Many students, especially those used to the fast-paced academic year at Cambridge, may feel pressure to set themselves goals and be 'productive' in this lockdown period. Amanda George

It’s well-known that many Cambridge students, myself included, are the type to base much of our self-worth on our ability to get things done. From working hard at our degrees, to early morning rowing, or late nights passionately working on theatre or dance shows, it looks, from the outside, like the average Cambridge student never stops. Or never stopped, until the COVID-19 crisis, which has ripped the certainty of our usual packed schedules from under us. Keeping busy gave my life a sense of purpose, of organisation, and gave me a feeling of security. But it was also something I felt obliged to do. So what now?

Since the implementation of lock-down policies, I have seen a steady stream of posts and articles on media platforms talking about ’ways to stay productive in isolation’ and ‘how to get the most out of working from home’. The attitude that, to exist, we owe the world rent in the form of constant output is laid bare in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, but has been magnified in Cambridge since time immemorial.

“COVID-19 is, in many ways, an inescapable pressing of pause on modern culture.”

I have often felt pressure to keep up with the high standard that the culture at Cambridge sets. Unfortunately, life inevitably interferes with even the best laid plans: it is impossible for anyone to keep up with this ideal at all times. In times when I am struggling to keep up, the pressure feels especially strong. Despite faculties trying to modify assessments to varying degrees (it is worth noting that some students have had exam pressure not eased but extended until September) in order to take pressure off students during the pandemic, Cambridge students have been conditioned to put immense pressure on themselves to achieve. This does not automatically disappear when external expectations lessen.

The weight of the toxic expectation that we must use our time in isolation productively – placed on students by the University’s emphasis on ’academic rigour’ – is perfectly encapsulated in the famous story circulating online: that the last time Cambridge closed its doors in 1665 due to the Great Plague, Sir Isaac Newton used the time to come up with some of his best work, including his theory of gravity. While the purpose of re-telling this story is surely to inspire, and indeed many may find this time one of creative and intellectual output, it sets unrealistic standards. It is worth considering how so many students at the university today are facing obstacles during this pandemic that Newton did not.

Many students made it to Cambridge in the face of great adversity, some even the first in their family to go to university. In months ahead, many will be grappling with disruptive living environments, mental health issues or financial problems caused by the pandemic, to name but a few challenges. Their lives are a far cry from the country estate where Newton is said to have formulated some of his most groundbreaking work. In these circumstances, it is unfair to hold ourselves to impossibly high standards. In fact, it may be more beneficial for us to take this as an opportunity to expand the domain of things we place value on beyond quantifiable achievements and reflect on the structural inequalities that the COVID-19 has exposed, by hitting those already disadvantaged the hardest.

“Our essences as people cannot simply be boiled down to academic work or a CV.”

This is not to say that we shouldn’t use our time in isolation to create and to better ourselves if we can. It can be important for our well-being to set goals and keep busy if we wish to. However, our temporary reality is an enormous opportunity to reconsider why we set certain goals, and for whom. In the rush of a normal Cambridge term, it can be difficult to pause and find time to reflect on why we push ourselves, or which of our activities we do voluntarily and which we keep up because we feel obliged to due to others’ expectations. During these strange and unprecedented times, it is healthier for us to hone in on maintaining motivation, rather than measuring productivity, as this gives us the opportunity to think about our own values and what we want to get out of life.

Our generation grew up amidst neo-liberal narratives of perpetual progress. It will be interesting to see if one consequence of the pandemic is changing the attitudes of our late capitalist society towards what ‘progress’ means, as well as towards work and the way in which we measure people’s value. There is enormous progress to be made in quarantine, but not all of it is linear, quantifiable, or listable on a CV. So much good could come from students, for a while, feeling able to prioritise internal development and well-being over externally-measured achievements.

Taking care of ourselves and our mental health can be heavy emotional work, but it yields invaluable long-term rewards in terms of overall health and life satisfaction. Sadly, these things often get put to one side during a normal academic year due to a culture that de-prioritises them. Now, we have come to an unprecedented juncture at which, all over the world, normal life has ceased. Is it reasonable to keep expecting measurable progress from ourselves in the form of continued ‘academic rigour’, learning an extra language, getting in the best shape of your life, or writing a book? Or is it time for those of us blessed with our health and free time to sit with the quiet and contemplate things often brushed over, like our emotional well-being or the concept of success that we subscribe to?


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COVID-19 is, in many ways, an inescapable pressing of pause on modern culture. It has brought with it huge human suffering and tragedy. It would be a shame if we did not try to claw back at least some good from the situation or overlooked it as the learning experience it could be. If we learn one thing, let that be that we all have inherent value as human beings that goes beyond what we produce.

Our essences as people cannot simply be boiled down to academic work or a CV. We are much more than that – whether it’s the laughs you share with your friends between lectures, at hall and on nights out, or the warmth your loved ones feel in your presence, just because you exist. That should be more than enough.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, the following information and support is available:

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