STUDENTS’ LIFECategory: Education
In another fortnight I shall have finished my first term at Cambridge. Let me tell you something about undergraduate life and my impressions of it.
At first it was all so confusing and new. There were new customs and words to be learnt, and of course new rules and regulations. But remembering that I was not the only “Freshman” (as first year students are called) I cheered up and very soon made friends.
There are more than 6,000 students at Cambridge this year, almost twice’as many as before the war, so naturally the Colleges are crowded. Since space is so scarce undergraduates share a study when possible and the authorities try their best to ensure that those living together are suited. I share rooms with a young Englishman named John Smith who is studying Spanish. I find we share interests and we get on together well.
The students are mainly English but there are plenty of others, particularly so in the block of rooms in which I live, for my neighbours include a Chinese studying law, an Indian studying English, a Canadian studying history and a Frenchman studying science. As you can see, there is a variety of races, religions and points of view. But it is strange how, quickly all of us have become united in our membership of the College and in our loyalty to it. And how proud we are of its successes!
Our rooms have a pleasant outlook over the College gardens and are pleasingly furnished to suit all the needs of a student. There is even a very small gas-stove on which we make coffee or tea. It is a popular custom here to invite friends along in the afternoon for tea and hot buttered toast and jam. And then, very likely, an argument or discussion develops and we talk and keep on talking with never a thought of our work.
We are free, by the way, to decorate our rooms to suit our own tastes, and it is surprising how soon each room reflects the personalities of the owners. John has a radio so we don’t lack music.
To each room there is a manservant who with a woman servant, known as a ‘Bedder”, keeps it clean and attends to the needs of the students living there. These men are known as “Gyps” and take a great interest in us, their “gentlemen”. Many of them have been with the College all their lives. A word about the Bedders. In the old days when the Colleges were religious foundations the students were, of course, clergymen, and their life was much more strict and disciplined than now. Friendship with young ladies was forbidden and the only women allowed inside the College were washerwomen. The legend is that these had to be “old and ugly”, and so, say the students thinking of their Bedders, they have remained! But really they are kindly and helpful. Mine was most anxious that I should wear a woolen vest during the cold English winter! I saw some amusing verses, exaggerated, of course, about Gyps and Bedders: —
Should your Bedmaker carelessly soil The books you have left on the table,
With candle grease, blacking or oil,
You should bear it as well as you’re able.
If your carpet is mostly unswept (And your Gyp isn’t likely to sweep it),
If your room is untidily kept
(And that’s how your Bedder will keep it),
They only add fuel to fire Who tell you to bottle your ire!
We eat our meals in the College dining-hall, a large room hung with pictures of past Dons of the College. Long tables line the hall and at one end there is a raised platform on which is a special table for the Dons, known as the High Table. It is a great honour to be invited to dine at the High Table — and the food is much better!
At some Colleges there is a curious custom that you may be interested to hear of in relation to dining in hall. It is known as “sconcing”. If a student should come late to dinner or not be correctly dressed, or if he should break one of the little unwritten laws of behaviour, then the senior student present may order him to be “sconced”. The Butler brings in a large silver cup, known as “Sconce Cup”, filled with beer which he places in front of the offender, who must drink it in one attempt without taking the cup from his lips (it holds two and a half pints). If he succeeds, then the senior student pays for it, if not, the cup is passed round the table at the expense of the student who has been “sconced”. No one seems to know the origin of the custom, but you’ll notice there is a sporting side to this rather odd punishment.
Speaking of punishments, in general the discipline is not strict. There are rules, of course, but the undegraduate is treated as a sensible person able to discipline himself and no longer a schoolboy who must be told everything. We can stay out as late as we wish up to midnight, but after eleven o’clock a fine (that is, a small sum of money) is imposed. But if a Tutor finds that one of his pupils is staying out late very often, he will want to know the reason.
