This article was published in The Tab on 10 May 2016.
To anyone who knows me, it may come as a surprise that there was once a time when I actually worked hard.
Like, really hard. And by way of further obfuscation, I want to be absolutely clear that I love every single one of my supervisors past and present, and if any of them want to drop me an email with some tips on, you know, not failing my finals, that’s absolutely fine.
In my younger and more vulnerable years I used to toil dedicatedly for each and every supervision, and each and every essay. This was, quite obviously, before I realised how much of a waste of time they are. I used to toil over it all endlessly, poring through every book in the library, only to have a my work thrown back with no meaningful guidance as to how to make it better, just some blithe scribbles that I’d “completely missed the point”, or similar.
Character-building stuff, admittedly, but not a very useful education technique. See, there are two sides to getting better at a thing. First is knowing in what particular ways you are bad at that thing, and second is knowing how to methodically go about getting better at that thing.
Cambridge supervisors have a habit of telling you neither.
Supervisions are basically a game of who can come up with the most coherent off-the-cuff nonsense for an hour. I’ve performed (yes, that is the right word) far better in supervisions where I have skim-read the blurb on the back of the book on the walk up the stairs than in supervisions in my early days, when I would spent day upon day locked up in the library reading tome after tome on the various critical interpretations of x poem, having read over and annotated aforementioned poem umpteen times.
I’ve had some amazing supervisors, and I’ve had some straight-up bonkers supervisors.
One threw heavy volumes of Latin history at us, jabbering excitedly (in Latin) about whatever was in them. Another whipped out his phone to show us his 192 photos of different kinds of lichen.
One of my first supervisors recited a metaphysical poem to my supervision partner with some great conceit about originality because he thought they’d plagiarised a critic’s work in their essay. They’d never read the critic.
Another supervisor has a habit of ‘mmmm’-ing along to everything you say, increasing in pitch, volume, and feverishness, ever teasing but never quite reaching the suggested point of intellectual orgasm.
Which would be a lovely assessment of one’s intellectual capability if it weren’t for the fact that I’d just come up with some total rubbish about how Antony & Cleopatra is all one great long extended metaphor about coitus interruptus.
This, of course, is in theory totally fine. It’s all part of the fun – the fabled “Cambridge experience” that codgy old men wrinkle their noses at with twinkling eyes when you get stuck in the wrong corner of the room at that college alumni do.
It is indeed quite the experience. I’ve got enough stupid supervision stories to keep my imagined grandchildren content for imagined hours on our imagined family holidays some decades down the line. But there’s ‘the Cambridge experience’, and then there’s a thing you spent nearly fifty grand on to shovel on a barrel of debt, supposedly voluntarily.
And yes, I know. In practice, paying off your student debt translates to about one fewer wanky flat whites from your favourite coffee shop (or roastery or whatever the kids call it) every week. But it’s about the spirit of the thing – the fact that if I, as an English student, take the cost of tuition fees and divide by all the contact time I have, it translates to about £200 an hour.
Think about it. For every supervision, I could have a weekend in Copenhagen. Like, a nice one.
Instead I have an hour with a moderately famous poet in a room so stuffy I’m getting sweat patches on my ankles, trying to make sense of a poorly-typewritten transcript of some pretentious contempo-wankery while he harps on about allegory at about 5 decibels and 2 miles a decade.
Let’s have supervisions at the weekend in Copenhagen. Then at least if you’re not learning anything from [insert name of venerable but not very useful academic here], you’re learning something about Danish culture via pastries, beer, and a smattering of Danish you picked up from trying to flirt with the barman.
Let’s send all our supervisors off to toil through a year’s worth of PGCE courses so they can actually teach and not just expect us to bask in their glorious presence and somehow mysteriously soak up intellect by virtue of mere physical proximity.
Let’s start tackling the cultural assumption that forking out 50 grand for a degree is a necessary step on the path to success and normalise people actually going out and living for a bit as a much more practically useful form of education.
And to my Cambridge supervisors – I love you, each and every one. But I hate the fact that nobody told me how the hell to extract anything useful from three years of your lichen and Latin.
And I’m not entirely convinced I wouldn’t have been better off canning the whole ‘Cambridge experience’ altogether. Perhaps May Week will clinch it.