I’m back in Oxford but this time it’s different, because the usual effect of being able to do masses more work, that we all tend to feel, just isn’t present; indeed, quite the opposite seems to have occurred in that I feel far less able to knuckle down as I’ve managed to do pretty successfully over the holiday. In fact it’s one big oscillation between quantity and quality, I reckon, and I’m at the worst part of it right now. Let’s go through some discoveries from counselling last term and how the vac went, and how I now find myself.

The first thing is that the main outcome of the sessions I had last term (one more remains in a couple of weeks time) is that I now have a much more honed grasp of what my issue actually is in practical terms, or at least, I know where in my life it is even if I don’t know much about it (if I did I’d be closer to dealing with it). Say I’m reading some piece of philosophy; a chapter of a book or an article. Suppose I’ve just got to the end of the introductory paragraphs which I can go through swiftly because it’s outlining the base material the debate is based around, as one does in philosophy writing, and now we get the first challenging sentence. Up to this point I’m doing fine, but now comes the collapse because I immediately give up on multiple different levels. In the physical world I lean back in my chair and take a deep breath and look at the ceiling; this is easily recovered from because I can lean forward again. However the psychological surrender is essentially permanent from that point on, and the rest of the reading is going to be tortuous as I find myself totally unable to regain the focus I had. I’m not entirely clear about what then happens, because I do still achieve something, however small it is. And I imagine there is some kind of mixture of similar moments of surrender and minor recoveries in what follows; it’s not a once-per-day thing. So the counsellor has helped me narrow things down, which I appreciate, but actually stopping this from happening is something that no-one can help me with that I have to try and figure out for myself.

The vac then. This was a huge upcoming challenge all of last term, the challenge of setting a schedule and sticking to it and getting revision done. There was also the hope that with so much uninterrupted working I might be able to get a better grasp of my issue in order to tackle it, but that hasn’t happened; I gained some understanding of how I work best during the day but this was peripheral. When you factor in things like how hard all Oxford students find it to work at home during vacs, though, I think I achieved a great deal because I consistently worked for about five hours every single day when averaged out (despite the plan being six), which is far more than I ever have before, and in the rest of my time I worked hard on my various vac projects and achieved a great many things. So in one sense it was the most productive vac ever and I’m trying to be proud of this.

Inevitably my next line is a comment on how little I actually achieved. On the philosophy side I read most of my vac reading but at the cost of so very many hours, and indeed, I spend a whole week of working hours reading for and writing an essay (that got knocked off the end of last term) that wasn’t especially good or better for having had that much time poured into it. So things were essentially as they were during term — at least, I suppose, there’s been no regression. On the Maths side I got a lot of notes prepared for the core topics, but at a cost of missing out several lecture courses completely. I think it is fair to say that a big reason for this is due to already being behind on my own personal schedule for the year due to Christmas; there is no way that could be recovered from entirely. It’s also important to note how difficult it is to judge what position one is in with regard to Maths because moments of consolidation tend to leap you forward, moments only possible after lots of work, and because I was simply going through material in very careful detail as I tend to do for Maths revision, no such moments were forthcoming. This comment is based on my experiences last year with how much things came together during Trinity revision, not during Easter. But at the same time, as I was sorting through the work I haven’t done and sorting it all into folders yesterday (would have done this weeks ago but left my hole punch in Oxford for the whole vac!), I realised just how much there is that I really needed to have done by now I haven’t done. I should be so much more comfortable with the material.

A combination of thoughts here have now left me with a great sense of hopelessness: the fact that on getting back to Oxford I am not now working very effectively as I am used to, even for a short burst of a period; the realisation that with the amount of stuff I am not on top of, unless my judgement of where I am is off and it probably is but I’m not convinced of that: these two things leave everything seeming hopeless, and this feeds back into finding the work I am now trying to do very difficult. I do not have my work ethic for the term established with my tutors yet; I do not have goals in place because I do not know what is realistic and my natural assumption from that point is that very little is realistically achievable.

The feeling is pretty terrible. It’s crunch time for my dreams. Over the summer I will be working hard on the neglected philosophy side of my degree; neglected by my present slowness and also by the fact that I have exams in maths this year and none in philosophy. I will also be doing the maths I need as prerequisites for the third year maths courses I intend to do. Then next year I have a chunk of easy maths, a smallish chunk of hard maths, and lots and lots of philosophy, and it’s all then examined. If we assume that all this is successful and achieved and I go into the third year fighting fit then I can do pretty well, but I am no genius and there is no way that my third year, 80% of my degree, can carry me to getting a first. So I need a decent 2:1 from the 20% I am doing this year — in easier work than next year, too — in order to get that first in the end, but now this seems totally inaccessible to me. And without a first everything I then want to do stops being possible, especially in the crunched up humanities environment the government is sliding us all down into. So I’m left with this sense of hopelessness.

The irony is just how much my enthusiasm for philosophy has grown over the past three or four months. Both its value in my worldview and how much I enjoy the non-painful parts of studying it have climbed yet higher, but I’m unable to access it all.

So, what to do from here. Things are always better once term itself gets going again, and I have an exciting four weeks. I’ll be studying the Ethics paper more intensively than I usually do philosophy papers in my course and I’ll be doing Number Theory, which I really like the sound of, and Multivariable Calculus which I don’t but both of these courses are reputed to be pretty easy and this breath of fresh air will make things more enjoyable. If I can forget that I then have four weeks of damage-control revision after that, it will be a great month, especially with the improvements I made to my personal organisation system over the vac, which will keep my life running more smoothly and thus pleasanter. But right now, this week, I am being dragged down by a hopelessness that I just can’t shake.