Even someone as old, curmudgeonly, and cynical as me has to admit that there is a weeny bit of my brain (maybe 3%?) that still thinks/wishes it is 18 years old. The University, and the Halls of Residence, especially, are annually inundated by a tidal wave of nervous excitement, alcohol, hormones, and pathogens. Thankfully the other 97%’s propensity towards early bed on school nights and cups of tea overpowers any rogue compulsions. At the Halls, the Tutor’s job in that first week is a mixture of crowd-control, meet-and-greet, noise management, policeman, advice service, and big brother all rolled into one. Before the first students arrive, you have the same trepidation as you do before the first class of the year that you have to teach. You quickly realise, however, that you have a bunch of generally genial, friendly, interested people on your hands, who now-and-then will probably need no more than a bit of a pointer in the right direction.
Apart from the odd late-night call for excessive noise whilst on duty, the week went quite well: most residents seemed to settle in quickly to their new flats and the students seemed to be interested in my first seminars of the year (I did, however, bribe them with Twix, one of my more effective teaching techniques). I also spent a nice afternoon at the Freshers’ Fair signing up new volunteers for the Manchester Central Foodbank – staffed almost entirely by University of Manchester volunteers for almost 12 months now. I also used my many years of experience at the University to avoid ‘Death by Domino’s Pizza Voucher’: a peril which must, inevitably, claim numerous naïve first-year casualties every September.
Somewhere amongst the maelstrom of new students, I managed to find time to get on with a bit of my own research. Thanks to the wonders of technology, I spent the rest of the week working with lists of immigrants and newspapers from New Orleans in the 1820s without having to leave the comfort of the PC Cluster. What would, until only the last decade or so, have meant hours of toil on a Microfilm machine, or even an expensive research trip, can now be done from pretty much anywhere you can get an internet connection. Whilst it is undoubtedly a wonderful development, if I am honest, there is a small part of me which feels like I’m cheating. Surely you can’t be a real historian without getting a bit of centuries-old dust under your finger nails, without becoming accustomed to the aroma of stale paper, or physically seeing the handwriting of some long-dead bureaucrat, whose mundane toils have given modern-day masochists (we call them academic researchers) something to do with their time?
With this in mind, I have started thinking about planning the writing of an application for funding a research trip across the pond at some point next year, to actually get my hands on some of those ‘real’ sources, especially the stuff that is buried in an archive somewhere in the Deep South, that not even Google have got their hands on yet. After submitting some work for a supervisory panel at the end of August, I have some time now to get on with some some final pieces of primary and secondary research for my PhD project before the final writing-up period starts in earnest in a few months.
This week, I have been mostly drinking: Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby at The Crown, under the giant red viaduct in Stockport. Sweet and malty and well-bodied – but at 6% is potential rocket fuel. For safety reasons, 2 pint maximum.