Studying for a Masters degree under lockdown

Sweary seminars, grief and #Escapril: studying(?) for a degree under lockdown

by Chloe Erin, Masters student of Literature at Cardiff University.

person writing on notebook

Photo by Julia M Cameron on Pexels.com

Around a fortnight or so before the UK went into lockdown, blissfully unaware of what was to come, I returned to Manchester to visit my grandmother for what would be the last time. I knew this to be the case beforehand, whether that makes me lucky or not I couldn’t tell you; I rarely get the opportunity to go home and her condition was deteriorating by the day, so my mum told me I should make certain I had a chance to say goodbye. I was in the park enjoying my newly instigated daily walk under the new regulations when I received word she had passed on. Strangely, I had been talking to a friend not long before and offhandedly remarked that I was just waiting for my dad to ring me, about which they later suggested may well have been my sensing of her departure from the world, which was oddly comforting, like a kiss goodbye.

A hotly anticipated announcement that lecturers would begin transitioning to online teaching had come a week previously, so my cohort were somewhat prepared for an unprecedented impact on learning and understandably quite worried, having already missed out on four weeks of teaching due to the very necessary UCU strikes. Personally, I was predominantly concerned about having to navigate an already uncomfortable situation through the means of video calling – I am autistic, and despite perfecting a somewhat confident persona (otherwise known as masking), I find it quite difficult to articulate myself well in a classroom environment. Factoring in echoey, crackled audio, time delays and an even greater difficulty knowing when it is my turn to speak promises only further potential for anxiety, sweating, profuse apologies and stumbling over every other sentence. I am currently studying part-time for my Masters in English Literature, traversing the second of a two-and-a-half-year course with one module per semester, the rest of my time set aside for part-time jobs and occasional tomfoolery. However, I am now actively tackling the prospect of my daunting fifteen-thousand-word dissertation as well. Working on the initial proposal for my biggest project to date alongside the twentieth century women’s poetry module I get the pleasure of this term is my current preoccupation as I while away the hours ‘til tomorrow… or it would be, if I could only engage with it for more than a brief period of time after four pm on randomly selected days.

Not to add to the growing list of reasons you should feel sympathy towards me (you shouldn’t) but I’m also chronically depressed, so staying inside by myself all day is really not my cup of tea; alas, my wonderful fiancée Eve is a medical student and thus was drafted in to support the efforts of our phenomenal NHS full-time. As a result, our lovely flat and I are getting very well acquainted, and if I had a pedometer, it would probably be broken by now. I am so incredibly proud, though, that I will persevere, and keep clapping for her and every single person risking their lives for us. I primarily work for the University as a disabilities support worker, filling financial gaps as a freelance transcriptionist, so duties are thin on the ground for me in the exchanging-labour-for-money department. Luckily for you, this is not a piece about my financial insecurity! Now, reader, you might suppose that swathes of free time to occupy myself with academia would present itself as a gift, and you would be correct, but regrettably, my brain is simply not cooperating with its opportunities to thrive in education. I do not make the rules. For the seminars I have had online so far, I have managed little by way of preparation, besides trying to finish the minimum weekly reading. My class is lucky – our tutor is lovely, incredibly accommodating, and has made it her mission to help us through each class as painlessly as possible. She extended the deadline for our formative essay, even held an additional session for us to bounce ideas off of eachother over the bank holiday weekend, which she really did not have to set aside time to do. Our video chats have actually been very surprising: productive, enjoyable and of a slightly less formal note than usual, cathartic swearing generally accepted under the circumstances. My course have been issued with a proposed ‘no detriment’ outcome for all assessments, meaning our averages can increase but a lower mark would have no impact – that we have to complete them at all seems futile to me, as I don’t feel anywhere near capable of surpassing myself, but it’s better than nothing and I should count my blessings. Other students are not so lucky, forced to continue as normal under such ambiguity and uncertainty, revising for amended exams to be taken from their bedrooms or attempting to complete assignments as they were with no possible leeway. I have heard some horror stories.

Reading, though, is something I want to sink my teeth into, a task easily managed with such a wonderful selection of books shaping the dissertation I intend to write; those keeping me company include Alice Walker, Jeanette Winterson, Leslie Feinberg, Audre Lorde, and Virginia Woolf, which is quite the dinner party, isn’t it? Eve and I managed to secure an almighty stack from the uni library mere hours before it shut for the foreseeable – I usually request my copies through the online service to avoid the narrow, dusty shelves and the dreaded Dewey Decimal, but we found a smidge of pleasure competing for who could find the most before we ran out of oxygen.  Sitting on the little bench just outside our building with an iced coffee, noise-cancelling headphones, and a chapter of whatever eminent queer literature I’m trying to work through that day is the closest I can get to peaceful at the minute. Perhaps I am not making as much progress as my peers; some days, I do not even bother turning my laptop on, recognising that Animal Crossing or re-watching the entirety of The Simpsons is doomed to steal my attention away uncontested. Beating myself up for not doing enough comes easily to me, a Virgo with a deeply rooted need for accomplishment (and thus validation), and normally I would be self-flagellating every time I pause to take a breath. But I am not. Even me, the queen of neuroticism and self-deprecator of the year, can be found cutting themselves a little slack in what feels like a never-ending onslaught of unpleasant news on top of worse. I lost a family member, I postponed my wedding, I miss my friends so much that even the salve of Facetime stings because it reminds me we are apart. Everything about my usual routine has flown out of the window, so how can I expect myself to function as if it had not?

The same weekend I saw my grandma, I also created an Instagram profile to share poems. Everyone’s favourite place to pretend and I have a chequered past, having deleted my original account a few years ago because it became genuinely detrimental to my mental health. The constant influx of filtered happiness was fuelling the fire in my head that believed everyone else was fine, leaving me to stagnate alone with my severely diminished mental health. I have no idea what possessed me to start uploading poetry to the internet again that day, but I soon stumbled across Escapril, writer and Youtuber Savannah Brown’s annual challenge proffering thirty prompts for poetry to be written every day in, you guessed it, April. I had heard of it the first time around, not participating, but appreciating the wonderful work that was birthed as a result. There is no obligation to complete every prompt, nor do you have to do them in any particular order, but I have set myself the challenge of doing so, in hopes of occupying my hands and my mind every day. As I write this, we have reached day thirteen and I haven’t missed one yet; I might not have produced any particularly life-changing work, and the algorithm is determined to make it as difficult as possible to reach a desired audience, but having something both non-committal and gently encouraging to aim for each day is proving helpful. Each poem has been an adventure – some came easily to me, others needed help and one or two were clawed out screaming – purgative, beneficial and therapeutic in their individual ways. Plodding along as best as I can, without pressuring myself (as much) to meet any deadlines besides the ones imposed upon me by the University, is all I am expecting for now. The world is at standstill, now is a time to recharge and take care of yourself if you are able. To those who are not, I salute you. I hope we will see the other side, together, as soon as it is possible.

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