A stupid way to eat a peach

peach-219845_960_720One of my favourite academic writers is Stephen Rowland. Here he is demonstrating how the reading of poetry can help us to think deeply about learning. Reading his delicious prose is like eating peaches.


“Take the following line from Wordsworth’s Prelude (1850 text line

360/1) in which he describes his feelings when, as a child, he took a rowing

boat out at night and rowed across Lake Windermere towards the mountains

on the opposite side of the lake:


It was an act of stealth

And troubled pleasure…


Viewing the young Wordsworth as a learner, this line captures the quality of

his absorption in the learning experience – his own sense of agency in the

face of uncertainty, and pleasure in the face of danger – which is beyond the

scope of positivist language. It is a precise rendering of experience: rigorous

in a sense which suggests possibilities for action research writing. To talk of

active learning, study skills, student-centredness or other such technical

‘educational’ terms in relation to this kind of experience misses the point. It

misses the point because such terms cannot contain within them the

ambiguity and contradictoriness which is captured in this line of poetry, and

which is at the heart of the learning experience. … To cast Wordsworth’s “act of stealth

and troubled pleasure” as an educational objective simply makes no sense: it won’t



Admittedly, not all writing about university teaching is as accomplished as this. Some academic papers taste like a mouthful of old socks. And some are very tough indeed.

Sometimes, when I ask my colleagues on the Postgraduate Course in Academic Practice to read books and articles about university teaching, they get frustrated.

-What’s the point of all this verbiage?

-What she took three pages to say could have been said in a sentence.

-Why doesn’t he write in plain English?

I watch some of them struggling to break through layers of language to reach the ideas inside. For them, words are a husk to be discarded; it is meaning that is the nutritious kernel.

Well, I suppose that’s a good way to tackle almonds: with a strong nutcracker and gritted teeth. But it’s a stupid way to eat a peach.


Rowland, S. (2000) The Enquiring University Teacher Buckingham : Open University Press