Thursday, 1 March 2012

The costs attendant on studying ...

 An expensive business, postgrad ~ or rather, writing a thesis. I'm not much good at Excel, so set to with calculator, pencil and paper and cast a cash flow projection for the academic year, autumn 2011 to October 2012.
  It does not make for reassuring reading.
  It seems the demand for higher education has largely maintained its wonted level, despite the challenge of steep tuition fees. Nevertheless, recent UCAS figures (30/01/12) noted mature students have fallen by the wayside and, being of this company, can understand why.
  A lack of employment prospects is concentrating minds. A&H and social sciences are attracting fewer applicants (but I'm willing to bet the ubiquitous MBA is on the up and up). Although student debt appears every bit as affordable as any weasel ad where minuscule small print informs you you'll lose your home if you don't keep up the payments, student loans are ridiculously cheap and they should not be. The figures make dismal reading: thirty or forty per cent of present lending will not likely be repaid. If this shortfall continues, year on year, you can work it out. Unredeemed SL debts mean less to plough back into the system.   
  I applaud the cutting back of Mickey Mouse degrees and nonsense such as horse care being equal to however many GCSEs. You want to work with horses? Pursue your vocation through the British Horse Society; 'vocation' is a euphemism for low pay.
  However, back to current efforts in the field of Classical studies. Mature students return to learning for a variety of reasons, e.g., a mid-life career change. There has been a reduction in that group, but many of us are – or were – purely hobbyists, having a desire to learn for the love of it, or in hope of keeping the grey matter fit. But this mature student's now looking very carefully at ever-increasing demands on income and wondering if the luxury can be afforded.  
  No. 1: Go part time and the cash-flow is manageable. But fees, like the outlay of purchasing a horse, are only the start of it. No. 2: Classics books are hugely expensive. They're generally limited print runs: the more arcane or obscure the topic the more costly they are. If I rely solely on the university library what I want is often out to another student and will require a week to be returned on recall, has been shifted into the HUB (high-use books) or gone AWOL and probably won't be replaced. Universities are feeling the pinch, too. With fuel hikes having a not-inconsiderable impact, it's cost-effective to buy rather than borrow; many volumes are available second-hand from Amazon or Abe. And I have generous friends, who loan valuable books and even send me their unwanted green Loeb Greek classics f.o.c., simply for the price of p&p. 
  No. 3: I don't feel as intelligent as I used to. The synapses aren't crackling the way they once did. The difficulty may be something to do with PhD techniques. It's not a book, where ingredients are controlled (or, in my case, uncontrolled!) products of creativity, imagination or a narrative arc. And it's not undergrad work, where essays reflect what one has absorbed to date. It's also a major leap upwards from Masters. The necessary requirements of scholarly detachment, and almost line-by-line referencing, do not allow for either originality or replication of learned material, but something in between. And here on the limen there is a marked lack of that magical conjuring of ideas which can happen with tutorials (or in the pub afterwards). You're on your own. I really do miss 'interlocutory discourse'; dialogue can spark oblique sidelights or direct illumination of slants not thought of before, incidental to a particular gathering ~ conversations are impossible to duplicate in any academic volume. However, I guess this angle is aimed-for in No. 4: the perceived necessity to attend seminars and conferences here, there and everywhere, UK-wide, which includes concomitant travel expenses (pricey) and sometimes overnight accommodation (even more pricey). Plus there's an increase in computer peripherals, library or specialised society subscriptions ... 
  You name it, it has to be paid for. (I have reason now to recall the rueful remark of one don from Ireland, who said to be a Classicist you need a private income.)    
  The final item is being time-poor. I try for 10am until 5.00pm, but in reality it's more like 5am to 10pm. If only the expenditures could be matched by employing someone to clean the domestic sphere, do the washing and ironing or cook the meals, let alone take care of the woefully neglected garden.   
  Actually, glancing out of the window, I don't have a garden any longer. After a decade of Classical studies I have a patch of rough weed-infested grass that looks as if it's transplanted itself from the nearby fields. You can tell it needs mowing; it overtops the woodpigeons waddling through its forest height. A happy hunting ground for the cat, it's surrounded by overgrown hedges worthy of Sleeping Beauty and populated by birds, amphibians and voles.
 Now, if there was a diamond tiara lying about in the brambles ... A better long-term asset in the bank than a stray prince (or frog) in the undergrowth! Diamonds are forever ~ or so they say.

