By Terence Metcalf
With the season of mellow fruitfulness arriving in Belfast accompanied by the occasional shrieking gale coinciding with a new academic year, it seems as good a time as any to document first impressions for a first time Queen’s student.
Firstly, the physical plant itself, that picture postcard front of the Lanyon Building with its high Victorian crazy brickwork, crenelated towers, diamond paned gothic windows and hammerbeam roofs ooze sophistication and learning of a bygone age. One half expects to be met with tweed jackets and pipes, rumblings of Latin interspaced with snippets of Ancient Greek.
With pride we file through the arched doorway, pass the marbled statue of a bearded Galileo deep in thought and into the quad with its clipped grass inviting lounging discussions in clement weather. Oxbridge eat your heart out. And then the new facilities at One Elmwood, which in earlier days was happy enough to be called the QUB Students’ Union building. It appears that the architects and interior designers were taking Google HQ as their model, but stopped short of bean bags, mini-golf and napping pods.
Second the student body appear refreshingly youthful, well behaved and decidedly bourgeois in background. One may be forgiven on first inspection that One Elmwood was populated by extras from The Truman Show going industriously about their business, even if that business is gossip on subjects unrelated to their primary course of study. One couldn’t but be beguiled by the enthusiasm and good will of those running the stands in the Mandela Hall over Fresher’s Week. A Politics Society without affiliation, a Feminist and Equality Society welcoming menfolk and an Orange Society without a bowler hat in sight. Even those of a more radical bent to which youth is often inclined were civil and engaging in the setting out of their stalls.
The work itself with timetables that can barely stretch to six contact hours a week (what are you expected to do with the rest of the time?). Expectations that reading is done in advance of lectures being given (what are the lectures for then?). And then this concept of academic rigor. We’ve all been given the plagiarism lecture; indeed, it seems impossible to avoid and we all want to congratulate ourselves if we score less than 15% plagiarism on Turnitin. But then there is the academic vocabulary, the disdain for two-word verbs (why ‘look up’ when you can ‘aspire’) and the necessity for caution or hedging. This ivory tower business requires learning not just new pages of the OED; it’s a whole new modus operandi.
There is lots of talk of the hardships faced by this first round of post-Covid students and despite the well-turned-out folk on view at One Elmwood there doubtless is an entire raft of pernicious issues circling under the surface. Likewise, the world seems a scarier place than in the bygone, wistful days of 2019. Yet here we find ourselves and with the luxury of face-to-face learning which Cardinal Henry Newman identified as key 170 years ago; “An academical system without the personal influence of teachers upon pupils, is an arctic winter; it will create an ice-bound, petrified, cast-iron University, and nothing else.”(Historical Sketches, Volume III, “The Rise and Progress of Universities,” Chapter I, Section 6) (in your face Turnitin!).
At any rate, winter is some way off, autumn has arrived and despite the degradations of circumstances beyond the control of the human heart we are all welcome to enjoy it. A swirl of butter-coloured leaves in a gust of wind, a mellow moon rising above the mists on the river and most of all the company of our fellow students and teachers in a safe, warm and Googletastic environment. The nuclear warheads may be getting primed, the economy set to sink like a stone and the price of energy stratospheric, but the planet continues to lurch around the sun and neither the warlord dictators, nor the bumbling bureaucratic governments are able to thwart it. We are young, we have agency and we have today.
Make the most of it QUB.