All experiences matter: A reading week would benefit us all

Chris Page 29 January 2015

Last week, I made the point that not all experiences of Cambridge are the same. Some people love it here, and some people have a terrible time and fall foul of gaping flaws in welfare policy. Reading the coverage and reaction to the #NoMoreWeek5Blues campaign, it is impossible not to partially reiterate.

Some sections of the press were more vitriolic than others. 'A Reading Week would kill the Cambridge experience', screamed one column, while another suggested that people who had positive experiences of Cambridge welfare were now being stigmatised (um, what?). I happened to be part of a depressing Facebook argument with someone who told me that if I needed a week off during Cambridge term, it was because I was weak, and I wasn’t fit to be at Cambridge. Actually it might have something to do with the fact that I suffer from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but each to their own (*unfriend*).

A reading week makes sense to me. It gives students a break – and if, like me, you have a long term disability, that’s welcome. A week to reflect and gather thoughts would have an advantage in learning: instead of just cramming to make that next essay deadline, you’d have time to take a step back and process the knowledge you’ve absorbed. It would bring Cambridge in line with practices at other Universities; most do have a reading week, which, magically, hasn’t caused them to plummet through the league tables. Lastly, a reading week would be beneficial to teaching staff. Being old, I’m friends with a number of people who are now lecturers and Junior Research Fellows. The majority said they would be in favour of a reading week. Young academics come under an immense amount of pressure to prove themselves, to publish, to make their name through supervising two dozen undergraduates, delivering a lecture course, and maintaining some semblance of a life: a tall order. A reading week would benefit all of us.

How would it work in practise? No idea. I agree with the principle, and the practicalities would need to be worked out. That’s no bad thing. Show me one campaign in the history of student activism which identified a problem and also immediately proffered a solution? These things will take time to work out. It doesn’t undermine the nature of the campaign.

But the main thing I draw from the uproar about this is that some sections of the student body really need to appreciate that their time at Cambridge doesn’t speak for everyone. All experiences matter, and trying to use a platform of a student paper to shout down those who have a different experience is just cruel. It smacks of victim blaming.

What I can’t fathom is the intolerant tone of many of the articles criticising viral campaigns like WU? and CSIM. How can you fail to appreciate that other people don’t have a carbon copy of your life? How can it be so easy to attack the people who are trying to do something for the greater good of the student body? Perhaps – and I speculate here – it’s out of fear; a desire to preserve the pristine image of the Cambridge experience, because if you sat down and considered some of the things that have happened to your fellow students, it might be too much for you.

So maybe, Cambridge, instead of laying into welfare campaigners at every opportunity, you might want to actually listen to them? Just a thought.