Off-Books Experience

The Off-Books Experience – By Ben Rowsome
Trinity Physics Student (Off Books for 2021/2022 Academic Year)

In the time of the pandemic, more students are going off-books now than ever. Whether it’s on
account of their mental health, or there’s a medical reason behind it, it’s slowly but surely
becoming more of the done thing.

As someone who’s recently been off-books, I can say that it’s not always the most
fun having the year off, especially when you’re not sure what you should be doing for the first few
months. Frankly, I’ve discovered for myself that a lot of the supports that should really be in place for off-book students, simply aren’t in place. Whether it’s access to student counseling, access to academic
material, or even access to the library and other such facilities, the lack of these supports means that
unfortunately, a certain percentage of students who go off books will simply not return to college, which
only adds to the dropout rate. This is already a problem within and of itself when it comes to autistic
students in particular, so suffice it to say that this is an issue that needs to be targeted sooner rather than

According to the 2020/2021 TCD Academic Registry Report, there were 334 students off books
that year. This is a pretty staggering number considering this is only for one year, and also just to give
you a sense of how many people we’re talking about when I’m outlining the problems with being off
books and just how they’re affecting this group of students.

This is actually an area I’m interested in trying to target within Trinity College right now as part of
my work with the TCD Disability Services, and frankly my dream is that one day all these supports will be
in place so that students can go off books and come back better and stronger than ever, ready to
complete their rewarding degrees.

In this article, I’m going to outline the issues that off-books students currently face and why
they’re such huge issues in recent times, but I’m also going to give you some tips on how you can best
conduct yourself throughout the year so that you can come back in September totally refreshed, and
essentially make the most out of the year. I myself am really looking forward to returning to college in
September and getting back into my studies again! In the meantime, however, I’m going to give you an
insight as to what I went through this year with respect to the barriers that off-books students are
currently facing, and why they have caused so much logistical mayhem!

The first big issue I faced during the year was not having access to academic material. This stemmed
from having no access to Blackboard (and thus the lecture notes contained within it) as well as exam
papers from the TCD Academic Registry. Both were a result of my student number “being expired” as
it was put to me on several occasions. Truth be told, one of the main reasons for me going off books in
the first place was so I could be working away on this material in my own time, although I shall say
something more about this later on.

Following that was a predicament relating to the Office365 account that every student has, or
should have at least. As someone who was maintaining regular contact with the TCD Disability Services
while being off books, I quickly ran into the problem of not being able to log in to any online meetings,
because we were all using Microsoft Teams as a means of communication. Thankfully my Occupational therapist found a temporary solution to this issue, but I was still unable to see the chat on occasion, so it should be made clear that this is still an ongoing issue, and a better solution needs to be found.

Another major issue is the general attitude the college has toward students being off books,
specifically in terms of the way they phrase things. In an attempt to try and resolve the Office365 (albeit
Teams more specifically) conundrum myself, for instance, I got told in two separate emails by the IT
Services and the Academic Registry respectively, that they were unable to help me because as I say,
“the student number has expired.” This can quite easily be interpreted as me not existing as far as the
college is concerned, and I found this extremely degrading and demoralising to deal with, to the point
that I can see quite clearly why a lot of students simply don’t come back after spending a year off-books.

Interestingly enough, with the exception of my close ties with Disability Services, the college
itself made no real effort to stay in contact with me or give me any real reason to step foot on campus
over the year that I was off books, which I know would’ve been very difficult for me to navigate in
September had I not actually been on campus for the duration of that time. Once again, it’s easy to see
why students don’t return after being off books for a year, as they simply drift away from any prior ties to
the college.

What was perhaps most appalling was the lack of mental health support on offer after the student
has deferred the year on mental health grounds. This is disconcerting enough in a normal setting, but in
the era of COVID, where, as I say, more students are off books than ever, you have to think that these
services are more of a necessity than before. In fact, I even heard of a case where one student went off
books on mental health grounds and actually had their Student Counselling privileges taken OFF them. If this isn’t counterintuitive then I don’t know what is, and this is why it is a personal mission of mine to fix
this problem.

