By Pearl Cheng
The start of September usually means one thing: the end of summer and a month left till the start of the new academic year. With August coming to a close, I decided to take a quick look at my online timetable. Three lectures on a single day, I noted in disappointment. Early in the morning. But there was also something else: an abbreviated building name and number, attached neatly next to the name of each lecture and tutorial. Location names. With a slight sense of uneasiness and even embarrassment, I realised that I didn’t know what the abbreviations meant, let alone where the buildings were. Lecture halls and buildings are such an integral part of the normal university experience, I thought to myself. How was it possible to not know my way around?
This realisation, perhaps, is just a snapshot of how unusual the last academic year was. It was characterized by lectures that were uploaded onto DUO, Durham’s online learning platform, where walking to a lecture hall was rendered unnecessary. The year was also filled with virtual tutorials and seminars on Zoom and Teams, which meant that it was entirely possible to complete your studies from your bedroom. What part of last year was in line with the usual student experience at all? Therefore, after a year of chaos and uncertainty, the University’s promise of a potentially ‘normal’ year seems like a refreshing and alluring prospect. Or is it?
As an incoming second-year student, there is much cause for excitement, yet also room for worry. Having spent the first year mired in online learning, I have never experienced a ‘normal’ year. What is the conventional university experience even like? This on its own will be something new to find out. For starters, I will be learning where the lecture halls are, navigating the campus with Google maps open on my phone. Then, there will be the challenge of adjusting to live lectures. Having had the luxury of stopping and rewinding the lecture recording if I wanted more time to write my notes, or if there was a concept that I didn’t understand, there will unfortunately be no pause and replay buttons this year. There is also the social aspect to adapt to as well. After a year of sitting alone in my bedroom with my computer, human interaction has become a strange and unfamiliar concept. How do you interact with your coursemates, and what are real-life tutorials like? The creeping feeling of uncertainty is reminiscent of being a first-year again.
Another cause of concern that the prospect of a ‘normal’ year brings is the worsening of the Covid-19 situation. A ‘normal’ year translates to a lot of socialising and gathering. For example, the mingling of students in libraries and teaching buildings, and during sporting activities and extracurricular events. Or perhaps the gathering of people in bars, cafés, and restaurants. Yet the days of Covid-19 are not over yet, and as of early September, the daily number of cases is rising. As everyone knows, Covid-19 is easily transmitted when people are in close proximity. What does this bode for a ‘normal’ year? Will the mingling and gathering of people provide a breeding ground for cases to surge? In such a case, will life be forced to grind to a stop again? These questions are not so easily answered, and they too cast a pall over the prospect of a ‘normal’ year.
But of course, there are still many reasons to be exhilarated. Having missed out on an entire year of university life, a ‘normal’ year finally provides the opportunity to make up for the lost time. After seeing various virtual formals, I very much hope to experience an actual one with all the glory of food and people. Interacting with others has become an alien and unused skill over the past year, but I look forward to picking it up again and meeting new people. With the closure of bars and nightclubs such as Klute, it will be interesting to feel the vibrant nightlife again. Even the most mundane of university experiences sound curiously thrilling. After a year of listening to lectures in pyjamas and slippers, I do wonder what a frantic dash with a cup of coffee to an early morning lecture feels like. The thought of life without lockdowns and more freedom is appealing, and definitely something to anticipate.
The idea of a ‘normal’ year will continue to produce mixed feelings, be it due to the joy of returning to old traditions and ways of life, or the unfamiliarity of new experiences and potential dangers from the pandemic. This coming month before the academic year starts will be a time for heated anticipation, and also a time to prepare for uncertainty. But for now, I’ll be looking through my timetable again, trying to figure out what the abbreviations of location names mean.
Illustration: Adeline Zhao