The past is a foreign country . . . *

amandaThis post is by Amanda Hipkiss. Amanda is currently a PhD student in the school of Environment, Education and Development


So there I was again – standing in the Apple shop, trying not to look like an old bat who didn’t know a dongle from a download, and explaining to a sweet young thing that my iPad just wasn’t working. Last time it was the laptop turning up its toes and refusing to wake up. Now the laptop was behaving itself but the iPad wouldn’t charge and nothing I could do had sorted it out. I felt deprived, bereft, cut off from my normal life. If I can’t have two machines working, how am I going to complete the online crossword while talking to The Husband a hundred miles away?

I sat watching the Genius spend two whole hours wrestling with my recalcitrant hardware and I got to thinking how much simpler my life had been when I was an undergraduate.

Just imagine a world where the one television in a Hall of Residence was in the TV Room and there was a constant battle over what was watched. Woe betide anyone who tried to change channels when The Magic Roundabout was on! There were only three TV stations to choose from. Now, I sit in my room streaming TV shows from iPlayer, 4oD and YouTube.

Then, I usually managed one phone call home a week from the public phone, after a long wait in the queue, feeding coins into the slot when it beeped and trying not to be overheard by the impatient hoards behind me. Contact with The Husband (then The Boyfriend) was by letter. He went on teaching practice on the Isle of Man for six weeks and I didn’t hear his voice for all that time! Now, even The Mother, who quaintly believes that you can only call mobile phones from mobile phones, gets more calls a week than she ever got when I was 18.

I can remember when contact with staff was through lectures for 50 (being talked to), seminars for 25 (being talked to but being expected to answer questions) and tutorials for 5 (being talked to and expected to answer more questions). Between these sessions, tutors could be seen by appointment only. They could communicate with us – by writing a note on paper and leaving it in a pigeon-hole shared with everyone else whose surname started with ‘H’. There was no such thing as email. In fact, we didn’t have access to computers at all.

And then there’s writing.

If you ever wondered why your teachers had illegible handwriting, remember that we all went through University writing everything by hand. Researching meant walking to the library, looking up your subject in the library index, checking the card index and walking the miles of bookshelves to find what you needed. Then you made notes by hand.

Writing an essay meant assembling your paper notes, making a plan then writing out your essay by hand. Proof reading your work meant checking carefully then writing out a fair copy by hand. As you reached the end of the page you kept thinking, ‘Don’t make a mistake, don’t make a mistake.’  And, if you did, you had to judge whether it was small enough to be hidden by a dab of the industrial quantities of tippex we all used or if you had to start the page again. You never wrote on both sides of the paper.  Imagine having to re-write two whole pages!

Did my tutors keep records about me when I was an undergraduate?  They must have done but I knew nothing about it.  I queued to see my final results posted on the noticeboard with everyone else but I had no idea about how well (or not) I was doing.  Now there’s eprog, which shouts at you if it isn’t constantly fed information and if it isn’t signed and countersigned.

And then there are the acronyms. Now, don’t get me wrong – after 35 years in teaching, I’ve got used to acronyms but some of the ones used here baffle me. PGR?  Oh yes, post-graduate research(er). UML is the University of Manchester Library. SEED means School of Education, Environment and Development. LRQ? Literature Research Question! I had to ask my supervisor for that one.

So, when I break the connection at the end of the third of my thrice-daily FaceTime conversations with The Husband, I can’t help but wonder whether I’d have been better off doing a PhD years ago when the world was less complicated and words diDn’t have odd capiTal letters iN the miDdle.  Then I think – no, I’m having so much fun now.

* ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’  The Go-Between LP Hartley (1953).


3 thoughts on “The past is a foreign country . . . *

  1. Excellent post – really enjoyed it! The first thought that came to my mind (about doing a PhD in the past) is the limited and cumbersome access to all the literature … it would have made research across borders and locations much more difficult.

  2. Absolutely love this! Brings back so many memories of the realities of being a student (mumble, mumble) years ago. However, I also agree that technology makes things so much fun these days. In future, if you ever find yourself feeling like an old bat talking to some shiny young techy person, just point out that we’re not all technophobes – remind them it was our generation which invented the world wide web!

    • I admit, I have quite enjoyed watching my students’ faces when I got out the iPad and showed I knew what I was doing in the days when I was teaching!

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