Tag: Education

Spelling numbers

(the kids aren’t alright)

As I spend a lot of my time with kids, I’m exposed to Kiddish – the garbled, innocent language of the recently-literate – quite a lot. And while the majority of Kiddish is inane garbage, I was treated to one marvellous concept today; a kid asked me how to write a five-digit number, by did so by asking ‘how do you spell it?’

At first I was confused, as this child has failed to understand that numbers and letters and fundamentally different things, and must be referred to with different language. Obviously!

But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that the kid had a point. From where they’re coming from, not yet brainwashed by our adult culture of arbitrary rigid lines, letters and numbers are one and the same, as scratches on a page used to indicate meaning. And that’s certainly true; whether you write ‘five’ or ‘5’, you’re still turning that written symbol to a verbal one, and beyond that an idea with a defined meaning.

Maybe the kid was on to something bigger; maybe we shouldn’t be dividing the mathematical and the written, particularly in schools and places of education. The world is how we perceive it, and if we can break down these barriers perhaps our image of the world may become more whole, and more beautiful.

Or maybe the kid was just a moron.

Reading! Studying! Learning! Yes!

(I make that a ‘rule of three … plus one’ there)

I had a seminar today – my only one of the day – that was really rather inspiring. I know that statements like that are tossed around all the time by university admissions people to make idiot students sign up for their courses in Beyoncé studies, but this time it actually worked – I left the seminar wanting to go home and read and work on essays and generally be a productive student.

The seminar itself was relatively unspectacular, just the three of us students sitting in our professor’s room and listening to them talk for the majority of the hour. But I think that’s why I found it so useful; at university, and at least on my course, there’s always a performative element, as lecturers stand on plinths to tell us about Romantic literature as if they’re channeling Old Norse skaldic poets or speakers to the Roman senate. This isn’t an inherently bad thing, but there’s a disconnect between my real life of sourcing cheap vegan milk and figuring out how to pay utility bills and my academic life of ‘isn’t this a pretty metaphor?’ – I know that art reflects life, but art rarely is life. This seminar was the total opposite, however; I didn’t feel like we were working through a list of prepared ‘intelligent’ ideas to consider, but were four people interested in a thing rambling on about that thing. Seminars are, of course, pitched to us as all being like this, but rarely are.

And after four months of writing blog posts and playing Dragon Age, I feared I wouldn’t be able to get my teeth into academia again; guess I was wrong.

Back From The Brink Of Oblivion, Thanks To A Duck

(I think that title is half a reference to Darkest Dungeon – I’m honestly not able to keep track of my own references at this point)

I picked a bad time for a break. Like, a really bad one. Since I last moaned at you about not having anything to write about, I’ve gone through a flag football tournament, karate grading, session of trampoline dodgeball, trip to the Globe, the Hell that is trying to buy a complete suit from the M&S on Oxford Street when you’re a short-arse such as myself, and a healthy bit of crushing despair. But it’s this despair that I’m going to talk about today, before a more update-y post tomorrow.

This despair came from my first-year results: across my three exams, I got a 66, a 58 and a 56, totally one 2.1 and two 2.2s (for reference, all marks are out of 80, and British university grades are ranked from 1, to 2.1, to 2.2, to 3, to a fail). Obviously, this is a far cry from the first I once had genuine hopes of getting, and the endless streak of class-topping As and A*s I got at school, with the sort of relentless consistency that you’d only find otherwise on a record-breaking run of Through The Fire And The Flames, and I moped about it for rather a long time. All my ambitions – ambitions that apparently extend to getting a ‘first’ written on a certificate instead of a ‘second’ – were suddenly pointless, all my work in ruins, all my toils toiled in vain; and then I saw a duck.

And this duck saved me; in the depths of despair I journeyed to Regent’s Park to listen to early noughties punk rock to make me hate things other than myself, and I was listening to Bad Religion’s Hello Cruel World. This is a heavy, slow song with clear breaks between its thumping choruses, and the pauses between verses, breaks that are edgy, and definite. And at the end of the first chorus is one such break, a point of brooding and contempt hammered home by a bass drum followed by silence; yet as I wandered through the park, and reached this musical full stop, the duck arrived. And it quacked.

