‘I balanced all, brought all to mind’

Dear Reader,

You may be pleased to hear that I’ve actually got some work done! One essay is just about done (59 words short of the word count -_- ) and, although I have yet to actually begin, I’m feeling slightly more positive about the second one that’s due in three days later – You’ve got to love bottleneck essays.

The one problem with actually knuckling down to some proper study is your social life tends to suffer. I realised one night that I’d gone several days without seeing my friends because I’d become caught up between moving from one seminar to another, to a rehearsal for the Minotaur Theatre Company’s Shorts Season, and on top of that I was still behind on my reading, and desperately needed to do the laundry.

To make things even more hectic, my significant other was visiting this week, and trying to act as host/tourguide/student was a bit of a juggling act. So I suppose that’s what this post is really about – juggling.

Well not the literal circus act – but I what I have learned about uni so far is that it’s a crash course in priority management, and I think that extends for the whole three years by the looks of it. Knowing what is too much to take on, knowing when to rain check a social gathering, but also knowing when to shut the laptop and actually go outside for a while. So that’s my resolution for the coming week, get work done whilst making time for friends and social gatherings, starting tonight with the Pub Quiz (Go team ‘Universally Challenged’!)

In other news I’ve tried to get involved with the academic life of the university as well as the social – earlier this week I went to a research seminar given by a visiting Oxford lecturer on ‘Translating medieval Quarrels: La Belle Dame Sans Mercy’, now I can’t pretend to have understood all of it, but it was a great to see some of the English Faculty in their roles as researchers as opposed to teachers and educators which is what I usually see. The visiting scholar, Dr. Liv Robinson, was much younger than I had anticipated, and with her pixie haircut and facial piercings, a lot more “trendy” than I had perhaps been expecting. This typifies my experience of academics so far, true some of them have elbow patches and look like they rarely leave the library, but a great deal of them are young and approachable, without the intellectual snobbery that I hadn’t realised I had subconsciously been expecting. Which makes me feel a lot better about wanting to maybe be one of them in the future…

Although clearly I’m not ready for the seriousness of academic life just yet as I did have a good giggle after realising that the abbreviation of La Belle Dame Sans Mercy, which is commonly used in academic papers, is BDSM.

Like I said, not quite an adult yet.

The Queerness of Literature

Autumn’s fingers are finally stretching across campus now, and in the morning we are all feeling the chill of her “mists and mellow fruitfulness”; woolly hats and long coats are beginning to appear, and the feat of removing them in the tiny space allotted to you in a lecture theatre is an acrobatic one. From my large bedroom window I can watch the flocks of birds depart south for the winter, and they provide a welcome distraction from the work at hand… the dreaded first essay.

Having only been given it the day before last I can probably be forgiven for still feeling a little intimidated. It’s been over a year since I last wrote anything academic and I rather feel that I may have lost my spark, I read the various scholarly articles recommended to me but can’t imagine ever being able to sign my name at the bottom of one – I’m certain that any day now they’re going to realise I’m a fraud who definitely shouldn’t have been let on the course. But for now we beat on.

It is perhaps only now that I realise what a ridiculous subject literature is; the subject of my essay is the dialogue between Chaucer’s “The Pardoner’s Tale” and its historical context, but what most of the secondary material available to me concentrates on is the sexual identity and sexuality of the Pardoner, and I can’t help but feel that it’s all a bit ridiculous.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for applying Queer Theory to texts, but this speculation is all based on one line and it is never mentioned again. I think it says more about the preoccupations of our generation than it does about Chaucer and his time – but then again my frustration might stem from the fact that none of these essays help or advance my own so I may be being unfairly critical.

Moreover, as I trawl through various databases of literary articles and works, sifting through the bizarre in search of the enlightening, I keep being overcome by just how small and yet detailed the academic world is. It may be heretical to say so, but I read some scholarly works and think, “Really, who cares about this?” A lot of people apparently, it’s a profession after all (Strange the things people will pay you for). But still I think of all the people I know who went to uni and wonder why they didn’t warn me just how strange and pedantic it all could be – so consider this my warning to you now.

A Bit of Fry and Uni

So it’s week three and we’re still soldiering on.

The work has begun in earnest now and sometimes keeping on top of the reading can feel like you’re only just managing to tread water, and the possibility of being sucked under is very real.

One of the main reasons for feeling so out of depth is definitely due to the academic language that is thrown around by professors and lecturers, who after being exposed to years of academia just assume that you are fluent too; more than once I’ve had to turn to the dictionary whilst reading an email from my tutor – word of the day for you = Paronomastic – Of, or related to puns.

But I’m sure it’s all very good for me – I feel like I’ve been doing mental push-ups for an hour after one of my tutorials, and as far as I can see, for no real benefit at the moment, but hopefully, given time, I will eventually be very buff…. In the brain that is.

But it’s not all work.

This week we were honoured with the presence of national treasure, Stephen Fry, and yours truly was lucky enough to have a ticket to see the great man in person. He was as always witty, charming, and a delight to hear, although the interviewer didn’t really get a word in edgeways. He mostly spoke about his life, but having led one so exciting and varied it inevitably touched on a range of important issues including homophobia, mental illness, and his own abuse of alcohol and drugs. Afterwards there was a book signing and I got a signature in my copy of his poetry book (which I admit I only bought the day before, but in fairness all of my books by him were at home!).

I think perhaps what makes him so important to people, especially to English and Drama students, is that he represents the creative ideal, so much of his work is already being dubbed as “classic” and so many of us were raised watching his genius on screen, but also the pitfalls of the flipside. There is a dangerous assumption that to make good “art” one must be a tortured soul, that you must write from a place of profound pain if you want to say something worthwhile – but when you hear him speak of his struggles with bipolar disorder you realise that, although Mr. Fry says that he wouldn’t make his mental health issues go away if he could because they are a part of him, there is nothing to be idealised or romanticised about a troubled genius. Perhaps his greatest quality is his ability to stand in the public eye warts and all, to admit his flaws and speak of them freely.

But what has this got to do with a blog about starting uni you say?

Well, what I took away from it, and I may be doing the typical English literature student thing and reading far too much into it, was that you don’t have to suffer to succeed. When an essay makes you feel like you’re drowning in treacle, reach out; whether it be to a friend, your advisor, or your tutor – it’s ok to admit that it’s hard. You’re just starting uni, it’s supposed to be.

Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself.