Image Description: A student studying from home at their desk.
When it comes to considering whether or not to continue work, Oxford is in a reasonably unique position as a UK university. Most other universities use their summer term exclusively for exams, and break up early. Even Cambridge students tend not to have much other than revision and exams in the summer term. But in Oxford, unless you’re doing your finals, Trinity means a full term of teaching.
I guess something similar is true in the US. Over there, I hear about professors simply passing all their students without doing a single piece of work. More commonly, stories float across the pond of vastly reduced work-loads, simplified content, and scrapping assessment. Oxford, however, did something very typical for Oxford—it continued full steam ahead.
It’s not a perfect solution. Even when we put the whole exam situation aside, there’re problems involved in continuing in the way Oxford has done. One of the biggest problems is that it exacerbates the inequalities latent in society and disproportionately affects the less well-off—those with intermittent WiFi, no peace, and family members to contend with.
But I would like to say a word in support of Oxford’s decision. In some ways, I think having work is positive. Oxford isn’t just burying its head in the sand. One small disclaimer before I do, however: although I think it’s good to have work, this is all subject to employing greater flexibility and compassion. I think that Oxford has done this, for the most part. Generally speaking, the tutorial and collegiate structure—and the more personal contact it entails—has provided students greater flexibility with their work, has made Oxford more understanding of personal difficulties, and has shown compassion to students and staff. But I acknowledge that this is not perfect, and there are still some harsh expectations unfairly disadvantaging students.
Oxford did something very typical for Oxford—it continued full steam ahead.”
Still, all-in-all, I think it was the right decision to go ahead with the term. Having work to do gives my week structure. Each day has meaning—and each day means something different. Otherwise, one day merges into the next and the weeks amble on by. Wednesday means tutorial; Sunday means reading for my philosophy essay; Saturday is my day off. This distinct meaning gives my days purpose, which is rewarding. Somehow, I feel like I’m living, not just surviving.
When I have work, expansive periods are broken down into manageable chunks. In astronomy, they speak of light-years. The Oxford equivalent, I guess, is essay weeks. At any given time, I don’t think about the potentially vast period in lockdown ahead of me. Instead, I just think about ending the essay week.
For me, I have two essays, due Tuesday and Wednesday evening. So on Wednesday evening/ Thursday morning, my mind resets. Suddenly I enter a new chapter, and the cycle starts again. This may seem like a groundhog day existence—where 95% of the time I’m saying “once this essay is over, it’s all going to be ok” and then enter the cycle again. But I find it’s quite the opposite: as a human, I need a balance between routine and novelty. If we have lockdown without work, however, routine crumbles out of existence. And with everything changing so rapidly, it’s nice to have a familiar structure in my life to cling onto—the remains of normality.
In astronomy, they speak of light-years. The Oxford equivalent, I guess, is essay weeks.”
There’s another benefit of living by the essay week (or problem sheet equivalent): you only have to worry about that week. It’s easy to submerge myself in the worries and thoughts and ideas of that week and its essays, and to avoid the crushing weight of the worries which extend for months ahead of us: lockdown, climate change, etc. I don’t want to think about how excruciating the process of extricating ourselves from this mess will be. Somehow, generalised quantifier theory is less painful.
A final point on routine: a structured week allows me to have a structured day. As I say, each day has its meaning and its purpose because of the essay week. When the task of writing an essay appears on my schedule, everything magically falls around it: exercise, family time, mealtime, sleep, chilling—even looking after my diabetes is easier with this structure.
Ultimately, cancelling work or term-time would have left us adrift. For a start, there would there be colossal uncertainties (when would we return? what would happen to the term of teaching we missed? do we get remunerated?) which would cause anxiety and discontent. But also, I for one wouldn’t have known what to do with myself for some time which—including Easter and Summer vac—would have extended for a vast 6 whole months.
Each day has its meaning and its purpose.”
Having term-time gives me a reason to regularly spend time with my friends, to engage in interesting ideas, to tune into the Oxford culture—even if via the internet. Imagine the loneliness and boredom of sitting at home for at least 3 months, maybe 6. In a way, I’m grateful to have an essay to procrastinate while writing this…