The Free University

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Lecture timetables are confusing. At least that’s my excuse for ending up in the second half of ELEC6021, a remarkable 2 hour seminar on the intricacies of Technical Report Writing in Electronics.

Staring bemusedly at the folded scrap of paper clutched in my right hand, I’m expecting a gentle 45 minute intro to Anthropology. This definitely isn’t that.

Imagine going back to school, except this time it’s on your terms. Turn up when you feel like it and only study your favourite subjects. Homework is optional, and the ill-fitting uniform they made you wear is buried deep in a closet back home.

With several thousand hours of teaching in over 70 subjects, taking place each week in hundreds of rooms across campuses, I set out to prove that it’s never been easier to wander into a lecture for a subject you don’t actually study, not because you have to but because you can.

The week starts badly.

The cool-sounding PHYS3005 (Lasers!) is in Semester 2, and I’ll have to wait a whole 4 months until I can successfully make my own WMDs in the kitchen, sell them to a rogue Arab state and pay off my student loan.

Leaving the empty lecture room, I have to make do with CHEM2013. Desperately recalling my GCSE Chemistry lessons goes little way in preventing brain-ache within the first 5 minutes. ‘Utterly clueless’ is an understatement.

But it’s not all bad news. Swotting up on the general eigenfunctions of Dx2 in a heady, hour-long orgy of quantum mathematics is the perfect way to make new and exciting friends, and an excellent conversation topic on nights out if bar-queue small-talk runs dry. (We know. We’ve tried it.)

Pass the handouts down the aisle tenderly, holding the gaze of the brace-faced Chemist next to you just long enough to watch her blush behind her glasses. Because nothing says ‘I love you’ like 42 slides on the applications of the Schrödinger Equation.

Second year Law is more interesting, but with an average rate of 3 new terminologies per minute, the wild world of Equity and Trust lawyers should have nothing to fear anytime soon.

There’s an enjoyable anecdote about Franciscan monks and the Crusades, but stealing lectures is tiring work and the University’s buildings have excellent heating…

Who knows? Nod off lying across three seats in the back row of the empty theatre and you could wake up wedged between a couple of friendly but bemused Chinese Economics students, trying their best to continue taking notes on their matching Mac Books, all the while pondering the identity of the mysterious intruder in their lecture.

It’s not all so grim. For your own weekly, intimate movie screenings look no further than FILM2002, especially if you’ve always thought that 1898 was the best year for French Silent Cinema.

Hungover from the night before? Recover to the dulcet tones of Charles Mingus whilst brushing up on your Jazz History every Friday morning in MUSI2021, if you’ve wanted to know your Bird from your Basie.

In an age of 50p pints and Freshers’ Flu, 100% attendance records are hard to come by. It’s inevitable: during the three or more years of your degree that lectures/seminars/tutorials/workshops/lab-time will be missed.

This is all well and good, but then degrees are expensive. In 2011/12, a year of teaching alone will cost you over £100 a week.

With the price tag of tuition rocketing and undergraduate places scarcer than ever, it’s a wonder that university education isn’t seen as the valuable commodity that it is.

Lecture notes and coursework sell for serious cash on sites like myessays.com. The aims of higher education, once based entirely on learning and social betterment, have changed considerably.

Now we go to university because we’re told it improves our employability and future salary. Genuine interest in a subject is an afterthought.

So, why study one subject when you could study seven? The argument is reminiscent of the American college system – an all-round, comprehensive approach to higher education, studying a small handful of subjects before ‘majoring’ in one of them.

Admittedly, nobody in their right mind would want to spend all day in lectures, but, if you wanted to, you could.

Sceptics need look no further than the late Apple co-founder, Steve Jobs, who dropped out of college after six months but stayed around campus for another year and a half, only attending (unofficially of course) the modules he was interested in.

One of these included a lecture in Calligraphy, a decision which Jobs himself described as “the best I ever made,” claiming in 2005:

If I had never dropped in on that single calligraphy course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.

With next to no security measures in place in the large majority of university buildings, the result is that anybody, student or not, could be sitting in on your lecture.

Many of us have walked into the wrong lecture before, only to turn away at the door when presented with a sea of unfamiliar faces and even more unfamiliar subject on the whiteboard, but how many of us have seen it as a potential career changer?

Loitering around a particular lecture theatre on a given day is probably your best bet for a bit of variety, potential subjects ranging from the mesmerising to the mind-numbing.

Modules descriptions can be deceptive however; so sit at the end of aisles, inches from the door, to ensure a quick getaway.

With lecture slots planned out with the logistical efficiency of a German chess tournament, good organisational skills are a must. Which is where the hallowed timetable comes in.

With every scheduled minute of teaching allocated to a different room with painstaking accuracy in order to avoid clashes and overlaps, the good people at Student Services have arranged all the timetable details for every subject at the University of Southampton by course code and module, in a user-friendly drop-down list, freely accessible to anyone with a Sussed login.

So, whether your degree is leaving you unfulfilled, or you just have a spare hour or two to kill in between your own lectures, the quest for extra knowledge is alive and well at the University of Southampton.

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