Leaving the Emptiness to Find Life Again: Finals and Beyond in 2020

Image description: Cardboard mortar board made from a box for Corona beer on a desk in a bedroom 

TL;DR: Sitting Finals at home wasn’t great, but that’s mainly because it felt like an empty, uneventful anti-climax, rather than it being unusually stressful or difficult academically. There are reasons to be grateful for finishing in 2020, given what younger students and school leavers will be facing, and even if they have had to change plans, most 2020 Finalists will still be able to move on to the next stage of life.

How do you describe 2020?

A disaster? A train wreck? An all-round omnishambles of a year? An unrelenting barrage of bad news that seems to only get worse just when you’re thinking that’s exactly what it couldn’t possibly do? An endless source of apocalyptic memes epitomising the dark humour characteristic of Gen Z’s online presence? The End?

In the words of Eminem, “a shitstain on the underwear of life”?

All of these are perfectly accurate descriptions which have gone through my mind intermittently throughout the year, as they’ve probably gone through yours, too. And yet, they somehow feel unsatisfying by themselves. They’re things we all already know and agree with, and that’s why saying them and hearing them yet again feels boring and lifeless. I won’t refrain from presenting 2020 as the unpleasant and difficult experience it’s been for me and so many others, particularly those sitting Finals during the pandemic. But I won’t focus completely on the bad parts either.

If you started reading this article looking for a rant about how it’s all bad and there’s no hope for the future, I’m sorry to say that that’s ultimately not what you’ll get, and it’d be better for your welfare to talk to someone about how you feel than to search the internet looking for someone to reflect your negative feelings back at you. So, without further preamble, let me share my experience of Finals in 2020, and the way it has influenced my outlook for the future.

Simply put, the first half of 2020 wasn’t much fun for me, or for any other Finalists. Having exams that would single-handedly decide the outcome of a four-year degree around the corner was bad enough. Add to that the strange experience of getting used to virtual learning and not having access to libraries and other learning resources in the usual way, and you’ve already got a pretty stressful mixture. Having messed up my collections in January, February to June this year was a job.

“The problem with lockdown and working from home is that it stops thoughts, ideas and feelings from being embodied in the world outside your head.”

Then there’s the human side of things. When I started at Oxford back in 2016 (brace yourself for political bias), I thought that that was a pretty depressing year (Brexit, Trump, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, David Bowie, Muhammed Ali, Harambe). Little did I know that nearly four years later my time at university would effectively be brought to a sudden and uneventful end three months earlier than expected and that I’d be sitting my Finals in my bedroom at home with none of the usual celebrations, nights out, special formals or Leavers’ Drinks events waiting for me at the end. Not even a graduation ceremony, which would be postponed until 2021.

Honestly, the worst part about the first half of this year was not the stress, the work or the exams themselves. Even when you account for the added difficulties caused by lockdown (e.g. library closure, virtual learning), these still only exaggerate the same stress everyone in every other year has faced. Even if you accept that sitting Finals in lockdown made the exams harder than in other years, which is debatable, given that many papers were cancelled or changed to reduce the volume of content and make them more manageable, not to mention the increased time allowances, Finals are and have always been a tough challenge for anyone doing them, at home or at university.

For me, what did make those months so difficult and so different from what any other cohort has ever had or, hopefully, will ever have to face was, in a word, emptiness, something everyone will have dealt with this year to some extent. I do not have a degree in philosophy, so bear with me as I attempt a long-winded philosophical explanation of why sitting Finals in the pandemic was crap.