Discipline out of College is the responsibility of two Dons appointed by the University, called Proctors. Each evening a Proctor with two assistants, called “Bulldogs”, in full morning dress and top hats, wanders about the town keeping an eye on the students’ behaviour. If he sees a student disobeying the regulation that he must wear a cap and gown (another custom from the time when students were clergymen) he will come up to him and say, “Are you a member of the University, sir?” and if the student runs away in an attempt to escape, then the Bulldogs chase him, and if they catch him (and they are chosen, it is said, because they are good runners), fine him six-and~eightpence.
Apart from fines a student may be punished by being dismissed from the University or by being “rusticated”, which means that one term’ of his residence at Cambridge is not allowed. Since it is necessary to be in residence for nine terms to qualify, this is a severe punishment and is only given for serious offences.
I mentioned the tutor. He is a Don who acts as a parent to the student away from home. He gives advice and help in time of need and is an understanding friend to his pupils. Then there is the Dean, who is in charge of the discipline among the 300 students inside College. Last, there are the Directors of Studies and their assistants, the Supervisors. At the start of term I saw my Director of Studies who arranged times for lessons, called “supervisions”, and suggested books to read and classes or lectures to attend. He does what his name implies, he directs our studies. I go to five “supervisions”, each week of one hour each at which I am taught and have my written work discussed and criticised. This takes place in College, but there are also special Lecture Rooms in Town at which students from all the nineteen Colleges attend. These lectures are voluntary and we go to those we think most useful to us personally. They take place in the mornings, and in the afternoon we are free, although the science students go then to their workshops. I usually work in my rooms or take part in some sport.
Unlike school, most of our work is not done in class but in our rooms or in one of the libraries, and each man arranges his timetable to suit himself, leaving time for other activities apart from study. These are numerous and it’s time I mentioned some of them.
There are, to begin with, over a hundred societies and clubs; enough for every interest one could imagine. There are religious societies and societies for those who don’t believe; political, sporting and dramatic societies, not to mention many others. There is even one only for people with beards! Perhaps the most celebrated is the Debating Society at which undergraduates debate political and other questions with famous politicians and writers. Sometimes these debates are broadcast, reflecting as they do what the youth of Britain is thinking and feeling, though in general speakers aim to be witty rather than wise.
Sporting activities are as varied and numerous as the Societies, and as you may imagine, there is keen rivalry between the Colleges. The most popular sport is rowing. At the end of term long, narrow, light boats, rowed by eight men, compete in the “Bump Races”. Boats start at short intervals one after another and try to overtake and touch (or bump) the boat ahead.
Those that succeed move up one place in a table and the College at the top of the table is known as the “Head of a River” — a distinguished honour. I expect you find it puzzling that boats should try deliberately to hit one another, but it’s true.
So many things are happening in Cambridge each week that it is impossible to see and do all one would wish. But instead we can read about them, for there is a special weekly newspaper written by undergraduates which reports everything of interest, and the most important events are eagerly discussed by the students over their “elevenses”.
At five minutes to eleven the street outside the lecture-rooms is empty. The clock strikes the hour and suddenly, as the lectures end, a great stream of students comes pouring out; a stream that grows into a river as a flood of undergraduates, on foot or on bicycles, their gowns flying behind them, hurry into town for a cup of coffee and a cake — a refreshment known as “elevenses”. There are many little restaurants and tea-shops, each with its own student customers. One popular one has a dance in the mornings which is well attended by those who work late in the evenings.
We drink a great deal of tea and coffee and every subject you could imagine is discussed. Yet with all the variety of opinion, dress, of nations and even sex — for there are two colleges for girl students— I can’t help feeling a friendliness and community spirit.The walks into the country, the talks, the games and the work, the traditions and the customs, the jokes, the Gyps, the Dons and Debates — all are part of the wide pattern of student life which would be poorer if any of them was lost.
(From Essential English for Foreign Students by C.’E. Eckersley)