Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Reflections on Cambridge

At the end of January I returned to my old secondary school, Barton Court in Canterbury, to run a session on applying to Oxbridge (Oxford or Cambridge universities) for year 12s. The plan for the session was to talk not only about the details of the application process, but also to discuss what life is like at these universities, and why people even decide to apply to Oxbridge in the first place.
The last time I gave a talk on Oxbridge at Barton Court I was in the first year of my undergraduate degree, and brimming with enthusiasm about my new step into academic life at Cambridge. This isn’t to say that all of this positivity has simply evaporated since then. But 3 years on, having finished at Cambridge and taken a step further to a new institution for my masters, I was certainly more reflective about my ‘Cambridge experience’.
So from the very beginning of my talk, I was keen not to simply imply that Oxbridge is self-evidently the best option when it comes to deciding which universities to apply to. I wanted to make the session interactive, listening to the kinds of impressions the students had about Oxbridge and how these initial thoughts made them feel – and then using my experiences as a lens through which the students could get a more rounded picture of what living and studying at Oxbridge gives you.
Cambridge was extremely hard work in a very pressurised environment. The way memory works, though, means that the experiences you tend to remember most vividly aren’t the hours and hours spent in the library and writing essays, but those unique moments of Cambridge magic that make you realise how lucky you are. So when I’m asked to talk about what studying at Cambridge was like, it isn’t easy for me to explain to people the level of discipline I put myself through.                 
When I tried to give the students in my session a taste of this, the teacher who organised the session supposed that there’s lots of mental health support though, right?
When one student then described how a former Barton Court student who went to Oxford had to take a year out of their studies because of mental health issues, the room fell silent.
Although I said that I knew there were plenty of mental health services working with the universities, I couldn’t honestly vouch for their quality because I’d never used them. That’s not to say that I never felt depressed, or wished that I was somewhere/someone else. But when I did start to feel like that, I was working so hard that I couldn’t even allow myself the time to think it through. I couldn’t let myself go through the motions of wanting to stay in bed all day, or stare at walls and overthink things for hours on end. Because even if I caved in for one day, the towering mass of essays and deadlines meant that my problems would multiply, so I couldn’t stop. It felt incredibly unnatural – like not being allowed to grieve.
The way Oxbridge works is that your workload and your course material is organised centrally in departments - in my case, Cambridge’s Department of Geography – while pastoral support and social life generally tends to take place within individual colleges, which are your home while studying in Cambridge. Although this sounds like a reasonable system, it has one fundamental problem - which is that the people responsible for your workload aren’t the same people who are responsible for your wellbeing.
If you’re having problems with your studies you’re encouraged to see your college tutor, who is purposely not a member of your department. While tutors on the whole can be fantastic when students go through major bouts of illness, personal trauma or other issues, they are pretty powerless when it comes to how work is set, collected and marked. And yet these things were the main source of difficulty I faced as a Cambridge student.
Put bluntly, I felt as though my department as a whole simply wasn’t invested in student wellbeing. There were individual staff members who were sympathetic, and would do their utmost to put you in the best possible position to tackle coursework and exams. And I certainly didn’t doubt their expertise as academics. However, there were so many relatively easy things the department could have done to make life easier for the students - but they just didn’t.
We got effectively zero feedback after exams. We would work ourselves down to the bone, go through the process of writing three essays in three hours for each exam, and then simply be expected to receive our final grade and suck it up. When I wanted to get some feedback on my final year dissertation, which I had poured my heart and soul into for over a year, and to which I felt a responsibility to my research participants who had generously given hours of their time to talk to me, the department was extremely reluctant to do so. My director of studies had to jump through so many hoops to be allowed to see comments by the two examiners, and even then I couldn’t read the comments myself, only being allowed to have them read to me in paraphrase.
An argument I heard was that we got all our feedback during termtime, when we handed in essays that didn’t even count towards the final grade. Although this feedback was useful for checking our understanding of the topic and general essay writing skills, writing one essay an hour under exam conditions is completely different to having a week to write an essay of given length, with all your notes around you.
This point was made clearest to me when I heard the story that someone in my year had been writing bibliographies at the end of their exam essays. Because this person didn’t get any feedback from their first year exams, they didn’t realise until halfway into second year that this wasn’t expected of us. If they hadn’t happened to have mentioned it in a supervision, they would have continued to do this in later exams, taking further toll on their grades. How on earth can this be allowed to happen in an institution renowned for its world-class education?
