Parallel lives

November 17, 2006

An academic and his undergraduate son at the same university offer different perspectives on an issue. This month: lectures

The father

The fresh start-of-term smell of floor polish in the lecture theatre has already been displaced by the deep autumnal scents of wet shoes and warm armpits.

Since I am not part of one of the trendier courses, the rip-out-and-replace civil engineering activity over the summer has left my favourite teaching space almost unscathed.

The yellowed pegboard ceiling and the nasty orange plastic seats have a homely familiarity compared with the swish new facilities upstairs.

Apparently, the new rooms are fitted with "climate control" - which I guess is some new way of preventing global warming.

Thankfully, I have almost recovered from the problems of the first lecture. The room filled up rapidly with a surprisingly eager and bright-eyed bunch of first-years - and it wasn't until the first ten minutes were up that I realised that half of them were in the wrong room. Or, rather, they were in the right room (0.21) but the wrong building (Newton rather than Hemingway). A simple typo in the Fresher's Guide apparently - it seems that the enthusiastic interlopers were expecting a talk about hardship grants.

It took the arrival of a dapper young chap from finance, who had been waiting in an unexpectedly empty room, to burst the bubble.

The diminished crowd that remained didn't look quite so enthused - and probably wished they had known in advance about the other, potentially valuable, gig. As time went on, I began to worry about a few people who were looking just a bit too attentive - slightly crazed and unfocused. I started to suspect that they should really have left with the others - but that they had been trapped in the middle of a row and been too timid to force their way through.

I did my usual round-up of empty water bottles and discarded sandwich boxes before I left - and it is always worth checking whether you have been immortalised in any interesting new graffiti.

All I found this time was a sheet of calculations that presented a charmingly naive estimate of how much I must be earning an hour, based on the current level of tuition fees. It will come as no surprise that it was a wild overestimate.

The son

It's not that I'm not enjoying lectures. Given that I'm paying several thousand pounds a year to the university, I'd better be. It's just that not having been in any sort of organised education for almost four months, and having come through a freshers' week consisting of alcohol cut with welcoming speeches, I don't think any of us were quite prepared for the pace at which we were going to be shoved into lectures.

In sixth form, this didn't happen for the best part of a month.

Of course, the difference is that a school term is 16 weeks long, as opposed to 11 weeks. God only knows how they manage these things at Oxbridge.

What hasn't happened yet is the essays. My course has only six directed hours a week. So far, I'm filling the undirected hours with reading the books, but I know for a fact that I have five essays due in before Christmas, and so far none of my lecturers has mentioned them.

This has made all of us a little nervous. All our inquiries have given us to understand that they will soon be posted on the university website. I've just received an e-mail to the effect that they still haven't finalised the question of the first essay, and it's due to be submitted in three weeks.

Apart from this, about all I can remember of the past few weeks is attending lectures given by a series of worryingly enthusiastic lecturers who seem to occupy some form of parallel universe. The lectures themselves aren't so bad and you have a good sturdy lectern between the two of you.

But the seminars, where 18 students and one lecturer are jammed into a room roughly 2m2, can get a little "interesting".

Why is it that a lecturer who refuses to convert to the digital age always seems better than one who has? Is it a subtle hint that here is an aged soul steeped in wisdom? Or someone with the devil-may-care elan of refusing to follow the crowd? Or the lack of shouted arguments with the projector? Or maybe it's just because the non-digital one is a better lecturer. If I find out, I'll be sure to let you know.

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