Thursday, January 19, 2006

New term

Lent Term 2006 started on Tuesday. In the space of a couple of days, the sleepy campus turned into a rush hour hub. The undergraduates are back in town.

Undergraduates live and breath in synchrony with the rhythm of the terms. Their rooms are leased and rent paid on a termly basis (while graduate students usually stay all around the year, make yearly contracts and and pay per month). The first day of full term is the day they need to be in Cambridge, and they will be kicked out when the full term ends 8 weeks later. During full term, they will have lectures, supervisions and all their deadlines and exams. Work doesn't necessarily end when the term does, but teaching does.

Why all this migration to and fro? Well, the first reason is that kicking the undergrads out of the way gives the fellows (and graduate students) some peaceful time free from teaching obligations. This can be used for furthering science, unburdening the world of some of its uncertainties and ignorance by bringing about new knowledge. In other words, we are supposed to do research. In theory, at least. In practice we first try to catch up with the admin and rest of the teaching, comment and correct essays, submit reports etc. Then we take a break ourselves, and finally get bored and "lose the rhythm" since there's nothing happening. And when the undergrads are back in the beginning of next term, we start cursing them again for distracting us, being fully aware that we've just lost another opportunity to do our own work uninterrupted. You never get as much done between terms than you initially expect to. Partly, because you need interruptions and some stress to function. And for the fellows, because the graduate students pester them.

Secondly, all undergraduates need to be in residence, or reside within the Precincts of the University during the terms. The Precincts are defined as being "the area within a boundary defined as extending three miles from Great St Mary’s Church, measured in a straight line" (University Ordinances, Chapter II). So, you go to the Cambridge city center, find Great St Mary's Church opposite the University Senate and diagonally opposite King's Chapel, take a three mile long ACME Residence Ordinance Compliance Tape Measure®, attach it to the church fence, and then just walk home in a straight line and hope to get to your house before you run out of tape. Most undergraduates escape the hassle by living in college accommodation, which are either within the precinct or if not, simply defined in some book of exceptions as being within the Precincts (I love the way they alter reality so that it complies with the rules, rather than changing an archaic rule). Graduates are given a wider bubble to reside in, the grad version of the tape measure is ten miles long.

When measuring the intensity of the field of wisdom, generated by the accumulated intelligence of the fellows, and transmitted via the beacon in the belfry of the university's church, some talented Cambridge scientists (was this Ernst Rutherford's doing?) at the dawn of time determined that at the distance of three miles the field is still strong enough for an ignorant undergraduate to absorb the radiation with visible (or at least measurable) sublimating consequences. Since graduate students radiate some wisdom themselves, through interaction the connection can be maintained over longer distances, and so they are allowed to reside within 10 miles of the beacon of enlightment, and for a "grave cause" even further away.

This must be the logic behind the statute and the ordinance, since the gravest punishment university can give to misbehaving students is to rusticate them. Send them out of the Precinct and deny them the podcast of intelligence. Human rights, you say? They can't tell me where to go? If 3 million turists can visit Cambridge every year (who comes to the same place every year?), why can't Adolescent Johnny even if he was saying all those vulgar words to the dean? While dancing naked on the chapel roof. Well, of course they can't stop you from entering Cambridge. Which doesn't mean the don't try to. A couple of years ago a group of student squatters were evicted from the derelict house they had taken over, and since property is sacred even for the proudly leftist King's College, they handed down heavy fines and rusticated the bunch. After a lot of noise in the local press and heaps of turmoil and spilled port in the chambers of the college and the university, the sanctions were reconsidered, fines dropped and rustications cancelled. So we didn't get to see if the university ordinances stand the test of the courts of law. They went crumbling down already in the front court of the college.

And if graduate students are not counting the days of term, we are synchronised to the breathing of the university on a larger timescale. PhD students need to spend at least 6 terms in residence, and have completed 9 terms of studies, before they can submit their thesis and apply for the degree. By this time, they've absorbed enough radiation to be incurably mutated. After 9 terms, 6 of which in residence, graduate students are finally reduced to a state where they can only talk about their research, but can go on for hours and hours without stopping to breathe. Since the university authorities are rightly worried that this might be contageous or at least merit a public hazard, they've decided to issue a label of warning, "Dr", to be attached to the graduates' names. Probably short for "drowsiness-inducing".

2 comments:

Kai said...

Wow, great blog! Thanks to you I have one more important website to check out every day before getting to work..

Oh, I especially loved this sentence: "When measuring the intensity of the field of wisdom, generated by the accumulated intelligence of the fellows, and transmitted via the beacon in the belfry of the university's church, some talented Cambridge scientists (was this Ernst Rutherford's doing?) at the dawn of time determined that at the distance of three miles the field is still strong enough for an ignorant undergraduate to absorb the radiation with visible (or at least measurable) sublimating consequences."

Very Sportsa(tm)-esque. Keep up the good work! (or avoiding it, rather)

TH said...

Well, that's a perfectly understandable, yet admittedly somewhat complicated sentence... Of course I can't claim to be even close to the level of mastery that maestro Sporttila has reached, but I do try my best. :o)