Recently a story came up on my Facebook newsfeed about the University of Cambridge’s ‘Defend Education’ group starting a campaign called End Week 5 Blues. It’s essentially a campaign to add a reading week to the middle of their very short (just 8 weeks!) and very intense semesters to give students a breather and time to get on top of things before starting the second half of term. Many of you will have read the heart-wrenching article that did the rounds in October of last year where a Cambridge student told her story of how the intense academic pressure of attending one of the world’s top-ranked universities lead her into a difficult state with her mental health and, eventually, to drop out altogether. As I’m about to enter the first reading week of my university career, and in light of what’s going on at Cambridge at the moment, I thought it would be a good idea to talk about why I think reading weeks are important.
What is a reading week? It’s a week with no lectures or practicals that students can use to get on top of work and prepare for upcoming deadlines. It’s a sort of university half term if you like. Not every faculty schedules a reading week – at Imperial I know that chemistry has a regular reading week, possibly some of the Royal School of Mines courses do as well, but the engineers are not so lucky. The second year biologists are off this week and even though our course load is less than the engineers and chemists in terms of actual stuff to do (I mean, we’re not in labs for hours every day and we have fewer lectures to attend and problem sheets to do) I really feel like we need this week.
Why do I think the reading week is important? Imperial is a very high pressure, intense academic environment and although I love it here and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, I often feel like I’m being worked in to the ground. At the end of autumn term for example, we were giving presentations, handing in a difficult lab report (lack of clear direction about the content of the report + the fact that the only papers on the experiment you did are from the ’50s does not equal a quick, easy assignment!), studying for a biostatistics test, meeting our tutors to discuss the diessertations we are writing this year and also trying to stay on top of lectures. That is a lot of work and a lot of pressure to be under just two weeks before the end of term! When I met my dissertation group in the morning so we could go up to see our tutor, some of the group hadn’t even slept yet because they had literally been working on the lab report all night for the 1pm deadline that day. Some people at Imperial seem to pride themselves on their ability to do all-nighters in the library, study each lecture for hours every night and still have time to be in several socieites but the truth is that the majority of people just can’t cope with that level of pressure for extended periods of time.
Mental health problems at university are suprisingly common, with 1 in 5 students saying that they have suffered with their mental health while at university and citing coursework and exams as major stressors. Here’s the thing: students are not machines. Just because we can push ourselves to our limits doesn’t mean that we should or that it’s healthy. There is so much pressure on students, particularly at such an academically competetive university like Imperial, to get perfect grades so that we have an edge when we go out and face an increasingly competetive job market, to complete summer internships and lab placements, to get a first in every piece of coursework and somehow still have time to be an active member of a society or two so that we can ‘boost our CVs.’ I don’t how you feel after reading that, but I feel overwhelmed.
When you get to that place of constant, relentless work work work it’s very easy to go on a downward spiral into negative thoughts, sadness and isolation. This is why we need reading week. It’s a week to get on top of work, to catch up with notes and (perhaps more) importantly to take a breather. To indulge in some self care, eat good food, catch up on sleep that you’ve missed whilst working on that lab report, revamp your CV as you start looking at internships and to not feel crushed under the pressure that you’re put under during term time.
I’m so happy to be on reading week this week, having a much needed rest after a busy time and catching up on things I’ve gotten behind on. I definitely think that universities, Imperial included, need to be thinking not just about the academic output of their students but also about their mental health and wellbeing when planning the academic year. Food for thought maybe.
Stay happy and healthy friends!