I read this article today, and it struck a chord with me. In a nutshell, the article discusses why the author finds himself attracted to institutions – drawing on his childhood as a Prison Governor’s son, growing up within prison walls, to time spent at boarding school and University, and how the structure provided by these institutions oppose the freelance lifestyle he now lives.
I can relate a lot to what he says. I’ve always been one for structure – whilst not always following it religiously, I’ve always liked that fact that it’s there. I know where I have to be and when, and at the end I can evaluate how well I followed it with handy things like exams. This is why I thrived within education – particularly University – and part of why I often find being self-employed quite difficult and very stressful. This need for structure is also why I always think that, if it hadn’t become so expensive, I would like to go back to University. It’s not the best reason, but, when you think about it, a student lifestyle seems like one of the best.
I became institutionalised particularly quickly at Keele and I don’t think this is something that applies only to me. It’s one of those places which welcomes you in with open arms, but then never really wants to let you leave. It provides everything you really want or need all neatly situated within one campus which is a bus-ride (and therefore, too much effort) away from any other civilization, with ready-made friends and beer on tap – and it came at a point where that was exactly what I needed.
During my final year at school I’d become tired of everything there. Due to issues with friends and a recent family bereavement which had basically left me a depressed insomniac, I traded school for staying in bed. I managed to teach myself what I needed to know for the exams, and passed with B grades which got me into Keele University.
I was lucky to make friends pretty much instantly, and settled into student life possibly too well. I realise that, had I not been fortunate enough to bump into the initial group of guys who took me in, it could have been a much different experience for me, and I probably would have ended up coming home, but, the thing with Keele is that you don’t generally hear any stories about that happening. Everyone becomes so involved and connected so early on that it’s very difficult not to feel bonded to the institution. I was nothing to do with the administration – everyone hated the way the university was run – but the attitude of the students, lecturers and union outweighed any ill-feeling caused by those in charge.
The slogan for Keele is Love:Keele. I spent 4 years at Keele and I did love them, I made friends whom (I hope) I’ll keep for the rest of my life, and some who just made an appearance to make those 4 years awesome. But the connections made aren’t the thing that tempts me back towards education (I already have these friends), it’s the lure of deadlines, and lectures, and societies – needing to be places and making a difference by being there – to your own life or other people’s; of completing a piece of work and receiving feedback on it, constructive criticism and a grade and of discussing and arguing an opinion with people who aren’t afraid to tell you they think you’re wrong, and offer reasons which might change your mind.
I know so many people who started with me who are still there, 7 years later – they all have their own reasons for not wanting to leave, but I think that if you don’t get out within a certain time-period, you may as well resign yourself to staying for the long-haul. Even those who didn’t stay on as students got jobs within the union. Why would you want to leave when everything you could want is right there?
Being self-employed is pretty much the polar opposite of all the things I loved about University. The social aspect of an institution like university or being employed is immediately removed, and with it goes the potential for discussion or constructive feedback. Clients are able to tell you what they like or don’t like, but will very rarely offer a differing opinion or suggestions of what might work – after all, that’s *your* job.
It also removes any structure from your day. Unless you have arranged meetings, you’re pretty much free to use your time however you want. Whilst at first this is incredibly liberating, it becomes harder and harder to organise your time effectively and, more importantly, ever feel like you’re finished. I’ll often sit working until midnight because I don’t know when to switch off. There’s no clocking off at 5.30pm – I get calls from clients as late as 10pm – even on weekends – and my email never stops pinging at me from my phone.
So what is the appeal of institutional life? Security, certainly. Working as a freelancer can feel precarious at best… there is an enviable allure to working in an organisation, having a salary and knowing whatever money you are paid is yours to spend and doesn’t have to be subdivided to meet income tax or VAT bills. – Patrick Gale
I find myself dreaming about being back at Uni or in a job, told what to do and when to do it for, and just getting on with it. Going home at the end of the day and not thinking about it until 9am the next morning. If I went back to university I’d still leave all of my coursework to the last minute, and sleep through all my morning lectures. I know that the reality would never match up to the expectations I build up in my head that going back to the organisation, structure and grading would solve all my problems. But I still enjoy the idea of it – while Patrick Gale confesses his obsession with ‘nun novels’, I continue to watch ‘Greek’ over and over again.
The appeal and the reality of the combined structure and lack of responsibility that student life offers are very different things, and, while they add to your life experience at the right time, they can prevent you from experiencing things that might be so much better. If I’d never have left Keele, I wouldn’t have met the guy I’m with, I wouldn’t have moved to the town I love living in, I wouldn’t have met firm friends who I rely on daily. I would probably still be complaining about my lecturers and heading to the weekly rock club social as people around me moved on with their lives.