I spent a little time on campus the other day. This isn’t usual for me – most of my work is done from home, but every so often, about once a week or so, I go in – to speak to people or to use the library or other facilities. And when I go in in term time, it’s a case of go in, do what I need to, and get out, as I’m continually dodging people. Finding a place to study in the library becomes difficult at times, and its often easier to just pick up what’s needed and go home, study there.
In term time, campus is busy. Different types of busy at different times of year. Fresher’s week is imbued with hope. Not just from the squeaky new undergrads wandering around with wide eyes, but with those starting a new course, a new year, the hope that this year will be the year they nail the subject, do better, join that slightly-daring club they wanted to do last year but didn’t quite have the guts to, a certain determination to change things, to be someone different. Like new year’s, freshers has that hope, that sense of new beginnings. The weather is still often warm, the dying days of summer. By Christmas, the weather of course is darker. Colder. Not so on the inside; people scurry, looking forward to the break, to celebrating. Lecturers resign themselves to empty seminars, lecture theatres on the last day of term. During the break the staff and the dedicated continue to come in, to use the library, but its quieter. A muted quiet, a deep breath. And when the undergraduates return, its to the groans & panic of revision amidst the cold depth of winter untempered by Christmas joy. The glass-fronted library shines brightly all night as students attempt to cram. By the time of the second exams, after Easter, the weather has turned yet again; spring rain sees people scurrying to avoid getting wet, and early spring sun sees students lying on blankets in the park, trying to get an early tan while still revising.
But it never feels so different as during the depths of summer. Each time I’ve been on campus at this time it strikes me anew. The quietness, not just in terms of noise, but the calm. No one hurries. There’s an easy pace, those that use the library cafe lounge on seats, reading, but not the determinated cramming of earlier in the year. This is an easy reading, enjoyed with cold drinks. People sit outside again, chatting idly. On the park, the walk from Granville Road to campus is relatively deserted. The odd cyclist, skater, dog walker. A single postgraduate carrying a small bundle of books. The trees shimmer with sunlight. Although it’s in the middle of a city, it doesn’t feel it. Traffic noises are low, easy to miss. It’s easy to sit on a park bench, a picnic bench, to read and make notes, to allow the soul to breathe.
When the phrase ‘the ivory towers of academia’ is used, it’s usually in a negative sense; of academics refusing to engage with the world or to take account of it. It brings to mind the image of the fusty old professor in his office full of books, a relic of the Victorian period, studying something that has no relevance to the vast majority of people. Many universities try very hard to get away from this image – Leicester, for example, has the phrase ‘Elite, without being elitist’. But for me, being on campus at that time, the quietness of the summer period, is the ‘ivory tower’ – or perhaps a better phrase would be ‘the green tower’. I count myself very fortunate in being able to be there, to have been given that opportunity, to enjoy the walk from campus to my car, to allow my soul to breathe. To think. To have respite from the world. And that, I think should be the modern, positive meaning behind the term ‘ivory towers’ – respite from the world. Studying requires thinking, which requires stillness – not of the body, necessarily, but in terms of allowing the brain to think uninterrupted. That’s something precious, something to be cherished. And I think that’s what summer on campus really enscapsulates for me – that precious serene stillness, almost cloistered quietitude.