Michael Appleton - student, Cambridge

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Tradition, oversized cyclists, etc.

Cambridge is graced with the presence of two competent, weekly student papers: the student union-published The Cambridge Student (TCS) and the independent Varsity. This week's issues - the last of the academic year - discuss at some length three issues that have been taxing the minds of many students in the last few weeks: balls, exam results, and safety.

TCS leads with "Class dismissed!", an account of efforts by the Cambridge University Students' Union (CUSU) to have modified the way in which the university announces exam results. Since time immemorial, all results have been put up on noticeboards in the centre of town for all to see, and then been printed in the official information rag Cambridge University Reporter. So, not only can you see how well you have done, but also how well your friends and enemies have fared.

I suspect that this would never be allowed in New Zealand universities - it would surely breach privacy law - but some dons here are resisting CUSU's efforts to have student numbers listed instead of names. TCS quotes one (anonymous) academic as saying the CUSU's plans are "deliberately flouting tradition for the sake of being overly democratic". I'm not entirely sure what this has to do with democracy, but the quote is a delicious expression of conservative principles: why change something which has worked for centuries?

In fact, the CUSU plans don't actually cover the privacy issues involved anyway: under their proposal, names and results would still be published in the Reporter, but students would at least be able to see their results first on the noticeboards before anyone else could find them out. CUSU President Ben Brinded explains that the proposal was motivated not out of concerns over privacy, but rather a belief that the current system "infringed the right of the individual to see their results first".

But pity the poor (but affluent) Cambridge maths students who have to get together - in shades of the way British election results are announced electorate-by-electorate by the returning officer in front of the assembled candidates - to hear their results read out, in descending order. This brought me back to my Form Two year at Scots College, what would now be called an "independent boys' school" whose grounds are in Strathmore, just next to Wellington Airport. (Am I being pedantic for pointing out that this school, whose website is headlined "World Class Education", cannot get apostrophes right? It claims to be a "world class independent boy's school". Oh dear.) My form teacher - a man who had spent pretty much his whole life at the college, as a student and educator - took great pleasure in announcing the results of our interminable tests. He would march around the room, marked papers in hand, and announce - but in this case, in ascending order - each student's result, adding a comment for good measure. Those consistently at the bottom of the class were thus treated to almost weekly snide, belittling comments in front of the class. Lovely.

It's hardly a politically correct teaching method, and I wonder whether he still gets away with using it (assuming he hasn't yet retired). It in any case probably had mixed results: some students would have been spurred on to do better and avoid further embarrasment, while others would have become depressed and given up trying. My only consistently terrible results came in handwriting - thankfully, my parents and I took this "subject" less seriously than my teacher, so his biting remarks about illegibility didn't cut too deeply into my eleven-year-old esprit.

But what I found particularly terrifying about the result announcements was the idea that my work was on public display: everyone in the room could see how you were doing, there was no hiding. Which, incidentally, is something that journalists should be praised for. They often get a bad rap, and sometimes with good reason, but critics often forget both the pressures journos are under and the unique aspect of their job, which sees their work publicly displayed and thus open to critique on a daily basis. Editing student paper Salient last year, the stream of phone calls and letters from the irate and pleased alike certainly kept me on my toes.

Meanwhile, Varsity has gone big with a feature entitled "Safe on the Streets?". Fighting Talk readers may remember the bicycle-riding "Cambridge slasher" mentioned in this column last month. Well, Cambridge police claim to have "neutralised" the threat, though nobody has yet been charged for the four stabbings in question. I wonder whether "neutralised" is the best verb for the police to be using - to me, it sounds like a euphemism for "we've killed off the bastard", just as the Texans like to neutralise their worst murderers, and some of the world's more brutal states like to "neutralise" their political opponents. Anyway, Detective Sergeant Alan Page said three of the four stabbings were definitely connected because, reports Varsity, "on each occasion the victim has been approached by the cyclist from behind whereas [in] the second attack the cyclist approached from the front". We also learn that "the bike which he rides is said to look too small for him".

Finally, with the Black Caps losing to country side Derbyshire and the West Indies falling to Ireland, is there even any point in playing the tri-series starting next week? Maybe the New Zealanders and the Carribean men would be better served by flying home for some much needed practice. That said, the Black Caps' recent ODI form is at least more promising than that displayed in the longer form of the game. However, they are sure running out of time fast.