32581: Will Google get me through the pandemic?
As part of my ongoing research project, I have scoured the internet innumerable times, smashing together unrelated search terms in order to find the documents that will yield helpful data. I string several words together and, as if begging the internet to cough up the information I seek, pile on additional terms-up to 10, maybe-in increasing desperation. One recent search which started with only two terms, "advertising" and "framing", ended with this string of words: "advertising" "fram*" "didactic" "anthropology" "communication" "development." I hit 'enter' with distinct hopefulness and let the search engine work its magic. This arguably meaningless stream of words spat back at me hundreds of articles that were, by the way, not really what I was looking for. Whether fruitful or not, searches like these are the rituals of my life these days, as I work to finish my second year of this degree during my 12th month of this pandemic.
It is such a familiar habit that I almost didn't make note of a very different kind of search that Google so kindly completed for me today. As I sat at my desk this afternoon- the same desk where I have been these last seven months of the pandemic-I typed in another phrase: "when professors make you feel stupid."And subsequently, this one: "when professors make you feel stupid oxford."
There was a mindlessness to this action, a normality which almost allowed it to go by undetected. Just 45 minutes prior, I had clicked the red 'leave' button at the end of my Zoom-hosted class on African politics, and I had spent a majority of those 45 minutes processing my experience in class. I was undeniably fatigued by two hours of screen time, but more prominently, I felt stupid. The class was interesting enough, and I had tried to ask questions and intervene in various ways. I felt confident about understanding the week's topic, readings, and material. Yet I walked out of the class feeling decidedly unaffirmed, decidedly doubted with each word that I spoke to my computer screen and each sharp comment that my professor sent back at me. And after weeks of walking out of this class feeling that way, I was resigned to it today. I accepted the stupidity, or rather the feeling of stupidity. Today, it felt important to simply sit at my kitchen table and recognize this feeling.
I could probably argue both in defense and prosecution of my professor, but his culpability isn't important here. The point is that, in my next move, I picked up my phone and asked Google to help-what was I supposed to do about this situation? Google, please search "when professors make you feel stupid." Thanks.
It's hard to say what I expected to pop up in the results pages of Google. I probably hoped to find a helpful how-to form a student who had gone through something similar. I had hoped to find a saddened soul on the internet who was similarly made to feel this way by a professor, and most importantly, I hoped they would tell me what I was meant to do now. After all, this was a uniquely isolating experience. I'd be ridiculous to bring this up to my professor, and I'd be misunderstood if I mentioned it to my family or friends who aren't in my degree. I might've brought it up to a friend who is in this same class, a housemate of mine actually, but the pandemic has stranded her in sunny South Africa for the past three months. Indeed, in a time when I feel alone in so many ways, I was left to cope with collapsing self-confidence while sitting alone - and feeling alone - at my kitchen table.
To be fair, my ego wasn't irrevocably wounded. I've wavered about 'belonging' in Oxford innumerable times, so this professor and this class aren't so special actually. But this feeling, the feeling that my professor genuinely might want to make me feel dumb, confounded me more than anything. It left me paralyzed, unable to decide what to do next. I was powerless to the dynamics at play: he would make me feel stupid and I wouldn't do anything about it. And like Fleabag at that famous confessional scene in season 2, the only thing in the world that I wanted was for someone to advise me, to tell me what to do. Tell me to journal about it. Tell me to write 12 affirmations about myself. Tell me to synthesize my class notes to reassure myself that I'd understood. Tell me to go on a walk and get a break from it all. Tell me to bring it up to the professor privately. Tell me to cook shakshuka or make a cup of tea. Tell me something, for God's sake.
At this point, I should mention that this is a new habit, a new need in my life. I have never been the kind of person to look to Google, or the internet generally, for direction in my life. I am religious, so I have that for the big moral questions. I am also decisive and level-headed, which has always helped me navigate my day-to-day decisions in an efficient way. However, as this anecdote demonstrates, Google has played an important role in my life recently. In times where agitation, loneliness, and powerlessness converge, I have found relief in the empty search bar. I have looked to the expanses of the internet to respond to my unanswerable yet mundane questions.
My recent search history, for instance, will also reveal that I searched “what to do when you are rejected from a phd” in a similar moment of resigned restlessness upon being, you guessed it, rejected from several PhD programs for this fall. Further down on the search history is the unremarkable phrase “happy art,” typed into Google at a time when depression was setting in and my coping mechanisms were quickly falling short. Notably, I did not find 'happy art' capable of bringing me out of that mood.
I do not bring up these virtual searches to make a judgment about the deficiencies of my search terms or the quality of the results; rather, these examples show that, in the past weeks, Google has become a sort of companion for me. It has filled an important role in the state of pandemic-fatigue that I continually exist in. I am left tired by the recurrent lockdowns. I am left feeling alone by my displaced friends and shortened interactions with those who are still here. I am left emotionally wrought by the continual battle I wage with my mental health. At the same time, I am still left with the questions that plagued me before COVID-19, those questions about belonging in Oxford, dealing with rejection, and coping with depression. However, these questions catch me in a time of weakness, and the search engine has become a weapon of defense. In such times, I have only that which is within arm's reach (my phone) and activities which require minimal exertion (typing). With tired arms and tired eyes, I complete one last act of self-defense by flinging my queries into the virtual void and hoping that reinforcements will arrive soon.
I suppose that I ought to thank Google; it has actually come through on some occasions with interesting and insightful articles to guide me through this fatigued delirium. However, I can also admit that I anxiously await the moment when I realize that I haven't googled questions such as these for, 'well, I guess it has been months.' Strange as it may sound, I await my gradual abandonment of this practice, in hopes that it will be replaced by offline substitutes. Indeed, I have in mind that this fatigue is indicative of the resolving battle. While it is unclear if I will come out on top of this battle, if I am to follow the plot line of any action film ever, I trust that I will rally to win it in the end. Although, I seem to remember that there are also movies in which the protagonist dies in battle...hmm, I will have to Google it to be sure.