Ironically there are even issues with the off-books scheme which I have yet to face – the Disability
Services are kind enough to warn me about them – as well as issues I haven’t encountered that may
well face other students. For instance, getting back on books for the next academic year can be a long
and drawn-out process, which often results in students only being able to register again just before the
academic year begins, and in some cases, even after the year has already started! This in turn means
off-books students are the last to pick modules and electives, and sometimes don’t even get given a
timetable and thus have to send a plethora of emails searching around for one! To give another example,
those who go off books with assessment often get missed out on for reassessment, and once again don’t get issued their timetables – all as the result of an admin glitch! One other such problem on the back of this is not being able to apply for accommodation while off books, as well as often being forgotten about come exam time and falling into the same timetable conundrum on their portal. This additional stress at the beginning of the year is completely unnecessary and thus it needs to be organised another way.

These are simply the big issues I faced (and may still face) during the year. As someone who is looking
to make drastic changes in these areas through my work with Disability Services, I quickly discovered
that there were many rules and legalities within the college that were the root of all these issues, and I
felt it was important that we identified these as soon as possible so that we could begin breaking down
these issues and resolving them.

In that time, we were lucky enough to engage with a lot of powerful people within the college,
including the Senior Lecturer Dr. David Shepherd, on ways we can target this problem as a whole, and
start coming up with solutions, creating resources, raising awareness, etc. In the case of the Senior
Lecturer, resources, and information page for off-book students are now in the works thanks to his
enthusiasm. In addition to that, we got into great talks with the TCD Inclusive Curriculum Project
throughout the year and even got to present our case for change in the big CINNTE Institutional Review
which took place in Trinity earlier this year. I believe this is a terrific start to what is ultimately going to be
a long-haul initiative, but every idea we can get underway is another student who graduates, so it will
very much be worth it!

In spite of all the challenges and logistical issues, I will tell you now that there’s still a lot you can achieve
in the year of being off books, and things you can put in place to allow yourself to feel good during the
year. In fact, I would say it’s vitally important to know how to look after yourself while you’re off books,
especially with regard to your mental health. This year is a chance for you to regroup and feel as fresh
and rejuvenated as possible before going back into full-time education, and you should be feeling like
you’re ready to go back come the next academic year. So here, I’m going to give you a few dos and
donts for being off books from my own experience, so that you can make the most out of the year(s) as

I’m going to start with the don’ts first just so I can make a couple of things clear:
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. I went off books in October 2021, merely four weeks
into the academic year, simply because I was burnt out. After a year-and-a-half in lockdown, I just
couldn’t study in the same way anymore, so I needed that break. Give yourself that break! I made the
mistake of trying to go through academic material that I feel I had missed during lockdown when I clearly
wasn’t able for it at that time. Of course, it’s okay to go through your study material while you’re off-books
(and perhaps even encouraged, hence my point earlier about having access to it in the first place), but only once you begin to feel a bit more refreshed and rejuvenated having stepped back from that environment, should you then slowly but surely begin to look over your work again.

Don’t let yourself fall out of a routine. From the time when I went off books in
October to that Christmas, I had virtually no routine, and as it happened, it was some of the
hardest months of my life. Having nothing to do simply results in boredom which in turn can
convert into frustration and even despondency. So having a solid routine from as early on as
possible is essential. One of the easiest ways to do that is by getting a part-time job, or by
structuring your week around any extra-curricular activities that you might have. For instance, I did some
work for the TCD Disability Services and started my Gold Gaisce Award.

