A Lonely Degree

As my second year at university wraps up and I embark on the painful process of chasing up summer reading and wringing my hands over my thesis, I have been thinking about all those things good and bad that define studying history at Oxford. And although it’s an incredible learning experience that I value every day, I do think that it could easily be made that much more incredible. I do enjoy my degree. I love history – I love the narrative, I love the themes emerging centuries and continents apart, I love eureka moments when chronology slots together and I love recognising and empathising with people and things millennia gone. Studying history at Oxford, a place that wears its own so proudly and is home to the best and brightest historical minds the world has to offer is a unique experience that we all often take for granted. It’s amazing that every week I sit down for an hour or more alone with a world expert on my subject to directly converse about a piece of work I have produced – these are incomparable privileges that I’m well aware I am lucky to have. But sometimes I wonder whether I wouldn’t enjoy my degree a whole lot more if it was taught in a different way.

History at Oxford can often feel like a very lonely subject. I was very fortunate in my first year to choose three out of four of the same papers as someone who became a bosom buddy, who shared my enthusiasm for actually talking about our subject, comparing notes and touching base. But unless you strike gold in that respect it’s incredibly unlikely that a history student’s closest friends will end up being from their course – quite simply because you never SEE each other. When other subjects groups have several core modules they all take together and lectures they go to en masse, right from week one historians are scattered across lecture theatres and colleges throughout the university dependent on our module choices – and since many tutors still favour the one-on-one tutorial format sometimes you can go whole terms without discussing your work or your era with anyone other than the world-renowned academic that’s been assigned to improve you. Part of what makes the Oxford course so great is that it can be very self-directed and flexible – your tutor will choose essays for you that they’re most adept at teaching, or you will choose topics that you’re interested in – but this also means that nothing is standardised and a whole term of lectures can pass by with not a single one being relevant to what you’re working on. If you’re producing an essay in four business days then you’re probably not going to choose to spend an hour listening to something inapplicable, so only the most dedicated will turn up to the full lecture programme (and as if anyone actually TALKS to each other).

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Last term I did a paper on the viking world, which was taught in a format I hadn’t experienced before: weekly tutorials of two or three students for which we would submit an essay in advance, and a two hour class with all eight people taking the paper. This term I’m taking a historical disciplines paper that is entirely class-based, although with personal feedback on all work submitted. Both of these systems have been resoundingly more enjoyable than the simple lecture/tutorial format, not least because half the joy of being at university is realising that other people think and process things in a very different way to yourself. In an environment where we’re all still suffering the after-effects of the school playground notion that talking about your work and enjoying your intelligence means you’re an awful nerd, there is still not too much room to discuss your studies outside the academic setting; a class might be the only chance you get to see what and how others on your course are writing and thinking. But the class format also means doing presentations, group discussion, LISTENING to each other… when so many of us will be abandoning academia for the real world straight after our undergraduate degrees, are these skills not equally important if not more than getting used to churning out thousands of words a week about something you know next to nothing about?

So a resounding yes to the tutorial system – that’s not the enemy in my enjoyment of my degree. It’s the main reason that people strive to get into Oxbridge above other universities, and that level of personal feedback and interaction is invaluable. But also yes to structures of learning that throw you in amongst your peers, give you something to measure yourself against and encourage interaction. For a good chunk of us this degree is the end of our studies and after it we’ll be thrust right into the world of work which for most people does not consist of everything being achieved in a solitary bubble. If part of university study is preparing us for the real world, shouldn’t our studies be a bit more real?


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