A month after touching down in London’s Heathrow airport, I suppose it’s time for a belated update: I am an officially matriculated doctoral student at the University of Oxford. My assignment from my supervisor for the first term is basically to read everything in sight, and follow up on anything interesting by (guess what!) doing further reading, so I’ve had to spend a great deal of time running around and finding all the libraries and figuring out how they work. It has been a great deal of fun but has not left a great deal of time for writing.
Aside from reading, I’ve joined the Oxford Union (debating society) and the Tolkien society; I’ll be the assistant stage manager for a production of Sondheim’s Assassins coming up later this month; and I’ve become a copyeditor for The Oxford Student and a news writer for Bang! Science – the local student-run science magazine. I’ve also managed to find the sports centre, where the archery club and pistol club both hold practices. I’ve also, of course, spent a great deal of time figuring out the myriad idiosyncrasies of Oxford, some of which are attributable to UK/Canada differences in general, and most of which are just Oxford being Oxford: the unofficial motto, after all, probably goes something along the lines of “Well, we’ve been doing it that way since the 12th century …”!
So without further ado, here’s a quick run down of the awesome and the irritating (there aren’t many) aspects of adjusting to life at Oxford!
On the plus side:
– The libraries are absolutely gorgeous, and ancient, and possibly indescribable to anyone who hasn’t visited them. (I think “sublime” is possibly the right word here, and I use it with a full awareness of its usual application in Romantic writing and criticism.)
– Warmer weather means that I’m able to do a large amount of reading and studying outside (Addison’s Walk, the Botanical Gardens, the Christ Church Meadow, the Exeter College Fellows’ Garden, etc.)
– The ease of ordering, and consulting, rare books
– The Turville-Petre room in the English Faculty is dedicated solely to Old Norse-Icelandic books, and is simply an amazing place
– Blackwell’s (the major bookstore across the street from Exeter and the Bodleian) is as large as any library, stocks everything, has a café on the first floor, two floor-to-ceiling bookcases dedicated exclusively to Tolkien, multiple editions of every classic book you can name, a rare books section, a second-hand books section, the largest room of books I’ve ever seen (the Norrington Room), a fabulously large language section, with novels in French and German (and Russian and Welsh and Spanish and all sorts of others), a superb collection of mathematics, physics, and astronomy textbooks, and comfy chairs to sit and read.
– Oxford has a critical mass of medievalists which is simply a joy. The Old Norse literature and language classes I am auditing draw about twenty-five people a week; the Beowulf class closer to sixty. The Tolkien & Beowulf departmental seminar last week had to move to the main lecture theatre because too many people showed up to fit in the seminar room. We’ve got a core group of medievalists within Exeter College, as well – perhaps surprising giving how small Exeter actually is.
– There are at least two main medieval literature seminars per week, and seminars do not apparently happen at this university without an abundance of free tea, coffee, and biscuits (aka cookies). Wine and/or champagne is also fairly common.
– Not only is there a student-run Old Norse reading group, and an Old English reading group, there is apparently also an Old Frisian reading group. The modus operandi of all of the above is to meet up in a pub, read a text aloud, and translate it on the spot – the default assumption is that one’s language ability is sufficiently good to do this without having done any preparation in advance.
– My new part-time job with the Disability Advisory Service: I’m paid to attend engaging lectures, by world-famous academics, that are teaching relevant skills for my research – and to take notes, which I would have done anyways.
– Lots and lots of great cafés and bakeries
– The Oxford Union: where my love of rhetoric and Cicero can run riot. The weekly debates expect speakers – and students – not only to be good at constructing and defending an argument, but also to be good at delivery, style, and rhetoric. Also, scheduled guests for this term alone include the producers of Game of Thrones, Buzz Aldrin, Ian McKellen, Stephen Fry, Jo Brand, Viviane Reding (EU Commission), Muhammad Yunus (Nobel Peace Prize, 2006), Eric Schmidt & Jonathan Rosenberg (Google), Jack Dorsey (Twitter), Imelda Marcos … and more British MPs than I can possibly count or name. They also run competitive debating workshops, which I have started to attend. (After my first (practice) attempt at opening a debate, I was promptly told I should be either a lawyer or a politician – I am still not sure whether to take this as a compliment!)
– Free dinners & speaker events at Exeter College: this past Sunday, Lord Butler of Brockwell (UK parliamentary committee on intelligence) came to give a talk, and in a couple of weeks, Peter Jackson (yes, the Peter Jackson) will be coming to Exeter for one of their 700th anniversary lectures. Also, Exeter’s catering staff are generally very good at coming up with excellent food. And wine. There is always wine.
– The Language Centre: offers well-taught, fast-paced courses for the fee of £35 per year, unless of course you can prove that studying said language is relevant to your research (in my case: German), in which case there is no fee at all.
On the less positive side:
– Smoking seems to be much more common and more socially acceptable in public places; given that the smell of cigarette smoke gives me a headache almost instantly, this is not a good thing.
– All the tourists! I realize that Oxford is a magnet for tourism, but even during the week – during the school term – there are simply hordes of them. And my normal walking speed is about twice or three times as fast as the average tourist’s, which makes them a decided inconvenience when I’m trying to get from one class to another in five minutes.
– My dear suitemates have not quite mastered the idea of silence after 11pm; fortunately for my continued sanity, Exeter House does have people who enforce the rules.
– Clothing. Sorting out when to wear (“formal” clothing + gown) vs. (sub fusc + gown) vs. (formal clothing + no gown) vs. (sub fusc + no gown) is quite the interesting – albeit also amusing – challenge. (For the uninitiated: sub fusc involves black shoes, black stockings and skirt or black trousers and black socks, white shirt, black suit jacket (men), and either a black tie, a white bow tie, or a black ribbon tie. Yes, the rules are enforced; showing up wearing white socks to an exam is apparently a really bad idea.) Also, the knee-length pencil skirt seems to be an everyday and fairly universal women’s wardrobe item in this town: people bike in them. I’ve definitely made a few improvements to my wardrobe since arriving in Oxford, but as someone who values being able to walk properly, all I can say is I won’t be adopting that trend any time soon.
But frankly, I have nothing to complain about, because somehow – I’m still not sure how, and I do keep needing to pinch myself – I’m in Oxford. And I get to ignore all the “private” signs telling tourists to keep out, because I’m also a student here. And somehow I have the audacity to walk the paths that Tolkien and Lewis and so very many other famous people walked, and sit and study and write and learn there.
I have no idea where I’ll end up, but hopefully it’s an auspicious beginning!