One week in bed can throw off your Cambridge term entirely ILLUSTRATION BY MARTHA VINE FOR VARSITY

I look at the alarm clock on my bedside table; it is witching hour and a concoction of smells is brewing - my tonsils are the size of golf balls and I have, in my delirium, become a biohazard. In the bathroom, I jump before realising the strange man in the mirror is in fact me. The 10 metre walk back to my bed is a marathon I almost fail to complete. In the morning (1pm) I wake to discover 13 new unread emails. The first is from my supervisor. It has the subject line “Checking in”. Shit.

Towards the end of January, before the bouts of flu, tonsillitis and whatever is currently stirring in my chest decided to humble me (my susceptibility to disease has become a running joke among my friends), I found myself, on official JCR business, at the Workload forum hosted by the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (PVC) for Education. I had gone in expecting to be able to write a piece questioning the need for the event at all: ‘as if you need a forum to establish that there is a workload problem’ etc. But, I was pleasantly surprised by the nuance with which students’ concerns were interrogated and the sincerity I felt from the PVC when he said he was committed to pursuing a solution to the issue.

“our struggle was not a solitary experience”

I was placed on a table with medics, vets, psychologists and fellow bio natscis. Our discussion thus primarily revolved around the absurdity of a 6-day lecture schedule and the 7pm supervisions we are expected to take on the chin without so much as batting an eyelash. There was a catharsis in confirming our struggle was not a solitary experience; when the time came to share our thoughts with the rest of the room, it seemed also to transcend faculties and schools. What came up, time and time again, aside from a general sentiment of being overwhelmed, was the idea of the crash.

The crash, dear reader, is the week you spend in bed catching up on sleep, sanity and the will to live upon arriving home at the end of the term. The crash, we agreed, was a symptom of an institutional issue with the pace of life at Cambridge - a culture established at the outset by the half-week of freshers crammed with JCR talks, family nights and the arrival of your first reading list as you mess up your signature in the matriculation book. The epicentre of this problematic pacing, we agreed, was a workload which turns terms into an 8-week ultra marathon.

An opinion poll conducted at the forum found that 55% felt that the volume of work demanded of them was the number one cause of an unmanageable workload. Other issues cited were an inability to disconnect from work and the impossibility of juggling the extra-curricular opportunities Cambridge has to offer with academics. Throwing a fresher’s flu that lingers until week 4 of Michaelmas into the mix is bound to end in a car crash. One might even say, in these instances, that the crash has fought its way into term time.

“All too often, it seems the one-size-fits-all intermit plaster is slammed onto the wound”

I have friends who try to suppress the symptoms of whatever illness they are suffering from and force themselves to camp out in a library. They cannot afford the crash they say. I am less inclined to subject myself to such torture, I would sooner tell my supervisors I’ll catch up over the vacation. The problem with this strategy comes when you discover that having been subjected to forced rest during term doesn’t preclude you from needing it after week 8 as the Cambridge Gods intended. The adage that the difference between a third and a first is working during the holidays rings through your head but you need sleep and an academic detox, and before you know it it is a new term. The crash wins this round.

Of course, catering for those whose tonsils seem to rejoice in growing tenfold probably ought not be the university’s priority, but, what about those with chronic illnesses? All too often, it seems the one-size-fits-all intermit plaster is slammed onto the wound. Go home, we’ll make better arrangements next time. While intermitting, as an option, is incredibly valuable, the potential costs, both financially and socially, render it unattractive. Could changes to the workload and/or the term-structure help avoid preventable intermissions? I don’t know, but wouldn’t it be worth finding out?

The notion that we need a reading week, which I subscribe to, is often met by the university with the response that any half-term break would become filled with more assignments and not fulfil its purpose. It’s a fair point, but surely one that could be resolved via policy against such actions. An equally ‘radical’ solution of extending terms and spreading out work, including that normally reserved for holidays, would satisfy me. Perhaps then a vacation could be just that, and maybe those whose tonsils decided to screw them over in term might have to lose a few days of it to catching up but at least they wouldn’t be juggling this with a million other assignments, the crash, and the voice in their head telling them they’re destined for a third.


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