Are diamonds a girl's best friend? (Nah: a dishwasher is.)
  In fact, the phrase is grammatically incorrect ~ either the diamonds should be singular or the friend plural, but don't suppose the writers of that specific Hollywood lyric cared! The song is from the 1953 film, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, starring Marilyn Monroe.  
  I was reflecting on the axiom recently (the word stems from the Greek adamas, unbreakable). You can't eat jewellery if you're starving. OK, you might take it to a pawnshop and realise temporary cash against its market value but, basically, outside industrial uses, diamonds are beautiful, expensive, enduring as gold but of no practical utility as anything bar pretty or triumphal decoration. Is this why they're prized?
  Anyhow, was suddenly put in mind of one of those bizarre episodes which happen in a life.
Riding around Stellenbosch © adventureshop.co.za
 Once upon a long time ago, while living in South Africa, I had a friend who worked as a mining engineer up on the Witswatersrand as well as in Botswana. He frequently came down to Cape Town and we'd ride horses through Stellenbosch vineyards, or along the Cape beaches, and then return to drink tea in the plush surroundings of the Mount Nelson Hotel in the Gardens.
  Knowing my love of geological specimens he sometimes brought things like agate for me, and once told how he'd smuggled emeralds back to the UK, taped to one of his ankles. (He wouldn't get away with it these days.) On one occasion he handed over what appeared to be a small grubby quartz pebble.  'Here, this is for you. Diamonds are a girl's best friend!'
  It wasn't much bigger than a small sugar lump, misshapen and dully opaque.
  I protested he shouldn't be handing over diamonds, uncut or not, but he assured me it wasn't valuable, a Top Wesselton or a Top Cape. Less than the poorest industrial quality, it had a marked fault line through it – a lattice defect. Anyone bar the most expert cleaver in Antwerp would probably shatter it into useless slivers, worthless for anything except making diamond-dust nail files.
  I kept it for ages in my jewellery case ~ a hard, waxen-pale milky little pebble. Then I took it out and left it on the dressing table, meaning to transfer it to a wooden box which holds malachite, tiger's eye, fool's gold (iron pyrites), vitrified volcanic lava and other mineral samples. Other people collect souvenir mementos like local craft work from their travels ~ I accumulate stones and shells.  
  Anyway, an unforeseen upshot was pebbles were suddenly fashionable – the varieties you put in glass flower vases for decoration or weight. One fine spring morning someone (!?) cleared up a display of past-it narcissus or daffodils and absent-mindedly picked up the diamond as well. It did resemble one of those garden centre pebbles you use for flower arranging, and the clouded quartz in the vase was similar. You can tell where I'm going with this, can't you! Throwing the faded blooms into the compost bin, I chucked the water into the Sleeping Beauty shrubbery.   
  And the stones.             
  I've never found it. One day a future archaeologist may dig it up, puzzle over how a South African rough diamond got here, and construct some marvellous 'Time Team'-style explanation for its alien presence in the cold clay of an overgrown Scottish back garden.

Pas l'temps pour plus d'√©criture. Back to the grindstone. Currently making a list of Things NOT to Do, inc. long e~mails, blogging, Facebook checking and online student forums ... 
  The rate this neophyte's PhD isn't progressing perhaps one ought to excise eating and sleeping as well. However, on the research front I think I know where I'm going ~ standing at alpha, can vaguely distinguish omega. It's the route between 'em I need a road map for. 

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