Basically, as has been said by so many people by now, before COVID happened, people’s lives used to consist of going places, talking to others and going out into the world to do things. When you have contact with the outside world, be it a seminar in your tutor’s office, a sports match, a night out or a conversation with someone cutting your hair at the barber’s, thoughts and ideas don’t just float around by themselves as abstract and intangible things in your head. The contact with the outside world embodies these ideas and thoughts, it gives them a physical body outside your head which grounds them in your lived experience of the world around you. Because these feelings and ideas have a physical life in the world around you, you can move between them as you physically move between different places, talking to different people; you might feel deflated or tired after a tutorial in your tutor’s office, but then you walk to Hall and chat to your friends, which relaxes you, then you feel excited as you play sport, or go out, or both. Moving from one space to another marks a clear transition both in terms of what you’re doing and what you’re feeling. “Emotion” contains the word “motion,” and people talk about “feeling moved,” because that’s what emotions really are; movements of feelings, ideas and thoughts inside you that respond to and interact with the movements in the world outside you. This movement, a marked, tangible sense of transition from one emotional and physical space to the next, is what we truly mean when we talk about an “event,” a word which literally means “to come out” in Latin; when something happens, we say it “takes place.”

The problem with lockdown and working from home is that it stops thoughts, ideas and feelings from being embodied in the world outside your head. It shuts you away in your room, alone in the same space all day; it keeps thoughts and ideas completely abstract and traps them in your head, without other people or other places to give the things you think and feel any real, living and physical connection to the world around you.

This means you can’t move between different spaces to move between different thoughts and feelings in the same way as you normally would and, crucially, having virtual contact with others doesn’t really solve this problem. Clicking the mouse to close a tab in a browser to leave a class with your tutor on Teams doesn’t really feel like packing away your notes, getting up out of a chair and walking out of the door of their office. In the second case, you’d probably socialise briefly with the people you were in the class with for a few minutes, walk home, and then sit down at your desk or some other workspace like a café or a library to start some work. In the first case, you never leave the workspace, because you never entered it in the first place.

Whether you’re working, talking at a seminar, Zoom calling your friends or watching Netflix, you’re still in your room using your laptop, and the closest thing you have to the other people you would normally be interacting with as you do these different things are images on a screen, which, even as technology improves, don’t make you feel like you’re talking to other people because you know you’re talking to pictures, not people.

There is no “workspace,” because there is no “leisure space” or “social space”; everything is at home and solitary, and the fact you can’t move between different spaces and environments physically means you can’t move emotionally either. In other words, the movements and transitions that people are referring to when they talk about “events” just aren’t there.

“For me, what did make those months so difficult and so different from what any other cohort has ever had or, hopefully, will ever have to face was, in a word, emptiness…”

Ultimately, doing Finals in lockdown was bad not because it was stressful, however stressful it was, but mainly because, quite simply, nothing ever happened. When I finished my last Prelims exam three years ago, I handed in the paper, walked out of the special Finisher’s Exit at Exam Schools onto Merton Street, found my friends, got covered in prosecco, confetti and shaving foam, and proceeded to get pissed with them for several nights in a row.

Those exams didn’t even count towards my final degree, but there was an immense, tangible sense of closure on a great year of university. I had moved on a regular basis between stress in my room preparing for them and adrenaline in the exam hall and finally transitioned to joy with my friends at the pub afterwards. I felt sad about leaving College because the end of my first year took place.

The end of my fourth year, quite literally, did not take place. At the end of my last exam in my living room, I uploaded a PDF of my answers and received an automated email notification saying that the file had been successfully received. I did, of course, feel a sense of relief from the stress, and I was very glad to have finished. But, even as my family trashed me in the garden, the overwhelming feeling was a mixture of confusion, detachment and disbelief. No wave of joy washed over me, no great sense of closure, no pang of nostalgia for the good times I had had at university over the past four years.

About 20 minutes after I finished my last exam, I was playing on the Xbox in that same room like nothing had changed because, in a way, it felt like not much had. Obviously, I didn’t have exams hanging over me anymore, and I was happy not to be doing work. But I didn’t feel like I was “leaving university,” because I’d done this physically three months before, and the people and places that had made university what it was for me hadn’t been in my life in any real sense for three months.

