Tips for new students -- from an old don
The first week of term has ended, and our new students have just gone through the increasingly absurd ritual that is “Freshers’ Week”. I don’t much mind the old-fashioned rites of passage that many of them organise for themselves: a bit too much alcohol and getting off with the wrong bloke to huge, but temporary, embarrassment all round. ("Wrong bloke" nicely illustrated on the left -- but to be fair this isn't a Cambridge ad!) It’s the ridiculous quantities of “information” that we now feel obliged to impart.
They have lectures, workshops and leaflets on safe cycling, safe sex, how to write an essay, how to recognise meningitis, what plagiarism is, how the library works (in triplicate), how to deal with budgeting, how to have a good time without it getting in the way of the 2.1 of your dreams – and that’s before they have even met their Director of Studies, received their work schedule or been to a lecture.
We must be mad. In the rest of our teaching lives, we are only too well aware of how much information the average highly-intelligent young person can possibly absorb in an hour. At the beginning of term we simply ignore that. Though you only have to look at the behaviour of many of our first years on their bicycles to see that the safe-cycling advice falls on deaf ears. Luckily, for most of them, experience teaches that one.
So why do we do it? It’s partly unthinkingly well-meaning, and partly tick box again I fear. Do you explain to your students about aids/plagiarism/loan management. . . ? asks some higher authority (whether the government or the students’ union). Yes, sir, we can reply.
Left to myself, I’d cut it back down to a speedy hour or so.
But what would you say, if you could give them just one piece of advice?
Obvious: GET A DIARY. That’s the single piece of advice that would lead to most benefit, efficiency, good work routine and happy living over the first year at ‘uni’ (as they now say). You would be amazed to discover how many students try to manage a complicated timetable and routine without one. Overall more classes are missed by simply failing to write down the time and place in a little book (or even a blackberry) than by laziness or whatever.
After that, it’s a bit more difficult to know what to put first. But I would go next for TAKE CARE WITH YOUR FACEBOOK. Yes it’s a wonderful medium of new communications. But your lecturers may well have registered too, you know. So when you say (pace my last point!) that you couldn’t turn up to your supervision because you were sick – when you have just posted 67 new photographs of that excessive party at which you had such a good time, they will know!
Finally, TREAT YOUR LECTURERS AS THE HUMAN BEINGS THAT THEY ARE. I get really fed up with being treated as some kind of teaching automaton, programmed to deliver information on Roman history come rain or shine… no feelings involved. On numerous occasions (. .. . oh dear, back to missing classes again) students have apologised for not making a supervision a few days before with a cheery “Sorry I didn’t turn up, I wasn’t well”. You don’t just fail to turn up for a dinner invitation, because you’re ill: you get a message to your host in advance. Same courtesy for us please.
Now a postscript for regular readers of the blog. To continue the crater of Vesuvius theme, there's a great poem on exactly that subject by my TLS colleague Will Eaves – just up on the Tate website, as poem of the month.