It quacked right in the gap between the end of the first chorus and second verse, filling the deeply mellow pause with a light-hearted squawking that honestly threw me right out of my stride, and made me sit on the nearest bench, laughing my arse off alone in a park with a bemused duck sitting opposite me. I laughed for ages, and by the time I was done, I had stopped worrying about my exams and plotting unnervingly-detailed plans for revenge involving reverse bear traps, the soundtrack of the 2013 epic The Last Of Us, and a tool that can only be described as the bastard offspring of a claw hammer and a rat-king.

Because failure is not an end, but a beginning; it’s not the result of crap preparations, it’s the start of more preparations for a greater challenge. I’ve looked into reasons why these results aren’t what I wanted (starting with being way too ambitious in the first bloody place) with my Dad and tutor, and I’ll do a full post-mortem over summer, so that I can smash this degree in the next two years, when my exams actually count for something.

So thank you, noble duck – who shall henceforth be known as Greg of Regent’s Park in honour of the singer whose song he wonderfully interrupted – for your work in stopping me from being a whiny bitch for any longer than a few hours; because if I’m gonna fail, I’ll at least get some fun blog posts out of it.

Plans Are Being Made

(and I have no need to hide them on a curtain)

Whisper it folks, but exam season is approaching. Or don’t whisper it. Shout it. Love it. Relish it! Sing from the rooftops that you’ve got three hours to show you’re slightly more than competent at whatever subject you’ve decided or been forced to do, and you could do it in two! Honestly, this is my approach to exams: if I succeed and get a decent mark, it shows I’ve engaged with the material and can produce work in response to it that other, more educated, people deem to be ‘good’; and if I fail and scrape a 41%, it only necessarily shows that I’m bad at exams, and will take nothing away from the genuine enjoyment I’ve got out of studying those texts over the year. Obviously, this can be inverted into a pessimistic slant – that success in exams doesn’t necessarily mean I’m a good writer, and that failure means I am necessarily a bad one – but I’m capable of at least some optimism in my life, okay?

With that in mind, I’ve spent the afternoon making plans for my impending revision: I’ll work on this theme on this day, and this text on another, all on a big-ass calendar that’s been basically useless since I got it at New Year’s, but is now covered in colourful scrawlings and motivational Mass Effect quotes.

I know I won’t stick to this plan to the letter, as well; this plan is an ideal, in which I basically rote-learn the entirety of the last 500 years of English literature in about a month and become capable of discussing said material at a first-getting level. The good thing about having an unrealistic plan, however, is that it always gives me more things to do – even if I somehow complete one module’s worth of work, I’ll definitely be behind in at least another module – and for me, failure is an exclusively motivational experience. If I don’t do all the things I plan to this weekend, I just try to do them on Monday, rather than wallowing in self-pity that I’ve been beaten by a highlighted to-do list on a calendar. Considering I’m at UCL, and have a shit-load of admittedly pretty good grades in the past, I’m comfortable saying that for me, all work is good work, so getting through 60% of an unrealistic schedule is 60% of things that I have done, and done well, rather than missing out of 40% of what was ultimately an ungrounded, hypothetical schedule in the first place.

Of course, I could crash and burn this May, repeat the year and basically lose contact with all my friends who are edging ever closer to real life while I’m learning about the fundamental pointlessness of the battle in Heaven in Paradise Lost (again); but until that happens, I have a month to learn this shit, so I’ll learn it. I’ve spent the year writing for magazines, playing dodgeball and generally making up for the last eighteen years of not having a particularly diverse or rewarding life; but now I’ll put that stuff aside and go be a revision machine for the next month.

Because I wanna know if I’ve still got it.

Interview-Passing Pro Tips!

(apologies if you’ve had your interviews and this is all in vain!)

A lot of my friends read this blog, at least sporadically, and a lot of my friends – hello – will be having university interviews in the next few months, or this time next year; so I thought I’d give you the benefit of my fifteen minutes’ worth of interview experience, and try to offer advice to the daunting culmination of both your academic and personal development over the last ten years, in the form of five bullet points and some brief explanatory paragraphs. Time Person of the Year material right here..

Also, I’m 1-1 in interviews, having got into UCL, but been rejected by Cambridge; and before you say anything, I was pooled by Cambridge, which means I was technically good enough, they just ran out of space at my college (right? *cries*).

