Academic rhythms and the rhubarb season

It’s the end of April. We’re well into the rhubarb season, and in a few more weeks — with any luck — the asparagus season will be upon us. It’s also the end of the teaching term: on Friday I delivered my last lecture in the morning, spent the afternoon wading through my teaching evaluation forms, and in the evening sat in a little sweary heap on the sofa and despaired. It’s that time of year. Today, memories of some of the more asinine comments on the evaluation forms have faded, and the rhubarb season is still with us; and I’ve been pondering why late April is always such a sordid and anticlimactic finish to the teaching year.

Most human societies, I’d guess, have lived under a strong seasonal influence, be it the flooding of a river, the arrival of the rains, or the sun’s plummet from midsummer to midwinter and back again. They’ve all learned to sway with this forcing, and our own at least has absorbed it so much that even now we’re heavily protected from the vagaries of food and climate, the rhythm persists in our public holidays, our liturgical seasons, our sporting calendar and — perhaps most strongly and least expectedly — our educational year. In an era when most organisations churn on regardless through twelve months, perhaps slackening for a week or two in the heights of summer and winter but never completely pausing, our schools, colleges and universities are remarkable in moving to a strongly seasonal — and perhaps, therefore, more human — beat.

I wonder, at seasons like this, whether in universities we undervalue that rhythm. It isn’t simply about using it to ensure that the demands of research and teaching can be balanced across the year, or that no lecture course lasts longer than flesh and blood can stand, important as these are. The point, I think, is that a university is an organism rather than a machine: it has its own ethos and even personality, and it seems to function best when those who belong to it feel a sense of collective life. At some intuitive level, the more ancient educational establishments have grasped this: absurd and infuriating as May Weeks and Founder’s Dinners and Raisin Mondays and Festivals of Nine Lessons and Carols may be at one level, they meet the same instinctive needs that demand that a football season finish with cup finals and promotion–relegation playoffs rather than trickling out in games that are merely statistical afterthoughts.

In contrast, an institution like my own treats the rhythm of the academic year as barely more than an administrative convenience. It’s true that we do — correctly and essentially — pay a lot of attention to the start of each year, ensuring that new students are welcomed, properly informed about the way things work, and generally set on what we hope will be the right track. (One aspect we do tend to screw up is that for several years the first day of term has coincided with the September bank holiday, with the same consequence as injecting a bar of waltz time into Take Five; but this is more or less an aberration.) After that, though, there is little trace left of the rhythm. First semester classes run on until the winter break, and the semester then pauses before the January exams, after which without a day’s interruption the second semester begins. At the start of April, teaching hits another fortnight’s hiatus, then resumes and limps on for another two preoccupied weeks as the May exams loom. Attendances slide and eventually teaching peters out somewhere during week 12 into past-paper questions and feedback forms. From then on many of our students appear on campus only on the days of their exams, and as the exam timetables draw to their ragged ends the student body gradually fades from sight. For the staff, teaching dwindles into admin, research is guiltily disinterred, and by the time the exam boards and graduations arrive they’re no more than a brief and sparsely attended punctuation of the summer.

Oddly enough, the students’ union marks the phases of the year with far more ceremony than the university itself. There’s Freshers’ Week (which is celebrated by dressing up and getting drunk); then Hallowe’en (which is celebrated by dressing up and getting drunk); then Christmas (which is celebrated by dressing up and getting drunk). The end of the January exams is celebrated by dressing up and getting drunk; it’s followed by St Patrick’s Day (which is celebrated by getting drunk while dressing up), and in a like manner by the end of semester 2 teaching; and finally the end of the exams arrives and it’s time to dress up and get drunk. I don’t claim all this has variety, but at least it happens. This may, perhaps, be part of the reason why students seem to feel a sense of belonging to the union that they certainly don’t feel to their notional departments, or to the university as a whole.

We’re a “commuter university”, with a majority of students who live at home and travel in from the outskirts of the city or beyond, and with a lot of staff who live a sizeable trek from campus and are disinclined to linger after hours. It’s not reasonable to suppose that we could mimic England’s collegiate universities even if we could reinvent our history and throw overboard a century of secular existence — our few gestures in that direction, like the annual sessions in which we share cheese, wine and awkward conversation with the braver undergraduates, strike many staff and students as moderately ghastly. I don’t imagine my classes will ever routinely mark the end of my lecture courses with the round of applause that was traditional on the Tripos. But perhaps we could consider the rhythm when we contemplate our academic year.

We could, for example, make our holidays coincident with the end of our semesters. We could, perhaps, mark the end of the May exam diet, or even the end of the teaching term, with some kind of occasion at which students and staff could meet to shake hands before heading their separate ways for the next four months. We could try to persuade academic staff that scrambling to finish a week early and then buggering off on jollies creates a premature sense that the important stuff is over, and encourages the end of term to unravel like a fraying rug.

However we do it, I can’t help feeling that it would be well to give some shape to the annual life of the university. It might encourage some notion of the institution as a collective entity rather than a supermarket stocked with research consultancy and training courses. It might even reduce teachers’ stress and students’ anxiety by giving proper termini to the periods of their effort and the periods of their worry. It might, in short, restore a sense that the university, vast as it might be, is fundamentally a human institution that exists — temporally if not spatially — on a human scale.

I don’t expect this will happen — like an infinitely more famous teacher, I suspect that no matter whether all things have their season, the result will be the same. “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body”… But on the other hand, “there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad”. And at least the asparagus season is almost here.

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