Well yesterday I handed in my final essays: the last pieces of coursework ever in my undergraduate degree. I expected to feel triumphant but instead I felt a little empty and sad and probably nostalgic. After all those years and sleepless nights and thousands of words painstakingly wrought out on laptop screens, it all boils down to two more essays and three exams. And then it’s over.
It’s difficult to know where to begin with reflecting about my university experience. Everything is usually divided between academic and social life. Employers and scholars, politicians and journalists all frequently debate which of the two is most useful for getting a job. Any careers event you attend will churn out the hackneyed refrain that ‘university isn’t just about academia’. They encourage you to get involved in societies, sports clubs, volunteering, student media. And all this is great, but we mustn’t completely neglect the whole reason we’re at university – some of us paying thousands of pounds a year to do so – to learn. And this learning isn’t all about getting a job (not for me at least), but about learning for education’s sake – for widening your perspective on the world.
The first essay I had to write was on Descartes for Level 1 philosophy. I believe the question was something like ‘Should we be worried by Descartes’ scepticism?’. This kind of question was a whole new ball-game for me. I was used to plain old terminology like ‘Discuss’, ‘to what extent’ and ‘examine/evaluate’. Not should we be worried? Should we? Are philosophical thought experiments really that important? Of course, the essay question was roundly subjected to confusion and piss-take amongst my fellow first year students, but I suppose it was a good way into a career in philosophy. You know, it was the kind of question that makes you think, that challenges your assumptions about what an essay should do. It’s easy to say that now, but at the time I was pulling my hair out. I remember maybe the worst library session I’ve ever had was one rainy Saturday afternoon, where I stared at a blank screen for four hours straight, glancing from book to book and desperately Google searching everything I meticulously typed up, in case it was similar to something else that had been written.
First years are constantly subjected to sermons on the sins of plagiarism. Whilst this is of course a vital academic lesson, it also makes essay-writing for the paranoid nigh on impossible. I remember for my English Literature essay, I decided to scour the internet for every form of critical interpretation available on my primary texts, just to check that I wasn’t repeating the same arguments as everyone else. I had still to learn that plagiarism is more about intellectual integrity, about learning to reference properly and using existing sources in an original way, than coming up with something that is wholly unique. One thing you learn from English Literature – in fact, probably any arts subject – is that the notion of pure originality is somewhat a myth. And that’s actually liberating, because it takes away the equation of creative genius; you’re suddenly allowed to see how authors frequently influence/borrow/steal/subvert one another’s ideas, and you no longer have to imagine essay-writing as an outpouring of wonderful, effortless analysis. It’s allowed to be a difficult process, built up from hours of reading, planning and collated note-taking. Not just something you fire out in an hour at the back of a high school English class.
To the eighteen-year-old me, that Saturday in the library, I wasn’t quite acquainted with all this. I was sitting next to a boy who was typing away furiously, producing what looked like three essays in the space of a few hours (the time it took me to write one paragraph that I eventually cut from the essay).
Philosophy, to be fair, is a subject notoriously confusing when it comes to essays. It shouldn’t be; it’s just that a philosophy essay is distinct from other kinds of critical analysis that I was familiar with through my hitherto social-sciency background. That tutorial we had, waiting to get our essays back, was really hellish. Everyone was telling each other how badly their friends in other tutorials had done. How harsh the marking was. Nobody knew what a philosophy essay was meant to be. We all expected D’s.
When my tutor read out my student number and I went up to collect my essay, I have never been so pleasantly surprised at a grade. An A3! I can tell you, that was the first and hardest earned A3 I have ever received at university.
