Jason Cobb (1990-3. B.A.)

I arrived at Essex in The autumn of 1990. The Berlin Wall was falling, Thatcher was about to be toppled and Nottingham Forest would reach the FA Cup Final that very same season.

“Historically there has never been a better time to study sociology,”

…declared Professor Ken Plummer during his introduction to Sociological Analysis I, the Thursday morning mainstay for any Essex sociological undergraduate.

He wasn’t wrong.

Within days I was thrust into a brutal rent strike against the POWERS of the University. The origins of the uprising have become a little lost in Essex legend. The rallying call was the forceful eviction of Swamp Thing, a third year Comrade who claimed that he was being brutally abused by the University Senate.

The reality was that Swamp Thing was a little smelly and had allegedly stolen some cheese from his fellow Comrades on campus.

The rent strike collapsed overnight. The Student Union padlocks were cut  from entrance to the Lecture Theatre Block where we had held an overnight lock in for Mr. Swamp Thing. Three hours later and Professor Plummer was delivering his introduction to modern Marxism.

Welcome to Essex, Comrades.

Having failed to make the great leap forward with Swamp Thing, my attention soon turned towards my new department.

Essex was THE place to study sociology in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. I knew this because my A Level tutor was a graduate, and routinely went misty-eyed when dismissing Durkheim and suicide to tell her students about her life-changing Essex experience.

The fool, I thought.

Whatever was wrong with a classical education at a traditional red brick University?

I remember receiving my Little Red Essex Book, the departmental manifesto, outlining the course options that were available. I was in awe of names such as Lockwood, Gilroy and Thompson. They only existed in the Appendix for Giddens’ soc-lite white bible.

Yet here they were, walking around campus and inviting me to attend cosy classes and discussions in their back room warrens buried away towards the back of Square 3.

Or was it Square 4? I remain convinced that I attended everything but sociological teachings during that first term.

Which wasn’t too far from the truth.

My major disappointment during that first year as a sociology undergraduate was that sociology only counted for a quarter of the curriculum. The fluffy Faculty of Social Science dictated with an iron fist that computer science, linguistics and government had to form part of my learning.

I remain convinced that Losing an Empire, Finding a Role was more of a publishing sales pitch than genuine undergraduate political theory.

No worries.

My DIY ethos was found at Essex. The idea of re-launching the lapsed Essex Sociology Society was floated. I was somehow enlisted as the Treasurer.

I dreamt that the job description would involve writing out cheques to cover the expenses of the UK’s leading sociological thinkers as we invited them along to stimulate sociological debate on campus.

But the department already employed the UK’s leading sociological thinkers. The last thing they wanted to do was to put in some unpaid overtime to address a campus society that was noting but a ruse for swindling the student union out of some booze funds.

I resigned my position in protest when the Soc Soc launched with a Cowboys and Indians themed party (FFS) at the abysmal Level 2 bar. It was almost enough to make an undergraduate to return to Durkheim and his dark thoughts.

My study became slightly more serious in the second year. FOUR dedicated sociological courses in which to choose from. I had finally finished reading Losing an Empire by this point.

Most of my third year was swallowed up with dissertation writing / trips back and forth to the Fair City to watch Forest.

My dissertation itself was truly dreadful. I foolishly focussed on the Sociology of Football. It did open doors later for me though to carry out postgrad research at the dedicated football department at the University of Leicester.

It wasn’t really until my final term at Essex that I began to realise how tribal the Sociology Department was at the time. You had the oral history tradition placing a tape recorder in front of anyone who had a story to tell; the criminologists were on the rise, whilst there was also a bonkers brief flirtation with post-modernism.

I remember attending a class with Bryan Turner where we sat down and watched an entire episode of Twin Peaks. No introduction, no explanation at the end. See you next week, space cadets.  Don’t forget your black polar necks.

Where’s Weber and class, status and party when you need him? Probably too busy enjoying yet another Cowboys and Indians themed party.

A bout of shingles coincided with the sitting of my finals. I was allowed to take my exams in glorious isolation. My Essex perspective had shifted from the grand theories of the decline of the totalitarian state to a more phenomenological theory concerning my own well-being.

I somehow managed to escape Essex [ha!] with a slightly wobbly 2:1.

I remember the departmental Head helpfully explaining:

“You had a strong case for a high 2:2, but we quite like you. Here, have a 2:1 and don’t even think about applying for postgrad funding.”

Ta very much.

I boycotted the graduation ceremony as a collective act of defiance against The Establishment, and as a protest at the failure of Forest to win the FA Cup Final.

No other Comrades joined me in my actions.

Critical theory and the need to question EVERYTHING remains the overriding Essex legacy for me. This has probably held me back over the years, but it has also enabled me to live the life that I want to.

I still see some of those legendary sociology figures walking around Wivenhoe, slightly frail, but still fighting the fight.

I think.

“Historically there has never been a better time to study sociology,”

…declared Professor Ken Plummer, before then playing Is That All There Is to conclude Soc Analysis I.

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