Michael Bywater—Teacher, Author, Critic

“Timelines make the unthinkable visible.”

BD: What led you to a become a teacher?

Michael Bywater

MB: Teaching is just a part of it, though I wish it were a larger part. Actually, it is a larger part; it runs through everything I do. I’m an author, columnist, critic, broadcaster… I teach courses in analytical thinking for businessmen and engineers, I’m currently “cultural analyst” for a project with one of England’s best-known museums… I’ve worked on films and computer games… but all of it, really, has been about saying “Yes, but look at it this way” or “Have you thought of it like this?”

All writing, certainly, is about the urge to teach—certainly in my case. But the best way to slake the thirst for teaching is to actually do it, and the thing I enjoy most is teaching undergraduates. And despite having not gone through the traditional route into academia, I am lucky enough to have the privilege of teaching at one of the world’s greatest universities, Cambridge. I suppose if I’d thought about it at 21, when I got my first degree, I would have gone the traditional route; but I was a late developer and too wildly interested in too many things to focus at that age. I rather envy those who did have that ability. But I didn’t.

BD: Tell us about the subject you teach.

MB: I teach in a number of areas but my favorite is the Tragedy paper, which is a compulsory paper on Part II of the English Tripos—“tripos” being the quaint 14th century Cambridge word for the degree subject. Some say it refers to the three-legged stool you sat on to be examined; some, that it derives from the “Trivium” or “three roads” to everything a Gentleman needed to know: Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric. Listening to the effusions of some of our politicians, on both sides of the Atlantic, I sometimes think they should bring back the Trivium and make it compulsory. But I digress.

The Tragedy paper runs from the Athenian tragedians of C5 BC—Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides—right through to the modern tragedians like Beckett and Miller. It’s primarily about drama but takes in cinema, the novel, whatever you can convincingly argue is “tragic art” (I had one student this year who wrote about the photography of e.g. Weegee and Henri Cartier Bresson as being tragic narratives, and did so persuasively.)

In the end, though, the paper is not so much purely about tragedy as about how we approach the business of thinking about “great” literary art. It’s demanding but immensely stimulating, and the ones who get the point of it find they enjoy it and their eyes are opened. My job as a supervisor (teaching one-to-one or in small groups) is to make sure they do get it.

BD: How do you use timeline charts in your classroom work?

Cambridge University in the Snow

MB: Looking at the way something like tragedy changes over time is immensely revealing. But we aren’t good at thinking in time. Timelines are “metaphiers” (to use Julian Jaynes’s word) of time. It doesn’t go left to right (do Arabic or Hebrew speakers think of it as going from right to left, I wonder?) but we can understand it better if we think of it like that.

I want the students to see that, far from being a persistent literary/dramatic preoccupation, “real” tragedy—Oedipus the King, Othello, Death of a Salesman, for example—only emerges very rarely and at particular times when societies are under threat (from within or without) or otherwise in flux. I could tell them that, and they’d write it down. But just handing out a Timeline document… well, they can see it for themselves, and start asking the right questions. So instead of writing it down and learning it, they are actually teaching themselves. And that’s the best way to absorb understanding.

Timelines make the unthinkable (which of us can hold 2,500 years in his head?) visible.

BD: What do you like best about Bee Docs Timeline?

MB: It has, for me, the characteristic of any good tool, which is that it gets out of your way. You don’t think of the tool you’re using, but the job you’re doing. There are some enhancements I’d love to see—a bit more control over the positioning of items, in particular, and the ability to annotate timeline diagrams—but for a v1 application, it’s stable, elegant, and does the job flawlessly. I saw one review where the reviewer said, oh, you can get the same results out of a high-level project management package. I’m not a project manager; and I’m not about to wade through some hideous thing designed to launch products or manage subway tunneling just to get what I want. Bee Docs Timeline does what it’s meant to, and gets out of the way.

BD: How do you see technology affecting / changing education (or literature) both now and in the future?

MB: Boy… that’s a fairly hefty question! One of the things we’re already seeing is that email has changed the student/teacher relationship profoundly. In the run-up to finals, there’s a flurry of emails from people who have worries, questions, ideas they want to run past you, and this enables a fast but non-invasive response. Somethings springs to their mind, they can fire off the question instantly and get a reply fairly quickly.

I also personally use the web to maintain a sort of discourse with students. Not many people are doing this yet, but I think it will grow over time. I set up what’s become christened “The TragiBlog” where I can blog ideas, speculations, questions, teasers, whatever, as and when they occur to me. Teaching isn’t—or shouldn’t be—something that simply happens in lectures or tutorials. It’s a continuing process, and the TragiBlog is a way of making that process manifest.

As to literature… well, there was a time when we thought e-books would be the way forward. They aren’t. Paper is still the best medium. And online libraries don’t quite work. I was excited by the idea of Questia but in reality it’s cumbersome and a lot less intuitive and helpful than having the printed text beside you. I consult it only rarely.

The Global Interweb (as the geeks—and I am a closet geek—snarkily call it) is immensely useful but also a snare and a delusion. Let’s not get into that…

But I think the biggest thing is the convergence of blogging and broadband. That will change—is changing—the paradigm of communication. The established media haven’t caught on yet, and I suspect they’ll be dead in the water before they do. One piece of advice I’d give to anyone starting out: don’t contemplate a career in print journalism, because in 10 years’ time it will be a very, very poverty-stricken trade indeed.

BD: Do you have any personal, literature, history, or education web sites to share?

MB: More than I could possibly list here! The Perseus project is exemplary—funny how the classicists have led the way in educational/literary use of the web—and I am eternally grateful to the noble Bill Thayer’s Lacus Curtius site, particularly as he has keyed in the whole of Pliny’s Naturalis Historia, the greatest and most entertaining of the Roman encyclopedias—which is handy for me, since Pliny is the subject of my next-but-one book.

I also lurk around Slashdot, yearn for almost everything on Think Geek, waste hours on a whole constellation of blogs (my Net News Wire aggregator is bursting at the seams) and can’t keep away from PopBitch, which I like to persuade myself that Aeschylus would have simply loved. But perhaps I’m just shallow and trivial…

BD: What are the most important lessons you want your students to take from your class?


  • That just when you think you’ve got it, take one step sideways, look again, and a whole new vista opens up.

  • That you should never reject an idea before you’ve given it a chance to breathe.

  • That you should never believe an authority just because it claims to be an authority.

  • That the preoccupations of societies and individuals remain remarkably similar over two and a half millennia; and that just when you think “They were just like us” you stumble on something that makes you realize they were nothing like us at all.

  • That the human intellect is the greatest tool we have—whether you believe it’s a gift from god or an accident of evolution—and that thinking is the greatest fun you can have with or without your clothes on.

  • That when you stop asking questions, you might as well stop living.