It goes without saying that the work gets harder in your final year of university: the coursework that actually counts, the dissertation, the exams. All of this is stressful at the best of times. No matter how much you like your degree, knowing that the work you’re doing contributes to your actual degree is enough to ruin any sense of learning for pleasure. Gone are the days of extending your knowledge, or enjoying the reading; it is now about doing what is required, attending to the mark scheme, and jumping through hoops for the examiner.
Exams are generally perceived as a necessary evil – but they always manage to reduce your once loved subject down to a folder of notes and a few weeks of high stress, mental exhaustion and heightened procrastination.
All of this is pretty grim in normal circumstances. Nothing makes us ask “what’s the point?!” like a three-hour exam. The system works to produce what I like to call the exam-induced existential crisis. This is when you’ve been writing notes all day on a topic you never really understood, your head hurts, your eyes hurt, and you’d give anything to spend a day in bed doing nothing – but you just can’t. These feelings of dissatisfaction often provoke the question of what’s the point in this. Is there any value to this knowledge that I’m so desperately cramming? What’s the point in all this effort and stress, just for a number on a certificate at the end of it all?
This has all been worsened by the current ‘situation’ – otherwise known as the global pandemic. It’s difficult to see what relevance Chaucer really has when the world seems to be falling apart around us. And I’m saying that as someone who actually doesn’t mind Chaucer.
For English Finalists this term, the most pressing task is that of writing a dissertation from home – without libraries, our usual rooms, or our Oxford support networks close at hand. This experience is a lonely and daunting one. We are at the mercy of supervisors on the other end of our emails, and are expected to synthesise new and original ideas in home environments that are not designed to support us through the hardest piece of writing we’ve had to do so far.
The next task will be our now open-book exams, which need to be revised for in an entirely atypical way, which leads to an absence of motivation, and often an increase in stress. The latest news from the university is that we can’t expect a safety net for our exams, like last year’s cohort had. The reasoning from the university is that the new exam system is more established than it was last year, and that we have more support. Personally, I don’t see this. The statement from Russell Group is even more insulting, that ‘academic standards’ must be protected – as if this were more important than student welfare.
There seems to be a continued flaw in the reasoning of these decision makers – that things are easier for us because the pandemic has been around for longer. But for many, the opposite is true. It gets harder every day to maintain levels of stability and motivation necessary to succeed academically, a situation worsened by the apparent lack of understanding from universities, and the lack of acknowledgement of our situation from the government.
Complaints are made and statements of anger or appeal are written, but ultimately, behind all the words, there are students who are doing their best, but genuinely struggling. The exam ordeal is worse than ever this year – and it’s about time somebody recognised that.
With illustration by Miles Sheldon