University hadn’t ended, because “university” hadn’t happened since Hilary in the first place, and, though Oxford is currently not in a position to change this, an electronic degree confirmation letter does not feel the same as a photo of you with your parents at your graduation ceremony. For all that Finals were over, there was a lot of continuity in life immediately before and after them. I still spent most of the day at home in my room, going for the occasional walk, but using my laptop for YouTube and Netflix instead of work. I even started reading again pretty soon after.

If you’ll excuse the military metaphor, more than any image of pain, sadness or struggle, working to the end of my exams this year felt like finally calling an official ceasefire on a war I’d already stopped fighting a long time before anyway.

For all the weirdness of 2020, writing this in September has helped me put the experience of Finals this year in perspective. Disappointing as it was not to leave university in the usual way, I doubt anyone at Oxford has been in anything like the position that people doing their A-Levels and GCSEs this year have faced. What’s more, we still got to go through university the normal way until the last three months. We still got to spend three years jeopardising our degrees by frequenting the high-brow establishments of Bridge, Park End, Plush and bops.

This could be good or bad depending on who you are and what you enjoy, but incoming freshers will be the first generation for over a decade who will not know the glory of the Cheese Floor, the Bridge smoking area or £1 Jägerbombs at Plush until at least their second year or later, whenever clubs re-open. Our hearts should also go out to the Deans, who will have their work cut out for them clearing up corridor parties and the like.

Sorry to be that guy, but when you think about what school leavers and GCSE students have faced this year, our prospects moving forward as a cohort really hasn’t been that bad in comparison. True, lots of jobs have been cancelled, and this is the worst year for a long time, perhaps ever, to be entering the workforce. It’s also easily the worst year ever to be doing your A-Levels, however, and one benefit common to applying for both jobs and postgraduate degrees is that it’s easier to sort something out at the last minute or change plans than it is when you’re in Sixth Form applying for undergrad.

“We will leave the emptiness behind and live our lives again.”

Despite the impression you’d get from most graduate employment events at uni, most job applications don’t revolve around the same prescriptive milk round structure as UCAS applications, and most people don’t actually get their jobs through the summer internship cycle promoted by big corporates. The reality is that most of the time people get jobs through spontaneous opportunities that can’t be predicted with any real certainty, so if you can’t find anything now, that doesn’t mean that the same will necessarily be the case in a couple of months’ time.

Even if worst comes to worst and you end up unemployed for a while, you’re still an Oxford grad, and you can still use the Career Service’s Alumni Access to get advice from experienced careers advisors about what to do next.

When it comes to postgrad degrees, there’s also a lot of flexibility. Instead of having one deadline in January like UCAS, deadlines for Master’s degree applications vary depending on the university you apply to, but they’re universally later than the January deadline for people applying for UCAS. In fact, a lot of them don’t even lapse until mid-August just before the courses start, by which time most people will have received their degree results, and will know whether or not their original plans could go ahead job-wise if they did not plan on further study originally.

Many departments at Oxford actually re-opened their windows for Master’s applications after the exam cycle to allow for people who had had to change plans to apply for further study. Although many people’s original plans can’t go-ahead for the moment, there are always alternatives, and those alternatives are easier to find if you’ve already finished your undergraduate degree than if you’re finishing school and you’ve missed out on the university you wanted to go to.

All in all, it’s been an odd and difficult year, one which nobody could have predicted. We’ve graduated at a time more uncertain than any other in recent memory. But there are still upsides to finishing now rather than later, and, with some perseverance, finding jobs and/or postgraduate degree places is a less thankless task than re-sitting your A-Levels or going into the last year of them having missed four months of school. Conveniently, the Eminem quote earlier on came from a song called ‘Won’t Back Down.’

How would I describe 2020?

To be honest, more than anything it’s been empty. But the worst has been and gone, and we will soon reach a stage where we can move on with our lives, even if this will not happen in quite the way we intended. We will leave the emptiness behind and live our lives again.

Picture credit: Joe Rattue