Parallel lives

October 26, 2007

An academic and his undergraduate son at the same university offer their different perspectives on freshers' week.


The relative peace of summer finally broke with a cloudburst of meetings, discussion fora and presentations that heralded not only the start of another academic year but also (insert plea to deity of choice) the real start of the Research Assessment Exercise process. Not the tentative tiptoeing of last October - when it was too far away to really be in focus - or even the slightly more panicky "wake-up" speech that the incoming department head gave us at Easter. No, this is the real, 100 per cent genuine "Give me your four best outputs NOW" mark on the timetable. A mark apparently written in blood - exactly whose blood remains unclear, but I have grave misgivings.

Whatever lies lurking in the future of the department, there are still the students to face - wherever they may appear on the current list of priorities. Their own summer excesses and excitements also seem to have worn off quickly, although the latest round of start-of-term hangovers seems to be lasting longer than usual. Anyway, it is now time to play the annual game of "spot the society".

The student fair at the start of term is a much more sophisticated affair than I experienced as an undergraduate - go along and have a look if you don't believe me. Today, it is as finely honed an engine for winkling cash out of freshers' wallets as you are likely to see outside a pickpockets' convention. And why not? The loans are in the bank and there is big money at stake.

The raked seating of the lecture theatre is almost perfect for society- spotting. Students still seem to believe that they are invisible to the lecturer as long as they are in a moderately sized bunch. They don't realise how conspicuous some of their newly selected hobbies make them.

Take that bloke at the back, for example. He has been sneaking glances at his watch since 20 past - that's why I keep asking him questions. The lack of hair, the large sports bag stashed in the aisle and the stitches over one eye put him in the rugby team for sure. The coach leaves in ten minutes ...

The sun-bleached jacket and salt-stiffened hair mark out members of the sailing club, while the round bruises of the girl in the front row could be from fencing, paintball or extreme knitting - time will tell. The party animals, the ones who chose this benighted town for its proximity to serious nightlife, give themselves away in other ways. They are always on time for 9 o'clock lectures, having arrived from the club via the kebab van (the smell lingers longer than you think) and donned an unintentionally bizarre cocktail of clothing to replace the glittery number falling out of the carrier bag in the corner.

Most scary of all are the ones who genuinely believe themselves to be politically aware. Although now an officially endangered species, their lapel badges are a real giveaway, as are the red-rimmed eyes they have gained from spending too much time trying to force out an insight into the hidden political rationale of my postmodernistic crypto-ethical rendering of the subject matter. They haven't yet stumbled on to the fact that nobody really cares any more.


Lying on the bed of my new hall's accommodation is this laptop, a sandwich of epic proportions, which my fluctuating appetite has discarded for the moment, and a heap of flyers for various student clubs, societies and miscellaneous entities. Printed in an amazing array of styles and colours, they promote everything from pacifist choirs to juggling clubs via the ever-popular Punks and Skins Society.

This particular avalanche of craziness is pretty familiar to anyone who's seen freshers' week from up close and, having recently gone through my second (and handed out my own leaflets for the Rivers and Waterways Conservation Society), I'm beginning to see it as something to be wary of. I'll explain.

When I was a fresher, I went along to this self-same fair. There's an old saying that a fresher and his money are easily parted, and I was determined to defy this, but it was not to be. While I joined only two societies, one immediately outweighed the other and the second was never attended. This was a source of some embarrassment, mainly at my own expense, and this year I determined that things would be different.

I had plenty of time to ponder this while standing behind my own stall. As a reluctant committee member, it was part of my job to try to recruit new people. Easy enough in this case: all you had to do was play on a sense of guilt. Freshers tend to have guilt by the bucketload anyway, because they're still naive enough to think that their mum doesn't know what they've been doing every night since they found the pub. All that's left to do is to latch on to it.

It helps that my society's cause is a good one and the sort of thing that geographers and historians should do anyway because it looks good on the CV.

So with a flyer, some posters, a complete lack of regard for excuses, we signed up just under 200, mainly freshers. And therein lies the problem: freshers will sign up for damn near anything, but if you try getting the average one to spend a weekend neck-deep in 20 years of accumulated duck crap and industrial waste, they get all reticent, or say they're allergic to mercury. We're lucky if we half-fill the minibus.

And my resolution this year? Of course it lasted. Other than the aforementioned, I joined only one society: the archery club. "Relaxing, revitalising and good for stress relief", according to the flyer. And I will do it as well - it's just that with all the commitments I made last year I can't go until after Christmas. To be honest, the timetable looks full already. Luckily, the second year doesn't count towards your degree. Right?

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