m embarrassed for your generation”.

Dr Stokes suggested a “self-entitled” attitude was behind the complaints, adding that instead of looking forward to his retirement, having turned 65 last year, he had “three, four tribunals of inquiry to deal with based on student complaints”. Describing the situation as a joke, he can be heard saying: “UCD is a joke, it’s a joke university.”

In a Zoom class earlier this month, Dr Stokes told students who had complained about him: “You are a disgrace. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves. I don’t know how you ever got into UCD but we all know that, you know, you can’t read or write; a lot of you have difficulties still with reading and writing… after three years in college… difficulties reading an academic text. I mean, come on, you don’t belong here and I pity anybody who actually does want to employ you, they are going to be very disappointed.”

It is not very often you see an Irish Academic going full Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver, and in fairness, there are two sides to this story.

The students, basically, say he is a terrible teacher who has consistently failed to deliver his coursework on time, rambles in lectures, and generally is not up to scratch. Consequently, they complained about them. He, in turn, found out about their complaints, and gave them a piece of his mind.

Who is right, and who is wrong? We can only speculate, but it is Friday, so let’s have a little fun.

The first piece of evidence here is that Dr. Stokes has been teaching in UCD since 1996. There are two things to say about that: The first is that the culture in Irish education has changed markedly since 1996, and “pupil power” is something that exists today which simply did not exist back then. That is a double-edged sword, of course: On the one hand, bad teachers get a lot less leeway from students today than they did nearly thirty years ago. On the other hand, good teachers get a lot less leeway from students than they did thirty years ago.

Second, Stokes’ complaint about the students – that they are struggling to do basic things like read, write, and understand academic papers – is not a new complaint. It has not come out of nowhere. Talk to educators across the broad swathe of second and third level education in Ireland, and let me tell you, this story is repeated time and time again. The educators will tell you that in large part, that is down to the dumbing down of coursework, and a reduced emphasis on the basics. There’s no evidence, after all, that Dr. Stokes been anything but a stalwart, valued, and exceptional servant to UCD for thirty years.

The most likely explanation here, then, is a clash of values and culture. You take an aging (in professional terms) lecturer whose personal, quirky style has worked for a couple of generations, and put him in front of the modern student who is more demanding/expects to be spoonfed (delete whichever one doesn’t suit your own bias) and you inevitably get…. This.

The students will win, of course. For one thing, Stokes is probably close to retiring anyway. For another thing, he made the fundamental error of criticising the University, which won’t endear him to the powers that be. For another thing again, the students are the paying customers (well, we pay on their behalf) and they get what they want. If they want someone to spoonfeed them stuff, then that is what they will get.

Still, it is a notable, and entertaining, story. You might get the impression that this is something Dr. Stokes has wanted to say for some time. And you might get the impression that there are a lot of other lecturers who fantasise about being able to say something similar, these days.

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