University: the wonder years?

The clearing process is just beginning the long winding up in the UK. Clearing is a process by which students who don’t already have a university place offer, apply to various universities for available places. Picture call centres staffed by academics, answering frantic calls from students from 7.30am of the day A level results are declared. Universities trying to fill their vacancies and vying with each other for students with good grades, students with sufficiently high grades shop around for the best offer, and those with low grades scrounging for a place, any place. It is bedlam!

Every country has its own version of the admissions process to university. Each probably has its own madness attendant.
The range of issues facing students are quite bewildering:
– High tuition fees – is it really worth getting a degree?
– Study in a small, sleepy university town or go off to a big city? Go to another country?
– Contending with a global market- which degree and university will guarantee a job/placement/further study in such intense competition?
– Does a vocational course/apprenticeship hold better career prospects
– Logistics: housing, loans, social life…

It cant be easy to try and figure out answers to all those questions. Further study is not any easier with some variation of these very issues weighting on a person, in addition to others. All in all the start to a higher/further education is more and more challenging.

Is it worth all the bother?

I guess every individual needs to work out the answer for themselves. Do students have access to sufficient information to make well thought out decisions about these issues? Do they have adequate guidance and support from parents and schools? Some things like how a particular industry (and hence graduates in a linked degree) will fare 3 years down the line is extrapolation- how does anyone make a good call on that?

To me, university was about pursuing a subject I loved. I didn’t have the maturity or the experience to know all the options it could create for me, just a nebulous idea. Now, many years later, I realise that (for my particular profession of academics) the technical knowledge gained was important, and so were the skills I developed: analytical thinking, ability to concentrate for long periods of time, writing, ability to work with others and engaging and making friends. The list is longer but some things are intangible and we don’t even realise how we learned these from our peers. To me the uni years were truly the wonder years.

What is/was it like for you?

Sci-fi and literature

A conversation with a journalist friend (who is a literature and journalism graduate from Oxford) reminded me of a pet peeve. So here I am going to unload that and rant a bit.

This friend and some others that I have met (all literature graduates and devoted to the written word, some writers in their own right) had a very strange thing in common. Strange at least in my opinion. At the risk of generalising (and I synthesise their opinions into one song here), the impression I formed from these literati was this: Science fiction is not real literature for them.
What? How is that even possible?

They contend that great literature is all about human feelings: of love, jealousy, rage, despair, hope, fear, romance and so on. The art is in the words, how acutely the writer observes human behaviour and how beautifully s/he expresses it. I agree with this, though there is more.

“But but but…..” I spluttered ineffectually to them, my outrage making me incoherent. My PhD in Physics and lack of literature credentials rendered my opinions amateurish and not of sufficient literary cachet. I suppose if a literature graduate criticized Maxwell’s equations, I might take a similar attitude.

So what is my beef?

1. Missing from their list of human emotions is curiosity. Curiosity is a driving force in human beings and it ranks up there with other human emotions such as love. Our desire to explore the unknown, to discover our origins, the working of the world around us is responsible for our scientific progress. Yet my friends did not consider curiosity worthy of literary analysis. That to me is strange and crazy!

2. My friends had not really read much science fiction. So they had preconceived notions about the genre. Many sci-fi books and authors deal extensively with philosophical ideas and human emotions. Using the construct of sci-fi and fantasy they are able to create settings (and universes) where philosophical constructs can be articulated and explored in a non-abstract setting. Stories, characters and dialogue are an incredible way to explore intricacies of what makes us inherently human, even if the characters include non-humans.

I quote Michael Swanwick about one of the greatest sci-fi/fantasy writers, Gene Wolfe: “Gene Wolfe is the greatest writer in the English language alive today. Let me repeat that: Gene Wolfe is the greatest writer in the English language alive today! I mean it. Shakespeare was a better stylist, Melville was more important to American letters, and Charles Dickens had a defter hand at creating characters. But among living writers, there is nobody who can even approach Gene Wolfe for brilliance of prose, clarity of thought, and depth in meaning”

Yet how many literature students will read Wolfe? How many literature syllabi will have books by Gene Wolfe, Philip K. Dick, John Wyndham, Cordwainer Smith, C. J. Cherryh?

I think that is a disservice to literature as a whole not just the genre of sci-fi/fantasy.

My first video!

I never thought I would do this, but I have!

I have made a video (well Ben shot and edited it and John gave the idea)… here is the link:

It is about my interest and work in Photonics in general and my book in particular. You can also see details about the book on the my book page of the blog.

Let me know what you think of the video!

By artiagrawal Posted in General