Image description: two students at work, 2021 (colourised).
The screen stares at you, accusingly. The clock ticks, accusingly. In the morning, your scout will come in to find you slumped over your desk with coffee stains on your t-shirt and they will look at you, accusingly, and will ask, accusingly, if they should empty your bin, which is full of scrunched up paper, meal deals, and your broken hopes and dreams. Welcome to a typical Monday in Oxford, the city that never sleeps for more than three hours without missing its tutorial.
The question is how you got here. Ironically, a question got you here. An essay question. It wasn’t a very difficult essay question. You could easily wrap your head about the question once you finally looked at it. You’re not dumb – you’re lazy instead!
That’s why you’re here again, hating yourself, your subject and all of humankind. But now a task faces you. You have twelve hours. You’ve read nothing; you’ve written nothing; the last time you thought on the spot was when you decided what to have for lunch, and that took you 15 minutes. Your tutor demands a suitable number of letters on the page by morning.
Luckily for you, I, the laziest man in Oxford*, have ample experience in this department. In fact, this article was written in full crisis mode, thirty minutes before the deadline (dear editors, forgive me, as you always do). You’re having an essay crisis – so why not learn from an expert?
*For internship procurement purposes, this is a joke**.
**As, funnily or unfunnily enough, is everything in this article. It’s satirical. Trust me. No, really.
STAGE ONE: OVERCOMING THE FEAR
1900 hours. This is a stage which will be easier or harder depending on how used you have become to time mismanagement; how fresh this hell really is to you. It is that initial moment, as dusk begins to fall and “normal” people (i.e., not you) leave the library. It is now that you realise that you have read two pages of your first article, which is longer than any relationship you’ve ever had. You begin to shake. You begin to sweat. You begin to swear. The librarian tells you that such language is not appropriate in a hallowed place of learning. You reply that you thought this was the Gladstone Link, and apologise.
You have the Fear. There’s no way you’re getting anything done with the Fear. Any man could tell you what the Fear does to performance. Anything you read now will not go in. Anything you write now will not do. (Spoiler: neither will anything you write later.) There is only one thing for it. Go back to your tiny, dark, cold room. Crack open the finest red plonk £5 can buy and spend the next five hours watching Friends on Netflix.
STAGE TWO: OVERCOMING THE READING
Midnight. Miraculously, five hours have passed. Time no longer has any meaning. You are contemplating falling asleep. You are contemplating moving to Europe and changing your name to something sexy so your tutor will never find you. You are contemplating a cocaine addiction.
But eventually you realise that you can afford none of these and begin to read. Your caffeine-crazed eyes dart over the page, cursing HathiTrust and all its competitors. The secret is to read as little as possible, as quickly as possible, with as little comprehension as to be expected. You must remember that understanding the words on a page is a luxury possessed only by the boring people who do their work in the morning, who are even awake in the morning.
STAGE THREE: OVERCOMING THE PLANNING
0345 hours. If you’re in real trouble, skip this stage and go on to stage four (see below). However, if you have the luxury of five minutes, you are permitted to scribble a series of unconnected words in a vague pattern on some paper. Make it toilet paper, because in ten minutes that’s where you’ll be flushing your worthless ideas.
STAGE FOUR: OVERCOMING THE WRITING
0400 hours. You’ve arrived – somehow. Congratulations! I didn’t think you’d get to this stage. Just a few hours ago, in the clutch of the Fear, neither did you. The page is blank. Sadly, so is your brain. You wistfully look at the toilet. Maybe you shouldn’t have listened to me in Stage Three and flushed your plan down there. But the fact is you have to write something.
It doesn’t have to be very good. It doesn’t even need to be comprehensible. Any words will do. Just the right quantity of words. 1800, maybe even 2000 if the rancid black coffee is doing its sweet thing. Screw quality: that’s for others to concern themselves with.
Remember that tomorrow you will have to justify at least some of what you compose now. On the other hand, don’t let that inhibit you from writing crap.. Essay crises are like any other field: a whole range of talent is welcome. E.g., in music, we have Mozart and Westlife. In student journalism, we have The Oxford Student; in student waste paper bins, we have Cherwell. But I am getting distracted – as are you. For would you just look at the time –
STAGE FIVE: OVERRUNNING THE DEADLINE
An unacceptable number of hours. You are now officially broken. This was your third extension, but the deadline has come around with the terrifying reliability of “Come on Eileen” on the Park End cheese floor. This wouldn’t be an issue, were it not for the fact that you have written two paragraphs.
Oh well. You wanted advice, and here’s the real kicker: there is no advice for getting through an essay crisis successfully, because the people who know the answers are the ones who never get into essay crises in the first place.
I rarely meet these people, probably because they do their work instead of going out. I assume they would tell you to sleep well, get up early, and work without distractions to a regular schedule. I can only assume that is what they would say, however, because when this commission went up, they were doing their essays. I, on the other hand, was scrolling through Facebook, and happily took the piece. Of course I did. Because I did not want to write my essay.
You and I are kindred spirits, dear reader. We know that life is too interesting for the humdrum activity of essay writing. The real advice? Do as little work as possible, and make sure your tutors love you.
Image Credit: Centre College Special Collection via Flickr