Almost four years ago, as a quintessentially naive fresher, I wrote an article in response to the news that St Andrews had received top-five rankings for student satisfaction in three major university review publications. Imbued with the sort of dogged self-belief which only a first-year can be, I argued that satisfaction was a dubious and relative concept; that potentially, universities should look to inspire dissatisfaction as an ostensible “way forward”.
The intense hypocrisy of the article I wrote about student satisfaction, of course, was that when I wrote it, I was ceaselessly in pursuit of the concept I was arguing was insubstantial. Like many first year students, I was enlivened to the numerous pleasures of university life, and, probably envisioning myself as some sort of Epicurean pin-up girl, I set out to acquaint myself with as many of them as possible.
As fate and perhaps karma would have it, I have experienced a significant amount of dissatisfaction in my time here, and this seems to be par for the course as far as university life goes. I don’t know many final-year students who are not a little more bruised, a little more battered, than they were when they first showed up to St Andrews. But a little batter is not all bad, and I should know, because I used to work in a fish and chip shop.
In my earlier article I suggested that “satisfaction” was a shallow goal; I still think this, although of course universities should be aiming to satisfy their students. “Student satisfaction” as a criterion of assessment encompasses a great deal more than just whims and seasonal desires. As a side note, if you didn’t already know, the University of St Andrews claimed the top spot in the 2018 National Student Survey. Whether we like to admit it or not, our university is an institution which, as a rule, really does prioritise the welfare of its students, and thoroughly deserves this achievement.
It’s natural to want to be satisfied, but satisfaction is a transient feeling which offers very little which is grounding or stabilising. Careening between different satisfying experiences is not, for most people, a viable way to live, and deliberately avoiding instances of dissatisfaction – boredom, frustration, ennui – can occlude the possibility of positive experiences which are more enduring and worthwhile.
Until quite recently, I was under the impression that doing something for “posterity” meant doing something that as a wizened old lady I would be glad to say that I had done – documenting a particularly memorable experience with a photo or a journal entry, for example, or making the effort to take part in something, all in the name of the making and preserving of memories. How wrong I realised I had been when I learned that “posterity” is actually defined as “all future generations of people”. As millennial as I am sure I am in some ways, I am not so narcissistic that I would assume “all future generations of people” would find much value in a mirror selfie I took before Welly Ball because I thought I looked quite nice.
I doubt I am the only one, however, who has come to the wrong understanding of the word. (Or at least, I hope I’m not, otherwise this article is pretty much redundant). Maybe it’s a result of the pervasive influence of social media, which has without a doubt capitalised on the possessive, nostalgic lens through which we are inclined to view the present. Dichotomously, platforms like Instagram suggest to us that it is just as easy and important to be able to discard memories as it is to preserve them, encouraging us to curate and to cull as we see fit. There is something problematically artificial about this, because we cannot ever really “keep” moments, and we also cannot really rid ourselves of them. Trying to say anything new about the insincerity of social media can seem like an exercise in futility, however, and can also feel a bit alarmist: there is such a thing as taking things too seriously.
A week or so ago I was discussing with a friend how strange it felt to be so rapidly approaching “the end”: with graduation just a few weeks away, “posterity” – in its misunderstood definition – has been on my mind a lot. How best to honour things that have passed? Is it even necessary to honour them at all? My expectation, when reaching purported “milestones”, or pivotal endings, is always that I will intuitively know how to face them. On the day of graduation, I will don that sweaty black gown and I will not even notice that I am sweaty, so consumed will I be with the gravity of it all, the fact that I am leaving behind this fraught and full chapter of my life, the four long years, the coastal air, the hundreds of pounds spent on Zest lattes, the heroic treks to the gym, the apologetic office hours, the Kinnessburn ducks, wandering around Tesco in hot and indecisive pursuit of snacks, the pints and pints of tears shed, that time of year when the air loses its bite and spring feels close, the castle after dark, the fear, the openness and the skies, the laughter, and all the joy. In reality, this is probably unrealistic. My conclusions are never as succinct as I’d like them to be.