Living out of college accommodation is a daunting prospect for every university student, but in Oxford it’s an especially rude awakening. We’re coddled from the outset at this ‘public school finishing school’ as a safely-graduated friend recently termed it; scouts take our bins out and clean our bathrooms, porters are on hand from midday to midnight to help with an emergency leak or a dodgy alarm, and you can go so far as to demand a lightbulb delivered right to your room post haste – hell, even a new lamp. People will cook for you, and serve you the food, and then take your plate away, and no one’s forcing you to deal with anyone else’s piles of dirty colanders in the sink. You can lock your room and ignore all human interaction for days save awkwardly bumping into someone on the way to the loo (or the shower, if that’s a thing you choose to partake in), and the library is but a ten minute stroll away. Given this seemingly luxurious and extravagant existence, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would opt out of a system that might accommodate them for their full degree, instead choosing to pay extortionately for lodgings an Oxford marathon from the centre of town, with a boiler that breaks every fortnight and must be repaired by a man who has to turn sideways to fit through your front door.
True, there are the obvious pros: we can throw massive parties that drag on until 5am without suffering the judgement of the porters (just those two noise complaints from the council). We can smoke without schlepping all the way across three quads and out through the main gate, to huddle five-to-an umbrella whilst shivering forlornly and suffering the judgement of the porters. We can walk five minutes from bedrooms, in our pyjamas, to any number of delicious and multi-ethnic cuisines – or indeed order them right to our door, without suffering the judgement of the porters. So yes, the number 1 reason to suck it up and make a decision on the living-out dilemma may quite clearly be that we want to behave in embarrassing and borderline-irresponsible ways, and we don’t want to be judged for it – which from what I can tell seems to be the main incentive of becoming a self-sufficient grown up anyway. It’s pretty understandable why one would choose the liberation of living independently over continuing to eat/sleep/party within the walls of the institution that controls both our work and our future and everything in between. Slightly less clear is exactly why one would choose to do this with eleven other people.
Although it was bucketing it down on Saturday as I left Oxford to start my hols, it has always pained me that the academic calendar means we don’t get to experience the city in high summer. Oxford is made for summer sun, even if official guidelines direct us to secrete ourselves away from it in dark and dusty libraries; golden evenings in the centre make me fall in love with the city again and again, and I’ve managed to take more rolls of film in the last two weeks of term than in the whole of the preceding eight months – a solid indicator of joyful existence. Here are some joyous things to do under gorgeous Oxford summer sunshine.
Despite years of practice and family-ruining rows on my grandma’s lawn I still manage to be terrible at both tactic and technique in this most upper middle-class of sports. New College has a great little croquet lawn in its front quad, over-looked by the porters and any curious freshaz who want to peer down from their rooms and witness everyone’s sporting triumphs(failures). During my first summer in Oxford I enthusiastically entered into inter-collegiate cuppers croquet with an American friend who had never touched a mallet before; he still managed to wipe the floor with me and all the other Englishmen, which I suppose is a rather damning summary of our national sporting character, and also of croquet. But however futile in athletic terms it stands that bashing a ball around the college croquet lawn is a very entertaining way to spend the remains of a summer afternoon – especially when things get heated and someone kicks over a hoop. (Alright I admit I have yet to witness this at Oxford. My family is very competitive.)
Most Oxford colleges own a number of punts that their students can rent free of charge. New College’s vessels may not be as swish as Magdalen’s or indeed as roomy as Hertford’s, but they’re conveniently placed in a boathouse just off of our sports’ grounds and they get the job done – I mean presumably. When one is competent. The only time I have managed to go punting we made it about 100m from our starting point, got attacked by more branches and bushes than Harry in the Triwizard maze, and one of our number fell in… But as a means to an end of picnicking on a grassy riverside knoll surrounded by daisies and inquisitive ducklings, it does do the trick.
Getting all fancy and enjoying a 12 hour extravaganza of food and fun in a centuries old setting is an essential part of the Oxford summer experience, one that I wrote more about here.
Soaking up the sun in beautiful surroundings
Every city I have chosen to park myself within so far has been a beautiful one, lucky for me. Growing up in London was a convenient starting point, four months in Paris and then five in Burghausen, but Oxford arguably tops them all in general loveliness. Being able to laze an evening away in a setting as glorious as New College gardens, a stone’s throw away from our bedrooms, is a luxury afforded to students at very few other universities and one that we do not waste. Whether it be eating ice-cream in Magdalen’s back quad or chatting in Christ Church’s egregiously extensive grounds, even the most boring conversational partner’s company is improved by these surroundings; unless you’re at St Anne’s. Soz.
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?
My last two days of May I spent visiting a new restaurant (Las Iguanas, amaze), and experiencing the joy of trashing a finalist friend. Since the latter of these two things is a delightfully and stupidly Oxfordian practice, I thought I’d write about a couple of other sillinesses specific to my university.
When Oxford students finish summer exams – particularly finals – their friends celebrate by ambushing them
outside the exam schools and pelting them with horrible things. #friendship. On Saturday I participated in the trashing of my musician friend Anna; I turned up very naively with confetti and a smile, her boyfriend brought the bubbly, and a Hawaiian lei and a party hat were provided by her housemates. Very tame – or so I thought. The proctors patrol the outside of the schools to make sure no food items are thrown in their vicinity and well they should, because by the time we hit Oriel Anna was covered head to foot in a mixture of shaving foam, shampoo, lentils, custard pie and birdseed. Thankfully someone decided the dogfood was a step too far, but strolling through Oxford on a packed Saturday and coating unsuspecting tourists who walked too close to our human dustbin with goo was a great Saturday activity.
Corpus Christi’s Annual Tortoise Race
This is exactly what it sounds like. Corpus Christi’s annual tortoise fair and accompanying tortoise race is so popular that I struggled to catch a glimpse through the jostling of iPhones, but I do know that its victors were the aptly titled Zoom and Shelly – both from Worcester College, suspicions of doping abound. I did remark that the tortoise selection all pleasingly reflected their respective colleges: Sampras from Christ Church was unnecessarily massive, Oldham and Foxe from Corpus were very well-mannered if unengaged, and Balliol defiantly stood out from the crowd by sending a human representative whose handicap was to eat an entire head of lettuce before he could begin. The most impressive entrant was probably Regent’s Park’s Emmanuelle who is rumoured to be over a hundred and still going strong, but ultimately Corpus Christi’s tortoise keeper stole the show by rocking a green curdouroy jacket and a tortoise-encrusted bow tie. Aside from reptiles there was Pimms and ice-cream and even a bouncy castle; a very civilised afternoon out, if totally ridiculous.