March 11, 2004
David Lester's Parry

I enjoyed reading this article very much, linked to by the wonderful this.

This man is the living embodiment of Peter's Parry.

A Peter's Parry is something practised by people who have a very nice job which they do very well, but who wish to avoid being promoted to a nasty job which they will do badly. The Peter's Parry, in other words, is the answer to the problem faced by so many of us, of the Peter Principle, which states that we all rise to our level of incompetence and then stay there for ever until we retire or die.

A Peter's Parry consists of doing something inessential very badly. I recall Professor Peter himself mentioning the case of a man who was highly competent at what he did, but who would, every so often, park his car in the space reserved for the Managing Director.

David Lester understands this sort of thing perfectly, as he vividly explains:

I went to the first graduation ceremony at the college in 1973, but I have never attended one since. I have not attended a faculty meeting since 1972. I found that I liked my colleagues much better if I did not listen to their silly comments in such meetings. I rarely go to division meetings (I belong to the college's division of social and behavioral sciences), but I do try to make most meetings of the psychology program.

I used to lunch with colleagues, but I found that their continual complaints about the administration and the students soured my attitude toward the college. I switched to lunching with students for a while (faculty members and students share the same cafeteria at my college), and some became good friends of my wife's and mine. (Our annual Super Bowl party rotates between our house and that of one of my students and her husband.)

These days, I eat in my office and check the sports news online. For many years, I had my name removed from the faculty e-mail list so that I had no awareness of what activities were taking place at the college – I missed the president's Christmas party on several occasions because of that – nor what issues were making the faculty and staff members angry. Now I have had myself placed back on the e-mail list, but I direct all collegewide messages to a folder that I rarely peruse.

I do not pick up the telephone in my office, and my voice-mail message informs callers that I do not check for telephone messages. Callers are told to e-mail me.

None of this makes the man unsackable, but it does make him unpromotable. He has thus been free to get on with his life at a lesser college greatly to his liking, of scholarship, travel, matrimony, and above all, to judge by what he says about his students, teaching – and free of the distraction of being made to run any aspects of his college that do not interest him.

The teaching profession contains many such, I think.

A good example is perhaps the history teacher in Lindsay Anderson's movie if ..., who rides into his classroom on a bicycle. No danger of anyone wanting to make him a headmaster.

I remember an old gent who taught at Marlborough when I was there, of whom the following is a typical report, of a snatch of conversation. Boy: "I've been doing gym sir." Old Gent: "How nice for Jim." Not very witty. Not "inappropriate" enough (as we now say) to get him the sack. But, definitely inappropriate enough (when added to all the other similar reports) to rule him out for further promotion, which in his case would have meant the tedious burdens of being made a House Master.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:01 PM
Category: How to teach