Looking back, I think I probably spent most of my first two years at university in a vague state of panic. The thing is, most of the time you have no idea what you’re doing and what’s expected at you (I still don’t, but that’s now a good thing – again, liberating). There are rarely any rigid guidelines, especially in a subject like English Literature, and initially that seems terrifying. You are suddenly surrounded with all these people who went to better schools, all these people who’ve read The Complete Works of Shakespeare and can quote Byron and Shelley off the top of their heads. I would spend whole days in my little dorm room trying to get my head around basic terminology like iambic pentameter, chiasmus, ode, Ottava Rima, trochees, lyrics. I’m still terrible at counting metre in poetry, even though I have a background in music and am perfectly capable of keeping time when there are notes and staves involved. But I like to think that I’ve finally found some kind of ‘footing’ in the mountainous landscape of centuries of literature that I was first confronted with that sunny September in 2011.
As with anything, a big part of university is trial and error. You are going to do better under the guidance of some tutors more than others. You are going to write essays that you aren’t very sure of, and sometimes this will pay off, and sometimes it won’t. There are essays that you feel genuinely proud of, not even for the grade but because you know that all the research that went into them widened your intellectual horizons, and all that editing really did pay off in terms of style. It’s nice when you can read back an essay and not cringe at your choice of phrasing, or all those hiccups in grammar and punctuation. There are going to be nights in the library where you get the fright of your life from the tannoid telling you the reception desk is closing. There are going to be times when the library makes you sick, stressed, exhausted. Like when I had to sit next to a man who was eating raw, mud-covered mushrooms straight from the punnet and dipping them in hummus; or the time when the only computer I could find was next to someone who was licking and slurping the oily remains of his spaghetti from the bottom of a massive plastic tub. Times when there are tears involved; either yours or someone else’s. Fights witnessed and blows exchanged; where else but in the sleep-deprived environment of a university library would two people start brawling over a grubby old Dell with a greasy keyboard?
But then there are the best times, the late nights and early mornings and holidays when the library is lovely and quiet. You are free to roam the endless shelves and pick the desk on level 11 that looks out over a beautiful city view. When you finish an essay and print it and the paper is still warm in your hands as you leave to hand it in. When you stumble across a book that you weren’t exactly looking for, but it’s on long-term loan and looks very interesting.
I guess the semesters go so quickly that you hardly notice the time slipping. Sometimes, they seem like little footnotes to a long and formidable summer, with nothing to do but work and plough through the reading list and wish you had more money. If I could go back and do one thing I guess it would be making more use of my time. But then, I don’t regret all the evenings I spent immersed in journal articles and books, because that’s what’s shaped my mind. Sure, I might not have a degree with immediate career prospects beyond journalism or teaching, but I wouldn’t swap my education for the world. And I’d recommend Glasgow Uni English Lit to anyone, especially because it’s so steeped in critical perspectives and literature beyond the obvious canon. Where else would you start off a second-year semester reading Martin McDonagh’s gruesome play The Pillowman, or have a fourth-year seminar on Gone Girl and a course on Urban Spaces which divides its programme under mysterious headings like ‘Airport’ and ‘Shopping Mall’ rather than the tired titles you see across typical course Moodles. My degree (well, let’s hope I actually get it!) hasn’t just been about Shakespeare and Dickens and Austen, though they have all quite rightly featured. It’s about expanding the canon, and helping you sharpen as well as complicate and reflexively challenge your critical approach to all literature.
On Tuesday morning, it was spring all of a sudden. I walked to campus feeling warm and happy, remembering the first spring I spent in the city. All those daffodils and the cherry blossoms around Hillhead, and the cheerful experience of the semester ending, everyone gathering for picnics at Botanic Gardens. Optimistically sleeveless, I sat on a stone by the Kelvin River reading Keats, feeling like this is what university is best at. The kind of magical experience unfortunately made cliché by campus films. When you’re in the sunshine reading poetry and you’re about to go in for one of your last tutorials. Sure, I still have three nasty exams to get through, but once they’re over, I’ll hopefully come out a little bit smarter, a little bit happier and a tad more employable. University, both at the academic, social and creative level, has definitely been the best experience of my life. I swear I won’t get sentimental; I’ll come back and do a Masters instead. (Let’s hope; if only).