As a fresher with good intentions, determined to make a fresh start in Hilary Term, I decided a few weeks ago that I would attend more online social events on top of online learning. Already, it is safe to say I am just as behind on this ambition as I am on my reading, and it has led me to realise, like so many other students, how much I am struggling with the inability to switch off from college.
Doing college remotely certainly has its advantages—we can watch pre-recorded material around our own schedule, we can attend our next tutorial just minutes after finishing the last, and those of us living away from family can go home should we need to and continue with our college work from there. However, attending college online has quickly lost its novelty in the same way that baking bread and doing yoga did in the first lockdown. We are left with the feeling of never having a substantial break from work.
“There is a pressure, both externally and internally, to overwork yourself and be available at all hours of the day.”
The apparent schedule that online learning works around is, firstly, fairly nonexistent at the moment, with real, untaxing moments of relaxation occurring only rarely. Whereas, in ordinary times, we might reach for the TV remote for some time to switch off, this can sometimes feel like an extension of the work day. Even scrolling through TikTok has started feeling a little too similar to scrolling through Blackboard. It seems as though all screens remind us of our impending workload. This is complicated by the fact that everyone is working at different times of the day. As a result of this, it becomes hard to find a moment in which we are not working. With emails coming in left right and centre, and students discussing lecture points in group chats, we allow ourselves less and less time to fully relax. There is a pressure, both externally and internally, to overwork yourself and be available at all hours of the day. In any other circumstance, we might find it easier to sacrifice work for mental health, but when it seems to be our only connection to college, we seem to be doing the opposite.
Craving this connection, some have turned to Zoom socials to give themselves somewhat of a holistic college experience and to make the workload feel at more of a balance with college-related leisure. It is lovely to speak to peers outside of the virtual lecture theatre, and the conversation, more often than not, flows easily. After all, we have become pros at Zoom by now. Yet, this once again presents us with the challenge of never being able to fully separate our work and leisure environments. Sleeping less than a metre from my desk, where my entire college experience has taken place, has been a challenge. As presented by the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard, “keeping computers, TVs, and work materials out of the room will strengthen the mental association between your bedroom and sleep.” But worse still, trying to socialise at your desk and move from work to leisure mode means we are not only unable to switch off to go to sleep, but also unable to switch off and socialise with our peers. None of this is to say that Zoom events aren’t of enormous value. I am grateful for the accessibility of online learning. Thankfully, shifting nearly all of our commitments online has been an option. However, enjoying someone’s presence and even companionable silence from a box with your name in the corner isn’t quite the same as socializing used to be. The lonely sigh and slackening smile after you’ve clicked “leave” on your Zoom social is evidence that, because screens have become so much a part of our work routine, chatting with friends online no longer feels like a substantial break. In fact, it often feels performative—a token to offer parents when they call asking after your college social life.
“We can only hope that, as the weather brightens up, we can take advantage of this freedom and finally meet that person who we’ve only seen on the screen.”
Methods of switching off that used to work, such as going for a walk, now seem to carry the ghastly monotony of a year of living with Covid-19. Although the ability to exercise with someone outside of one’s household is something we definitely cling to, it seems to be the only way to relax properly, as we move outside of what feels like the four walls of our existence, and have the opportunity to see people face-to-face. It is relief from the objectively untrue, but still invasive, thought that the relationships we have forged this year are unauthentic in some way. And while many students have become so fatigued by this kind of socialising that they have retreated entirely into socialising with the people they already know and live with, we can only hope that, as the weather brightens up, we can take advantage of this freedom and finally meet that person who we’ve only seen from on the screen.
Whether you live at home and have been known to put your headphones in and feign listening to a lecture just to avoid the attention of parents, or you live in student accommodation as reflected by the stability of your internet connection, powering down has never been so important. It is so difficult to switch off when our lives seem to exist only when our screens are switched on. With that said, let us prioritise giving ourselves as much downtime as possible and in whatever form – be it Zoom socials, a mindfulness colouring book, or just a good nap. Just as our laptops need an occasional shutdown, we too need time off. Don’t just put yourself in sleep mode, shut down your work brain completely. And if this means telling your friend who won’t stop mentioning to you that Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the plague that you are struggling even to sleep the night through, then so be it.