Academics and identity in the face of the coronavirus pandemic

Image Description: Students receiving A-level results

“You’re so smart!” Those were the words that characterised my years at school, particularly during GCSEs and A-Levels. Although these words were well-intentioned, constantly being called smart led me to internalise that label, and to define myself by that characteristic. Being academic became my identity, and something that I thought was very important to me. By coming to Oxford, I found myself pursuing perhaps the most academic path that I could at this stage in my life. Studying at Oxford is a privilege that I will always be grateful for, but I have often found myself pondering the huge gap that there seems to be between Oxford and the ‘real world’. The fact that we aren’t allowed a job in term time and are discouraged from getting one in the vacations is just a small indication of the academic Oxford bubble.

At Oxford, we are expected to treat our study as a full-time job. In one of our introduction talks, I distinctly remember being told by my college’s Senior Tutor that being able to study at Oxford was an opportunity which we should grasp while we could, and that, while we should still socialise and engage in other activities, these would be available to us at other points in our lives. A perfectly reasonable point to make, but a clear message that academia does trump all at Oxford. In this sense, our lives should, first and foremost, be defined by our academics. I have, at times, found myself frustrated by this. When I see my friends at other universities seemingly enjoying a better balance between work and life, I wonder why Oxford feels the need to work us so hard. Ultimately, I can mitigate this frustration by thinking about the amazing memories that I already have from the university and looking forward to all the memories that I will make throughout the rest of my degree. However, I still cannot escape from the fact that the Oxford workload does feel absurd at times, and the level which we are constantly expected to maintain can feel superhuman. Whenever this thought creeps into my head during term time, I find myself questioning my identity as ‘academic’. I think that if I am supposedly so academic, I should always be thriving at one of the most academic places in the world. If I don’t see the need to constantly be working at the level that the university is demanding, do I really belong here at all?

This self-questioning has worsened during the coronavirus pandemic, making me, at times, feel seriously alienated from the academic person I thought I was.

My first instinct when I realised the severity of the pandemic was that, at least for freshers like me, the rest of our work should be cancelled, or we should simply be given reading lists to prepare ourselves for next year. I didn’t, and still don’t, see the need to try and work to the level we would in Oxford by ourselves at home. The intensity of the Oxford workload is only achievable within the context of the Oxford life. As cliched as it sounds, I would argue that the term ‘Work Hard, Play Hard’ is the maxim of life in term time, and I don’t think I would have been able to complete my work or even stay at Oxford for the past two terms without the much-needed breaks and spontaneity that always being around friends provides. When I lay these feelings out on paper, I do wonder if I should be feeling this way. Surely a ‘proper’ Oxford student would want to pursue their subject under whatever conditions, and their passion would propel them to learn regardless? However, the pandemic has seriously made me reconsider my priorities. I find myself unable to sit down and work, seeing more value in talking to friends and family, finding isolation activities that I really enjoy or just simply relaxing. I am finding it hard to come to terms with the fact that, apart from the welcome cancellation of exams, next term will likely go ahead in the same way as the previous two terms, albeit online. Even though I do have a college collection at the start of term, I am still unable to focus on work or motivate myself to buckle down. I feel frustrated that, in the face of this global pandemic, and despite what I do believe are genuine words of concern from college and university staff, the university still hopes to operate on terms which are as close to normal as possible, including the prioritisation of academics over everything.

As well as feeling paralysed by the prospect of working through this, I find myself questioning the point of academia at all, and particularly questioning the true value of my humanities degree.

When the world experiences a crisis like this, it highlights the roles which are most important in society, and that is those of key workers: the delivery drivers, supermarket workers, postal workers, policemen, care workers, nurses, doctors and researchers. Apart from the final three, none of these roles requires the intense education that Oxford values above anything else. I question why my degree is apparently so valuable when I could be making much more of an impact in my community right now by being in any of these roles instead. It seems that, under normal circumstances, society lays a certain unjustified superiority upon those who are highly educated. An advanced education means nothing if we can’t help out when the world needs it most. Naturally, nurses, doctors and researchers do require a formal education, but not one in the humanities. Science drives world development, something which I knew before, but which has become abundantly clear during this crisis, as we lean on scientific expertise to understand the virus and find ways to overcome it. In light of all this, I question what value me or my education could ever truly bring to society. Why is my academic ability of any significance when it seems utterly useless in situations like this?

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted me to wonder whether I was ever chasing the right path, and I have found myself thinking a lot about where my life is going. I want to live a life that feels meaningful and, right now, I am struggling to find that meaning in my academics. The question of whether academia is still a central part of who I am and who I want to be is something that I can only answer myself. For me, science was never something I was interested in pursuing further. My life always centred around the arts and humanities and I know that there is value in them. They provide us with much-needed respite in these tricky times, and I have always believed that the humanities are key in aiding us to develop analytical viewpoints and critical thinking, so I wonder why, despite this knowledge, I now grapple with whether my study is important or not. However, I am determined not to punish myself for feeling this way. Being in the midst of a global crisis throws up so many issues which none of us could ever have expected to face and so never would have thought we needed to be equipped to deal with. It is perfectly normal to feel alienated from an identity which may have felt so secure in normal life because none of this is normal. Eventually, we will come out of the other side of this, and it will be important for me to rediscover the security I had in my academic self and to reconnect with my love for studying the humanities. I have no doubt, however, that my sense of identity will be changed in some way, and I will have a different view of the world, but that doesn’t have to be a negative thing. We should try to see the potential in any kind of personal change and view it as positive growth instead of a hindrance. I’m sure that, along with myself, many of my peers will also take valuable lessons and new perspectives from this pandemic, as the world at large will too.

Photo Credit: Untitled – City of Stoke on Trent Sixth Form College.