Recovering the Vacs


J.R. Lucas

Much of the vac is wasted. Although many undergraduates are sensible, and use the vacations wisely, not only for holiday but for all the reading they cannot do in term, others---perhaps the majority---fritter it away in paid employment or jaunts to Katmandu, or wherever is fashionable at the time.

It has always been a problem: tutors in the Seventeenth century were making similar complaints. But it has grown worse in recent years. At the time of the student movement the young took it into their heads that they could achieve salvation only by pretending to be proletarians, and that they were being given grants in order to be free to protest the absolute integrity of their intentions. Now penury is pleaded. But though grants are inadequate, and some undergraduates are short of money---and Oxford ought not to delay in getting a new scholarship system into operation to meet cases of genuine need---it is a relevant fact that most undergraduates are not short of money. The turnover of college bars, the queues at off-licences, the hi-fi equipment carried in at the beginning of term is visible evidence. The reason is equally obvious. Although grants have gone down, so have taxes, and most of those clever enough to get to Oxford were clever enough earlier to choose well-heeled fathers. The exact proportion is difficult to determine, but a t a rough estimate I should say that 70% are reasonably affluent as against 30% who are struggling to make ends meet. That is not to say that the 70% feel well off. They too often feel the pinch, but this is because their expectations and life- style are closer to that of their yuppie elders that Chaucer's poor scholar of Oxenford. We should not grudge them Twentieth Century amenities, and there is little need for sumptuary legislation: but equally they should not expect the taxpayer to proved them with compact disks, or think that an Oxford vacation is properly spent in acquiring the means to buy them.

The urge to wander abroad is the other great enemy of reading in the vacation. Again, it is not in itself bad, but needs disciplining if an undergraduate is to make the most of his time here. It is possible to go places while not at Oxford. We should encourage it during the "gap", and perhaps should give even greater encouragement to take a gap before coming up. Also we should give greater encouragement to our pupils to take a gap on going down, and not rush immediately into a job. It is much easier to take a break then, and if they have worked hard for finals, they need it. The Long Vac after Schools is the time for following the silk route, climbing the Andes, being a kibbutznik or sailing round Cape Horn, not the Long Vac before, or the one after Mods or Prelims.

In large part we can achieve our purpose by explaining, regularly and relentlessly, the purpose and proper use of the vac. It is natural for those accustomed to school to think of the vacs as holidays, but freshmen are receptive to the idea that they are no longer at school, and can take in the thought that term is intense and needs to be well prepared for. Of course eight weeks is a long time, and by the end of their first term they have forgotten everything they were told, and a reminding exercise is called for. But even so, some suffer from infirmity of purpose and need help in keeping in mind the right priorities when no longer in the tutor's presence. End-of-vac collections are a powerful dissuasive to idleness, but need to be used aright. I, quite mistakenly, used to set old Schools papers, but that failed to distinguish the uninspired virtuous man from the clever skiver. The questions were too hard, and intended for a different purpose. What I now do, thanks to my word-processor, is to set individualised collections, designed to test the veracity and virtue of the undergraduate, not to give him practice in Schools technique. At the beginning of the vac each is issued with a reading list, and at the bottom of it a form to bring back next term in which he is to tick off what he has actually read. The collection is then set on that. If he has read a lot, he has many questions to choose from, but if only four items, then only four questions, one form each. No amount of native wit will enable him to say what were the stages in Plato's decline of the constitution without having actually read books eight and nine of the Republic. Nearly always now the idle confess before they are found out.

The trouble with deterrents is that do not always work, and then sanctions have to be applied if the deterrent is to continue to deter. Shame by itself is not always enough: tutors are expected to be lenient to the lapses of youth---it is part of their job. Rather than rely on an extended dressing down, which in any case is liable to sour personal relations, I have found two other tactics extremely effective in bringing an erring undergraduate to a right frame of mind. Sometimes I fire the Senior Tutor at him: he gets a letter from the Senior Tutor informing him that he has been reported to the Warden and Tutors Committee for idleness, and reminding him of his obligation to work during the vac. It usually works, but is a chore for the Senior Tutor. The other tactic involves no extra work for any don: I profess willingness to set another collection as soon as the reading has been accomplished---and until then, no tutorials. It has always worked thus far. I commend it to others.

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