It was the same for coursework submitted during termtime. We would only get the results after final exams – again, without feedback – meaning that if you’d been doing anything wrong in your first piece, the same mistakes could be repeated for all submissions and you wouldn’t know any different, or generally how you could improve. Just to make the system even more user-friendly, for each piece of coursework we had to hand in a paper copy and an electronic copy on a CD – in person. For many, this meant frantic cycle rides from college to the department on deadline dates, and long queues for the printer and the undergraduate office where we would hand the coursework to the administrator.                                
Compare this to the system in place at Queen Mary, where I’m currently doing my masters. All we have to do is log in to the university’s virtual learning environment, QMPlus, and submit our coursework electronically in a dropbox where it is automatically uploaded to the plagiarism service Turnitin. From there we can check our scores for originality and get an electronic receipt to confirm that our submission has gone through correctly. You don’t even have to leave home. And then, within three or four weeks, we receive detailed feedback on our work with good suggestions for improvements. It is completely transparent, incredibly easy to use, and works efficiently for both students and staff.
From my very first induction session at QM, I could sense how committed the department was to making sure things worked well for the students. It was small things that just made life easier for everyone. Coursework deadlines are very well spread out. We’re given plenty of opportunity for supervision for our dissertations. Staff office hours are well-communicated and we’ve been encouraged to drop in whenever there’s anything related to our work that we want to discuss. Events within the department are well communicated, and through social media and the virtual learning environment, there’s a strong sense of community. Staff and students are in close contact.                 
Some positives are probably more to do with the fact that I’m now a masters student, as opposed to being at a different university – such as how we’ve been treated with equal respect as part of the department’s research community, and given equal access to spaces such as a kitchen and common room.
Maybe because Oxbridge places will always be so sought after, and their position at the top of the league tables is so cemented, these universities are less concerned about student satisfaction. At Cambridge I often got the impression that their outlook towards students was one of ‘tough love’ – that by offering less support, students would simply be motivated to ‘work harder’ to improve – without appreciating how this might affect students’ mental health, in a competitive environment that is away from the networks of support you have at home.
And yet, when you’re spending £9,000 a year on course fees and studying an arts subject with minimal contact hours (typically 5 hours a week for me, except for exam term when it was more like 1), it does make you wonder where your money is going if it isn’t being used to offer better services and support, helping students to improve and get the most out of their Cambridge education.
Of course the content of my talk at Barton Court was nowhere near as negative about Cambridge. My experience was of one particular department, so I couldn’t comment on how well other departments operated. But also, aside from the particular grievances I had, I did enjoy being at Cambridge. I learnt an incredible amount, and I am still grateful for having the opportunity to study there. I feel that my education there has benefitted me massively on the whole. I’m also extremely grateful to the generous individuals and organisations whose donations helped to fund the Cambridge Bursary I received every year I studied there, which was an enormous financial help. And for the year 12 students in my session, who clearly had some interest in applying to Oxbridge, I didn’t want to seem off-putting at a time when they are likely to be very apprehensive about the idea of applying to any university, let alone institutions such as Oxford or Cambridge.
The point I really wanted to get across to them was that no-one should feel put off from applying to Oxbridge, if going to these universities is something they want to do, and they are capable of getting the necessary grades. In the context of my talk, Barton Court is a grammar school, and the students I was talking to were all gifted and talented, so grades certainly weren’t a problem. But sadly some gifted students often still think factors such as not attending a public school, or not coming from a rich family, hinder their chances of being accepted.
So I was looking to use my experiences as an example to counter some of these alienating stereotypes. Coming from a low-income, single-parent family and having gone to Barton Court myself, I didn’t exactly match the image that these students had of an Oxbridge student. But I now know of many people at these universities who contend with much more significant disadvantages in their daily lives: such as people who grew up in care, and those with serious physical and mental disabilities. There is also more broadly a great diversity within the student population in terms of race, nationality, gender and sexuality. These facts should be a source of encouragement for those who are worried that their backgrounds will be a hindrance during the application process.
Given the myths and anxieties surrounding the process of applying to Oxbridge, the students I talked to were keen to hear real and tangible stories from someone like them. In particular, the interview is always a source of worry that is only made worse by the weird and wonderful accounts floating around online and through word of mouth.
In the 4 years or so since my own interview experience, my perspective has stretched and blurred somewhat. I actually had a really positive interview experience, parts of which I remember quite vividly. It was one of those cool, crisp and clear December days, and I had two late morning/early afternoon interviews at Girton College. For the first I had to read an article about rainforest beforehand, and then talk about it during the interview. Although I remember that this first one went well, the questions they asked and my responses are a complete blank in my memory. For my second interview, I very nearly didn’t get to the interview on time because I got lost trying to find the room (Girton College can be a maze at the best of times). I was expecting this interview to be the ‘nasty’ interview to counterbalance the good one I’d already had. But it turned out to be even better than the first. In this one, I was asked about my personal statement, my experiences doing the International Baccalaureate as opposed to A-Levels, and a few questions related to human geography involving population maps. Filled with relief, my Mum and I then enjoyed a completely free lunch from the college cafeteria. They always put on good food for the interview candidates, and we had some great fish and chips.
