A little bit of thinking, a whole lot of drinking

August 20, 2004

There are many reasons why students sign up for summer school, but for the academics it's a chance to catch up on their boozing, writes Jason Garner

In the hot, sultry days of July and August, the classrooms of universities the length and breadth of the country are filled with foreign students, British university students and the occasional amateur enthusiast with no academic pretensions but a keen desire to spend their holiday improving their mind rather than their tan.

The home students hope to gain extra credits or make up for courses they have failed the year before and are attracted by the modules' reputation for being easier. This is largely because the courses are (unofficially, of course) aimed to suit the needs of foreign students, and many take a certain tourist-friendly approach.

One may feel sorry for these poor foreign students, forced to endure the university accommodation, but they have volunteered for this treatment after all. What about the teachers? Already exhausted and stressed after exams and subsequent recriminations of failed students, these overworked souls are given just a few days to prepare for a new horde of learners - although all too frequently there are familiar faces (those failed students, often with a grudge to bear).

The most important task takes place before the school begins. Teachers are required to convert dense and, let's be honest, often dull seminar-long modules into a tourist-friendly, activity-packed three-week course, which nonetheless retains an academic credit rating.

Theatre studies, which as far as I could work out involved students going to the theatre every night and then chatting about the play in class the next day, was unsurprisingly very popular. Much more than my own module on Victorian London, which involved walks around the city and trips on the Underground - not a particularly pleasing or even edifying experience, given the heat and pollution in the city centre in July.

The first time the course ran, it included lectures on the Victorian sewage system and the birth of the Underground. Not guaranteed to pack them in and, indeed, it attracted only domestic students who needed an extra module and were lured by the lack of an exam requirement.

In subsequent years, the module concentrated more on Jack the Ripper and museums. The more tourist-friendly approach was a far greater success.

But don't let this gentle overview of the teacher's responsibilities deceive you. Summer school is not just (or even?) about learning. In the introductory pack provided to students at the beginning of one summer school I worked on, alongside the maps of London and the pens proudly carrying the university's name (that have an unnerving knack of stopping working the day after the course ends) there is a clue to the true raison d'être of the academic summer season: a bottle-opener emblazoned with the university's logo.

In the best British academic tradition, summer school is simply an excuse for an almighty piss-up. Classes may finish at five, but the teachers rarely start heading home before last orders - a well-deserved reward after a year of hard work.

And the students don't miss out on the fun. Those who went on one weekend trip to Bath appeared far more interested in modern-day watering holes that allowed the over-18s to drink alcohol (they were mainly American) than the Roman ones. They stayed overnight in a youth hostel while the lecturers, as befitted our status, holed up in a bed and breakfast with an all-night bar.

Not that I partook. The next day I had to drive the university's clapped-out football team bus to Salisbury - where the students were more interested in the burger bars and pubs than the cathedral - and then back to London.

But I digress from the academic nature of the school. At the end of three or four weeks of intensive activity, the students are required to write their essays or sit their exams. The fruits of our labour become clear.

Most pass, so we have obviously done our job well. Yes, there are always cynics who claim that "if they pay, we don't fail them", and I did once teach a student who complained that I was to blame for her pathetic attempts at essay writing and that she'd paid, "so I should pass". But they miss the point. To fail foreign students, especially rich ones, is simply not very hospitable. And British hospitality, like our beer, is an essential part of the summer school experience.

Jason Garner has taught on several university summer school courses in London.

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