Tuesday is the beginning of the Cambridge academic year – and thousands of new students have turned up. Going through the elaborate welcoming routine, I find it impossible not to remember what it felt like more than 30 years ago when I was in their place.
For a start it was much less elaborate. Nowadays the kids go through almost a solid week of induction, so intensive that I can’t imagine much of it goes in. There are briefings on Health and Safety, tours of the various libraries, computer training sessions, meetings with student reps of the Faculty, JCR tea parties and “bops”, plagiarism avoidance classes (well almost) . . . and that is before they have been to meet any of their teachers and lecturers.
I remember it all being much more down to earth. A big college “feast” with a pep talk from the Principal, a brief meeting with our Tutor and Director of Studies – and off we went, in at the deep end (and amazingly we did soon manage to fathom how the University Library worked).
Apart from the predictable anxieties and indiscretions of the first few days (which I do not intend to share!), I now remember only two things of those first encounters with the College Fellows.
The first was telling the Principal, mingling after her pep talk, that I did not intend to eat “in hall” while I was at Newnham, but to make coq au vin (it was the 70s) in the student kitchens. I must have delivered this with unnecessary emotional force, since 30 years on she remembers our conversation too.
The second was the meeting with my excellent, but appropriately terrifying, Director of Studies, who reminded us very firmly that we were at Cambridge at the expense of the tax-payer -- and that tax-payers would expect us to work just as hard as they did: 40 hours a week, 48 weeks a year.
If someone had said to me then that just a few decades later I myself would be standing up in front of a new group of undergraduates, I would never have believed it – and frankly even now it’s a bit hard to take in. What do you say? In my case, what am I going to say to the assembled first year Classicists in the university – more than 80 of them – on Wednesday?
Well, sadly, you can’t use the tax-payer line anymore. They’d probably lynch you. Most of these students, after all, are taking on a whacking debt for the privilege of a university education.
Most likely I shall concentrate, like last year, on the different kind of skills they will need at university from at school. Whatever the merits and demerits of the modern sixth-form curriculum, it certainly doesn’t teach independent learning. When they arrive, they are used to a “target” approach to education (if you make the following four points and show that you can recognise a subjunctive you will get an A). They also tend to imagine that the only time they are actually learning something is when someone is standing up in front of them, teaching them.
I shall try to convince them (with only a modicum of success to judge by past performance) that intellectual endeavour goes beyond targets – and that the time when they really learn the most is probably not in the classroom but when they are by themselves, reading hard in the library.
The point I want them to grasp is that one of the aims of the devoted, skilled, inspirational and expensive teaching we offer is to give them the confidence to be able to explore the world of learning on their own.