Michaelmas term: in review

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“This has been the best and the worst term of my entire life”, said my housemate, as we sat round the table drinking the 278th cup of tea of the week, analysing the chaotic (although not wholly unenjoyable) term as it drew to a close.

We all had to deal with the very real threat of actually contracting Covid-19 upon returning to university. On top of this unrelenting stress, students have had some unimaginably difficult blows to their day-to-day existences, most of which have gone completely unacknowledged in the mainstream media and by the Government.

To start with a vague silver lining, I’m going to tentatively suggest that online teaching wasn’t nearly as bad as many of us had been dreading. Yes, my entire house would scream synchronously when the Wi-Fi, predictably, cut out mid-way through a seminar. But the actual quality of online lectures and seminars pleasantly surprised me, despite some of the awkward silences. Of course, they can never come close to the experience of in-person debate, but both professors and students alike adapted to the new format exceptionally well.

The real difficulty was the time between scheduled lectures, tutorials and labs, the independent study that for arts students is meant to make up around 75% of our learning experience. Although we might have thought we’d have more time in our working days (no sports, extra-curriculars, or hangovers from nights out to factor in) it often felt more difficult than ever to be productive. The struggle to get out of bed in the morning became much harder with only a pre-recorded lecture to motivate you. And this lack of structure was all the more difficult for students in isolation.

The college experience hinges on its sports and societies

In the latter stages of term, the Billy B and TLC study slots would book up almost a week in advance, meaning many of us ended up working from home the majority of the week. Lockdown 1.0 showed just how damaging a lack of separation between work and homelife can be to our mental health. Closing my essay draft and standing up from my desk at 6pm, only to transfer to my bed and reopen Netflix made downtime much harder to come by.

“Don’t let your degree get in the way of your education”, the actual Billy B (Bill Bryson, ex-Chancellor of Durham University) once said. But lockdown 2.0 put a firm halt to college sport, music practice, student theatre: the wider student experience valued so highly at Durham.

The college experience hinges on its sports and societies, and the unique collegiate identity they create; without them, it’s just halls of residence. And the loss of regular in-person sports and societies events will have undoubtedly (and so tragically) cut off the normal avenues through which freshers usually make friends.

This brings me, sadly, to the irreparable damage to our social lives this term. University is a fundamentally social experience, especially at Durham where “organised fun” is the name of the game: formals, bops, socials, bar crawls. (A moment of silence for freshers yet to experience the full force of a Durham Christmas.)

It’s a testament to the ingenuity of Durham students that in the place of college events, we’ve seen house formals, Christmas dinners, wine and cheese nights (so Durham), and bar crawls round bedrooms, as well as a healthy dose of virtual socials (should we have left them back in April? Possibly.)

I remain quietly optimistic that next term will be better

But I think a lot of us have felt the loss of the informal, spontaneous socialising that the tiny City of Durham usually facilitates. Lockdown inevitably breaks down contact between casual acquaintances, the people you’d happily chat to in the smoking area at Jimmy’s, or on a mixed lacrosse bar crawl, but wouldn’t meet up one-to-one for a socially-distanced walk. It’s the sort of small-talk and casual (some might argue meaningless) socialising some of us might have found draining once upon a time. But it’s also the kind of social interaction that makes Durham feel like a home rather than a temporary academic residence.

I’m not pointing all this out to make anyone feel more depleted, but to acknowledge just how remarkably students at Durham and beyond have coped with the adverse changes this term. I remain quietly optimistic that next term will be better, with the roll-out of mass testing and the vaccination programme well underway. And if we use Michaelmas term as the barometer, things can only can better.

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