This is the month of Freshers’ Weeks across the UK. An established stereotype assumes their ‘mayhem’, as an unbridled ‘booze bash’ of ‘newfound uni freedom’. This depiction can be extremely accurate, as well as far off the mark. In our own study, one participant expressed that he “can’t wait” for Freshers’, it’s “gonna be so live”; meanwhile, another reflected with surprise at how un-debauched her fellow Freshers were. For school leavers, the imagined space of university does conjure nerves and excitements, enabling interactions and experiences that have previously been less attainable. However, most public portrayal of this period seems narrowly fixated upon unruliness and eroticism. This might be fuelled by the repressed fantasies of journalists and researchers themselves; for example, Rebekah Nathan critiques the ‘male gaze’ of Michael Moffatt’s classic study of dormitory life for its near-obsession with sex. This blog post therefore looks a little deeper at some of the less cited cultural activities at the start of university, pointing to the extent of education at play during this socially transformative period.
It is hypothesised that education, broadly conceived, occurs in the negotiated acquaintance with new bureaucracies, buildings, institutional systems, personnel, geographies and identities. Collecting data last week at a student induction, there were numerous instances of students consulting each other, posing questions and offering instruction:
“Is it a ball ball you think? Like a ball dress for a ball? I don’t know what to wear”
“Hopefully somebody knows. Have you tried the…”
“What are you studying?”
“Hey, how’s it going?”; “Good, nice to see you.”[…] “You wanna go somewhere, get a pint?”; “Sure, why not!”
The dialogics of considering different possibilities, sharing information and persuading each other towards different pathways is at the core of Varenne’s (2011) depiction of ‘education’ as an informal social process. Varenne argues that at the heart of human history, and indeed at the essence of human ‘culture’ is an interactive process of deliberation in which persons continuously consider and construct new horizons. The dynamics from such interactions are deemed to produce the ‘stuff’ of education.
Understood through this lens, freshers can be seen to persistently educate each other and themselves about new spaces, lifestyles and routines. As in the photograph of kitchenware and bedding (above), new materials and equipment are required, along with new strategies and responsibilities such as concerning what to feed one’s self, how, where, at what cost, with whom and when. Many will collaborate and as evidenced from our own research, brand new friendships may ossify with immediacy. Yet this is also a solitary and reflective process, as well as one that may incite comparison and competition. From a separate, parallel project with university graduates, one student who has just begun her Master’s degree reflected on how “super keen” and “on it” some others were, already knowing “where everything is, [and] how all the IT stuff works”. Whilst this was of annoyance and made her feel unnecessarily guilty about her more laid back approach, she did interpret, rather cogently that the course and new environment are the few known phenomena these new groups have in common – and so it inevitably becomes an exercise of “comparing notes”. During our observations last week, conversations about star signs and television shows were also identified, as ‘feelers’ put ‘out there’ as a potential adhesive to establish degrees of commonality, as well as difference.
A key educational aspect of Freshers’ Week this taps into is therefore identity. Through their emergent social networks, young people must establish new identities on the basis of former one’s – which are not necessarily clearly defined or known themselves. That is to say, whilst people have various intersecting national, regional, classed, ethnic, gendered, sexual and experiential positionalities, these are not necessarily understood by their bearers in discrete labels. The relational interactions at the beginning of university therefore provide an educational plasma, both social and cognitive. Consciously and unconsciously comparing accents, ‘experiences’, schooling and interests, new students will be made increasingly aware of how they may be perceived, and become cognizant of the kinds of connections or differences they have with others. This process is poked fun at in satire, through stereotypes of newly invented personas and superficial bonds. Key themes to explore as we proceed to more data collection with freshers this week concern opinions and associated identities regarding topical cultural references, such as Brexit, Corbyn, Trump and the Premier League. As people use such apparatuses to form identities, social bonds and cultural repertoires – even if mediated through the lubricant of alcohol – there is much more complexity at play than is commonly given credit. Freshers’ Week entails a kind of social ‘experimentation’ and cultural ‘alchemy’, through which ‘education’ may be seen as both vehicle and product.
This qualitative richness at the start of university is built upon the uniform, (predominantly) blank slate of few or no pre-existent social groups. Individuals conglomerate from heterogeneous backgrounds to rapidly construct ad hoc, intersecting forms of social organization. These come with associated politics and emergent cultural practices. In Varenne’s terms, it is through the informal interactions and ‘ongoing deliberations’ (2011: 53) of reflecting, discussing, persuading and imitating that new university students are here hypothesised to impart (teach) and acquire (learn) their newfound lifestyles and networks. In what might be metaphorically termed ‘cultural creolization’ (cf. Hannerz, 1992; 1996), this educational production forms ‘new conditions’ and ‘new culture[s]’ (Varenne, 2011: 53) such as will be evidenced throughout universities across the country.