New Beginnings

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.


18 thoughts on “New Beginnings

  1. Yes, congrats indeed. I have noticed that a lot of people are lucky like you and meet their love while in college. I thought that might happen to me, but in fact, I have not dated at all in college. Here I am a senior, with no more time for a social life. Oh well, I guess there is always grad school in a few years.

  2. Up to my ears with Occupy Philly… a very frought planning meaning looms tonight and General Assembly tonight… there was notice of a new post from litlove… do I have time, I asked? I did. And I am so glad. I so identified with those freshies… here I am 70 years old and still going through such business? If you guide your students through the trauma as ably as you guide your readers you will surely be rewarded if reward there is in this world or out. Thank you for another touch of much needed sanity.

  3. Congratulations!

    When I think of the things most commonly associated with inducing — labor, vomiting — I feel quite a bit of sympathy for these students, poor things. And really, it’s apt; they’re entering into a situation where they must spew forth and create.

  4. Hooray for you and Mr Litlove! And congratulations! I met my husband when I was in my last year of school and he was a first-year, so I hope he’d say I was the best thing he got out of university.

  5. what a lovely story! Induction week does sound pretty tough – great in theory but in reality not perhaps as effective as one would hope. I remember my freshman week as well and it was definitely a haze of learning where buildings were, figuring out what classes to take all punctuated with lots of conversations with strangers!

  6. Congratulations!
    One must be careful of those “serious consequences.” I met Mr. L-S during week 1 of our first year…along with several others who became staunch friends.
    I think David got it exactly right.

  7. First off–congratulations to you and your husband. Second of all, I find it interesting how you comment that the learning process must be broken down for today’s students. That was not the case for me when I entered college 23 years ago. I went to a very good private, prep school–as well as to an ivy league college–and was expected to know how to study and how to do my assignments. That does not mean I had everything under my belt. I remember one seminar in particular with a fantastic French history professor who has since achieved a great degree of stature in the academic world. A small group of us got to sit in her office each week for three hours and discuss the Enlightenment and its affects on the notion of the individual. And she was the one who taught me how to write a research paper that had an original thesis and that was based on primary resources (in high school I learned how to write term papers, but they were not based on original sources). I then went on to take two more seminars–and one even included graduate students. It was truly an exciting time for me, and I feel sad for today’s students who are unable to tap into their intellectual resources to make college of time of great learning!

  8. Your post put a smile on my face! Congratulations. I remember the introduction speech at my school were the head of school said that on this bench one French president got to meet his future wife. We were all suitably impressed, but then the next sentence was about all the work we’d have to write for the following week, and all this spirit of awe was soon forgotten.

  9. At the law school where I work there is a 1L orientation week that is supposed to help them make the transition from their former lives into the constantly stressed out and busy life of a law student. You can already see the doubts starting to form on some of their faces after the first day. By the end of the week they have successfully achieved the glazed over look of a first year law student.

    What a wonderful story you shared about your freshers’ week! Congratulations to you and Mr. Litlove!

  10. Congrats Litlove and to Mr Litlove, too! He’s obviously a wise man not to have given up so easily. That first week of school is always a little overwhelming–hopefully it won’t take long until everyone settles into their work. I have a hard time imagining a bouncy castle set up on the front lawns of such an esteemed institution, but anything to help relieve stress! 😉

  11. Congratulations to you both! And good luck with the new students. It’s always encouraging to hear that story about how you and Mr Litlove met.

    As for the students, now that I’m back at school I’m surprised to see how scary university life looks again. It does seem a bit like sink or swim, and then picking up the non-swimmers and trying to help them the best you can.

  12. Cornflower – thank you!

    Cela – the thing that always struck me was that I was SO not looking for a relationship at that point. I firmly believe it’s the key to finding someone special!

    Jacob – bless you! And good luck with your meetings – sounds like you have something wonderful coming together there.

    David – lol! And such a great metaphor. They are scared of the pain of the process, and of revealing too much of themselves, too. See, it fits perfectly.

    Ruthiella – thank you! I had no idea at the time it would turn out so momentous!

    Charlotte – aw thank you, and I have no doubt whatsoever that Germany’s Best Husband would agree completely!

    Courtney – it IS all so new and surprising that it’s hard to learn something, isn’t it? Well, beyond where your classrooms are. I think you need a bit of stability before you can take in anything significant.

    ds – how about that! What a lovely coincidence. I will think of you on our anniversary now!

    Caroline – in all honesty, I wasn’t expecting it to go there either! I was just doodling on the computer. Really, I should have done the whole thing as the story of how we met, but I wised up too late!

    Ali – what a fantastic story. Oh if only it were possible, I would ensure that every student had one teacher like that, one similar experience of feeling the soaring expansion of learning. In many ways we had it easier because there was less pressure. I’ve watched my son grow up in an educational environment with such huge emphasis on grades in exams. It really cuts back on the amount of intellectual curiosity the students allow themselves – although only that curiosity, paired with a good teacher, will really give them the experience they want.

    Smithereens – lol – love that! Isn’t that the trouble with teachers? They always ruin the moment by talking about homework!

    Stefanie – oh that’s hilarious, too! You are SO right about that glazed expression. Perhaps we are preparing them more than we think – and in all the wrong ways! (and thank you for the lovely wishes)

    Danielle – in all fairness the bouncy castle gets put up on the lawn in front of the ugly modern building (and boy, is it ugly) so it’s not quite so incongruous! My students would infinitely rather have been lazing on the lawn with their new friends, and I did sympathise. And thank you for your lovely wishes – Mister Litlove completely agrees that it was his staying power that did the trick.

    Lilian – aw thank you!

    Pete – yup, that about sums it up. We throw them in and see who comes up still breathing. I’d love to find a way that is less brutal, but it would involve university-wide agreement, and given it’s rare to find two academics agreeing, I don’t hold out much hope! Thank you too, for the lovely kind wishes.

  13. I love the idea of breaking up the “fun” and the “induction” with something more neutral like yoga and mindfulness meditation that they could then have a coping skill to help them weather the hard times. Some alcohol education could probably have more impact that “induction.” And I like the idea of pushing the induction “counseling” off to, say, two to three weeks into it, so it is less generalized and more focused on what each student needs. I also laughed at believing they are admissions mistakes. Everyone in my graduate school class minus two geniuses thought that. We all compared ourselves to them, thinking they were the norm.

  14. Congratulations! What a great story. I can truly say that Hobgoblin is the best thing I got out of grad school, although a PhD is pretty nice too 🙂 Those poor students. I like your plan of helping them out a couple weeks in, and too bad it won’t happen. I’m sure it would be very useful to process they experience while in the middle of it.

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