Just a brief post today as I am in the middle of induction days in college. It sounds rather painful to be inducing students, and indeed sometimes it is. It doesn’t help that we are also in the middle of a bizarre autumnal heatwave, with temperatures higher than they ever were in summer. The result is hot, weary and tired students, shut in stuffy rooms and forced to contemplate the start of their university careers in the future anterior, a tense they probably couldn’t even identify (‘in a few weeks’ time you will have found out that…..’). Wafting through the open windows are the shrieks and yelps of joy from other students with less rigorous directors of studies, taking advantage of the bouncy castle the JCR has set up on the lawns. Last year it rained a lot, and we were all a great deal more motivated.
At first it seemed to be a good idea, to take a few days before term began in earnest to help the first year bridge the gap between school and university. Goodness only knows the gap has become a yawning chasm. It’s not simply a question of the work being harder; schools are now concerned to encourage students, to break down the work that has to be done into small steps and to generally make the learning process as simple and focused as possible. All this sounds great, and it probably is, but the teaching environment here is so very different it comes as a shock. An avalanche of work descends on the new students heads, and the level they have reached is very resistant to being broken down into easily accomplished steps. Mostly the work involves a lot of trial and error, with students struggling to find their own way through the new disciplines they encounter. On top of which, university tutors are not like teachers – they criticise, quite fiercely at times, and they see their job as showing the students around the complexities of a topic, not rendering it palatable and easy to digest. It’s a rare first year who doesn’t wander round in a daze of bewilderment, convinced they are an admissions mistake.
So, in theory, great idea to have induction days, give the students a chance to think about the new skills they will need to acquire and to start some preliminary work on them. Only it never turns out that way. It’s like trying to instruct new parents-to-be. You can tell them the truth about having a first baby, but it just sounds like you’re being mean and deflating. And you never quite know what you’ll be dealing with until that baby actually arrives. I’ve come to think it would be much better if we could let the first year get through a couple of weeks of teaching and then take three days out and say, okay, now you know what it’s really like. What’s causing you the most problems? It’s never going to happen though; full term is like an express train – try to step into its path and you just get mown down.
The other problem with induction days is that they take place while the JCR is trying to initiate the first year into the enormous amounts of fun they are supposed to be having at university. The first year we tried induction, it fell to my lot to intervene in the dispute between the fellows and the JCR. The fellows were not best pleased at the thought that their new students would turn up to their introductory teaching sessions even more hungover than usual. They were outraged by the amount of heavy drinking events that were on the programme. I had the JCR President in my room, pointing out with some indignation that we were in competition with other universities who had a full fortnight of freshers’ events, not a piffling five days. In competition for what, I wondered? Who could hospitalise the most students in the shortest time? Was it possible, I asked, to have some events that did not include the consumption of alcohol? Could we maybe offer students a chance to learn yoga, or meditation? Teach them to calm down as well as to wind themselves up. What was wrong with having a tea party? The look on the JCR President’s face assured me that this was something he had truly never considered.
I don’t think it’s just me getting old; I clearly remember my own freshers’ week, many years ago now, was far less manic. The first night I arrived, I was taken into the buttery for supper by my college ‘mother’, and after that a group of us went to a second year’s rooms for coffee. I remember it as being wildly exciting; there we all were, away from home and independent for the first time, hanging out with new, interesting people. I remember I walked back to college that night with a very tall, very blonde young man, who was charming and easy to talk to. The next day, at the ploughman’s lunch event in the main hall, I was relieved to be able to spot him in the crowd. I was supposed to wear my glasses but was far too vain to do so, and so it was with much gratitude that I squeezed my way through the undifferentiated ranks towards a friendly face. He, on the other hand, saw a brown-eyed girl with a big smile making a beeline for him, and misread the situation entirely. I was dating someone from back home at that time and had no intention of getting into a relationship. So you see, my memory of freshers’ week is that hazards lurk in even the most misleadingly innocent occasions, and serious consequences can evolve out of nowhere. Yes, dear readers, I married him. And we celebrated our 18th wedding anniversary last week. The books and the education and the teaching have been great, but he’s still the very best thing I got out of university.