When I graduated in 1979, the faculty of my department were cheerful and effusive – possibly elated because they’d realised that they were finally getting rid of me.
“Come back and see us,” they said. “Tell us how you get on!”
Things got fairly busy when I set out on my oddly unsuccessful quest to save the world with a shiny new degree. But, four decades later, I was finally getting round to returning to the site of my first university experience.
My reasoning was simple: I’d be spending the weekend in the city anyway, to catch up with some old friends; by adding a cheap extra hotel night to my trip, I could wander over and have a look at the old place. And if I was going to do that, maybe there was something I could do that would actually be useful to someone.
So I emailed my old department offering to give a talk providing its current students the benefits of an ancient graduate’s memories and reflections. The response was rapid and positive. The department proposed that the student society host me, and it promised to provide some nibbles and drinks. Excellent! I made my bookings and got to work on my talk.
Perhaps inevitably, the day didn’t go quite as I’d planned.
The bus dropped me in the familiar spot, but new buildings – with less concrete but even more glass than those I remembered – had mushroomed around it, at least doubling the size of the campus. I must have looked confused because an operative of oddly paramilitary demeanour, with “SECURITY” written on his body armour, offered me assistance. He called me “sir”, which rather shook me, and I accepted his directions with the bumbling thanks of the elderly academic and headed off on the newly arduous trek across campus.
Waiting on the visitor’s chair (I swear it’s the same one) in the head of department’s outer office took me right back to my not infrequent carpetings by his predecessor during my undergraduate years. But the fact that he was younger than me rather shattered the illusion – as did his very pleasant demeanour.
After a tour of the department – where I ogled the magnificent new research kit and was slightly unnerved by a scattering of still-familiar names on office doors – I was presented with the traditional mug of tea and a shared KitKat. I was pleased: the sharing of traditional and perhaps slightly wicked confectionery is, after all, the true token of academic acceptance. And as we chatted about the current research direction of the department, and how much undergraduate provision had changed over the decades, I felt the old madness creeping back. Although I’ve been out of that area of research – as a professional at least – for 20 years or so, I recognised the anticipatory tingling as I started wondering “what if?” What if I could get involved with the subject again?
Suddenly thoughtful, I headed through the gathering dusk to the venue for the gig – a huge, shiny new edifice that had erupted out of the gravel car park edged with greenhouses that I’d known. They had booked a magnificent, beautifully appointed 300-seat lecture theatre, but although I arrived only just in time to set up and test my presentation, the building did seem oddly quiet.
A few folk filtered in and were introduced as the committee of the student society. After cheerful handshakes all round, they plonked themselves in the middle to get a good view of the screen. With a couple of minutes to go, I got a pleasant surprise as a member of faculty I’d worked with back in the 1980s turned up. But that was it. My audience was six – including the host…
Well, I’ve lectured to smaller groups and under much worse conditions – most notably during the Great Norovirus Plague of 2006 – so I cheerfully gave them the full 40 minutes, as requested. They chuckled in the right places and went “Wow!” at my favourite photos, and then asked a series of intelligent and interesting questions, covering more ground than simple politeness required.
Afterwards, we withdrew to the foyer of the building where the Number Two Buffet had just been laid out – the one with the veggie Indian snacks and dips – for a couple of hundred people. As we grazed across its apparently infinite expanse, I chatted with the students.
After our goodbyes, I took the bus back into town and wandered thoughtfully into the first pub I came to – which I realised with a lurch had once been the site of a spectacularly unsuccessful first date.
While I renewed my rather warmer and more enduring relationship with the local ale, I reflected on the day. Whether I had been competing against happy hour in the union bar, or the two-for-one pizza offer in the new Italianate eatery where the burger place used to be, I will probably never know. I had to concede, of course, that there was just the possibility that turning up out of teaching hours to listen to an old bloke talk about stuff wasn’t actually as attractive a proposition as the old bloke would like to think.
But the few who had turned up had talked freely and enthusiastically with me about their impressive ambitions, their expectations and their self-imposed challenges. And, not for the first time, I had been struck by how much more sophisticated, informed and engaged undergraduates today are than I was at the same age – when I would certainly have chosen the pub over a talk by some obscure old-timer.
That timely reminder that the future is in safe hands transformed what could have been an inglorious failure into an unexpectedly satisfying experience.
John Brinnamoor is a pseudonymous academic who really ought to know better at his age. He works part-time for a UK university that no longer notices he is there.