Notes from the Library

Feb 2011

Wed, 16 Feb 2011

The Balliol 2nd year Maths and Maths & Philosophy contingent are not very good at doing our degrees. It's a horrible cycle. I've spent the past four days doing mad quantities of terrible work to meet deadlines, neglecting everything else; for the next couple of days I will attempt to catch up on everything else in my life (centered around my inbox β€” it's been at inbox zero for four weeks until the past couple of days). But then I'll be back in the same place again because of spending that time on other things. Round and round we go. I'm writing about this because the past four days have perhaps been the worst instance of this cycle. Monday morning was our pure Maths deadline so we met in the JCR the night before to get help from each other on questions we couldn't do. At least, that's the idea; the tutors encourage us to meet up and exchange tips for the harder questions rather than coming to the class clueless. And even if you need a lot of help to do a question, it's okay because writing it out in your own words is still a valuable learning experience, since a decent part of this degree is writing the stuff out. You don't have to be amazing at Maths if you can get good at that. But this is not what happened on Sunday night, and it's not what's happened on Sunday nights all term or whatever the deadline night was last term. We got it right in first year and learnt from each other and it was good but now, it's essentially a copy-fest. We have a progidy in our year who has generally done the questions or at least he's done enough that he can do the rest while the rest of us work through the ones he's done so far, but the reason that this particular Sunday was so awful was that our genius had a pile of Probability to do (applied Maths, so only relevant for about 40% of the people there) before he got onto Topology. So we all slotted into our roles. I giggled and panicked more and more as time went on, complaining about the futility of it all; it's a deeply unpleasant and shameful experience to be doing this every single week/fortnight. Our genius sat there quietely writing away. The 'cool' Math/Phils exchanged 'banter' on uninteresting banal student topics as a form of procrastination. I interspersed their comments with my usual outlandish opinions and moaned about my degree. It's always the same.

Except that we're not usually sitting there for eight hours. We started at 5 and I got there at around 5:30. At 6:30 we decided to go and eat in Hall, none of us expecting to get back home in time. In Hall people spoke of how much nicer Hall food was than our own but of course we all know it's an illusion and one gets sick of it after a few weeks of eating it every day. We returned to the JCR and did another hour or something, and then all went to the bar for a pint of cola each for caffeine. It seemed to work β€” a little β€” and so we continued to scribble away, slowly caring less and less as time went by but not wanting to give up. Once we decided to do up to a certain question as a group, none of us wanted to give up early, despite how little we were achieving as time slipped by. At 12:30 I gave up and headed home, with two questions I'd aimed to do not done. A few remained but I don't think they stayed too long.

This plus lectures plus mindless classes is my Maths degree at the moment. Subtract the lectures and add a smidgen more class engagement and you have the Maths degree of most of the others in the second year here at Balliol. The psychology is so weird. Our tutors are ridiculously laid back compared to other subjects in Balliol and Maths tutors at other colleges, and they are not actually going to do anything if we don't hand the work in. As I said, they encourage us to work together to some extent because this stuff is hard and our actual exams are always easier; these questions are to deepen/give us an understanding of the material. And as I've noted, we don't learn too much once we're past a certain time in the evening. So why do we put ourselves through this, desperate to finish? As I said the chat is always the same. "What are we doing up to?" "We think question five is where the lectures have got to." "Well I might just do up to three then," and inevitably this person won't be able to tear themselves away from the almost entirely pointless activity after question three. We have one guy who is supremely confident in his ability to revise and doesn't care that much about problem sheets and always remains very relaxed.

So that's Sunday night, but then most of us had Philosophy due in on Monday. The deadline for my essay was, I believe, 9am Tuesday but the tutor didn't really set one; everyone else had 5pm Monday. We had classes 9-11 and 5-6 so immediately after the Topology class, with minimal reading done, the 5pm crew trekked off to the computer room to start typing. I headed to the library, hoping to get some more reading done first, and of course here my problems start. Two and a half hours in the Rad Cam later and I've got comfortableish with a twelve page article. I sat down to write the essay after the 5pm class and after having eaten. Of course by now it's 8pm, and I'd just had solid work plus a small portion of sleeping for about 36 hours; there was no way I was going to be successful. I e-mailed my tutor to say that I wasn't going to get it in and went to bed at 9pm. The following day (so, yesterday) I headed back to the library and did four hours on a twenty page article, and then I started writing. I left the library at 7pm, ate, start writing again at about 9pm, was finished a couple of hours later. Tutor doesn't seem to care that much but while I appreciate his flexibility it concerns me that we're going to run out of term before we've had the number of essays and tutorials we're supposed to… And so now I'm out of the cycle for another ten days or so. In which I'll achieve precious little with all these stupid lectures getting in the way, and with it being easier to give up when my present difficulties stop me from getting through reading and spreading Maths out, as I should.

That's how it should be. I might have to work a bit harder closer to deadlines but this is after days of trying problem sheet questions and with a good deal of reading already under my belt. We're second years and we ought to be good at this by now. This part of our degree should be the most fun because we're adept at spreading out work, we don't actually have that much of it this term and we can let thinks sink in gradually because it's all a part of our lives every single day. With a good schedule, all the other things I need to do can happen in the evenings after a good day of work. Yet it just never seems to work. I am one of the most organised people yet it just never seems to work. A good part of this is my present handicap to studying, which replaces the laziness and poor sleeping habits of everyone else in the above description, but it's not all of it. Hopefully we'll figure things out before exams but I'm not so sure, and it makes studying here unpleasant. As I've said before you basically need to get things perfect in order to cope with joint honours Oxford degree workloads. So now I've got a new Essential Mix on to listen to while I dig myself out of the mountain of little tasks and e-mails sitting all over the place, ready to make yet another attempt I don't expect to succeed.

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