Settling into life at the University of St Andrews seems to always involve more complications than I expect, allowing me to discover new things at every turn. One of the most striking things of late has been the close relationship between students and teaching staff. I was initially surprised by the informal way that lecturers would stop and chat with students in the building, although I found it pleasant.
Instead of weekly extra sessions of classes on Fridays at the College of William and Mary, classes here have weekly or bi-weekly tutorial sessions in which a member of the teaching staff who doesn’t teach the class runs through homework problems or gives an extra session on a particularly difficult topic. Tutors for each class run their tutorials differently — my Irish tutor is particularly young and attends events like the St Andrews Fashion Show, while my Oxbridge tutor takes a very casual approach and organizes end-of-semester socials.
On the delightful date of Friday the 13th, the School of Physics and Astronomy Student-Staff council sponsored a late Burns supper and ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee), which was, fortunately, a black-tie affair. When we arrived, there were only a few of us there and my favorite Oxbridge tutor led the charge to the bar, where we got started for the night. After a short discussion of architecture and the like, we moved back to the main area where we took seats for dinner — the various academic staff members were taking seats among the students. Our table, composed of some fifth-year friends, associated students, the tutor and me, spent no time messing about. The tutor went and immediately bought two bottles of wine for the eight of us. After the traditional poem readings, we were treated to a wonderful dinner of haggis, neeps and tatties during which we discovered a favorite topic: bad movies. It seems that the College offers some things that St Andrews doesn’t – namely, the Kimball’s annual showing of “The Room.”
Dinner continued and the toast to the lassies was read, with the lassies’ reply being equally funny; the best reply was “a man is like a Swiss Army knife — theoretically has many functions, but spends most of its time opening bottles.” Once the overall program was complete, it was time for the ceilidh – a traditional Scottish dance. Ceilidhs are a ubiquitous part of life in St Andrews, with one being held every Friday and Saturday night. The dance floor ebbed and flowed, but at all times I noticed something striking: There was no awkwardness about students and staff having a fun night together. Just like at any dance, there were couples dancing closely together but this time in full view of their lecturers who treated it like what it was – absolutely natural. This sort of candidness, where students and staff have fun together into the late hours — even going to a bar together after the dance — is something that adds significantly to the learning experience. With the understanding that we’re all people, there’s no need to be intimidated by a professor, and as a result, everyone here treats each other as friends.