Pick the right date or expect a turkey

January 14, 2005

Timing is crucial when setting festive deadlines, explains Kevin Fong

I have always felt it a little cruel that our physiology course unit runs in the six weeks before the Christmas break. This presents a number of not insubstantial problems. Attendance inevitably takes a hit as the party season gets going, and those members of the University Alcohol Abuse Display Team who do struggle in to lectures are present in spirit only. Trying to maintain collective focus and keep teaching momentum going becomes nearly impossible.

Each year, as the lectures draw to a close, we set the class a 2,000-word essay as a sort of going-away present. This is worth 10 per cent or so of their final grade, counts towards degree classification and should be treated with at least a modicum of respect. But try telling this to 29 fully paid-up members of Club 18-21 with their eye on the Christmas vodka-jelly promo at the union bar. Perhaps next year I should try a local advertising campaign along the lines of "Remember, a degree classification is not just for Christmas".

This year, however, Ican only limit the charge through careful choice of the submission deadline. This seemingly arbitrary decision is in fact crucial. If you set it for the last day of term, you can bet that the thing will be written in the hurried moments before the class piles out of its halls of residence on its way to discounted alcohol and mistletoe. Set it for after Christmas and you run the risk of an equally hastily scripted submission smeared with stuffing, brandy and mince pies, seasoned with large dollops of Google. It doesn't matter - set the thing shortly before or shortly after Christmas and either way it's going to be a turkey. The solution: set the deadline for mid-January, soon enough to ensure that the essential content of the syllabus hasn't been jettisoned entirely from their memories, long enough after the break for them to have recovered, yet cold and dark enough for them not to be distracted by trying to get a suntan.

Having negotiated these pitfalls, it is ultimately with some relief that you wave the class off at the end of term. In an ideal world, of course, the absence of students has the added benefit of providing a temporary hiatus in which to clear that overfull in-tray and finish some much needed grant applications.

However, this year my day job as a junior doctor came calling, and I found myself working night shifts in the hospital on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. (Clearly I have offended somebody of influence within the National Health Service.) It is a strange place to be over the festive season, particularly so this year with the first reports of the catastrophe in the Indian Ocean coming in early on December 26. I spent Christmas night and Boxing Day morning in the intensive care unit. Over the years, the nursing teams on the ICU have invented a range of measures to suspend the disbelief that one is working in a Festivities Free Zone.

It's amazing what you can put together using only a toaster, a microwave, a few eggs, some Tupperware and a little smoked salmon. Only this year, with the news of overwhelming casualties from the tsunami, the illusion fell somewhat short.

And so, with the start of the new academic term, I am expecting the returns from that essay assignment I set before the break. It will be interesting to see what the students managed to make of it - not least because, having tried to impress its importance upon them before the break, one could forgive them for deciding this Christmas that other things in life were more important.

Kevin Fong is a physiology lecturer at University College London, a junior doctor and co-director of the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts.

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