When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
This poem is in the public domain
This poem was written in 1865 by the American poet Walt Whitman, and as a university lecturer I find that it challenges me. The language that is used in this poem is incredibly eloquent, but it is also merciless. Whitman is having absolutely none of it as the astronomer in questions stands in his pulpit and preaches at his audience about the mysteries of the Universe and how to measure them. Whitman is not at all impressed by the expert’s language, his knowledge, or his methods of communicating. So much so that he takes it upon himself to leave the classroom and teach himself. This poem could also be read as an attack on science itself, on the brashness of the discipline in trying to describe the indescribable. However, as a lecturer I choose to focus on the method of delivery rather than the subject itself, and find it to be a stark reminder that no matter how interesting or fascinating the topic, a lack of empathy for the audience can result in boredom, disinterest and disengagement. And yet, it also serves as a reminder of what can be achieved in the hands of a skilled teacher…My career as a scientist began under the tutelage of the two exceptional A-level Physics teachers that I had at St. Aidan’s C of E High School, Harrogate. Both Mr Cross and Mr Crane managed to achieve what the lecturer in Whitman’s piece failed so spectacularly to accomplish: they brought the mysteries of physics (in particular that of space time, relativity and black holes) into the classroom. Any question that we had they could provide an informed and accessible answer for, and I have incredibly fond memories of them discussing the properties of quarks using nothing more than a blackboard and three pieces of coloured chalk. Those lessons were an absolute blessing to me, and it is no overstatement to say that they helped to shape the whole of my academic career to date. Now that I am a teacher myself, I strive to replicate those A-level Physics classes, and hope that I succeed in bringing the magic of the night sky into my lecture-room.
By Sam Illingworth
What do you think of the poem? Did you enjoy it? Does this make you think of any of the lectures that you have attended? Does it make you think of any of the lectures that you have given?