Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

In Remembrance of Graduations Past

with 2 comments

by apini

Today is the last day of term for undergraduates here.  It’s a weird thing, the end of the school year. I’m actually not a very nostalgic person.  I’ve always been really forward-looking (I’m a planner and an optimist).  I loved both high school and college when I was there, and I’ve been to reunions. Aside from the summers after I graduated, though, I haven’t really missed high school or college. Maybe this is inspired by my discipline itself: EH Carr writes that ‘The function of the historian is neither to love the past, nor to emancipate himself from the past, but to master and understand it as the key to the understanding of the present.’

But Oxford is particularly good at inducing nostalgia because the end of the year happens so quickly and poignantly here.  There’s no ‘exam period’ or ‘senior week’.  You’re just cruising along in the academic year and then the library gradually begins to fill to capacity and there are increasing numbers of people with white, then pink, then red carnations, and more and more people in punts, or in ball gowns, and invitations to faculty garden parties and college garden parties, and then, suddenly everyone is gone.  There’s no graduation ceremony to bring everyone together before the end.  People just leave when they finish.  And with 8 week terms, the whole year has slipped by before you know it.  Which is probably why the place has inspired such particularly nostalgic fiction -most famously Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, but also Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night, and even Colin Dexter’sInspector Morse series, which highlights the difficulties of continuing to live in Oxford after your time as an undergraduate.

As an academic, I’m still tied to the same academic calendar.  But it it means very little, technically. Maybe more marking, less teaching.  Maybe the onset of summer research trips.  But it mostly means a summer with papers to write, conferences to attend, or maybe even summer schools to teach, or courses to prepare.  It doesn’t have the freedom (the terrifying freedom) of the summer after graduation.  Even last year, when I had finished my PhD, it wasn’t that same gratifying feeling of being finished.  

And this is part of the reason that I really enjoy academia, I think.  After I finished my masters, I realized that without that Sunday evening ‘I really should be working’ feeling, I didn’t know what to do.  I like always having work that I feel like I should be doing.  I do a lot more reading – novels, newspapers, vaguely relevant academic texts – when I know that I should be writing an article or a conference paper, or be visiting the archives on a sunny day.  I was not cut out for the kind of work that you can put down at the end of the day.

But at this time of the year, I remember that there’s another side to the academic calendar.  It’s not all about papers, and tutorials, and lectures, and exams.  When the undergrads are wandering around in sub-fusc and are covered in glitter and flour and champagne, and all the balls are over, and people are packing up their rooms, and parents are arriving tomorrow to drive them home….I remember that there are newspaper deadlines, and orchestra rehearsals, and plays, and JCR committee elections, and important varsity matches, and internship interviews, and figuring out what you want to do with your life.  I remember walking through the dining hall in senior week and thinking how sad it was that it would never be ‘my’ dining hall again.  I remember a party on the roof of our house.  I remember the panicked feeling of being nostalgic at the same time that the thing you’re being nostalgic for is happening.

And I remember that another reason I became an academic is because I like to operate on that calendar too.  I like to see successive generations do all of those things, and make decisions about their lives, and make silly mistakes along the way, and grow up from scared first years to confident (and scared) finalists. So to paraphrase Carr, maybe the function of the university teacher is neither to love the past undergraduate experience, nor to separate entirely from it, but to master and understand it as the key to understanding today’s undergraduates.


Written by apini

June 25, 2011 at 04:20

Posted in Academia

2 Responses

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  1. […] morning there was a really good post by Apini over at PhD Octopus in honor of the end of term at Oxford. Most of the post is about the quick ending of term there, […]

  2. […] I completely sympathized, and maybe I should have recommended one of these campus lit books, because they certainly laid out the sentiment more eloquently than I.  I think that for many students, especially those attending prestigious universities, the first year is something that they, their parents, their school mentors, and their home friends have built up in their minds.  They attend with these grand ideas about what university life will be like.  And then they get completely overwhelmed.  Everything that they miss in that first year (whether it’s a night out because they’re in the library, or doing the reading for seminar because they’re on a night out) feels like a missed opportunity.  And friends’ lives at other universities seem so much easier (and more fun)! […]

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