Remote study - a week in the life

1st June 2020

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In the second of our features following student lives under lockdown, Joseph Geldman (English, 2018) shares his experience of remote study.

  • Joseph Geldman (English) working from home

    Joseph Geldman (English) working from home

Wednesday

Today I started working on an essay about the Romantic poets Coleridge and Wordsworth, which is due on Friday. Also emailed the Shakespeare essay I completed yesterday to my tutor.

Having two full essays due within the space of three days would be an intimidating task even if I was in Oxford, so it is probably going to be quite difficult to get this one done on time. Fortunately our tutors are all understanding of the situation, so I expect some leeway for lateness will be allowed.
I went to one of our online lectures on Wordsworth - I say ‘went to’, but really that just means I sat at my desk with a cup of tea and watched a recording for an hour. 

 

With online lectures the difficulty is motivating yourself to actually sit all the way through them - they’re interesting but it’s very easy to be distracted, especially when you’re already online. At the same time, online lectures have the distinct advantage that you can pause the lecture to read usefully around the content while you’re watching. For example, this lecture was on Wordsworth’s Ode on Immortality, which I hadn’t read, so it was helpful to be able to pause the video to go away and read it, and return when I felt a bit more familiar with the contexts.

I’m planning to read half a dozen poems from each poet, and then hopefully come up with some directions for reading tomorrow using the Bodleian’s online resources. As well as using Evernote and Google docs, I’ve recently started making essay plans on the backs of postcards - I bought some to send to friends, but have far too many cards and not nearly enough stamps, so I’ve decided to put them to use in another way; and the limited space of the postcards prevent me from over-complicating my essay plans.

It occurs to me that this is an extremely English student-y thing to do, almost to the point of self-caricature. 

 

Thursday

I continued reading for my essay - culminating in a Oxford-standard late night study session until midnight. These are quite confusing for everyone at home - being asked “haven’t you done enough work?” is fairly frequent, whereas in college no one would be too surprised. 

My late-night session was mostly by choice today. I was finding it a bit difficult to work around lunchtime with the noise in the house, so I took the afternoon off to bake some bread and video-call a friend for a “coffee session”. Working from home has taken a while to adapt to new working patterns, but in a weird way, I’m actually enjoying the flexibility that comes with not having Oxford’s (usually unintentional, but often overwhelming) emphasis on immediate productivity.

 It’s distinctly uncomfortable to have to stare at the little box with your own face in for an hour. The lack of cosy office chairs and piled-up books results in a decidedly un-academic atmosphere - which isn’t a major thing, but I’ve spoken to a few of my friends about the distinct oddness of having a tute literally in your bedroom.

Friday

I managed to write my essay in a somewhat inspired four-hour burst in the morning, and got it done just before my tute, held on Zoom. Zoom tutes come with their unique range of positives and negatives. 

Positives: it’s very easy for tutors to find online resources and then post them in the Zoom chat, so while we were looking at visionary Romantic poetry in our tute, it was very easy to switch over into looking at art of the same period and to consider a different perspective. You can also make notes on your laptop during Zoom tutes without seeming awkwardly rude.

Negatives: It’s distinctly uncomfortable to have to stare at the little box with your own face in for an hour. The lack of cosy office chairs and piled-up books results in a decidedly un-academic atmosphere - which isn’t a major thing, but I’ve spoken to a few of my friends about the distinct oddness of having a tute literally in your bedroom.

In the afternoon, I did some grammar work for the French class which I’ve been attending at the University Language centre since October. Since it’s impossible for the tutors there to co-ordinate large classes of 15 or so over Zoom or Teams, we’ve switched to small group teaching - sadly, this means our contact hours have been reduced from 3 hours to 30 minutes a week. A group of us have set up our own online sessions twice a week so that we keep the habit of speaking regularly.

 

Saturday

Today was not a particularly academic day, as I was tired out by writing two essays in the space of four days. Technically, I “wasted” the day, and only did about two hours of work - in between baking some slightly malformed baguettes and going on a very long walk. But on weekends, this is definitely acceptable, and probably actually healthy. The main problem with doing the Oxford workload while not being in Oxford is that you don’t get to balance the exhaustion it can cause with things that give you energy, like going swimming, or attending societies, or just being around friends - so at the end of a week like this, I’m very often completely exhausted.

When the coronavirus pandemic started, I was convinced that I would be fine so long as I kept busy - keeping a diary and working towards “quarantine goals”, so that I could emerge from this pandemic as a sourdough-baking, extraordinarily athletic piano player who just happens to be fluent in Spanish and the Python programming language. “Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine”, etc. This worked as a mantra for about a week, but then I came to realise that it was equally unhelpful, insofar as it made me feel guilty when I did “waste” time. The sensible conclusion, I think, is that productivity for the sake of productivity - and often at the expense of mental health - is not a good thing.

The main problem with doing the Oxford workload while not being in Oxford is that you don’t get to balance the exhaustion it can cause with things that give you energy, like going swimming, or attending societies, or just being around friends - so at the end of a week like this, I’m very often completely exhausted.

Sunday

Slept in. Cooked a roast chicken. Did zero work. Watched Portrait of a Lady on Fire, thinking that improving my French might count as sort-of-work, and managed to sort-of-understand what was going on. Nice day.

Monday

Went out for a very early morning walk, returned home, and properly started reading for this week’s essay, which is due on Thursday. The topic is a slightly confusing one - “Reformist Writing”, which seems to incorporate a strange mixture of De Quincey writing on opium and Thomas Paine on the American and French revolutions. 

My tutor emailed us a very helpful set of extracts from several reformist texts - each about half a dozen pages or so. These were very useful, and I spent the morning writing up some notes.  In the afternoon I ran out of energy - usually once I stop, it can be difficult to get going again, which is why I prefer to cram in the morning. This sometimes happens while I’m at Oxford as well, but it does seem more common at home, which doesn’t have nearly so academic an atmosphere.

Tuesday

Received a postcard from my friend in America today, which was very nice. I spent most of the day reading and making notes on Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Men and Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, about 200 pages in all. Usually I’d do this sort of reading on the Wadlib beanbags, which are one of the things I'm missing most about college right now.

I’d wanted to read de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater as well, but I forgot to order it in advance, so it won’t arrive until Wednesday, which is probably too late to use it for an essay. This is a problem you don’t usually have with the unlimited resources of the Bodleian at your command.

Felt the mid-afternoon slump. But managed to get through another hundred pages of William Godwin’s Caleb Williams – a very odd book. Went to bed early – have a lot of work to do Wednesday and Thursday. 

  • English undergraduate Joseph Geldman working (and baking) remotely with inset pictures at a Wadham open day.

    English undergraduate Joseph Geldman working (and baking) remotely with inset pictures at a Wadham open day.

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