Opinion

Essay crises are overrated, and we can avoid them (most of the time)

In my humble opinion, the phrase “essay crisis” is damagingly overused.

In fact, it’s become worryingly normalised, giving liminal a run for its money. Going into university, I imagined that an essay crisis happened maybe about once a month due to unfortunate circumstances (oversleeping, an accumulation of work mixed with a generous dose of procrastination, external engagements etc.) but from early on, I realised that it can be used for every single essay

And back then I thought that maybe it was just my fellow Freshers’ attempt to adopt the Oxford lingo, and tried to refrain from using it myself lest others with more experience should scoff and diminish my struggles because they’d been there and survived.

But I soon began to think: wow, if every essay results in a crisis, how must that impact our experience at university? Is that the experience, is that all I have to look forward to? And in answer to the latter question I respond with an emphatic no. Because try as we might to deny it, I believe we do have control of what happens to us in terms of workload and how to approach it. Of course, we need to involve tutors and colleges in this wider debate about workloads and mental health, but it has to start with us, trying our best to manage time and work with what we are given, so that we may constructively work for a better way forward.

It boils down to a question of priorities. We all have slightly different things at the top of our lists, but I don’t think it would be too rash to suggest that our studies are up there. When I applied to Oxford, I was told (aside from the usual la-di-da about how I’d never get in because I hadn’t been reading Milton from my pre-Oedipal days) that only people who were genuinely interested in their subject got in, because if you weren’t there was no way you’d produce the required quality of work. Luckily for me – though pretty late in the decision-making process – I had something of an epiphany wherein I realised that I really did love my subject, and now my studies really do bring me immense satisfaction.

Academia, of course, means different things to different people, but most of the people I meet do take active interest in their subject. And if everyone works as hard as they seem to, why is the essay crisis a thing?

I know what you’re thinking – I’ve overlooked the fact that the nature of Oxford is essentially to (intelligently) cram as much learning as possible into eight weeks, and that this is hardly ideal. If we dedicated as much time as we needed to each assignment, we’d be here a lot longer than three years. So I suppose I mean that we ought to spend as much time as we can doing our best. To that effect, it’s worth pointing out that everybody has different goals both in the short and the long term, which is completely fine.

But even after the first weeks of our first term, we start to get a feel for how much time and work are required to maintain the level that we expect of ourselves, and to see where there is room for things like extra-curricular activities, socialising and downtime. Shouldn’t we be working harder to consign the essay crisis to those disorienting first few weeks? It seems a shame that university experiences might be defined by the ‘essay crisis’ and similar such incidents.

The truth is you can’t really have all those things as you would like to. I have, admittedly, ended up doing a lot less of all three things since I got here. Nevertheless, I was able to form some sort of routine, which gave me some flexibility to slot non-academic pursuits into my schedule. Something has to give, but it is more about deciding how you are prepared to make that trade-off, whether you can realistically achieve something you will be happy with by working into the small hours, or whether maybe this week’s essay doesn’t have to be proof-read obsessively or worthy of a prestigious prize if you want to spend time with friends or be in a play.

And trust me, as a perfectionist who has a torrent of self-criticism at my beck and call for every time I dare to stand up from my chair for thirty seconds or indulge in staring at the kettle as it boils my tea, it is hard to know what to prioritise. But with careful thought, and if you take each week as it comes – with its seemingly unrealistic demands and personal challenges – you just might be able to avoid those crises altogether.

That’s all easier said than done – believe me, I know. But I do believe that, more often than not, essay crises are things we bring upon ourselves. How many times have I heard people say that they’re going to watch TV, or go clubbing when they “really shouldn’t” or they “know better”? Isn’t our time at university simply too short to be engaging in that kind of rhetoric? And sure, figuring out that balance and making mistakes are all part of the university experience, and I do believe that a few healthy essay crises and poor decisions make for valuable life lessons. But when essay crises and procrastination become a way of life, maybe it’s time to rethink our approach?

Moreover, the whole culture of the “essay crisis” is that you’re not actually in one until you’ve told a significant amount of people that you are (potentially wasting rather a lot of time in the process!). It’s a great excuse to get out of literally anything:

“Hey, I was planning on… do you want to – ”

“Essay crisis. Sry.”

But this brings us to the question of mental health, because yes, having a lot on your plate is draining and yes, being under constant stress can have serious psychological consequences. Saying ‘yes’ to everything can be tough. And in saying that we bring essay crises upon ourselves I am in no way attempting to dismiss people who are overwhelmed and sometimes paralysed by the amount of work they have to get done. ‘Essay crises’ might tie into a broader struggle to keep on top of a towering workload. I worry that poor mental health is getting mixed up in a general normalisation, or even idolisation, of essay crises and academic brinkmanship.

In this way we often end up overlooking serious discussions about mental health and time management, which could and should be dealt with by a qualified professional where possible, rather than cultivating the all-too-familiar toxic environment where anxiety, depression, perfectionism and self-hatred are normalised and even become a strange cause for competition.

What I’m trying to say is that the “essay crisis” can risk being as much a status symbol and a choice as it is a genuine problem of having too much work to do. Of course, the word “crisis” means different things to different people: some people’s essay crisis is just working for a long time on an essay or not knowing what to write, and for others it’s starting the reading for an essay two hours before it’s due. Regardless, it is a genuine problem, because is that last-minute dash to scrape together something you’re not pleased with how you want to look back on your university days?

Sure, I suppose it is part of the “experience” in the eyes of student culture, but there’s surely a better way. Do we not run the risk of obscuring serious discussions about mental health with these edifying discourses of crisis and catastrophe? Should we try harder to protect valuable social life and downtime from the intrusions of academia? Is it even fair to call our academic work – the reason why we are here –  intrusive? Perhaps it is a question for tutors and faculties more than it is for students. But if essay crises are what you want – well, don’t let me stop you.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have ‘approaching deadlines’ to attend to.