“You go to school to be taught. You come to University to learn.”Oxford, Fall 2010 - Direct Enrollment
I’ve been avoiding this blog post for a while, but it’s pretty crucial to explain the “study” portion of my study abroad experience. The title of this post (a quote said by the Master of St. Catherine’s — the president of the college — at our Fresher’s Week orientation) pretty much sums it up. But I thought I should tackle the subject myself. So:
Oxford Academics, Explained
(subtitle: a humble attempt)
I think it helps to understand how the Oxford academic system works for full-time undergraduates. A bachelor’s degree takes three or four years to complete, depending on the subject (most subjects take three years, but some science degrees take four, as do languages because students are required to spend a year abroad). Students apply to study (“read,” in Oxford lingo) a specific subject, and they only study that subject for their entire undergraduate career. (“Liberal arts” is not really in the lexicon here.) To receive a bachelor’s degree, students must pass several days of exams at the end of their first year and the end of their final year. Those exams are the ONLY official grades they receive in their entire undergraduate career. All of the work students do throughout the year — essays, problem sets, presentations — is for them to learn and receive feedback, but does not impact their transcripts in any way.
Most of the learning at Oxford is done independently. Students are assigned lots of reading each week, as well as assignments (essays, problem sets, etc.) based on that reading. Each subject also includes lectures, classes, and tutorials. Lectures are not required — you can graduate Oxford without ever having attended one — but they are the primary method of teaching new information. Classes allow students in the same subject to discuss what they are learning. But it is tutorials that are the heart of the Oxford curriculum. Students meet with dons (we call them professors in America) every week, either individually or in groups of two or three, and receive direct feedback on their essays.
And now for how this system works for visiting students (those of us studying here for a term or a year, who will not receive our final degree from Oxford):
When I applied to study at Catz, I was asked on my application what I wanted to study in my two tutorials subjects. (Full-time Oxford students study one to two subjects each term.) I requested to study Shakespeare’s Plays for my primary tutorial, which meets for one hour once a week (8 tutorials in total) and 20th Century Women Writers for my secondary tutorial, which meets for an hour every other week (4 tutorials in total).
For my primary tutorial, I read 2-4 Shakespeare plays a week and write a 3000-word essay. At my tutorial, I read my essay aloud to my tutor, who comments as I go along and interrupts me to discuss my ideas. For my secondary tutorial, I am assigned a reading list before each meeting that includes several novels as well as several books of criticism. Instead of bringing in an essay to read aloud, I email my essay to my tutor the day before my tutorial, and she brings it to our meeting with comments and feedback.
Because I am not studying the same subjects as any of the other English students at Catz, I don’t get to attend any classes. I love that Catz made it possible for me to study exactly what I am interested in, but I do feel a little isolated from the other English students. While the one-on-one tutorial system is intellectually challenging, I miss getting to discuss my ideas with other students.
To try to compensate, I’ve really taken advantage of going to lectures. Some of my fellow study abroad students haven’t been to any lectures, but I try to go to at least once a day — maybe because I crave routine, or maybe because I just love school. I attend a lot of English lectures, but have also hit up a few in other subjects, like History and Politics. I love the lecture system because no work is required before or after the lecture — I just show up and learn.
The schedule here is different than an American university because so much less time is spent in class. (I technically am only required to be on campus for my tutorials — a total of 3 hours every 2 weeks.) Students typically work all day in libraries, then enjoy free time or participate in extracurricular activities in the evenings. Not that procrastination is nonexistent here — the lingo for an unfinished assignment and a looming deadline is “essay crisis.”
The workload here is definitely challenging. This is not the academic-joke-of-a-study-abroad-program that some of my friends are enjoying in other parts of Europe. But it’s exactly what I came to Oxford to get.
In other news, my parents are visiting for the week! We spent the weekend in Oxford, then traveled to Wales on Monday and Tuesday. I came back to Oxford for a tutorial today and tomorrow, and then I’ll spend the weekend in London sightseeing and going to shows. Hopefully more photos coming next week!
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