“But what do you do all day?” – an insight into the life of a humanities student

Often, my scientist friends will quizzically ask this question. To them, the idea of having lectures, or rather, or rather lectures which you can miss and still competently complete your degree, seems as unfathomably as say, the origins of the universe. Every day they trot off to their various departments, and every day I wake up and contemplate what reading I’ll do.

I study Classics, and I’ve passed my moderations, which means I now, for the most part, write two weekly essays; ready for my two hours of contact time a week. This is what I have done for the past three terms, and will continue to do for the next two.

It must seem frightening, I suppose, if you’re still used to a more structured timetable, to imagine that weirdly empty day ahead, where five days a week you only have to do your required reading and that’s ‘all.’ But honestly, I think sometimes the humanities student would love to have a tad more contact time; often we try to work in groups, or in public places, in an attempt to feel more connected. It’s incredibly easy for us to only work in our rooms, and thus not leave at all. I’ve taken up hobbies, like The Oxford Student, partly to give myself some things to do outside of college.

A typical day for me is really what I want to make of it. I usually wake up naturally, although this lack of routine, of a typical bedtime or wake up time, can be very inconvenient. Waking up I often work in bed, something I might add that is perhaps typical to me (what can I say it’s just so comfy), but recently I’ve taken to working in the library with a ‘buddy’ so I don’t feel quite so isolated.

The thing is – and this is something that perhaps needs clarifying – humanities students do actually have quite a lot of work to do. Our reading never ends, and it can take two to three days before the essay even gets started.

It can become quite repetitive, day in day out, reading for one essay, and then the next one…

Nowadays, after what I believe is my 82nd essay, I’ve gotten into quite a routine with the actual composition, and most of my essays only take me two and half hours to three hours to write. It’s the note-taking and reading which lasts the longest.

But when you’re a fresher, perhaps a History or English student, and it’s the first time you encounter this style of learning, it can take hours and hours, days upon days, to write a 2000-word masterpiece (or even just something passable) and it usually takes several terms to whittle it down until you know your pattern.

We all work differently, there is no one generic way of learning or remembering your reading, and so often the reading you do doesn’t even apply to the essay you write. It’s only when you get to the end of term and have to revise for the upcoming collections that the information you’ve been pouring over actually comes together.

And then there’s the constant to and fro library trips, desperately hoping that 1) what you need to read is online, 2) that the college library has it, and 3) that no-one else has taken it out. There is a sort of unwritten assumption that even though the request system is there, you don’t actually use it.  Instead, you patiently wait until two terms time when someone might actually return it, by which point you’ve completely forgotten about have written about 10 essays since.

It can become quite repetitive, day in day out, reading for one essay, and then the next one, and then the next one.

I love my tutorials. I love actually going to talk about the learning I’ve up until then done independently. The thing is, we actually have a lot of work, it’s just that we all have to learn to live with our own company when doing it. The enjoyment of actually talking about what you’ve read is a joy in itself.

For me, humanities subjects do have their upsides: you get to lie in, you get to organise your time more how you want to, and you can go for coffee in the middle of the day without any fear of timetable clashes. But what you can’t do,is get straight answers, and often the majority of our days are spent alone, reading source after source, trying to understand a topic that there is no simple ‘yes or no, case closed’ type of explanation.

Humanities, I suppose, do teach you to be self-motivated and independent, but they also leave you with a lack of unity, and cohesion as a year group. Most scientists I know have plenty of outside of college friends they meet during their labs or lectures. But for those of us who only really need a book to learn, opportunities for this kind of socialization are much less frequent.

I wouldn’t say the humanities life is particularly better or worse than scientists have it; it’s just very different.

Image credit: Francesca Whitfield