Don't You Know Who I Am?

Historian in Britain tries to remind students why they shouldn't skip his classes.

January 3, 2013

When students failed to show up for a lecture given by Guy Halsall, professor of history at the University of York, you might imagine that he suffered a flicker of self-doubt and that the empty seats bruised the confidence of a sensitive scholar.

Not a bit of it: Professor Halsall berated his students for missing a lecture from "probably the most significant historian of early medieval Europe under the age of 60."

He posted the comments within the university's virtual learning environment, which is used for online contact between students and tutors.

According to York student newspaper Nouse, Professor Halsall responded to an underattended second-year lecture by telling students they were failing to make the most of the "obscene amounts of money" that "mummy and daddy" were paying for their education.

For that money, he said, "you get the chance to hear (probably) the most significant historian of early medieval Europe under the age of 60 anywhere in the world give 16 lectures on his current research."

He added that "people pay said lecturer large sums of money and fly him around the world to talk to their students, or to give keynote lectures at conferences."

However, when students complained about his tone, Professor Halsall apologized for his "unprofessional and offensive" remarks.

"I unreservedly apologize to my students and to my departmental colleagues, who take their teaching extremely seriously and should by no means be tarred with the same brush as me. I am very sorry to have lost their respect," he said.

Halsall said that his outburst had been "born of frustration."

"I care deeply about my courses and I care deeply that my students learn something important from them," he said. "I also care about the students getting value for their money as I too clumsily said in my message. I think it is obscene that students have to pay fees for higher education and I have published my view on this many times. That was what I meant by 'obscene sums'; it was not intended as a comment on students' wealth or otherwise."

In a statement to Nouse, Stuart Carroll, head of York's history department, and Simon Ditchfield, chair of its board of studies, said that Professor Halsall was among the department's most highly rated lecturers and was unused to facing a "noticeable degree of non-attendance."

A spokesman for the university told Times Higher Education: "The matter was dealt with internally by the department of history. Professor Halsall realized he had made an error in expressing his feelings in this way."

Professor Halsall did not respond to requests for comment.

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