We need more than a reading week – we need less work.
While a lot of us have simply grumbled about ‘5th Week blues’ again this term, the OUSU Women’s Campaign have launched a great project called ‘5th Week Free’, arguing for a reading week to be placed in the middle of term. It’s an idea that came from Cambridge, which like our own university suffers from a serious problem of overworking students. A reading week would give us that much-needed respite in a schedule that can just jump from essay to essay with nothing in between.
But this solution is only surface deep. A reading week is framed as allowing people to ‘recover’, but what we ought really be considering is why we should be put under such stressful conditions that we need a recovery in the first place?
The current Oxbridge system, or rather the intensity of it, is the problem. It’s a curious predicament. Many of us spend years working to get here for a world-class education, only to arrive and be expected write a theory of the Russian Revolution after two days of reading. Some subjects can end up with as much as 16 essays in only eight weeks. We’re being trained to produce substandard bullshit, and we scarcely have time to think.
While in the short-term we need a reading week, in the long-term we need to be looking to cut the workload too.
A lot of people would complain we are ‘diluting the Oxford experience’, but it’s hard to defend an educational system so old it was used to train colonial officials with only a little modernisation now and again. Halving the number of essays for humanities students, and thereby doubling the time we would actually have to think about each one, would doubtless see the level of rustications plummet.
There is surely a connection between people’s mental health and the Oxford workload. Mental health is poorly understand, and often wrongly treated as a wholly internal process, just something an individual goes through. Yet mental health problems can be brought on or exacerbated by extremely stressful surroundings – and a university environment where we are required to be constantly churning out essay after essay is a very good example.
I can imagine huge resistance to cutting the amount of work we are assigned – and not just from tutors. The biggest obstacles to modernisation and change in this university can often be the students themselves.
After all, 75 per cent of students here (myself not included) voted against allowing subfusc to become optional. In other words, allowing other students the choice to experience Oxford at their own ease came at too high a price for the majority.
Reduced work would give us the opportunity to explore our subjects more deeply, and give us the space to relax and feel more comfortable at Oxford. There is nothing stopping it except for entrenched institutional conservatism.