Parallel lives

October 13, 2006

An academic and his undergraduate son at the same university offer different perspectives on an issue. The series kicks off with arrivals and freshers' week.

The father:

Thirty years ago, almost to the day, my father and I loaded up our battered old Cortina and trekked across the country to the university I would attend. My room was squalid, the neighbourhood was like a war zone and it rained continuously for the first month.

Happily, I survived to get a degree, a marriage, two children, a cat and a lecturing job at one of our middle-ranking seats of learning. So when my first-born decided that university was for him, I beamed with paternal pride. Then he announced his intention to become a customer of my current employer. This looked like scuppering my chances of getting his bedroom as an office, so I stumped up a largish wedge of cash to get him a room in hall.

Living just down the road gave us a head start on delivery day. The fluorescent security man at the gate had his rakish customer-care salute nicely polished, but his grin froze when he recognised me as the bloke he had bawled out for parking on the grass last month - it was already dead, as I told him.

Having taught here for ten years, I was surprised how little I knew the residences end of the campus, although I suspect there are good legal reasons for this. It took a while to find the right block - longer to find the key, the floor, the flat and the door. The lad looked pensive.

When I left, the queue of parental transport stretched to the roundabout, and open warfare was breaking out as the four-wheel drives started going cross-country.

The department was just as bad. Everything was covered in a thin but highly adhesive film of brick dust from the building work, a colleague was screaming abuse at the dead photocopier, and three men in hard hats wanted to test the fire alarms.

A trail of biliously nervous first-years - for whom I suddenly had much more sympathy - wound sweatily around reception waiting for registration.

Several, I noted with horror, had brought their parents with them. They didn't look terrifically happy, which was a pity, because then the network went down.

IT staff fuelled by caffeine and panic were there within minutes, once the helpdesk got the right answer to the question: "Is the application critical to student registration?" Ha! As if anyone is able to do any real work this week. Sorry, I didn't say that. Honest.

The son:

I'm a student. Not a heavyweight drinker or a gigolo with the sex life of a rabbit. I'm the quiet type.

But I now know all about freshers' week. It all started bright and early on a Saturday, far earlier than is my usual custom. I lived a lot closer than most to the university, and that was one of the weird things.

Spending freshers' week in your home town is like a trip into the twilight zone. While everybody else is finding out where everything is, you're dying of boredom and waiting for the lectures to begin.

Hats off to the university: it does everything to help you out. The residency systems, and the other chains of command, would put a government ministry to shame. I guess the difference now is that students are paying customers. That may be why university staff are being so careful with their advice on staying alive. But all that couldn't help the way the room looked. It wasn't that it was bad, it was just cold and sterile. Coming from a spectacularly disorganised household, I found this a bit demoralising and resolved to spend as little time there as possible.

I went to the circus tent the student union had laid on as a venue for the "Sports Fair". As I was wandering between the stalls, populated by cross-dressers with a passion for archery and American footballers who looked like something Patton would drive across Germany, I saw a sport that looked therapeutic: paintball - shoot somebody where it hurts and win a prize. Sounded good to me.

The final shock of the week was the course. On Friday I found out about my lectures - or the lack of them. If I'm reading my timetable right, and I'm fairly sure that I am, I have three lectures and three seminars a week.

That's a total of about six contact hours a week.

I'm not sure if that's good or bad.

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