What animal is your degree?

Nicola Dwornik defends humanities degrees against the charge of apparent laziness


Last week I took a ‘what animal is your degree’ quiz and I got a sloth. I was chuffed. Then I began to think—what if I actually am a sloth? My week ahead didn’t disprove this diagnosis: one essay, one tutorial and no lectures until Hilary. Even to regular historians, my Ancient History reading lists,, complete with sketches of Roman coinage, often provide free quality entertainment. As for the sleeping patterns, I’ve had quite a few successful 16 hour siestas. The evidence does seem rather alarming.

Then I look to my chemist friends. They trudge to their weekly 12 lectures (gleefully) and occasionally sit in a laboratory for a day, on top of their regular tutorial work. Multiple deadlines are customary, not the lone hand in that can mark the beginning of a questionably long mid- week weekend. They are also well acquainted with ‘the 9am’. This is a grim, grim foreign world to the bleary-eyed history student.

So are humanities degrees really just a matter of piña coladas and enduring the rain of Oxford’s freezing micro-climate? No, I daresay they are not. I can assure you that for every hour a human- ities student spends outside a one metre radius of a book, there is a simultaneous pang of guilt and an extra hour built into the ‘day-before-deadline work panic’ to get two-thousand tangible words on paper. It’s how it should(n’t) work. It’s our way of living on the edge, our way of forcing lots of required work into a much smaller amount of time. Inevitably, though, the time gets away from you and boom, the all-nighter begins reading as many sources as possible in as little time only to write relative nonsense about some subject you don’t really know anything about. I’ve gone to great lengths to indulge stereotypes here. But to an extent, that’s exactly what we do as Oxford students.

The humanities-science dichotomy may not be confined to the city, yet the University’s way of teaching serves to reinforce it. I’m not saying that my tutors must be my biggest fans when I leave my essay on ‘The Establishment of Rome’ to be completed in a day, however the way in which deadlines are scheduled allow such questionably-successful intellectual com- positions to be created. Thus we can indulge in this proposition, even though it is rather ridiculous and idiotic, just like croquet. Conversely, those studying science degrees often undertake a part-time job in advertising how much work they have to do, and how often they have to do it, not to mention the misery that accompanies that work. It seems they get the boring side of the debate, but hey ho, it’s a fun little game we play to keep ourselves entertained.

To argue that particular types of degree require ‘more work’ would not only generate contradictory conclusions, but fruitless ones. Humanities students are undeniably granted greater flexibility as to when and how much they work, guaranteed they can hand in a semi- coherent essay in on time. Yet, our affinity for the ‘all-nighter’, and books available online on SOLO, should also not remain ignored. There’s a good amount of maturity involved in a completely open schedule. Tutors only partially expect us to attend lectures and we are under no obligation to be up at any time, much less 9am.

For Science students, I would contend, the constant flux of lectures and tute sheets requires a more regular, and arguably more intensive, working pattern. With this, an enviable pre-planned life structure is also provided for £9000 a year, as is the greater chance of achieving a first, and, admittedly, not being the first to the bar every evening. If you don’t show up to your lectures and labs for science, you’ll inevitably fall behind and do considerably worse, but we humanities students are forced to be self-motivated and scheduled.

However, writing an article to highlight the workload imbalance between different types of degrees is narrow-minded. As much as we can play into the aforementioned stereotypes, the university should, and largely does, allow indi- viduals to tailor their degrees around how they’d like to work, a flexibility dually evident in the occasional choice of course from a wide variety of options. Obviously, the humanities–sciences divide does serve to define the degree to which the above flexibility is tenable, yet it is ultimately the choice of the individual as to how much they choose to work.This is a decision dictated by other forces: personal ambition and drive, the expectations of tutors and the work-ethic maintained by other students.

Certainly these are pressures much more significant to my work ethic than off-handed comments similar to: ‘Oh, she’s a history student, of course she doesn’t do any work.’We all know Oxford can sometimes prove to be a suffocating environment, so we should at least try to constrain our pressuring influences to ones grounded in the world around us. You may wish to paint me as a sloth, but I may actually be a caterpillar. And I don’t need a biological sciences degree to grant me that title.


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