This is a shameful day for intellectual life in this country. One of the world's greatest living poets has withdrawn from the election for Oxford professor of poetry because of a nasty, nefarious smear campaign.
It is a shabby affair. The delight that the Nobel laureate Derek Walcott had entered the race to become the Oxford professor of poetry turned to dismay after what Professor Hermione Lee, who supported Walcott in the election race, described as a 'campaign of vilification'. A dossier detailing sexual harassment claims from a student about Walcott when he taught at Harvard in the 1980s was anonymously sent a week ago to staff and graduates eligible to vote in next Saturday’s elections. This week Walcott thought enough is enough and threw in the towel. I don’t blame him. The whole saga is indicative of the petty-minded, down-graded nature of higher education and intellectual life in the UK today.
Some have pointed to the C grade given by Walcott to his accuser after she refused his advances – upgraded after an appeal citing the allegations – as proof of his unsuitability as a teacher. Who knows the truth of these assertions? Academic departments know how to cover their backs, and, in an era of grade inflation, to single this instance out is disingenuous.
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I will stand up and say now that even if every word of the allegations are true, if the worst thing that is ever said to you as a woman is "Imagine me making love to you. What would I do? ... Would you make love with me if I asked you?" you need to get out more. If anybody thinks this is a fine day for feminism they need to be disabused of that misapprehension sharpish. If women winning is now associated with mean-spirited, conniving, back-stabbing, then we really have lost the plot.
I'm not condoning the inept passes of English literature professors. Possibly Walcott is guilty of bad judgment. Possibly he was trying it on. But if over-stepping the mark is what we are talking about here – despite the lingering whiff of coercion and abuse that consciously accompanies such allegations – then that is really very little to hold in the balance against the greatness of Walcott. Is it for this that we have deprived a generation of UK students from listening to and being taught by this remarkable poet?
Which brings me on to some of the sneering comments in the liberal press about Walcott's response to the allegations. Walcott has argued that his teaching style was "deliberately personal and intense." Cue the nudge-nudge wink-wink sneers. Why is an intense, personal approach to teaching adults a problem? Poetry is an intense and personal business. I want to be taught great literature by somebody who gives a damn and isn't a passionless automaton. The best teaching relationships I had at university were intense and changed me as a person. Isn't that what we want from higher education rather than a sausage-factory of tick-box skills?
Sorry, but I was so shocked and saddened that he had withdrawn. I have a terrible memory for poetry, but there are lines of Walcott etched in my heart.
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