Don’t talk yourself into not going back. A year is a long time, which means a lot of
time to think about things, even unnecessary things, as happened to me. At one point I did in fact talk
myself into not going back, but only after realising what a foolish decision that would be, knowing just
how much work I had put into myself and the degree to get this far, I knew I just had to stay the course
(no pun intended!) and keep working towards getting better within myself before returning. REMEMBER:
You’re in your course for a reason, and you’ve made all these friends and connections for a reason.
There’s still a lot to be achieved!

Don’t expect everything to go smoothly all the time. Being off books is a very different experience than what anybody is used to, so there are going to be some tough moments for sure. Whether it’s a sudden lack of motivation from time to time or something happening in your personal life, it’s about how you manage those tough moments and come out of them stronger. I didn’t feel I could face anything for the first couple of months, but gradually I realised it’s these moments that set you up again for going back so that you’re able to navigate all the various challenges college throws your way, or there’ll be
many of course!

Now here are some of the dos I realised for myself, which brought me great clarity:

Do spend lots of time with family and friends. In a year where you’re not necessarily sure
what’s going on all of the time, I learned that it was important to surround myself with the people who
care about me the most; my mum and dad, my closest friends, and any other confidantes I have who
have always gone out of their way to check up on me. They’ve seen what you’ve been through, and
hopefully, they bring out the best in you too. Moreover, they helped me get this far. As someone who went
off books on mental health grounds, this was a key thing for me to get back on track.

Do take time to do the things you’ve always loved doing. Over the course of the
pandemic, I stopped playing chess, I stopped writing music, I stopped reading, and frankly, it’s kind of a
long list. I was truly burnt out, having lost all my motivation for the things that brought me great joy. But
taking the time off-books was the time I absolutely needed to finally get back into my various passions,
which ultimately was the real starting point for getting back on track for me. Frankly, I’ve found myself
doing stuff I never thought I’d do as well. Right now, I’m setting up a telescope and learning Spanish!

Do stay in contact with the college. I mean this in both the physical and the communicative
sense. I was fortunate enough to remain in touch with the Disability Services in Trinity while off books,
and as I say, even did some work for them over the year. That communication and being on campus
every so often really helped me stay tethered to the college as it were, and now I know it won’t seem
anything as strange to me when I return to studying full-time again. The goal is to get the best start to the
year possible. The last thing you want going back is any unnecessary additional stress, but doing this
should alleviate some of that.

Be in the present moment. Before anyone gets nervous here, there’s no spiritual rant coming I
promise! But the fact is if you spend the whole year thinking about nothing but next September, you’re
only going to do yourself more damage, as happened with me in the early months. For a while, I
struggled to try and live in the present moment, not really knowing what that meant frankly, but then I
realised that I just have to try and enjoy everything as it is happening. I didn’t really know how to do this
until I started reading books on mindfulness and meditation in my own time, but for others, it may be
a different kind of journey. Letting go of the past has been the most difficult thing for me as part of my
burnout, but I have even found a way to deal with that too, which just goes to show what a time of
healing this has been for me.

Suffice it to say that it’s been quite a journey since first going off books. In the beginning, it was very
stressful, but I honestly found myself learning a lot more about myself, and I’m a better person because
of it. Honestly, I’m most proud of the work I did try to dismantle the aforementioned barriers facing
off-book students, or at the very least, draw attention to them within the college. It’s something I will most
likely keep up even after going back on books, because it’s an initiative that’s really gained traction now,
and I really want to be a part of it to see what happens in the future.

If anyone is contemplating going off books at any point during their academic career, whether it’s
to regroup after a tough mental experience, or simply just to look after your general health, have a good
think about what you would want to achieve in that year, and what steps you would take to make sure
you came out of it more refreshed. It’s not a decision to take lightly of course, hence why I’ve written this
article – to help give you an insight as to what to expect, and what’s expected of YOU if you want this
year to work out the way you envision for yourself. I know for me that it was the right call and that that
was the time I needed to recharge and realise who I wanted to be – but also to realise who I DIDN’T
want to be, which was almost a bigger revelation.