I know I am not alone in what I am about to say. Somewhere between the long hot post A-level summer and reaching week five of Michaelmas term, the unwitting Cambridge arts student realises with not a little bewilderment that they no longer have access to that delightful pocket of hours they once referred to as free time.
I’ve always considered myself a hard worker, but until I started as an undergraduate, it had never been out of necessity. I spent free periods in the library at school because it meant that I could chill out at the weekends. I put a lot of effort into essays that didn’t count towards my grade because I am a sucker for praise. Now, things are a bit different. If I slacked on an essay, it would really show during the hour that one of the country’s top academics dissected it with me. They might ask me something like this:
‘So you’ve said here that the city is portrayed with almost feminine qualities in the film, and I just wondered what exactly you meant by that?’
Me: Yeah, to be honest I’d just forget everything I’ve said in that paragraph, it was getting to that point in the evening where reaching the word count was my sole goal and I was throwing out theories that may be creative genius but that I have absolutely no evidence to support in the cold light of day.
Except you can’t say that, because they’ve taken the time to mark your essay, and they, a serious academic, are giving you personal, one on one feedback on something that you boshed out a few days ago in order to have the weekend free to go to so and so’s birthday at funky fun house and enjoy the next day hungover, safe in the knowledge that the essay was done.
Instead, I will reply with a string of abstract ideas that I hope sound intelligent but that are in reality fairly transparent in their nonsensicalness. By this point in the supervision, usually at about the forty-five minute mark, neither of us has any idea what I’m saying anymore, and I will use my hapless supervision partner as a prop to shield my shortcomings, hoping that I at least managed to claw some dignity back in my conclusion.
For this reason, this hour of painstakingly detailed feedback, slacking off on an essay is no longer a viable option for those among us who blush easily and can’t think on their feet. For the last two years then, I have studied harder than I ever have before. My Cambridge friends will laugh at this, as I am known for being the least studious of the group, but I believe this to be more of a reflection on Cambridge than on my lacklustre approach to my education.
Arts students suffer from the perennial fear that ‘there is always more to do’. You could always add one more text to that bibliography, polish up that middle section where your argument kind of loses its way, or, as a linguist, spend those free hours once the essay is done working on a difficult grammar point or revising vocabulary. The concept of work ending and fun starting is no longer the clear line that the school bell gave us at 3.30pm, rather a somewhat fudgy shadow residing at around the 11pm mark for me, closer to 2am for those that can maintain their concentration for a few hours longer. Of course, we’re not working solidly from dawn til dusk, but the breaks that we do take fall more into the accidental category – having a two hour lunch break because you get lost on your facebook feed, or heading down to the bar for a quick caffeine fix and getting caught up in conversation – as opposed to the conscious decision ‘I am going to relax now’. What’s more, people rarely take time off just to chill out. If people aren’t working, they are usually engaging in a specific activity, like going to the cinema or meeting friends for dinner. It’s rare just to go and have some downtime.
This phenomenon affects individuals in different ways. For me, it just means a heightened sense of guilt. I don’t have the attention span that some others are blessed (cursed?) with, meaning that I still award myself plenty of breaks, but they are accompanied by the niggling feeling that I really ought to be in the library. This includes evenings and weekends: basically if you’re not in a lecture, the shower or bed, you don’t really have an excuse not to be studying. For others, it means that that is pretty much exactly what they do, and many people struggle to reach that elusive work/life balance.
I know that anyone familiar with the length of Cambridge holidays, or doing a science subject, will read this and scoff at the very idea that arts students have more work. That’s the frustrating thing: we probably don’t. But the mindset that we’ve trained ourselves into as aspiring individuals is to keep working on something until the time runs out. Some would call it perfectionism, I suppose.
