Things that I think and do
There are certain things that everyone knows about going to university. A fair amount of this pre-departure expertise comes from the usual media storm in mid-September, which discusses the mass migration of students away from their tearful and grief-stricken parents into a life of freedom, cheap drink, debauchery and the occasional essay.
Despite the sensationalist headlines and BBC “Have Your Say” discussions asking students and parents to write in about how sad/happy/relieved/proud/emotional they are, the real discoveries about university life happen (strangely enough) when you actually get fully into university life.
Having been in France during my studies, where I managed to do pretty much bugger all for a year except a couple of hours of daily instrumental practice, the odd rehearsal and a weekly lesson, I was surprised to note how many the little-known oddities of studying in England I’d forgotten.
1. Start (and finish) times are never precise.
It’s probably not high on the list of student priorities anyway, but there isn’t a huge need to get anywhere bang on time, all the time. Obviously I had experience of this in France, where you can safely add anything from fifteen to forty minutes onto a specified start time and still not miss anything important.
Here lectures and seminars claim to start on the hour, but actually get underway five minutes past and technically they end at five minutes to. Anyway, even if you are late no-one actually cares – it’s your degree, if you want to be late then it’s up to you.
House parties, nights out and socials tend to follow the French model as well – if it claims to start at 9pm, it’s almost certainly safe to get there anytime before 11pm and miss the awkward bit at the beginning when no-one turns up.
2. The weekly phone-call home will probably not happen
To be absolutely honest, unless you really need something it’s unlikely you’ll call home on a regular basis. There are those of course who do squeeze in the old hebdomadal call home, and that’s great.
But in my experience university takes over and suddenly you become super busy all the time. I usually hate the “too busy” excuse – I’m sorry, but a text reply takes a minute at the utmost – but in this I confess to being the World’s Biggest Hypocrite (I’m in the Guinness Book of Records). What usually happens with me is that I plan to phone mother or father and then two weeks magically zip by and I still haven’t done it. To be fair it’s generally because I have been busy but it’s no excuse for being a poor son.
Having said all this, I might be useless at keeping in touch in general – and if you’re reading this and nodding in agreement then I apologise.
3. You don’t need to prepare for every single seminar
I might sound like a rebellious troublemaker and all-round scallywag with this remark, but in actual fact I heard it from a tutor in my second year. It’s absolutely true as well.
Firstly you’re in a fairly large group so it’s likely that at least one other person will have read up on the topic and be prepared to talk about it. That’s if you’re lucky enough to be in a group where people actually contribute and don’t sit in awkward silence – I have one seminar in which there’s someone I don’t think has said one word in the last four weeks.
Secondly, not every topic will interest you. There are ten or so seminars in a term, and it’s pretty unlikely that every week’s subject will blow your mind intellectually. I’m not finding the iconoclastic nature of black publications in the Harlem Renaissance enthralling, so I’m getting the basic reading done so I can contribute meaningfully and that’ll probably be it.
As my second-year Russian history tutor said (possibly verbatim): “if you don’t like the topic, take a week off”. Of course I’m not advocating laziness or slacking, and of course you will have to do some basic reading to keep up with the “debate”, and of course at some point you will have to do some work. But honestly, for maybe two seminars a term you can afford to take it easy. Focus on the topics that really pique your interest and prepare those.
4. A day is a loooooooong time
Now I’m in final year I have something like five contact hours a week and the rest of the time is free. I say “free” – it’s not at all, it’s taken up by the work I’ve been given in those five hours. It’s time which I’m free to manage on my own.
In effect I have almost four days “off” a week. It might not sound much, but that is a long time to get work done in. When you consider that in exams you write an essay in about 45 minutes, you can definitely achieve a lot in a couple of hours. I’m not boasting (much) but last week I’d done all the basic work I needed to by Wednesday afternoon.
The point is that you may have a lot of work to do but there is almost certainly ample time to do it in, so there’s rarely a need to worry about time pressure. I’ve managed to take half an hour out of my library session to write this post and I have more university work this year than I’ve ever had (and rightly so, I should imagine).
5. Be prepared to live without stuff you need
My reason for this works on the same principle as the parental phone call. Despite having all this “free time” in my week, I still haven’t managed to get out and buy the kitchen stuff I said I’d get five weeks ago, or the radiator bleeding key I planned to find when I moved in.
Our house has been talking for weeks about using my sizeable collection of beer mats to prop up the TV-bookcase thing, and only yesterday did we get around to actually retrieving them from my room (that was only partly my fault).
I’ve yet to buy a laundry basket for my room (the floor is doing a good stand-in job at the moment), and several weeks have passed since I promised to get a replacement bulb for the landing light.
The thing is that we just live with these missing things – or rather, live without them. One day I might get around to including a bulb in a shopping trip or restocking my ground coffee supplies so I can have the espresso I told myself I’d have every morning. Until that point, I very much doubt that I’ll miss any of the stuff I just haven’t got.
There may be more unwritten rules than this – in fact I’m sure there are – but right now I have to go and call home while I remember to.