MT 0/1: False Starts and Keeping Your Cool

My dear long-neglected readers!

As you will have gathered by now, I began my Masters course in Golden Age Spanish as an Ertegun Scholar at the beginning of October, which means that the First Week of term has just come to an end. Many of you will have read my Finals posts, and I do want to continue blogging the rest of my time at Oxford, as my undergraduate degree flew past and I have relatively few distinct memories from that time. I may well continue in the same format, telling you about my week and what I got up to and how I found it, but today’s post is a little different. Let me know in the comments how you found it, and whether you’d prefer a return to the standard setup in the coming weeks!

Let me explain the title: MT stands for Michaelmas Term, the first term of the Oxford year (the others are Hilary and Trinity), and 0/1 refers to 0th and 1st Week. Yes, we have a 0th week. We even have a -1st week, if you were interested.

The only way that I can describe the last few weeks and the concomitant brand new beginnings is “challenging”. I don’t mean challenging as in euphemism for screamingly difficult, can’t-cope-send-help, but in its true sense. German has a great set of words to describe the difference: it may be a Herausforderung (challenge), but I am not (yet) Ã¼berfordert (overwhelmed). The challenges lie in the fact that I have remained in the same place, at the same institution, within a faculty I love, but everything has changed, with the intellectual pressure in particular being turned up a notch, in no small part due to the new community of scholars I now belong to. It’s a fairly abrupt change to go from being lauded for academic achievement into a new environment where everyone is at least as clever as you, if not far more so. That’s not necessarily a negative change: in fact, it’s a good thing, as I’ve come to really value being consistently pushed and stretched so I never get too comfortable or complacent. But it doesn’t mean it’s any less disorienting.

When you first come to Oxford as an undergraduate, older students sagely warn you about the dangers of arriving with the notion that you are far cleverer than everyone else simply because you were the best in your school – I heard of the dreaded BFLPE (Big-fish-little-pond-effect: Marsh and Parker, 1987) so often, in fact, that I never suffered from it in the slightest, as I began my first tutorials safe in the knowledge that I was very unlikely to be the best any longer. Again, I don’t think the BFLPE is a problem here: my self-esteem doesn’t tend to suffer too badly when I’m in the company of people who know a lot more than I do, but I do become conscious of the limits of my knowledge and how much I can still improve by. While this is the case on a more general level, where I find a great deal of the literary, historical and philosophical references within conversations in the Ertegun House fly completely over my head, because I simply have not and do not read a wide enough variety of material, it’s also relevant to the way in which I approach my work. Specifically, I have become acutely aware of the fact that I have managed to complete an entire Oxford degree in literature, as many people do, without more than the slightest knowledge of critical theory. Granted, I am attending lectures in precisely that topic this year, but the problem is that I need these ideas now, as I’m becoming increasingly cognizant of the ways in which my work would benefit from the application of certain theoretical concepts. I don’t believe in using and abusing theoretical frameworks merely in order to sound intelligent, but I do believe in pushing myself beyond what I’m used to writing even if it’s more difficult at first. Some things are easy enough to teach myself: other times, I sit in a lecture on German philosophy and understand precious little of it, meaning I have a lot of independent catching up to do if I’m going to benefit from it.

I am also conscious of the fact that I have been very single-minded in terms of what I read and educate myself about for as long as I can remember, and I haven’t come from a US-style education which encourages breadth of study. Of course, it hasn’t been all seventeenth-century drama: I’m interested in translation, politics, artificial intelligence, advertising and fashion, among other things, but I tend not to go further than reading a few articles on these topics before returning to my work. I don’t think it would do me any harm to branch out a little and explore a much broader variety of books, documentaries and podcasts – I’m sure it will be fun, more than anything! I’ve heard Toni Morrison would be a good place to start.

It’s a tricky time at the moment, what with adapting to a new style of work, a new environment and new priorities. PhD applications are also not the best thing for making you feel like you particularly know what you’re doing, as I’ve seen even extremely driven and focused students have minor existential crises over finding out what they really want to do is very different from what they thought they had wanted to do. I think the most important thing is to be kind but firm with myself: firm where I know I can push myself to broaden my horizons and open my mind a little more, but kind to myself when I’m feeling a little incompetent or uninteresting. And that can certainly happen from time to time: whether it’s an anxious pit in my stomach on the way to the office on a particularly imposter-syndrome-stricken day, or yet another graduate small talk event where I suddenly don’t feel like I have anything at all interesting to say about myself or my subject. It’s helpful to remind myself not that I’m wonderful or brilliant or perfect or any of the things well-meaning internet friends pipe up with, but that I’m good at what I do and that it’s perfectly okay to want to improve on that, as long as I’m not criticising myself too harshly for it.

Today was a fairly major test of the whole self-compassion thing: I had really been looking forward to going to an induction session for the university powerlifting club with a friend. I had never done anything of the sort before, and indeed had never signed up to a sport society before, but was still very excited and positive. Unfortunately, the session itself was a fairly moderate disaster: I was the only one who even struggled to lift the bar and failed to do the basic things like squats and bench press where everyone else was managing fine. Worse still, we had to try all these things out in front of each other. It was essentially an anxiety-haver’s nightmare, compounded by the fact that I get upset pretty quickly when I can’t do something and so was already trying to stay calm and not get emotional during the session. That didn’t quite work, however, when I totally failed to bench press the bar, struggling so much that I nearly dropped it, and – slightly pathetically – burst into tears in front of everyone and had to flee the scene. Awkward. Luckily, everyone running and attending the session was extremely nice, and I felt a lot better once it was pointed out that I weighed considerably less than many of the other girls and so it was natural that I would struggle far more with the same bar – a piece of information it would have been nice to know at the start! I haven’t decided whether or not to give it another go: my disposition is such that I get pretty mad at not being able to do something, and decide that I must absolutely return again and again in order to beat it, so I’m extremely tempted to go back and try again with a lighter bar and (hopefully) fewer spectators, but I’ll take a few days to think about it.

I was very upset at first – not at failing to do the lifts, but at not being able to laugh it off and giving into the niggling voice telling me I didn’t belong there and should go home. My boyfriend pointed out that it wasn’t a failure, but a false start, which even experienced athletes have sometimes – I think that’s a pretty helpful way of looking at it. It’s easy to be good at something the first time round, whether that’s lifting some weights, socialising with other graduates or understanding Kantian philosophy, but it’s much more difficult to struggle at the start and still keep at it. Over the course of the year, it’s going to be important for me to push myself and challenge myself to new and daunting things in all areas of my life, but I need to be kind to myself and keep my cool at the same time, whether that’s at the gym or in my office. There’s no shame in not knowing or not being able to do something, but I definitely don’t want to rest on my laurels and get too comfortable, either.


So, that was certainly a more reflective piece than usual: I hope it doesn’t sound like I had a terrible start to the term, because I certainly didn’t! I simply wanted to talk about some of the thoughts that I’ve had over the course of the week. I shall make up for it next time by telling you all about my new office in the Ertegun House and how I’m structuring my time and work now that I’m a graduate student. Do subscribe if you’d like to know more, and I’ll see you next time!


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