Something my Italian teacher (because of course, despite living in Italy, I have taken it upon myself to enrol myself in an evening class) said the other day really struck me. A classmate asked for a definition of ‘la vita frenetica’ – I prepared to tune out, as I already knew what the frenetic lifestyle we modern citizens deal with was, and that it didn’t really apply to me: I wouldn’t consider myself a particularly stressed out person, in fact I’d say the opposite. But then my teacher went on to describe her interpretation of it, which went a little something like this:
‘The frenetic lifestyle is about how we never take time out, we never stop. We work longer hours, we are constantly connected by phone and by the internet, we rarely have free time, and when we do we feel like we should fill it with some kind of self-improvement. You’re all here at this class, people travel, they do exercise – we never just stop.’
Somewhat alarmingly, I felt like my teacher had just summed up my whole existence. I had been toying with the idea of switching degree disciplines to English before I came out here, but had dismissed it as the travelling would be ‘good for me’. Now here I am, out on my big adventure, having a fairly decent time but still thinking that maybe English was the way to go – a decision that’s going to be a lot harder, probably impossible to put right in my final year. And, because I work short hours, I have felt the need to fill them up to resemble my university schedule, so on top of lesson planning and working on my dissertation for university, I’m taking Italian classes, I’ve joined the school choir, started a blog, tried to travel around as much as possible and decided I might as well take part in National Novel Writing Month as well. Even with all that, I still feel like I have more free time than I’ve ever had before in my life. And instead of it being liberating, I actually find it quite daunting. I don’t wake up thinking ‘Woo hoo! Another commitment-less day! Let’s see what’s on Iplayer’, I wake up thinking ‘right, how can I make use of the hours today?’ and in the evening, it’s ‘what have I achieved?’ and if the answer is ‘not a lot’ I still feel guilty. Even when there is nothing that I’m supposed to be doing.
A particular memory sticks with me from sixth form. I was at a friend’s house and we were all watching TV, when the Big Bang Theory came on. Everyone else in the room started singing along to the theme tune, which I would have done too if I’d had any idea what the words were. I’d seen the show a few times, but I wasn’t hugely familiar with it. My friends all teased me for spending too much time on my homework to watch any TV. At the time I was a bit annoyed, wondering how I’d come off worse for not watching so much TV that I could recite entire theme tunes (and the Big Bang one takes a good few series to perfect) So instead I smugly congratulated myself on being too busy and important to watch TV. Now I just feel kind of sorry for myself. That occasion was one of the few that I spent round my friends’ houses – I had a weekend job and I took my studies seriously. Those are two years filled with house parties and evenings just hanging out in the town centre doing, well, nothing, that I’ll never experience now. Alright, there’s nothing particularly improving about just hanging out, but does there have to be? What’s so bad about just enjoying the company of your friends?
And what’s going to happen when I get a job? Will I accept that 9-5pm is enough, and chill out in my free time, or will I become glued to my Iphone (it’s my future I’ll imagine gadget upgrades if I want), refreshing my emails and twitter feed last thing at night and first thing in the morning? And if I have kids, will I encourage them to go out and get their hands dirty, or will I be enrolling them in piano, ballet and debating, ensuring that every aspect of their tiny brain is nurtured to maximum capacity? When does this journey of self-improvement end? When do I plateau, and get to relax? I find it a little concerning that the answer to that last question might be ‘never’, or ‘retirement’, which, in the current economic climate, amounts to about the same thing. So here’s my new day’s resolution. I want to appreciate every little thing. Tomorrow, I’m going to make myself a coffee first thing, and savour it. Then, I’m going to go to school, and enjoy teaching my lesson. When I finish at 9am (there’s a whole other blog post needed about the Italian work ethic), I’m gong to get breakfast in a cafe and watch the world go by, for as long as I please. Then – wait, I’m not even going to plan any further than that. Call me a maverick. Or someone that’s just trying to learn how to appreciate the small things. And if, come evening, I have but a little to show for my day’s flanning around, will I grumble? Will I heck. I will breathe a sigh of relief, and herald the return of genuinely ‘free’ time.