All work and no praise makes Jack a dull boy

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The campaign for a reading week in 5th week points to a much deeper problem with the working climate at Oxford. Of course we’ve all heard it before: the well-touted big fish/small pond, little minnow/big ocean dogma that encompasses us all. Most of us had their egos hyper-inflated to get us this far, whether you were primed for Oxbridge application in a class of 12 or whether your acceptance made local headlines.

As a second year I have reached a certain degree of cynicism about my position as an undergrad at this university. As such I am already the smallest and peskiest of my tutors’ duties – they are here to do research, sometimes lecture, look after grads, and then teach us. More often than not we insult them and their time by handing in work that we dashed off forty minutes before the deadline for no particular reason (but also, mate, because I was so hungover). We are young, intellectually immature, and our degrees are sweeping taster courses at the end of which – infancy of all infancies – we sit exams.

And yet – most of us are here for eight weeks a term, three terms a year, for three/four years. In three years I am expected to come to grips with 1500 years of English literature. How could I possibly? Then again, with its compulsory Old English paper, it is the most rigorous English course in the world. When I leave this place at 21, myself and my peers will have the most wide-ranging knowledge of English literature out of anyone else our age.

Oxford is a dichotomous place: the demands made of you are nigh impossible to fulfill, and yet we must recognize quite how much we do achieve in the little time we have. The powers that be can try as they might to take Oxbridge of its pedestal, but the fact  remains that its graduates will always have a premium on the job market because of what the climate here trains them to do: I will leave this place with a fairly superficial knowledge of the afore-mentioned 1500 years, but more important is the ability that Oxford has given me, of producing under pressure; the ability, we might say, of bullshit. All those essays you dashed off hungover and forced your poor tutor to wade through, your poor tutor who has waded through generation after generation of people talking about Milton’s satanic sympathies; every single one of those essays will have prepared you for the ‘real world’, where you will be asked to come up with something, anything, as quickly as possible.

My time at Oxford has gone in peaks and troughs. My fresher year was a blur of alcohol-induced magnanimity and skimming through Prelims because I felt justified in not caring – I’d busted my gut to get myself here and I was determined to enjoy it. Second year came and the change in pace was remarkable: my workload, although still heavier than at any of my friends’ universities, was far more humane. Gone were the days of biweekly 3,000 word essays plus commentary and presentation – a baptism of fire, the cruelty of which I am only starting to register. The rhythm was now one of a single essay, and of working myself into a crescendo of stress over the course of a five day period to get it in on time with my integrity intact. I fell into a rhythm of giving myself three days for reading and two for writing. Consequently I submitted work that had promise but was lacking in depth – my tutors accused me of making sweeping generalizations and of not knowing having contextualized.

My fifth term at Oxford hit, and with it a much worse case of the blues. I have heard the testimonies of relapses into eating disorders, struggles with depression, bipolar disorder, suicidal tendencies, and alcoholism. In my case it was a much simpler case of feeling that I wasn’t erudite enough, that I didn’t spend enough time working to justify how little I did outside of my degree, and that I didn’t socialize enough. Days would dribble away and I would hate myself for it. Essay after essay that I had tried so very hard at were handed back with not even a cursory ‘well done’.

I think it telling that Oxford, historically, is founded for the privileged, male population coming out of boarding school, where the dominant mentality is one of all hardship being ‘character-building’. Even the name of the problem – the ‘blues’ – trivializes it. Here lies the issue: mental health at Oxford is treated too lightly. It is expected that everyone get ‘the blues’ regardless of whether they have been medically diagnosed with a mental condition. It is something you are expected to ‘get through’.

But it’s not just a 5th week issue. It builds over the course of term where there is no try, there is only do, and what you do is never good enough. A reading week in fifth week would not  be enough to help those who struggle with serious conditions to consolidate for the next half of term, nor would it shake the feeling of inadequacy that most of us feel. As superegos, we were conditioned with praise. It is the language we respond to and flourish under. It would do us all some good if we started to get some.

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