Emily Lawson-Todd with permission for Varsity

Recently I’ve found myself in a strange sort of limbo. I am working at an outreach summer school for my college while trying to start my diss research. The job consists of me sitting in on sessions where starry-eyed 16-year-olds are introduced to literature beyond the ‘Macbeth was a very bad man’ type fare taught at GCSE. While they’re only just embarking on their time in academia, I’m sort of at the tail end of mine, sitting in the corner of the teaching room hammering out notes for two dissertations that have barely been touched since my DoS meeting in June.

Maybe in these sessions I should have jumped up and screamed:

“Don’t do an English degree! It’s a scam! You start out thinking Shakespeare is kind of interesting, and you’ll be stuck three years later scouring JSTOR for one hyper-specific article on 18th-century pincushions that will form a singular footnote in your dissertation!”.

And sure, academia is far from a perfect profession – you don’t need to look far to see that. Yet somehow, watching teenagers start to fall in love with the same subject I’d fallen in love with made me remember the central reason why I do my degree – learning for the love of it. It was that mini-revelation, alongside some serious diss procrastination, that made me want to write this article.

“watching teenagers start to fall in love with the same subject I’d fallen in love with made me remember the central reason why I do my degree”

No one is trying to claim that Cambridge’s teaching system is perfect; 8-week terms often mean you have to scrape yourself off the floor post-Revs to argue your case about a book you only half-read two days ago. In a similar vein, dissertation writing is often done in a last-minute scramble where you are plagued by the constant feeling that what you are doing isn’t esoteric or interesting enough.

Yet all of this is preferable to timed exams. Everything that exams do, dissertations do better – from showing an ability to write, to time-management skills. To someone with a cynical view, the dissertation is just the same level of blagging as an exam, except it’s done in the comfort of your own room rather than in a dingy exam hall where the girl in front of you carries on swinging her ponytail onto your script.

“Everything that exams do, dissertations do better”

Then there’s the question of whether courses such as English should be examined at all. When an exam has 26 very vague questions with the expectation that students need only answer three, maybe the faculty needs to reconsider if exams are really all that useful as a measure of students’ ability.

The other thing is that some of us actually enjoy our degree. It’s what we’re here to do. Sure, blagging my way through a niche eighteenth-century text on a Thursday morning may equip me with the gorgeous transferable life skills that I will one day need when I inevitably sell out to the corporate world, but for now I just find myself enjoying exploring my degree.

For many students, university is the first time we’re encouraged to explore a subject and immerse ourselves in our chosen degree instead of just learning to pass exams so that our schools look better. I have the next 60 years of my life (or more) to scrape together a report for Susan in accounts if I so wish. I may only have this next year not only to be able to go and explore something I love, but to be encouraged and expected to do so. University should not only be seen as a stepping stone to the world of work, but as something to be enjoyed in its own right.


Mountain View

Down with dissertations

So are dissertations basically academia-lite, stressful and somewhat incompatible with the brevity of the Cambridge year? Yes, but that goes for all teaching at this University. Maybe I haven’t yet been hit with the cynicism that seems to come for all final-year students, but when I’m doing my degree, I really do sometimes feel like that starry-eyed fresher from October 2021 who was encouraged to genuinely enjoy academia for the first time. Just don’t ask me if the opinion I’ve expressed here is still the same in a few months when the inevitable stress of attempting two dissertations finally catches up with me.