GRAD SCHOOL – week four

Being a university student at 31 is extremely different from being a university student at 21, and by “different” I mean “much, much better”. For one thing, I occasionally have money. For another, I have friends who aren’t uni friends (the people on my course are great, which is lucky as there are only four of us, but having a Life outside School is very helpful in terms of perspective/mental health/not getting sucked into UNI IS EVERYTHING, THERE IS NO LIFE BUT UNI). I do not have to live in student accommodation, I can generally manage getting around London/libraries/awkward conversations/deadlines, and am still excited about gleefully waving my student discount card at anyone in proximity of a cash register.

The most unusual and bizarrely charming part so far has been how all the university student workers talk down to me. On registration day, I had a few seconds of trouble swiping into the library with my student ID card. A weedy child with a lanyard came over to explain to me, in kindly supercilious tones, how to hold it against the light. It was baffling, until I realised he was just used to dealing with 17-year-olds who have probably never lived on their own before and don’t generally understand how things work. It made me realise how much I generally take it for granted that people I meet will treat me like an adult who e.g. knows which side up to hold a coffee cup.

The coursework is a lot of fun, although I have an unfair feeling that I’m playing catch-up. In my non-university life, sometimes when I tell people what I’m was studying (early modern English/European literature), they will say things like “Ah, yes, like Montaigne, right? I read him at A-levels – Des Cannibales, right? It’s so interesting where…” Now I don’t know enough about the British education and class system to tell whether this is usual, or I just happen to be surrounded by a bunch of poshos (probably that one?), but it is a bit unsettling to have more than one person spontaneously go “ah yes, I fondly remember doing what you’re doing, when I was a literal child”. (Of course it’s not the same approach and it’s very different reading, say, Othello in high school and Othello in a grad program, but I still have a little niggle of insecurity that I am only now getting up to speed with where most of the country has been since they were teenagers. Better late than never!, I cheerfully tell myself, while the guy at the coffee counter screws my lid on extra tight and hands it to me with a look of concerned trepidation.) That said, I do appreciate that grad school is to personal insecurity like a damp warm room is to mold, and if the worst I’ve come down with so far is “argh, humans exist who have read books that I have not yet read”, that is probably Fine.

We’ve been hitting all the CLASSICS of 15th-16th century Literature:

Utopia, Thomas More (1516): Gosh, this is charmingly commie, and the part where the Utopians basically carry out drone assassinations was surprising – they don’t send in flying murder machines, but they do believe it’s morally better to simply sneakily kill the asshole you’re warring with, than have two armies fight each other (as it means fewer people would die). Thomas More was great buddies with Erasmus, but a commentary we read implied that Erasmus was probably really embarrassed by More’s bad Latin style, which is very funny. English-first-language speakers, bad at second languages since literally all of time.

Encomium Moriae (In Praise of Folly), Desiderius Erasmus (1511): The part of assigned reading where you’re going along easily, and many of the jokes are actually quite good, and you’re thinking “gosh, this is all witty and jolly, the humanists seem like they were pretty fun”, and then it goes “NB except for women, who are universally all idiots who blither away meaninglessly but at least their frivolous interest in baubles helps make men’s lives nicer because it means the women pleasant to look at when we get home”. NO THANKS ERASMUS. The rest of it is mostly fine.

The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli (1513): Everything in here is basically sensible, particularly the point that you want to keep your population relatively happy so they won’t revolt on you. Machiavelli is the least objectionable dude we have read so far, and also he always makes me think of John Rhys Davies in The Princess Diaries 2 growling “I learned this trick from an old Italian philosopher… Machiavelli!” and hurling a dart into a bulls-eye while a very young, and concerned, Chris Pine looks on. Two thumbs up for Machiavelli.

The Book of Margery Kempe, Margery Kempe (1438?): I LOVE MARGERY AND WANT TO BE HER FRIEND. She has NO CHILL and NO SHAME. The part where she cries ostentatiously on a priest and then, separately, on a scribe until they both get so embarrassed that they agree to write and publish her book is an inspiration to us all, tbh. Her fantasy where she makes the Virgin Mary a nice reassuring cup of tea is incredibly lovely.

The Book of the City of Ladies, Christine de Pizan (1405): Starts with Christine reading a (real) book by a giant misogynist and laughing so hard that she has to write a book herself. This is generally I feel the correct response.

Every day on campus I really feel how lucky I am: I’ve been wanting to go “back” to university for years, and I was able to save up the money and do it, at an excellent school, and my work is letting me go part-time so I don’t have to scramble for a new job, and basically things are astonishingly all right (for me personally, the wider world of course remains a garbage fire).

Also, the library has the most amazing hand dryers:

Of course it’s not good for universities to spend disproportionately on glossy facilities and not, like, academic pay and living wages for cleaners, but guys THE HAND DRYERS ARE ATTACHED TO THE INDIVIDUAL TAPS. I knew it would be wonderful here.

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