How to succeed at University via The Books’ pages of The Rabbit by Deirdre Serjeanton (Lecturer in Renaissance Literature)


In 1908, Robert Benchley made a list of what he had learnt during his first year of study in Harvard. Here are some of the highlights:

1. Charlemagne either died or was born or did something with the Holy Roman Empire in 800.

2. There is a double l in the middle of parallel.

3. A sock with a hole in the toe can be worn inside out with comparative comfort.

4. Almost everything you need to know about a subject is in the encyclopedia.

His full list runs to twelve items, all, in their own way, useful things to know, but not, perhaps, everything to which young ambition might aspire. You, for instance, are probably straining at the leash to find out more about the mechanics of the Elizabethan stage, or what exactly Simone de Beauvoir meant by writing femme without the definite article in front of it that one time, or whatever mysteries are the particular property of your chosen subject. That is well and good – but it isn’t the full story of university education. To show you what I mean, here is the list of what I learnt in three years of undergraduate study. I’m leaving out the details about mediaeval dream-poem vocabulary: these are just the transferable skills – the secret to success at university.

1. Get up in the morning. This is the hardest bit, because your mother isn’t going to knock on your bedroom door any more; however, I promise you, the struggle is worth it. Bed has its merits, but once you are actually scrubbed, dressed, and in the library, it is hard to avoid doing something productive with your day. You can always go to bed again later.

2. Look up every reference you don’t understand. You haven’t looked up Robert Benchley yet? Seriously? He had to walk to the library and haul the Encyclopedia Britannica off the shelf; you just have to tap a few letters into Wikipedia. We will do our best to teach you a great deal while you are at Essex, but there will inevitably be lots of gaps, which you will have to fill for yourself. Get in the habit of knowing things: it is so much more productive than wandering through life in a fog of bafflement. Benchley’s habit of reaching for the encyclopedia was the first step in a career that ran from Academy Awards to affairs with Dorothy Parker: that’s what happens to people who know things.

3. Make friends with interesting people. Education is not a one-player game. You are part of a community, and you should make the most of it. Part of your learning will happen in the lecture theatre and the seminar room; a great deal more will happen beyond them. From a purely personal angle, it is obviously more pleasant to have a support team on tap who will stroll to the library with you, share your books, pick up notes when you are sick, and even pound on your door with a cup of tea on the way to classes in the morning. (See 1, above.) Don’t forget, however, that the people who chat with you over lunch are also part of your academic life.  Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of the University  virtually does away with the formal teaching side of things, and leaves it all up to you: ‘When a multitude of young men [he was writing in the ninteenth century: we can add women to the mix], keen, open-hearted, sympathetic, and observant, as young men are, come together and freely mix with each other, they are sure to learn one from another, even if there be no one to teach them; the conversation of all is a series of lectures to each, and they gain for themselves new ideas and views, fresh matter of thought, and distinct principles for judging and acting, day by day.’ Given that you are, undoubtedly, just as keen, open-hearted, sympathetic and observant as any Victorian student, you will have no trouble lecturing each other on your set texts while you have your coffee; but just as education is not limited to the lecture theatre, nor is it confined to your reading list for the week. Learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There is no upper limit to what you can think or do or achieve while you are a student, and a group of interesting and energetic people around you will help you bear that in mind.

For the sake of clarity, I should point out that by interesting, I don’t mean ‘he wears lots of black and broods scowlingly in corners maybe he’s a vampire with a soul’ interesting: I had in mind something more like ‘I don’t see why we shouldn’t set up a music festival / make a film of Finnegans Wake on our iPhones / cycle to Wivenhoe and have a picnic in December’ interesting.

4. Start writing for The Rabbit. There are lots of good reasons to write for The Rabbit. You may be thinking of CV points, and it is certainly the case that writing for our student magazine propelled one of my university friends to her own column in The Sunday Times and another to the Spectator where she writes about food (and thus dines out on the magazine’s expense account, always a pleasant sort of job). It will be good for your literary style and excellent for your imaginative horizons: reviewing books often coaxes you into reading something you might otherwise have missed, and is thus the perfect opportunity to discover that you love stream-of-consciousness texts, or are dying to find out more about – let’s say – nineteenth-century ceramics, because A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book makes them so fascinating. The best reason, however, is that contributing to The Rabbit covers steps 1-3 of the Guide to Success at University (and Life) in one simple move: you’ll have to get up in the morning to rush to the offices with your copy; it teems with all the most interesting and glamorous people on the campus outside the LiFTS departmental meetings; and journalism is a discipline that forces you to check up on the references you didn’t initially understand, and is thereby a handy route to the fountain of knowledge. Add the facebook group on the side of the page, or go say hi at the Fresher’s fair:  you will be very welcome, and a life of fabulousness beckons.

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