Lots of universities in the UK have a reading week. It's a time for students to take a bit of a break, to catch up on their work, and maybe even have some fun! Not everyone works really hard in their reading week: some people go home to see their family, others might visit their friends at different universities, others might just use it to catch up on some sleep. But that's okay. These things are all part of being a human. And these are all things that being at Cambridge makes it really hard to do.
Instead of a reading week we have the "Week Five Blues". Which is basically a pithy way of saying we have institutionalised the mental health issues and tiredness that accumulate for most students over the first four weeks of term and which everyone accepts make the fifth week of term really, really hard.
It's part of the "Cambridge Experience", people say. And if you can't handle the heat, get out of the kitchen. Which is basically shorthand for "if you have mental health issues, chronic illness or struggle in any way with Cambridge, leave." Personally, I'd rather that my university didn't discriminate in this way against vulnerable members of its student body. I think that we can keep the academic rigour for which Cambridge is famous while adapting the system so it doesn't break the people in it, and I'm surprised at how unimaginative some of the, so-called, " "best minds in the country" have shown themselves to be when faced with the prospect of a small change to the status quo.
A group called Cambridge Defend Education (CDE) are running a campaign at the moment, with the support of the student union, to #endweek5blues and instead give students a reading week. As part of this campaign students are being encouraged not to hand in work to their supervisors this week. It's not a strike so much as an acknowledgement that we deserve better than what we have at the moment and that we should be able to direct our own studies, especially when it comes to our wellbeing. We need a break. So we're taking one.
Since coming to Cambridge, I have struggled with depression and anxiety. I also have IBS. A condition made significantly worse by things like stress and tiredness. So naturally, I'm often pretty ill when I'm at Cambridge. And I tend to get ill around the fourth and fifth week of term. I tend to just work through it, something which I am lucky enough to just about manage. But not everyone is so lucky, and people shouldn't have to put their work before their wellbeing.
I strongly believe that I deserve to be at Cambridge. I shouldn't just "go somewhere else" because I find it hard here. I worked really hard to get in here. I got the right A Levels and did well enough in my interview to get offered a place. And I'm doing well here: last year I got a first despite being ill and often struggling. So it's not the case that I'm not "good enough" to go here, despite not being male and privately educated. I've earned my place and I will not be squeezed out by a system that tells you that health problems are a weakness and that if you can't "go hard" you should "go home".
A reading week won't mean that I work any less hard or do any less well in my degree. It is not a case of watering down the "Cambridge Experience" or the academic work done here. It's simply an acknowledgement that we all work better when we have time to be people as well. The best academic work doesn't come from students who haven't slept all night and who are constantly stressed and anxious and unhappy because of deadlines.
So I'll be using my self-declared reading week to look after myself, to stave off the "Week Five Blues", and to do my work in a way that works for me. I'm going to use the time to reflect on how my essays have been going, to read new things to stretch myself that bit further and to read those books that I've been wanting to read for the last two years that aren't "directly relevant" to my course but from which I will doubtless learn a lot.
I'm also going to sleep, and eat, and check in with the friends that I haven't seen in the past four weeks because I've been working so much. I'm going to go and celebrate my niece's first birthday in London. I'm going to drink tea and find some time to relax. Because I know that when week six comes, I will work better for it. And because although I might be a student at Cambridge, I'm also a person. And that matters too.