J-Term Journal: Learning the Ropes

Daniel M. Lynch

To thesis writers, a “Severe Weather Notice” does not elicit the same concerns as it does for normal, happier students on campus. For the luckier majority not writing—we know, you told us so—such a notice brings a wave of relief. Dining services open? Check. Snow removal outside your front door? Double-check. Quad shuttle to talk about your feelings with your girlfriend in the Quad? Checkmate (on you).

We masochists who signed up to write a few dozen pages on a topic interesting only to us (and this not guaranteed) have different concerns. The notice sent out on Jan. 11 had us worried: does “essential personnel” include the Widener library staff?

The gasp that went up around the Widener reading rooms as we all received the e-mail notice will haunt me for years to come. Working in one’s room is a euphemism for everything besides actual progress. Snow covering Cambridge would be a double blow. Not only would thesis writers be reduced to a day of inaction—a real possibility when half of each day is already wasted in stressing, reading online articles, and commiserating—but also the snow banks piled up haphazardly by plows were destined to get messier and more difficult to vault over with time.

Luckily, the J-Term inmates are not created equal. There’s a hierarchy determined by work ethic, ingenuity and arrival date on campus. Thesis junkies who arrived in the first several days of January served a tour of duty we later arrivals cannot match in experience. They learned the jungle of the library in J-Term early; tolerating the rookies is part of their veteran duty.

In the chaos of the weather notice, such a Rambo took me under his wing. He didn’t just make it his mission to determine that the library would remain open. He pointed out an elevator straight to the back exit of the building I’d walked by many times without using. Saves five minutes each way. That’s a lot of time I can spend at my carrel, watching YouTube.

Thesis writing, and J-Term in general, is about the buddy system. We second-week arrivals are just trying to stay alive in this crossfire of winter storms and distraction. The early guard showing the way are Harvard’s real essential personnel.

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