Week 10: An Introduction to College Life

It was a rather uneventful week to end the Autumn months. Teaching drew to a close; the students get a week off before the term break to write their formal practical reports, so I found myself with extra time on Monday and Friday. I’ve now settled into a rhythm of morning pre-breakfast bike rides, and I’ve explored to most of the towns immediately adjacent to Cambridge. We lost our football match (again) 0-3 to Anglia FC, but I refereed a nail-biting cuppers game between Giron and St Catharines that went deep into extra time. The mornings are getting shorter, and the sun is now setting mid-afternoon. Of course, there are still things going on, getting to know people better or helping out friends with their bike issues. Next week, I’ll have more to discuss about: the Gates Term Trip is coming up next weekend and I’ll be able to talk about the referee’s comments to the article I submitted.

But in the absence of anything else new and exciting, I’d like to spend this week to compare and contrast the difference between living in college compared to at home. The collegiate system in Cambridge is central to the university (one could reasonably make the argument that there is in fact no university at all, just 31 colleges who agree to work together), and is rather unique in the world. Cambridge and Oxford are by far the most famous, but there are a few other universities around that still follow the system, though not nearly to the same extent.

There are a number of aspects to college life that don’t differ too much to living in a university town, that is, a town dominated economically and demographically by the university. I’ve lived in those circumstances before too; during my undergraduate I did a semester exchange to the University of Exeter. Living out of home and in accommodation near to the university leads to a major reduction in commute time. Although this situation does occur in Australia, especially for rural or regional students, it is by far the exception than the rule. There are a number of implications that immediately follow. Because the time taken to commute home is significantly shorter (5 minutes compared to 1 hour), heading home at the end of the day is much less of a strenuous decision. If one does head home, for whatever reason, there is still plenty of time left in the evening to do the more mundane, daily administrative tasks for one’s life when at home, rather than going straight to bed. The shorter commute means that, where I before spent 2 hours commuting to and from town, I now have 2 hours for relaxation or other purposes. It is one of hours that I am using for my morning bike rides, and hence am getting fitter in the process.

Even though these broad-brush statements could easily apply to students living near a university in a larger city, the fact that everyone lives closer means that the broader social environment is centred around the university itself. There are two clear distinctions here between Cambridge and Adelaide. First, in Adelaide, each social club largely existed based on their ability to organise a popular pub crawl. For those who aren’t familiar with this concept, a club would sell specially designed shirts for $20 each to its members, who would all congregate at about 4 or 5 pubs in turn on a given Friday night once a term. That couldn’t work here. For one, the pubs are not nearly large enough. Secondly, because so many students in Adelaide live more than a bike ride away from the city centre, the event of a pub crawl gives participants an excuse and reason to remain in town, having pre-made plans to help them get home at the end of the night. It is very difficult to arrange social gatherings between groups of friends who live on the opposite side of town. That isn’t to say it doesn’t happen, but here it is much easier for social gatherings to be arranged on the spot because people are not constantly worried about how they’ll get home at the end. Being accessible by bike or on foot also means people aren’t worried about appointing designated drivers. Overall, social gatherings are more frequent in Cambridge, but operate on a much larger scale in Adelaide.

But what about living at a college compared to a private home in a university town? Probably the most prominent difference here pertains to food. Darwin College, as with most other colleges, puts on dinner every night in the dining hall. This isn’t a formal dinner with suits and gowns, but a much more relaxed, cafeteria-style dinner. Each college has varying reputations for the quality of dinner offered. Darwin has a fairly good reputation, and in my opinion it delivers on that. Ask someone from a college with a poorer reputation and they may try and tell you that the reputation is decades old, and it has changed since then. Personally, I’ve been dining in college almost every night (except weekends, when it isn’t served). I find that it is of a price comparable to if not better than if I were to be cooking alone, especially since I am not a vegetarian (meat is more expensive). The selection is varied regularly enough such that the food never gets boring, and the quality is much better than anything I could prepare myself. Every night, there is enough choice for me to avoid foods I’m not a fan of (every night there are 2-3 red meat/poultry dishes, 1-2 fish dishes and 1 vegetarian dish). Dinner is also a great social point in the day, since you can catch up with people who otherwise would be heads-in-books or consigned to their rooms. It also allows me to have vegetables regularly, which is more pertinent because I don’t have a freezer in my kitchen (cooking for one without making lots of left-overs is especially difficult). It also means there is more time saved by not cooking and not having to go to the supermarket regularly. On the downside, I am not developing the valuable life skill that is cooking regularly, but there is still plenty of time for that in the future.

Still on the topic of food are the regular formal dinners. These are probably the most stereotypical Cambridge activity that people do regularly (punting is mostly for the tourists these days). Every college hosts them. The older colleges tend to have them nearly daily, and the newer colleges have only once or twice a week. Every college’s formals are different. Some of the newer colleges don’t prefer gowns, others (like Darwin) encourage gowns (and most people wear them), some of the older colleges have mandatory gowns. In general, it is possible to take guests along, and this tends to be a good way to experience life at other colleges. Each formal hall is a 3-course meal,  preceded by drinks in a parlour-type room, and followed by more drinks (or usually a party called a bop). Such an event at home would be organised once a year through a social or sporting club, so it is exceptionally strange that they are every week. They are (relatively) cheap too; most of the time they are around £15-£20 for guests, compared with the expected $70-$150 back home for a similar event. Many colleges also have pranking traditions during their formal halls, though more on that another time.

Another key feature of colleges is sport and societies. Each college has their own sports teams and social clubs, in particular choirs. Most of the more common sports are represented at almost every college, for example football, rugby, cricket, and especially rowing. Others are only offered at some colleges, like squash, tennis or lacrosse. The colleges play against each other in collegiate leagues based at the exceptional sporting facilities on offer. Compare to Adelaide, where most sport is run through teams based on locality (and sometimes ethnicity). Even the university teams play against local clubs. Because the colleges are much wealthier, the quality of the grounds are usually exceptional. Most college grounds have a perfectly smooth covering of grass, cared for by professional groundskeepers and kept from public access. Go to a suburban football oval in Adelaide, and you will find patches of thin grass and dirt, or litter on the pitches. Not here; for even the most amateur games the facilities rival many semi-professional sporting teams. Additionally, the rowing culture is huge, but it isn’t something I’ve learnt much about to comment on yet.

Although it doesn’t effect me as a post-graduate student, the other role of the colleges is for teaching. At home, material in lectures is reinforced through tutorials, classes of typically 15 to 30 students based in each department. Here, the equivalent structure is called supervisions, where the students are met with in groups of 2 or 3 by supervisors (typically graduate students or post-docs), to go through problems in the classes (for later years, this number could be as high as 8). These classes are run primarily through the colleges (again, except for some cases in the later years). So it is the college’s role to organise facilities and staffing for these lessons. At Darwin, being a graduate college, this isn’t an issue (there are no undergraduate students to supervise), but it is a seemingly expensive and archaic method of teaching, yet it clearly is much more focused on the students themselves.

Of course, this is just scratching the surface of what colleges are here, and it is only commentary based on what my experiences are. There are many more strange practices (such as the evensongs: daily chapel services sung by the college choirs, typically in Latin; or the library’s and study spaces available; or the 24-7 role of the porters as guides to everything) that I haven’t begun to delve into here. College life here is markedly different to home life, but it is fairly straightforward to settle in to. After all, they’ve had over 800 years to iron out the kinks and make it as easy as possible to do the thing we’ve all come here to do: learn.


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