Yesterday, I caught my first local bus into a smaller area of Oxford named Summertown to meet one of my tutors. When I arrived at his office, he shook my hand and invited me inside.
Our meeting lasted less than twenty minutes, and within those twenty minutes, I fought the desires to burst out laughing, to walk out of the office, and to repeat his instructions for my upcoming session although I had understood him perfectly well. His instructions were along the lines of this:
“Come prepared with an 8-10 page paper each time we meet. Write narrowly about a topic and go deep into it. Along with the novel we’ve just discussed, have a half dozen others read to accompany it by the next time I see you.”
I stared at him, and from spotting the hopelessness that must’ve reflected in my widened eyes, he added what he hoped to be a means of comfort: “Really, there isn’t too much you can cram in such a short paper.”
I couldn’t conceal a grunt, but I hope he didn’t hear it. Then, he said he had to kick me out because he had a meeting with another student.
Later on in the day, I attended Oxford’s Freshers’ Fair. It’s for incoming students to learn about various clubs that we can join. At many of the booths, excited club members were jutting out ‘leaflets’ (we call them pamphlets in the U.S.) about their organization, and were happy to talk about it. Free shot glasses were distributed. A British student in front of me tapped one of the club members on his shoulder and asked, “Excuse me mate, but what’s the limit on those?”
There were at least 200 club booths. At one of the health booths, I paused to read about local locations of clinics (called ‘surgeries’ in England). The girl behind the booth smiled at me with a particular look on her face, and I’m sure she assumed I was eyeing the multitude of condoms splayed out on the table near the information sheets. She picked up one and plucked it into my bag. “Darling,” she told me, “we all know you can never have too many.”
Oxford’s radical. And I don’t just mean, it’s incredibly awesome. I mean its student body is radical. There were many explicit signs decorated throughout the colleges stating not to join the Oxford Union, and also trampling acts of racism, colonialism, and discrimination within the student body. They have independent, student-led traveling magazines, a music magazine that will pay your coverage to go to concerts, vegan clubs, and, of course, the more prestigious, traditional clubs pertaining to particular majors.
Although there are plenty of extra-curricular activities, Oxford is still a university that’s heavily invested in studying. I was told by one of my roommates, “Treat it like it’s a job, because it is.” He’s working on his PhD as a full-time student at Oxford (and he’s incredibly young), and gave some advice to me and my flatmates—with a shrug—to just spend about several hours a day indulged in reading, and we’ll be fine.
Tests aren’t nearly as prominent here as they are back in the States. In one of my lectures, a tutor in one of the colleges told us, “Unlike most American education, we don’t care if
you can regurgitate information back to us. We want to teach you how to think. America takes pride on being a free country, but that freeness doesn’t seem to include your education, does it?” (We all just kinda looked around the room in silence. It was like someone had died.)
This is about all of the time I can spare for now. I will write again soon about the experience of being an Oxford student, but until then, I wish all of you luck on the remainder of your semester.