The problem with Reading Week.

Photo by Ranald Dinsdale

Lade Braes is decorated with autumn leaves in deep reds, oranges, and yellows. The supermarkets’ shelves are filled with pumpkins waiting to be carved, and comforting bowls of soup with crusty bread seem ever more appealing. Knitted woollens and long boots have been dug out from the back of wardrobes whilst, after much protest, summery skirts and floaty tops have been stuffed into boxes to be resurrected many months from now when the warmth of the sunshine can be felt once more. The clocks are going back, and Freshers’ week is but a memory. The foam fight along with the mayhem of Raisin weekend has been and gone, and so we find ourselves at Independent Learning Week.

For those older students who remember the days when Raisin Monday was a ‘teaching day’ the prospect of a hot cup of tea, some trashy TV, and a nap to recover from the craziness of being academic parents without having to run to a tutorial or submit an essay was certainly an overwhelming relief.

For freshers, exhausted followinga weekend filled with bizarre challenges paired with the adjustment over the past few months of living away from home as a university student, the break could not have come at a better time. An almost audible sigh of relief was heard across the town after five exhausting weeks of teaching as students realised that they could pause, take a breath, and catch up on the reading and essays which had piled up over the past five weeks.

It must be said that the semester seems psychologically more manageable when divided in half with the chance to recharge and recuperate before Christmas. This is of particular importance considering the shocking statistic found by government research that one in four students at university suffer from a mental health illness. Independent Learning Week, whilst not slipping off the tongue, therefore seems to be a wonderful idea.

Some students have maximised on a week without classes to jet off to exotic locations and soak up some sunshine before the onset of the freezing Scottish winter. Others have travelled home to enjoy time with family and friends and to enjoy some good home-cooked food and a free laundry service. Sleep seems to be high on everyone’s agenda, and judging by the ‘ghost-town’ atmosphere in the early mornings during Independent Learning Week that certainly seems to have been achieved.

But are sleep and relaxation justified in Independent Learning Week? What is the intended purpose of Independent Learning Week? The week should be used for learning and academic work, perhaps to read a handful of books and write some essays. Well, the university reintroduced a week without classes and deadlines in the Michaelmas semester last year.

It was intended to enable those students struggling with the rigorous academic demands in St Andrews to catch up with their work. But does it really achieve this purpose, and is Independent Learning Week really a blessing? Is it really that different to the average working week of a St Andrews student? The lack of structure for the week seems to have the potential to throw students off the schedule that it has taken them five weeks to establish after a long break from academia over the Summer holidays. Indeed, rather than relieving the pressure of work, for most it seems that because of the blanket ban on deadlines in Independent Learning Week that a ridiculous number of deadlines have amassed in Week Seven.

Tutors seem to have unrealistic expectations of the sheer number of pages that the students will be able to read and digest over the week, creating an unsurmountable ‘to do’ list. Further to this do we not already learn independently? After all, Honours students doing Arts degrees have only a handful of contact hours per week and therefore spend most of their working week reading and writing by themselves.

The days of spoon-fed learning are long gone, a distant memory confined to time spent at school where we were conditioned to excel at our public exams. So, it seems that some will love and others loathe this liminal phase in the term. Those without a mountain of deadlines in Week Seven will feel revived and ready to tackle the next five weeks of teaching, whilst those who have spent their week in the library ploughing through academic books will feel wearied and worn out. C.S. Lewis remarked that ‘you can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me’ — copious amounts of tea certainly fuelled my reading week, but a shorter reading list to get through would suit me fine.


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