Page last updated at 11:07 GMT, Friday, 19 June 2009 12:07 UK

The value of a hobby

Balloons
Exotic hobbies are not always necessary

Perhaps wowing interviewers with your array of hobbies is not all that important after all, muses Laurie Taylor in his weekly column.

"Tell me Janice, why do you want to study sociology?"

I'd already asked five other applicants for an undergraduate place at York the same question that morning so I wasn't exactly hanging on the answer.

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Just as well really. For although the sixth-former now occupying the interview chair in my office at least looked as though she recognised the question, she still delivered nothing more than the sort of stock reason which had no doubt been recommended by her school careers advisor.

"Well," she said slowly, "I've always been interested in people."

My fellow interviewer, a grumpy and overweight senior lecturer who'd never shown any interest whatsoever in any other person than himself, signalled his dissatisfaction with a grunt.

But I persisted. "So, Janice what exactly interests you about people?"

The candidate clearly hadn't been trained to expect a follow-up question. She once more found herself distracted by the tips of her sensible interview shoes.

I tried to help out. "Are you interested in their differences? Or perhaps their similarities?"

Janice looked up with a sudden show of certainty. "Their differences," she said. "Good," I said with an encouraging smile. "And what sort of differences?"

I hoped against hope that she'd come up with some sort of answer so that my fellow interviewer would have to credit my line of questioning. But this was clearly a step too far. The silence began to stretch.

Janice looked for all the world as though she'd been suddenly asked to pontificate on the finer points of Kantian epistemology

"Differences in clothes?" I suggested helpfully. "Differences in style? Differences in class?" In court, they'd have called it leading the witness.

"All sorts of differences," said Janice hopefully. My co-interviewer snorted again.

And even though it was the end of a long morning's interviewing I was suddenly overcome by the feeling that I must somehow rescue this young woman from her extreme inarticulacy, somehow find a way in which she could, if not sparkle, at least emit a faint glow of comprehension or intelligence.

I quickly scanned her application form. Perhaps there was something here which would give the lie to her present inadequacy. But it was all purely routine.

A list of O-level successes and A-level aspirations and a reference from a headmaster which spoke of Janice as a "moderate to high achiever" who "had not always lived up to her potential but who was now gaining in maturity" and "could be expected to make the most of a university opportunity". I suspected on the basis of these cliches that even I was already more familiar with Janice than her own headmaster.

Interview
Interviews can be harrowing experiences for many

I flipped over the page. Perhaps there'd be some meat for me to gnaw on in the "Hobbies" section. What did Janice get up to in her spare time? Yes, here it was. Hobbies. And there, in her neat rounded slightly backward sloping hand, Janice had written "Brass Rubbing".

"Right," I said, as though I'd been totally satisfied by her analysis of social differences, "let's move on. I see that your hobby is brass rubbing. What interests you about brass rubbing?"

Janice looked for all the world as though she'd been suddenly asked to pontificate on the finer points of Kantian epistemology. Her face, which had never shown much more than a flicker level of animation throughout the interview, now assumed a total blankness.

I checked the form again. Had I misread her hobby? No, it was as plain as a pike-staff. I tried again. "Where do you do your brass rubbing?"

Bitter confession

Janice shuffled. Was she deciding between a range of cathedral tombs? Not at all. She looked up and I could see tears forming in her eyes.

"I don't do it anywhere," she said sadly. And then, almost as though she knew that matters could not get any worse, she poured out her bitter confession.

"I don't even know what it is. I don't know what brass rubbing is. But when we were filling in the UCCA form, our teacher said that we all had to have a hobby but when she asked the other girls in the class what their hobbies were no-one, except someone who did cooking at home, had a hobby.

"So the teacher had this list of hobbies like watching birds and collecting stamps and brass rubbing and she gave us one hobby each and I got brass rubbing."

"So you don't have a hobby of your own?" I asked gently. Janice was now in her stride. "No. I've never had a hobby. My mum and dad always told me I should have a hobby. But I never wanted a hobby. I had too many other things to do to bother with a hobby. You had to do hobbies by yourself. I didn't want to do that."

"Why?" I almost whispered. "Because," Janice was now leaning forward, and even my grumpy co-interviewer was paying attention, "because, because, like I told you. Because I'm interested in people."

I'm pleased to say Janice now lectures in sociology at a North East university.


Below are a selection of your comments.

Even though we think we have no hobbies, we all have something, even if it hasn't registered in the conscious mind. I did painting and animation, running, badminton etc, then as I became older and have a better half and son, my hobbies changed to washing, drying and ironing. Media news criticism (in my mind). Professional moaner, meal maker, public transport waiter (professional), child instructor, family psychologist, film critic (in my mind).
Peter Hagan, Liverpool, UK

Poor Janice! Like so many other A-level and GCSE students in school now, they're told what they should and shouldn't do, not only in terms of their learning but even their interests and their preferences outside of class. I wonder if the "hobbies" part of the modern schoolchild is stuffed full of things that pushy parents now insist on?
Heather, Willenhall, UK

One of my hobbies is historical re-enactment. Many weekends throughout the summer are spent off and about the country attending events with a car packed with kit. Coming home on Sunday always involves a stop for dinner at a motorway services. I'm generally looking shattered and a bit smelly, and I glance around at the other people coming back from their fun weekends with their trail-bikes and their banger-racing cars and their dinghies, and there is a sort of shared understanding - we are the class of people who make the most out of weekends, have an awesome fun time and live life to the fullest. Everyone else is missing out.
Alex, Dorset

The dangers of declaring a hobby is that may separate you in the eyes of some from the "normals" who think they run society. The dangers of not having a hobby is that you may be seen to lack the will to be a team player (my kingdom for a new phrase) nor communication skills. My hobby (pastime, interest, absorption, obsession, certifiability, whatever) is the history and development of London, but that started from collecting bus numbers (the next one who says "anorak" is history) but becoming more interested in where the buses went, then why. A hobby is a starting point; the blind (those who do not share the interest) never see beyond that. My life and work grew from my interests, my friends from those interests and my family's occasional despair too.
Joel Kosminsky, London, Britain

Have we therefore in Janice a poorly educated person from a wretched school who has in this value-free modern world scraped through to become a lecturer, or have we just too great an expectation of late adolescents on the threshold of Higher Education? I suspect we are meant to think it is the second of these.
John, Edinburgh

Hobbies are not just designated activities but things that you enjoy spending your leisure time doing. This girl obviously had lots of things that she did spend her time doing, but no-one had encouraged her to give them any value by including them on her application. It just shows what an outdated and misunderstood word hobby is.
Toomanyhobbies, Leeds



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