With the term breezing by in a confusing cloud of assignments, apathy, and awkward online silences, we have, apparently, already arrived at Reading Week. In previous years, the start of Reading Week has been a date emblazoned on the minds of every Trinity student—a slowly ticking timer counting down to a brief flash of freedom. Yet, this year, it has been unusually stealthy in its approach, creeping up on a 2020/21 cohort still thrown off by the late start of the academic year. To better gauge what shape Reading Week has taken this year, we spoke to a number of students across different year groups, sounding out whether or not people have managed to break from the new normal and differentiate this week from what has been, admittedly, a fairly steady string of seemingly identical ones.
Reading Week is a rare phenomenon in that it bears a different significance to each and every member of the college community. To some, it’s a well-earned break, a chance to blow off steam and indulge in anything but academics. To some of the more conscientious among us, however, it’s a chance to both catch up and get ahead of coursework before getting back to the grindstone. The question on everyone’s mind, of course, is whether a Reading Week during a pandemic is anything to even get excited about. With Level 5 restrictions still firmly in place and no resurrection in sight for typical Reading Week staples like nights out, weekend adventures, and foreign sojourns, one of the only activities left, as it turns out, is reading.
“With most lectures being pre-recorded and freely available at any time of day, the rigidity of academic routines seems a thing of the past.”
To many, Reading Week will not represent any drastic change in routine, but rather a sense of “same shit, different week”, as a group of third years interviewed outside the Berkeley Library encapsulated so succinctly. With most lectures being pre-recorded and freely available at any time of day, the rigidity of academic routines seems a thing of the past. “Even though it’s convenient to roll out of bed and take my laptop and watch a lecture, I definitely miss going to classes and meeting my fellow classmates,” commented final year student Catalina Rete.
Whether championing the freedom of online learning, or lamenting a “watered-down” college experience, most students tend to agree that Reading Week has not offered much of a change of scenery from the current landscape of college life. “I don’t think I realised how much I valued those ten minutes to move between lectures when we were on campus,” said one second year student, speaking for the many students who miss the little things about in-person teaching. Without the spontaneity of on-campus learning, the semester so far has been that bit more predictable and monochrome. Although some had hoped to get a glimmer of hope and a small return to spontaneity during this Reading Week, the ill twist of fate of its landing smack in the middle of the most recent Level 5 lockdown means it simply cannot live up to its well-established hype.
“For those living outside Dublin, there is little opportunity to break up the week by commuting between library and home.”
While activity on the campus libraries has spiked over Reading Week, with some desks having been booked weeks in advance, it is worth remembering that these facilities are operating at reduced capacity and that most students are continuing to work from home. For those living outside Dublin, there is little opportunity to break up the week by commuting between library and home, further adding to the sense that Reading Week has simply been more of the same of what we’ve come to expect this semester. “I don’t go to the library in college because I’m living in Meath,” revealed one second year student in a frame of mind shared by many of those based outside the capital. “It’s simply too far to commute in to use it.”
Of course, plenty of efforts have been made this week to break the monotony of the first semester. Sports clubs are rowing, lifting, dancing, spinning and even stretching together over Zoom calls and societies are keeping us busy with activities like debates, workshops, and endless Among Us sessions. However, most students are sorely missing the events that typically populate Reading Weeks, events which are specifically characterised by things like foreign travel, close human contact in pubs and nightclubs, and meeting new people—in other words, the very antithesis of what life under lockdown permits. Normal human contact seems to lie at the heart of what makes Reading Week special; despite the best efforts of societies to replicate social events online, many students including Rete believe “it’s simply not the same”.
“This year, however, losing out on travel and nightlife has forced many of us to come up with more imaginative and productive uses of our time.”
So, what pops into people’s heads when they think of Reading Week? Predictably enough, certain buzzwords like holidays, new environments, travelling, relaxing, and nights out crop up time and time again. Lying not too far behind these words is an unmistakable veneer of nostalgia and goodwill, a fond reminiscence of times of excitement and expansion. This year, however, losing out on travel and nightlife has forced many of us to come up with more imaginative and productive uses of our time. Some students we spoke to are finding new ways to focus their academic attention, working towards musical grades and other types of certificates, whereas some are starting to think about internships and graduate roles, polishing their CV and writing cover letters. The majority, however, seem grateful to simply catch up on coursework and indulge in side hobbies such as band rehearsals, cooking, and juggling, in both senses of the word, I imagine.
Plenty of students, however, have been struggling to find a satisfactory escape from the lockdown blues. One second year medicine student detailed how even during Reading Week, he “[hasn’t] managed to get out of the house much until the weekend” and finds it difficult to break up the day. For one Schols student burdened both with writing a dissertation and with being suddenly left alone in accommodation, Reading Week has been particularly difficult. “I can’t wait for the lockdown to be lifted…this isolation is just making me more depressed as the days go by,” she candidly revealed. With many still unable or unwilling to spend too much time outside of their homes, and some having to deal with roommates and friends returning to far-flung families for the week, a lot of students at this moment in time are feeling a pronounced sense of loneliness, restless to see their friends and the outside world once more.
In terms of academics, more modules than ever before are now being assessed on a continuous basis. Students across every year group are beginning to feel the strain of this constant effort, feeling like they can’t afford to drop the ball if even for a few days. Seasoned students remarked how it “doesn’t feel like a Reading Week at all”. For first years forced to plough ahead with course material, Reading Week didn’t take place at all, even in an ostensible sense.
“The blurring of the line between work and free time has become increasingly commonplace across all age groups and career sectors over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
With students cooped up in their homes and apartments, forced to accept the constraints surrounding activities and travel, it’s tempting to entertain the notion that the Michaelmas Reading Week of 2020 has been one of the most productive in college history. Students are happy enough to let academics slide when faced with the appetising menu of typical Reading Week options, but when these options disappear, the mountain of ignored or forgotten coursework becomes more glaring. Many students feel they’ve been spending far more time typing away on their laptop or catching up on lectures than in previous years. The blurring of the line between work and free time has become increasingly commonplace across all age groups and career sectors over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic. Sure, productivity may have increased at a glance, but the ominous and potentially long-lasting effects of this “always-on” lifestyle become apparent upon closer inspection.
The effect of the pandemic on the wider college experience, and on the proud traditions associated with Reading Week in particular, has been disorientating to say the least. The common theme of people not knowing exactly what to do with themselves this week suggests that many are still subconsciously trying to process the unprecedented lifestyle changes of the last few months. To freshers who have already missed out on a string of key initiation ceremonies, important milestones, and bonding opportunities, the fond, almost nostalgic concept of Reading Week as held by older students will have to remain abstract. To those who have grown enamoured over the years with a week steeped in tradition, a carefully mixed tincture of reflection and celebration, the return of Reading Week to its former notoriety can’t come soon enough.