The 'Essay Crisis' Myth – Why Winging It Shouldn't Be Celebrated

"If we really want to open up the establishment, we need to stop aspiring to be the chancer who hurtles through life. For many, bloody hard work is the only route to success – let’s celebrate that," writes Jess Brammar.
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Nothing gets Twitter going like a relatable tale, and the story this week of the Durham undergrad who allegedly wrote her dissertation in just 8 hours and still got a 2:1 set off many a commentator with a story of how little they grafted as a student.

Reflecting on her essay sprint, recent Philosophy graduate Imogen Noble told The Tab: “I knew based off of other essays I can bang out a few thousand words in a couple of hours so I rested hard on my laurels.”

I mean, good for her. Given her choice of university and degree, she’s likely to end up in a profession where that sort of confidence will serve her well. I’ve spent a lot of my journalistic career – never mind my social life – surrounded by people who brag about their ability to put in the minimum of effort and still, repeatedly, excel.

The “essay crisis” is a phrase so often used in British journalism and politics that it even has an entry in the online Macmillan dictionary. You may never have heard it – I certainly hadn’t until a couple of years ago. It’s used as a handy catch-all term for leaving things to the last minute. To operate in an “essay crisis” state conjures up images of all-nighters pulled just before an important deadline. To state the obvious, it’s a niche experience, a phrase used almost unknowingly as a code that means nothing to people who don’t understand it – a casual linguistic form of elitism.

Imogen from Durham’s ‘essay crisis’ is part of a rich tradition. It says a great deal about British journalism and politics that David Cameron became known as an “essay crisis prime minister” – as the New Statesman pointed out, “a gibe that must have seemed meaningless to millions of people who never experienced the weekly rhythms of the Oxford tutorial system”. No surprise, I suppose, that university language occupies such a place in our discourse when you remember that many of the leading politicians of our age (and any age – this is Britain) were at university together, and the ones who didn’t enter politics are often facing them from the press gallery, or heading up thinktanks working on government policies.

The Guardian described a day in April 2015 where “an Oxford University graduate in philosophy, politics and economics (PPE), Ed Miliband, launched the Labour party’s general election manifesto. It was examined by the BBC’s political editor, Oxford PPE graduate Nick Robinson, by the BBC’s economics editor, Oxford PPE graduate Robert Peston, and by the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Oxford PPE graduate Paul Johnson. It was criticised by the prime minister, Oxford PPE graduate David Cameron. It was defended by the Labour shadow chancellor, Oxford PPE graduate Ed Balls.”

But aside from what it says about our entrenched elite that we can’t stop talking like a bunch of excitable Oxbridge undergraduates, what kind of life lessons are instilled by this behaviour? As the film maker Catherine Bray put it to me, “The worst thing university taught me was that it was desirable and possible to do the minimum and have a version of success; took me the best part of a decade to unlearn that stupid lesson and start making the genuinely exciting, often self-driven projects that delight me.”

For my part the prospect of university was too daunting – and too expensive – to chance it. When I arrived there after two years working in a data entry job, I didn’t have a clue how to write an essay, and I spent the summer reading the whole pre-course reading list in a desperate attempt to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. Of course, I now understand how unnecessary that was.

There is a charm to the rakish, last minute, slightly shambolic ‘essay crisis’ champion. You only have to look at the popularity of our current prime minister to see that. And of course there are many genuine stories of crises that leave people in a last-minute bind, or simply unable to find the time to get down to work, like the woman on Twitter who talked about writing it over a few days because of her full-time job, four kids and disabled husband.

But those cases aside, there is also an arrogance to the belief that you can do something the night before that takes mere mortals weeks of work. And it’s based on a fundamental knowledge that things will be OK, regardless of your own failure to perform. Which, in many of these cases, is true. Privilege is a wonderful thing.

So how about we celebrate the quiet hard workers, the ones who don’t have an innate belief that their brilliance will shine through, the ones who have understood all their lives that only through hard work can they succeed. People who display their passions through their efforts, who don’t wear their lack of commitment to a project as a badge of honour. As one woman on Twitter put it, “There’s a weird assumption that having to work hard means you’re not talented enough, unfounded but very widespread.”

If we really want to open up the establishment, we need to stop aspiring to be the chancer who hurtles through life, too often barely aware that they are wearing down people’s patience with their determination not to play by the rules. For a lot of people, bloody hard work is the only route to success – let’s celebrate that.

Jess Brammar is Executive Editor at HuffPost UK.

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