Tuesday 17 April 2018

Life is hard

Easter was late in 1916.  On 23 April that year Padraig Pearse proclaimed his revolution on the steps of the GPO, promising " . . . The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities of all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally". Fine words but we find 100+ years later that some are more equal than others. I worked for 20 years in the Ivory Tower of Trinity College Dublin. That is Ireland's premier university. But I also earned my salt for a number of years at the other main contender - UCD - for the premier laurels. It was Ivory Tower for me because for most of those years I was not teaching undergraduates but rather carrying out arcane research and providing infrastructural support for other pointy-headed intellectuals.

Arriving at The Institute mid-year in January 2013 was rather a shock to my delicate system. The workload was absurdly heavier. For the whole of 2012, I'd been time-rich cash-poor because the recession had reduced me to working only 1 day a week. The transition was a Faustian bargain because although the new job doubled my take-home pay, it quadrupled the hours I had to work and most of that was on my feet teaching. Or on my knees beside some kid struggling to drive a computer. That's much harder physically - oh my aching cruciate ligaments - than sitting in a chair thinking deeply or having a barney discussion in a lab meeting. It was also much harder socially, because each year I had to learn the names and faces of 100-120 new students. If I was really good with people, I would have a job in a Citizen's Information Centre. Nevertheless, by mid October most years, I've nailed names to most of the new faces with my mental hammer.

I've also acquired far too much information TMI about the people behind those names and faces. Students would miss class and then come to explain: my €500 car broke down or wouldn't start; my grandmother died and I went to funeral; my father has cancer; I have cancer; my kid has cancer; my kid's father <useless baastid> couldn't do the school-run; I was mugged and concussed at Christmas and don't feel right still; my mother has dementia; my daughter anorexia; I can't sleep at nights; I had to do a shift at the place I work. I'm sure that each of these stories could be replicated if you looked through the attendance rolls in TCD. But those students made it to TCD because they made a better fist of the school Leaving Certificate; because they could study in a warm home; because there was always healthy food on the table; because there was money to pay for extra tuition. I have a theory that my students at The Institute get sick more often and more seriously because they just can't afford to buy good food and enough fuel.

In recent years, a third of my contact hours have required me to supervise Final Year research projects in molecular evolution. This year there are 11 on the A-Team [prev]. It is great fun but can get super busy: explaining, demonstrating, trying the Socratic method to get someone to think, explaining the same thing as last week . . . and the week before. Everyone passes, everyone fulfills their potential (and a little bit more) and some do really well: like Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, discovering something interesting and useful about the world that nobody else knows. Well now, we're all wrapped up for the year on that front. The literature has been read and recorded; the frontiers of science have been given a damned good shove; the results have been interpreted and it has all been written up as a Senior Thesis. Except that we're not all quite wrapped up. Because, to students at The Institute, shit happens.

The students are required to submit three (3!) copies of their project report bound into a single document. 1) copy for the Supervisor, 2) for the Second Reader, 3) for the External Examiner. I've proposed that the Extern's copies be sent as PDFs at no cost rather than as 20kg of paper, which the poor bugger has to schlep around; but so far that hasn't happened. Me, I can copy whatever I want for free on a xerox machine in the office, and I'm tight with the woman who works the copy and binding service for a bit of book-binding. Poor students, not so much: they have to pay 24c /page and €2 for each copy bound. For rich students it's not a problem: €30 is only a week's worth of canteen lunches. Last Friday was the deadline for submission and one of my poor-but-honest students (let's call him Pete because that's not his name) asked for an extension. He'd submitted the work electronically, so I knew he'd finished, but he just didn't have the €30 that week. I then got far TMI about the circumstances at home: his father works in educational infrastructure and just doesn't get paid over Easter when schools are out. Pete himself was the first one in his family, the first in his village almost, to go to college. He was surviving on a SUSI grant and scraping by on €30/week; it cost him €20/week for petrol. If he could just make it through the degree he'd get a job that would make a material difference to the economics back home including a string of younger sibs.

Shaggit! I said. I'll print the berluddy thesis. And I did. And then he remembered that he'd forgotten an Acknowledgments section. If I could just wait there he'd write that page, e-mail it to me and then take away the copies to be bound . . . he had, barely,  €6 about his person for that service. I got on with something else until the extra sheet came in. I then put a note on the door of my office saying "Back in 5 minutes" and nipped down to my pal in copy&bind and got her to do a nixxer on the binding. The Institute unwittingly sucked up €6 in costs and my chap kept his dinner money. It felt great that we had thus stuck one to The Man.

A couple of hours later, I was telling this tale, anonymised, to one of my younger colleagues and she said "Was it Pete?" Because she is young and full of beans, she has devised a new extra-curricular course for school pupils to get a taste of science. This worked better if each group of kids was led around the campus by one of our students; and my colleague called for volunteers from the Final Year. They are mad stressed and busy: completing assignments, wrapping their projects, preparing for the May exams and, when thus solicited, everyone looked at their shoes. So m'colleague asked the HoD if she could incentivise the students with a €5 voucher for lunch. Pete was about the only one who was impressed by that. After he's done his session, he said he'd be willing to take another group the next day. M'colleague demurred; Pete insisted. It transpired that the meal voucher doesn't have to be exchanged for pork chops, chips and mushy peas on a plate but is treated as cash in the campus shop. Pete's plan was to forgo lunch and buy treats for his younger brothers and sisters. Some people seem to be put on the planet to help others.

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