What will we learn as the academic year gets off to a very new start?

Sunday National, 4th October 2020.

The Chinese celebrate their new year in the early spring. In Scotland, we toast the changing of the years during the bleak December. In the Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah falls in the early autumn. The ancient Babylonians were probably onto something when they picked out the vernal equinox to mark their year’s new beginnings, celebrating the perfect balance of sunlight and shadow before the lengthening days stretch out first into spring, then summer before contracting into the darker and colder months of autumn and winter.

Maybe it’s the vestigial pagan in me, but celebrating new life when the trees are in their scud and the green shoots of new life are still frozen beneath the ground feels counter-intuitive. Warming yourself through with a hot shot of Laphroaig doesn’t exactly make me want to break out into a rousing rendition of “sumer is icumen in” or fire up the Wicker Man. Hogmanay, heretically, has always left this Scotsman cold.

But perhaps there’s another reason why I struggle to get animated by January 1st as a new beginning. Having spent the better part of sixteen years working in and around universities, I realise I’ve completely internalised a different calendar. For almost all of my adult life, the end of September has been the fulcrum around which my new year turns.

There may be a pinch of frost in the air, the rain may be nipping and the leaves may be beginning to blush on the bough – but for the academic lifer, autumn’s when everything changes and when everything is renewed. New students. New colleagues. New classes. It is this time of year which has kept me restarted and renergised for the last decade. I felt the tingle again this week.

At GCU, we held our first induction classes this week for the new generation of law students unlucky enough to be embarking on their studies during a global pandemic. Even though all of this was online with disembodied students dialing in from across Scotland – I still felt the irresistible zip of another fresh start. Strange as the context is, I hope they did too.

Contrary to popular misconceptions, academic summers aren’t just lazy days, but they’re certainly subject to fewer instant demands than the term-time hurly burly of morning alarms, bouncing your voice around big lecture halls and the cardiovascular exercise of racing across campus from seminar-room-to-seminar-room. This year, of course, things are going to be a little different.

Ordinarily, I’d be digging out my old lecture notes, polishing up the punchlines of my more reliable gags and blowing the dust off my slides. This year will have a different flavor to it. If you’d told me back in January that I’d be mastering the skills of a YouTube vlogger to do my teaching this October, and learning how to compère legal radio shows to do my seminars, I wouldn’t have believed you. But here we are, stranded in a strange land. We can only make the best of it. It seems to me there aren’t only challenges, but opportunities too. And I like a challenge.

During the last two weeks, the news agenda has – understandably – focused on the predicament university freshers have found themselves in, and the public health implications for the wider community of hundreds of young people appearing from across the country, potentially bringing their snivels, and coughs and fevers with them.

The media representations have been curiously polarised around two different but familiar clichés about younger people. As one friend observed this week, students are “portrayed as either thoughtless party animals incapable or unwilling to make sacrifices for the greater good, or they’re teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown.” In the popular newspaper parlance, they’re either entitled little monsters who don’t give a damn about killing their grannies, or they’re melting snowflakes who’d benefit from serving in the kind of foreign war their parents didn’t fight in. In my experience, both are lazy exaggerations which tell us more about the folk who make them than the young people beginning or returning to Scotland’s universities this autumn.

There are around 296,700 students studying in Scotland’s institutions of higher and further education. You can bet your diploma that all of life is there – from the heedless super-spreaders to those who are authentically struggling with the peculiar demands of the current situation. But most are likely to be doing what all of us have been doing for half a year and more: buggering on with life and making the best of the opportunities which remain available to them.

During this long and dreary crisis, universities have consistently felt missing and marginal from the policy agenda in Scotland and across the UK. You can understand the governments’ focus on schooling and prioritising the return to primary and secondary education. Universities have played, at best, third and fourth fiddle in their thinking. In Richard Lochhead – a field-promotion after the First Minister’s preferred candidate found herself embroiled in a social media controversy – universities are represented in the Scottish Government by a low-energy media performer with an uninspiring track record on strike action on campus and a less than imperious handle on his brief.

When the lockdown slammed our lecture halls and seminar rooms shut back in March, lecturers and their students shifted to what was dubbed “emergency remote teaching.” Quickly jury-rigged according to the technical whizzery of teaching staff, the academic shock of the last few weeks of term was as nothing compared to social disorientation of seeing your towns shuttered and being ordered indoors. My impression is that students across the sector showed grit in the face of this adversity. Exams were tackled, thoughtful dissertations produced, notwithstanding the “closed till further notice” sign over university libraries.

It won’t be true of everyone – what generalization ever is? – but human docility, as it tends to, seems to have blunted some of that the sense of alienation six months on. I have only sympathy for the 18-year-olds “arriving” at university while sat in their childhood bedrooms, dropping into disembodied online seminar rooms, having “met” nobody on their new course. This feels like a world away from the values instantiated in how things are usually done. I’m determined to think positively about it, but it is remarkable what you miss.

As a teacher, you can’t help but worry about all the imponderables. The lecture is perhaps the oldest and also the most maligned form of communicating information. The potential downsides barely need rehearsing. We sardine students in large lecture halls which tend either to be smoldering hot or freezing cold. Academic timetablers have the magic ability to arrange these at the least convenient hours of the day, when the sun is just rising or has already set. At the centre of the stage, we enroll academics – selected and trained for their scholarship rather than their ability to win a crowd – to entertain as well as inform the troops.

We further develop these unnatural extroverts by locking them away in a room for four years or more before unleashing them on students with minimal training – certainly compared to professionally qualified teachers we entrust our kids to in school. I’ve sat through woeful academic lectures and masterly ones – ones whose contents immediately bounced off my brain and others I can remember more than a decade and a half on. How much of this is just down to the peculiar way my brain is wired? How much of this will be true of the other undergrads I sat and learned with, or the undergrads who’ve sat and learned from me?

This new term, I find myself wondering how much of good education is about this kind of human encounter. Most academics may not be professional performers – but everyone with an ear for music knows that listening to a record isn’t the same as a live gig. How important is the lived dimension of being in the same space together, responding not just to information, to raised hands and raised voices, but also to the eloquent human cues which tell you that you’ve lost your class, that your explanation isn’t landing, that this shy student has a point to make and will only find their voice with the proper encouragement? How do students forge new friendships and relationships with their new colleagues from afar? This October, I guess we’re going to find out.

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