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Dr Stephen Walker

Biography

Dr Stephen Walker has a 44-year association with Birkbeck, most recently as Dean of the Faculty of Science. He says he is particularly proud of his work as the admissions tutor for BSc Psychology from 2000–2007. ‘It is one of the College’s biggest teaching programmes. Over a longer period as Dean, it was a privilege to work with colleagues distinguished in several different academic disciplines. Also, as a member of the Buildings Committee, the redevelopment of the main building was an exciting time.’

Dr Walker’s graduate training was in the field of animal behaviour, with an emphasis on conditioning and learning, and he has since had interests in several brain and behaviour issues. ‘The first time I came to Birkbeck was to be interviewed for a PhD studentship in 1963. Much later, I was employed as a lecturer. I found that most of the students had their own impressive areas of expertise. Today’s students are just as impressive. Probably the most vivid memory is interviewing a BSc applicant who managed to get to Malet Street on the day of the London bombings. This is just one illustration of the determination that I’ve always admired in Birkbeck’s part-time students. I congratulate all part-time students graduating this year, and as a full-time Birkbeck post-graduate myself, I congratulate the many full-time students too.’

Oration

Master, Governors, Graduates and Guests.

Stephen or as he is always known to us, Steve Walker was born in Blackburn, where his father was a parish priest. After attending schools in Blackburn and Salford, he graduated from the University of Bristol in 1963. His 45-year long association with Birkbeck began later that year, when he came to us as a PhD student. There followed a period of five years teaching and researching in the University of Tennessee, but he returned in 1970 to become a Lecturer in the Psychology Department a Birkbeck.

In the first phase of his academic career, Steve Walker was much taken up by two conjoined preoccupations; the nature of learning and the question of whether, and how, animals think. During a period in which, like many experimental sciences, psychology has tended to become ever more technical and specialised, Steve Walker demonstrated a powerful preference and an impressive talent for analysis and interpretation, by putting together existing fields of research and drawing out from them their implications. His first book, Learning and Reinforcement, appeared in 1975, and was followed by Learning Theory and Behaviour Modification in 1984. The width of Steve Walker’s attentiveness in the latter book is suggested by the index, which, in the space of a few entries, goes from ‘flooding in Leningrad in 1924’ to ‘footwear, as sexual stimulus’, ‘gambling’, ‘genitals, public burning of’ and ‘hanging, Norman and Tudor traditions’.

During this period, he became interested in the question of the relation between the ways in which human beings and other animals learn. His Animal Thought of 1983 offered a capacious review of the history of thinking, argument and experiment on the question of how animals think. Unusually, it began the story in the seventeenth century with the work of Descartes; a student in the humanities interested in the question of animal thought, as so many are now beginning to be, will find no saner, fairer and shrewder account of the history of thinking on this complex question. The desire to see things in an expanded historical frame is also on display in his book Animal Learning, of 1987, which begins with Socrates’s attempt to demonstrate to an untutored slave-boy that he in fact has an innate, but unactivated knowledge of the Pythagorean principle that the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.

Steve Walker takes the view that there are more continuities between animal and human cognition than many investigators, ancient and modern, have been willing to acknowledge. His argument in Animal Thought is essentially that, if thinking is something that is primarily done by the brain, then the obvious and extensive similarities between human and animal brains makes it more than an odds-on bet that they are used for similar kinds of thing. He shimmies adroitly between the dogmatic opinions that have held sway on this difficult  and delicate question – for example the view of Descartes that animals did not think at all, and that of the behaviourists, who, ruling out of court the question as to whether there were anything mental going on behind actions, seemed to suggest that humans don’t think any more than animals do. But he is never merely dismissive, even in the case of the most extreme opinions.

One of the great pleasures for me as a Professor of English reading the work of scientific colleagues for the purpose of preparing these orations  is to be reminded anew what fine writers scientists often are. Steve Walker’s own writing is alive with wit and quirkiness, for example his tongue-in-cheek suggestion that Darwin’s theory of the origin of speech in vocalisation during sexual courtship may have been the result of having sat through so many interminable Victorian musical soirées. The final sentence of the book is representative of the delicate and fine-tuned judiciousness of Steve Walker’s whole approach: ‘The brain, as an organ of thought, is available for our use only because it was formed and developed before our time .. Our organ of thought may be superior, and we may play it better, but it is surely vain to believe that other possessors of similar instruments leave them quite untouched’. The honourably tattered condition of all the library copies of the book in London testify to the reputation and utility it still retains twenty-five years after its publication.

But Steve Walker’s principal contribution in his academic career has been the deep and long responsibility he has carried as administrator, manager and leader. After the retirement of Arthur Summerfield, he became chair of the Department of Psychology. His fairness and understanding in this role are remembered gratefully by his colleagues. But two years later, he was appointed Dean of the newly-created Faculty of Science. Though the etymology of the word ‘dean’ is murky, it may well derive from Latin decanus, meaning the chief or commander of a division of ten – in monastic usage, for example, a dean is one who has charge over ten monks. The word ‘faculty’, incidentally, is derived from Latin  facilis, meaning easy. Being a dean of faculty may once have been an easy ride, but it has alas been a long time since any faculty of science has consisted of ten monks. As Dean, Steve Walker had the role of protecting and fostering the sciences during a period of difficult and dramatic transition. Never overbearing or arbitrary, and yet, when necessity dictated, swiftly and calmly decisive, he quickly built a reputation for approachability, integrity and dedication.

As Dean, he was drawn into a higher management role in the college, taking decisions about recruitment curriculum and building strategy. He had the ideal qualities for such a role. To have served continuously as Dean for such a long time is a sign of the admiration and respect in which he was held by his scientific colleagues. But beyond this, the talent he had shown as a writer and researcher at entering into understanding with a wide range of attitudes and outlooks made him a just and generous mediator between the sciences and the other areas of the college. Most of all, his long involvement with Birkbeck gave and gives him an unparalleled insight into its distinctive, not to say idiosyncratic ways. Perhaps one of the most conspicuous areas of his contribution was in the long service he gave to the Buildings Committee, during what we might call the Hard Hat Years, of drilling, demolition and plaster-dust, when the physical fabric of the college was undergoing major expansion and refashioning. And of course, as Dean, he is also a veteran of graduation ceremonies like this one. He perhaps will be glad to be able to stand at the lectern today without having any tongue-tormenting surnames to articulate (though it must be reassuring for the Master to know that he has a match-fit substitute on the bench). But I know that he always relished his duty of calling forward successful graduates from the Faculty of Science to walk the walk across this platform in the way they have today.

So consuming and continually-expanding are the responsibilities of a Dean that it is easy for a person performing such a role to become a kind of deus absconditus in their own academic patch But, despite his heroically long period of office, Steve Walker remained centrally involved in the School of Psychology, not least in acting as the Admissions Tutor for the BA in Psychology during the period of its most vigorous expansion from 2000-07.

He continues to be associated with the School of Psychology, but his retirement has given him the opportunity, denied him for so many years, of travelling during term-time, in particular and recently to China, to track the footsteps of his father who was a missionary there. But he will never be able to travel far enough away to separate himself from us and our gratitude to him for his exceptional and devoted service. It is a personal pleasure to honour his achievements today and welcome him as Fellow of Birkbeck.