The start of the academic year brings its own opportunity for new year’s resolutions. All the usual: drink less coffee, snack less between meals, waste less time reading peripherally-relevant websites and answer all emails within 24 hours. Just like calendar New Year’s Resolutions they are unlikely to be adhered to. But this time of year – and yes I know Cambridge terms start later than most so many readers will have long since passed this point – also is the point when you know that last bunch of resolutions you made at the start of the summer have also not been met. All those grand ideas about manuscripts written, hours spent in the library and grants submitted. Just like drinking less coffee they are likely to have bitten the dust, at least in part. And the end of summer rams it home just how few pages have been written en route to the next REF submission, grant application or job application. In that sense, it is a dismal moment of closing-off of options. I seem to feel it more than usual this year, perhaps because I sense I have no excuses for failing to meet my own self-imposed goals. No unexpected deaths or accidents marred my summer, and I can’t even use the excuse of being demoralised by the referendum. That sense of impending Brexit catastrophe is now a permanent state of affairs yielding a constant DC level of gloom, only shifting – in the wrong direction into spikes of even worse misery – whenever I attend an ERC meeting to remind me of what specifically scientists are about to lose. (I wrote about this previously on this blog, and most recently here.)
For a different generation, however, the start of the academic year brings all kinds of excitements coupled with fear. As new students arrive in College with newly acquired coffee mugs, duvet covers and well-established mascots or other mementos of home, the academic cycle starts again. New skills must be learned. Skills such as learning to cycle successfully down Trinity Street whilst avoiding other cyclists going the wrong way along the one way system while simultaneously swerving round tourists taking selfies in the middle of the road. Skills such as balancing sleep requirements with a social life and working out the right number of corners to cut when writing essays. All skills which – literally or metaphorically – remain valuable throughout one’s life, whatever direction it takes one in.
For these students I hope there will be a real buzz as they put down their roots in their new homes and work out whether the person in the room next door is going to turn into a lifetime buddy or an evil pain whose loud, thumping music regularly keeps them awake at night. (Churchill Porters can, however, be quite fierce about late night noise.) That buzz should carry them through the first week or two while they find their way around the nooks and crannies of the university’s older buildings as well as acronym soup; keep them going when they realise that their capacity for drink in the bars around the college and city is perhaps less than they’d like to imagine when trying to impress their friends and that glasses of after dinner port at the Matriculation Dinner carry quite a kick: fortified wine does mean it’s stronger than the usual stuff.
As an undergraduate at Girton all those years ago – that former all women’s college which was built a long way out in 1869 because it really was not a good idea to have the young gentlemen in close proximity to the maidens of Girton – I also had to learn the hard way that Cambridge winds (currently particularly strong) are always in your face, whether cycling into town or out again in the small hours. Colleges closer in have less of a battle on this front although Kings Parade does have its own particular version of vicious winds at certain times.
The start of the academic year should be a time of new beginnings for young and old alike. How long does all that enthusiasm last? I wrote previously about ‘sixth week blues’ and that is probably about right. Six weeks, for the student, is long enough to work just how far behind reading and problem solving has fallen, that no clean jeans can lead to sartorial disaster so leaving the laundry that long is a mistake and that a cumulative lack of sleep does not improve mental capacity. All those strands of life collide and bounce around. By the second term balance should have been (re-)established, but that first term before Christmas can feel inexorably long. For the staff member six weeks is also long enough to erase all memory of any putative freedom to write that the summer conferred yet to render the approach of Christmas without time to buy the family presents a constant reproach.
Like the natural world, the academic world ebbs and flows around the year and years. It has its periods of rapid growth and slow decline into senescence and decay. Moments of sudden beauty and others of mould and fear. At 18 one hopes the student feels each moment is to be seized because there may never be another such. As an old hand the daily routine can feel like a familiar friend.