1) Be yourself

Hate to sound like a cliched self-help video right off the bat, but this advice works. Remember that to get to the interview stage, you have to be academically good enough for the university you’re applying to, so that the interview itself is that university’s professors judging you more as a person than as a grade-grabbing machine. Therefore, they want to see if you’re a decent person, if you’re inquisitive, if you can listen to instructions and converse in a grown-up manner, and if you can conduct yourself in a more elegant way than you usually do, which is probably eating Doritos off your chest while marathonning Orange Is The New Black on Netflix.

Also, there aren’t really objectively bad character traits you can display beyond the obvious: being rude and ignorant is a bad thing, but you won’t get penalised if you’re a little shy, or a bit too talkative. Basically, be yourself, without being a dick (this was a stumbling block for me).

2) They want you there

This is perhaps the most important piece of advice, so I’ve put it in the unremarkable number two slot. Essentially, approach your interview from the mindset that you and the interviewers are working together, for the common goal of getting you an offer, rather than the more daunting position that your interviewers are obstacles to the happy dreamworld that is university life, with its societies and open-minded students and conveniently plentiful public toilets.

If you take that more optimistic approach, you’ll start seeing their questions in a more helpful light; that tricky question becomes an opportunity to show your creativity and original thinking, it might be wrong but at least you gave it a go. If you take the more negative approach, however, you’re likely to perceive hard questions as them stroking their superior egos and intellects in front of you, which can be soul-crushing in a ten-minute meeting.

3) Don’t be a suck-up

It’s easy to look up their course’s reading list, skim a few of those books and casually mention how you’ve just happened to read The Iliad, so really you were destined for the course. For the love of God, don’t do this – anything you mention they will take as a red flag to grill you on, so you might end up talking a lot about the war in Troy, when you’ve only read the Wikipedia summary. They’ll be able to spot false reading like that easily.

Even worse is finding out your interviewers in advance, then reading books or essays they’ve written, with the goal of saying how great those works were to your interviewer; I read some essays by my Cambridge interviewers before I went up, just to get an idea of the sort of texts I might be asked to talk about, and the communicative style of my interviewers (and the one with the pompous-sounding essay was rather pompous), which was marginally helpful, but I didn’t suck my interviewer’s dick over it.

4) Be honest

Another line from a self-help video! I mentioned that I’d read Middlemarch in my UCL interview, but in reality I’d only read the first half; so as soon as the ending was mentioned, I had to fess up that I’d blagged a little bit, and I was only halfway through. I don’t want to say that that piece of honesty got me the place, but if the interview is designed to judge you as a person, I’d imagine most people would prefer an honest embellisher (because everybody does that on their personal statements) than a guy who outright lies to their faces. Unless you’re really good at lying, at which point go for it and let me know the results (DISCLAIMER: any failure to get into university using this method is strictly not my fault).

5) Other people are irrelevant

Yes you’ve got an interview at Cambridge, and yes you’ve been talking to other candidates in the common room waiting for your turn in the interview room, and yes they’ve memorised The Bible, have translated The Divine Comedy from Italian into English, French and Spanish, and had an essay of theirs published in the London Review of Books, and they’re three months younger than you.

In all honestly, such people can get stuffed.

Although this process is probably a competition somewhere down the line – someone decided that I was worse than one other student for the one remaining place at Cambridge to do English – there aren’t really a fixed number of places for a course, so you don’t have to survive an Apprentice-style elimination, where you have to beat each of the other students individually.

You just have to prove that you’re competent at and interested in your subject, and if your interviewers agree with you, they’ll give you (and that overachieving bastard) a place. Remember, you’re eighteen and you’re applying to university; the point is to learn once you get there, not be learned; as long as you show enthusiasm for your subject, you ought to do fine.

And if you bomb out of all your interviews and have to join the Navy to get a job, at least you’ll be free of 27-odd grand of debt!

How To Be A Student On Expert Mode

(this mode is only unlocked if you pay the full £9,000 a year – it’s basically like buying the shamefully overpriced special edition of a Call of Duty game)

1) Read all your texts, regardless of intelligence and time period, without using any notes or looking anything up; you’ll see how smart you really are when you don’t know what ‘som deel’ means in The Canterbury Tales.

2) Only make one side of A4 notes a day, no matter how many lectures, seminars or epiphanies you have; you’ll have to cut down and prioritise your ideas while you’re having them, which is no mean feat.

