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Memories of a Brilliant Teacher

Stuart Warren was the most gifted teacher at whose feet I ever had the privilege to sit. Here are a few thoughts from of a plethora of memories of him

Revd Canon Dr Peter Jenner, Dean of Chapel, University of Chester
Churchill College undergrad 1974, postgrad 1977 - 80 (with Jim Staunton)

 

 

"I remain unconvinced"

Stuart had an uncanny knack of knowing exactly what one needed in order to further one's own individual learning. On one occasion he asked us to write an account (calling it an 'essay' would have been going too far for us chemists!) on "How do we know an SN2 reaction does not take place at an SP2 carbon?" The only feedback he gave me on that homework was one comment of three words; he wrote at the end of my effort, "I remain unconvinced" and left it at that. Those three words were a stroke of genius! I spent the next few days thinking, "Actually, I wasn't convinced either", went back to the question and sussed it out eventually. Years on, I related that to an academic in my current University who said, “We can’t get away with doing things like that anymore!” But Stuart was not ‘getting away with’ anything. What he did was exactly what I needed in order to have confidence in my own ability to work things out, to stretch myself and to carry on learning how to learn. His knack of knowing exactly what students needed was beyond our comprehension. On other occasions we would ask a question and he would give us the answer straight away; he knew when we undergraduates were not going to get there on our own. His was a remarkable gift.

Cricket

Stuart had a head start when it came to impressing many of us whom he taught; we were in awe of his spin bowling. Very occasionally we persuaded him to turn out for the Chemistry Department cricket team in the University league. This was far below his natural standard but he always took every match very seriously and, without saying anything, raised the performance of the rest of us merely by his being on the team. It was thanks to Stuart that the Part II Chemistry Tripos Class-List of 1977 first became public at the Churchill College sports pavillion during the tea interval of a cricket match between a Chemistry Department staff XI (captained by Stuart) and a final year student team!

Cricketer, actor, novelist or minister?

In his interview for The Sceptical Chymist Stuart was asked what he would like to have been had he not become a chemist; his answer: “a professional cricketer, but I wasn’t good enough, [or] I suppose an actor, a novelist or an Anglican minister.” He was an inspiration in the lab and lecture theatre and on the cricket field; if his calling had been otherwise he would have been an inspiration on the stage, behind the page or in the pulpit too. He had many talents and was a lovely person.

"Be encouraging"

Stuart gave one key piece of advice to some of us whom he had taught as undergraduates. When we became research students and began University teaching ourselves, Stuart told us, “By far the most important thing is to be encouraging. If you can’t think of anything else to say, tell them you like the way they draw their diagrams.”

(In the evening of the day he gave us that advice, we first year PhD students went to our first research seminar, sitting on the back row as befitted our lowly status. It was some considerable way into the interactive discussion that the post-doc leading the session invited suggestions for the next step in a reaction scheme on the board. I thought, “I can see something that might be possible.” There was a pause. No-one else moved. Eventually I summoned up my courage. I stood up and marched to the front. Conscious of the weight of responsibility as I offered the first contribution from the newbies present, I drew a reaction on the board. Sitting in the front row was Prof Alan Battersby. Obviously wanting to encourage further participation of first years, Prof said confidently, “Good! That’s what we like to see – nice, big, clear diagrams!” Collapse of my peers on the back row.)

I have always tried to live by Stuart’s advice about offering encouragement. For me he epitomises the way in which students never forget the positive impact academics have through encouraging learning and much else. I also try to make students realise that teachers sometimes need a word of encouragement too; they should tell them that their lecture was interesting, that they have just bowled a fantastic over or, just occasionally, that they like the way they draw their diagrams.

Thanks, Stuart, for the encouragement you gave to so many of us.