The Secret Lives Of Students

ROSEANNA IVORY on the bizarre working practices of the Cambridge Student.

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Work’ – the word that is never far from the conscious or subconscious of the Cambridge undergraduate: but the way in which each individual goes about it ranges from the mundane to the ridiculous, though often ingenious.

I have often wondered whether there is social stigma attached to working in the second best university in the world? Evidence that this is indeed the case can be found in the many individuals who regularly uphold the practice of “secret working”. These are the people who give the impression of a relaxed indifference to hitting the library and handing essays in on time: the truth is far from this carefully crafted appearance of nonchalance. I have come across many a person in college who will go to Cindies until eleven thirty then give the excuse that they are ‘way too battered mate’ and need to take themselves home to bed. In reality, they have had one VK (appearances must be upheld) which they nursed all evening and will return to their room to put in another couple of hours reading before bed. They are most likely to have done several Cindies circuits and made sure that they were seen by all, before slipping out on a given pretence. It is vital to the impression that they portray of themselves that they go out “the whole time”, rather than simply going out one night less a week and spending that time working- and admitting to it. Why do they feel this pressure to hide themselves away (the light on but the curtains firmly closed) to give the impression of drunken slumber? However, this is just one way that undergraduates go about their work, there are countless others.

The nocturnal worker  works all night and sleeps all day. They often become legends in college because someone spotting them becomes a newsworthy item. People who live beside them question their very existence. Fire-alarms in college are often interesting simply to lay eyes on these people. Someone on my corridor last year lived on Shanghai time because it meant that he could talk to his friends at home at the right time for them: although I was impressed by his friendship dedication it seemed a waste of his precious time at Cambridge to be constantly in darkness when surrounded by such architectural beauty.

The last-minute workers: these are the people who work on average 2 days work a week but shall not sleep at all during these 48 hours, thereby needing the rest of the week to recover. Pulling an all-nighter is an impressive feat by any standards but two in a row is simply foolhardy. In order to achieve this long without sleep packets of pro-plus need to be consumed along with far too many double espressos. As a result once the work is done it is often difficult for them to sleep for another couple of hours because their body is so full of caffeine, making one query whether any sort of common sense has been applied. For these people motivation evades them until a deadline looms large and then the adrenaline kicks in.

The competitive workers: those who are present outside the library before the doors open and will remain there until it closes. I have often observed these people who feel the need to spend as many hours in the library as possible, even if this means spending a few of them on Wikipedia, computer games and YouTube: the pressure to say that they had spent all day in the library is more important than spending a few less hours and being more productive. I do not intend to scorn these hard-workers but simply to question the sanity of their actions: fresh air is important to a healthy life, a yellow-ish tinge far from attractive.

The butterfly workers: those who work sporadically throughout the week, evading pattern at every opportunity. Work is fitted in when inspiration strikes but other than that life is for the living.

The early-bird: these people who rise before the sun (even in summertime!) These people astound me – I can only but look on in admiration and jealousy because the sound of my alarm sends a jolt of pain through my body (in order to get up for a lecture any time before eleven), especially after a night-out.

Then of course there are those who scorn work altogether – the non-workers. However, it would be pointless to expand to too great an extent on these Cambridge undergraduates because they are soon shown the error of their way, driven out of their laziness, or they are “sent-down” for failing. Though their mantra of ‘why work when you can play?’ is something we all find hard to extinguish.

The Cambridge student is a bizarre animal when it comes to “work”. We all feel the intense pressure to perform and to excel whether we are swans serenely gliding on the surface while frantically paddling underneath, or splashing about determined to point out how many hours we have worked. We all employ survival techniques: there are those who work all night and sleep all day, those who get up extremely early and those who work what others would consider in a “sensible” way. Yes we all would love to be able to spend less time working but excel just as much, but the truth is most of us cannot. However whatever we do, surely we should be honest with others about the hours that we work? If not then we are all contributing to turning up the revs on other people’s treadmills: increasing their fear that they are inadequate because others are working less and doing better. Honesty is desirable but bragging, on the other hand, simply unacceptable. If you have finished the reading list a week before the essay is due in, then please, do keep it to yourself.