However, since talking to others at Cambridge, I know that not all interview experiences are this positive. Like with my first interview, though, most people can’t remember much about what was asked and what they said. In the end, the fact that these people were offered places shows that interviewers are looking for more than just perfect responses and 100% correct answers.
As I’ve found out, this is because interviews are effectively mock supervisions (called ‘tutorials’ at Oxford), which are the small group teaching methods unique to these universities. Although their focus and format will vary between subjects, you’re typically not expected to attend a supervision already knowing everything about the topic. The supervisor is usually more interested in how you approach the topic, and where they can possibly fill gaps in your knowledge to refine your understanding.
So for my year 12 group, the best advice I could give them was to not panic if they are unsure about how to respond to a question. I told them to stay calm and ‘think out loud’, talking the interviewers through their thought processes and explaining parts of the topic that they do understand, so the interviewers can see that their approach is rational. As a pre-university student, your knowledge of the subject is likely to be minimal anyway. What they want to see is potential, not the finished object.
Hopefully this is good advice.  Unfortunately schools like Barton Court - which don’t have such a big culture of people going to Oxbridge compared to public schools or even other grammar schools – can lack adequate knowledge of how Oxbridge interviews work, which puts their students at a disadvantage. If I can use my experiences to help with this shortfall, then I only see that as being a good thing.
The other event that spurred my recent reflections on Cambridge was a dinner I attended in the city itself a few weekends ago. Hosted by my old college, Girton, the dinner was for all former alumni at the college who studied Geography.
After getting over the initial surreal feeling of being back in Cambridge for the first time since my sunny graduation in June, when I first walked back into Girton I was struck by how it felt as though I’d never left. I mean, 7 months isn’t a particularly long time to have been away from somewhere, but strangely I felt just as at home walking around as I did when I was an undergraduate.
After an evening of catching up with old friends, hearing about current students’ dissertations, and eating fantastic college food, I realised how much I missed the camaraderie of college life - the sense that ‘we all don’t really know what’s going on, but we’re all in the same boat’. Although I most certainly did not miss the workload and the intensity of studying in Cambridge, at least living together in college gave you the opportunity to complain about it and escape from it with each other, as well as sharing those moments of Cambridge magic that wouldn’t seem too out of place in a Harry Potter book.
Seeing new freshers at the dinner was also comforting – even though it made me a feel a little old – as a reminder of how I was in the same position once, when university life was all new to me. The cycle keeps on repeating.
I didn’t want the reflections in this post to come across as a scathing critique of Cambridge life. While I do agree with this article by a former Cambridge student talking about how the excesses of Cambridge traditions such as May Balls normalise a sense of entitlement, my fond memories derive from the people and the place rather than the lavish traditions per se. The alumni dinner itself cost £50 (certainly expensive for me, alongside train tickets) but I wasn’t attending it to revel in my privileged Cambridge status. I just wanted to feel part of my college community again.
Ironically, if I could change one thing about my ‘Cambridge experience’, I would likely choose to have been more involved in college and university social life. In a place where the concentration of interesting people and events is maximal, I could have profited from this if I’d been more confident and seen the bigger picture. I probably don’t strike people as a terribly unconfident person. But even looking back on fresher’s week, I feel like I lacked the confidence to mix well with other people due to a combination of being a non-drinker, and the headspace I was in at the time. This almost certainly cut off social opportunities I otherwise would have had, and it was an issue that continued throughout my first couple of years before the stresses of final year took away any prospect of a thriving social life.
I’m glad to say that things are much better for me now in this regard. At Queen Mary I always try to be the instigator of get-togethers, and I love talking and spending time with the diverse and interesting people that I study with. I’ve also been doing quite a few activities outside of academic work, both in London and Canterbury, such as talks, artistic events, theatre, and generally meeting up with people. I think I find it easier now because I’m only at QM two days a week and I’m a master’s student, so everything feels much less pressured than when you’re living in the same college and city day in day out, amongst other undergraduates. It's sometimes annoying that I can’t do everything I want to because I don’t live in London – where there is inevitably great stuff happening all the time – but I really value spending lots of time in Canterbury too.
Overall, as I talked about in an earlier post, I couldn’t really be happier with my university situation now.
In both direct and roundabout ways Cambridge brought me to this point, even if the journey wasn’t smooth. So my overriding outlook now is one of accomplishment, looking tentatively ahead from a jagged summit of circumstance.

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