3) Cook and eat three meals a day by yourself, completing the washing up after each one; it’s surprisingly easy to live off one meal a day when you can’t be bothered to cook.

4) Buy everyone you meet at a bar a drink, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, attractiveness or relationship to you; it’s like donating to charity, you’re basically buying a reputation as a nice person.

5) Contribute to a seminar discussion in a foreign language no-one else is familiar with; and if anyone questions you, just tell them you’re doing it for the sake of diversity.

6) When applying for student housing, claim to have the most impractically-managed medical condition you can make up / research online; and if your offers withdraw because you have acute fridge-carrying syndrome, they’re discriminatory bastards.

7) Whenever a lecturer says anything, mutter ‘I knew that’, or even ‘I could have said it better’, getting increasingly louder until your neighbours are aware of your superior intellect, or you’re asked to leave by an annoyed professor.

8) Do laundry only with the money you get from selling your valuables online, creating an interesting moral dilemma: a signed poster of your favourite band, or clean underwear for another month?

9) Hit on people whose sexual orientation is incompatible with yours, so if you’re a straight woman, try to pull a gay man; there’s no fun if it’s not difficult.

10) Get a meaningful amount of sleep every night.


11) Don’t use a map of your campus, or even city, for the first three months of your course.

12) Join the national society for a country you’ve never been to, have no relationship with or interest in, and have no knowledge of the language of. For bonus points, contribute to socials and meetings of that society using an offensive accent and exclusively referring to racist stereotypes.

13) Join societies you really can’t join: people in wheelchairs, join the non-disabled swimming team; deaf people go for musical societies; climate change-deniers, get into that environmental society. We’ll see how ‘inclusive’ they really are.

14) Give a different answer whenever anyone asks where you’re from, what course you’re doing, or what your background is; you’ll treat your new friends more as individuals if you have a separate and mutually-exclusive identity with each one.

15) Get off on the right foot with your professors by sending them messages in unorthodox ways – carrier pigeon, smoke signals, morse code – to show your creativity. If you hear back from any of them, you’re doing well.

Today Was A Bit Of A False Start

(on your marks, get set, don’t learn – yet)

Sorry if this is abrupt but there’s somewhere I have to be in about half the time it takes to write a blog post without spelling and grammar mistakes, or the sort of long-winded and multiple-claused sentences I think are funny but are really a pain to figure out in my head, and are a bitch to proof-read later, but I have had my first day of universitying after three months of summer spent waiting for this, and it was a bit of a false start.

I understand that there are a load of things they want to introduce to us, and I’ve not got a problem with the fact that most students don’t come from the UK, let alone London, so a day and a half of figuring out this ridiculously poorly-planned city probably isn’t enough, but for those of us with no other interests, and a working knowledge of what the frak on Oyster Card is, I wanna do the English Literature thing, not the ‘welcome to UCL’ thing.

This isn’t a problem with the uni, it’s just my own impatience; I suppose that I had fixed today, Monday the 22nd of September, as the day that university starts for me, none of this ‘early move in’ crap, this is when the nine grand a year starts paying off. And it was perhaps unrealistic of me to expect that I could, or that I would, be thrown straight into fighting about the grammar of Paradise Lost so I’ll just have to wait for a little longer.

Of course, having said that, I’m probably not prepared for the things I’m waiting for, because I’ve not looked at Paradise Lost in a few days now and my completion of the remainder of the reading list closely resembles the completion of the stamp collection of an individual with a clinical fear of stamps, but in a way I want that. It’s not that I can’t motivate myself to do things, and I’ll have to learn over the course of the next year, but I think I react well to people telling me to do stuff, and pointing out all the ways I’m not really doing well enough for their liking.

I might be a masochist, but I’ve been anticipating the grind of reading a bajillion hours a day, the fear of saying something stupid in a seminar, and the inevitable car crash that my first university-level essay will resemble, and three months is a long time to wait for that when you’re playing Madden by yourself in a depressingly well-lit living room for days at a time.

So I’ll try to look at this as a positive, that the ideal of my university life is still very much alive, and I’ll be able to eagerly look forward to it for another week yet, before the depressing reality of having to choose two from a completed essay, enough sleep, and three meals a day, sets in on a daily basis. So bring on the learning, because I for one am quite ready.