A Canadian doctoral student at Oxford University shares some of his initial thoughts on the graduate experience at the oldest university in the English-speaking world.
New graduate students follow particular scripts when meeting graduate students from other departments within the same university. Especially interesting is the script graduate students, notably doctoral candidates, follow in social or quasi-social situations. It normally starts with “What are you researching?” (eliciting a series of made-up words representing the latest in theoretical perspectives for the discipline in question) followed by “Who are you working with?” (i.e. the student’s supervisor, whom the inquisitor will pretend to have heard of in fear that he or she will appear stupid otherwise). Finally, one student will ask the other “So why did you choose to study at [insert name of home university]?” I know this is the pattern of discussion for new graduate students because I have been using it, and have had it used upon me, for the last four months. It provides a comfortable, dependable and non-threatening patter for meeting new people and allows one to avoid staring blankly into space during awkward pauses in conversation.
However, I think how one responds to the third question can be quite telling. I have been asked “So why did you come to Oxford” at least 50 or 60 times since the academic year began. At first I gave thoughtful answers related to scholarship and research interests. However, about two months ago I gave up and started telling the truth: the snob factor.
Oxford really is a different kind of place, different from any of the dozens of university campuses I have visited in Canada, the U.S. and continental Europe. There is the romantic majesty of the Oxford skyline. From the Isis River, views are framed by the spires of Christ Church College’s many buildings, and Madgalen College chapel’s monolithic tower dominates from the aptly named Magdalen Bridge, which used to mark the division between the town of Oxford and the gown of the university.
Oxford is, as my wife has described it, the ultimate theme park of academic geekdom. It isn’t hyperbole to suggest that in a single day you can see a student protest of Shimon Peres giving a lecture at Balliol College and participate in a seminar held in the 700-year-old former home of the university’s first library. And these things are not extraordinary – this is what studying at Oxford is like on a daily basis.
However, even these incredible sites, occurrences, and experiences are not the greatest draw for foreign graduate students to Oxford. The greatest draw is the fear and awe anyone who has not attended Oxford has for the university. In this sense, it really is like Disneyland for a four-year-old child: before you experience it, you dream of literally being transported to a different world, where cartoon characters come to life, and it is possible to see castles, submarines, and rocket ships all in one day. You assume that anyone who has been there has come as close to seeing the face of G-d as is humanly possible. It does not matter that the line for a ride is an hour long. It does not matter that you will probably spend a healthy percentage of the day being sick after overindulging in Disney-themed candy floss, hot dogs, and Space Mountain. And it does not matter that you can actually see the pimply-faced visage of the eighteen-year old in the Dumbo costume through the wire mesh of the costume’s eyes. If you have not experienced Disneyland, the finer details of its reality are unknown to you.
And Oxford graduate study is a lot like Disneyland. From the upper deck of the open-top bus tours constantly circling Oxford, the city and the university resemble an impenetrable academic fantasy land of arcane traditions, ancient architecture, bearded, earnest scholars and posh, accented youth. And the reality is that, while what you see from the tour bus is true, there is also a certain mendacity to the university. Many classrooms have that musty smell of carpet that is in desperate need of replacement if not fumigation. Undergraduate and graduate students spend a third of their time complaining about their workloads, another third actually working, and a final third drinking to celebrate the work they have done. Student and university politics are just as petty and back-stabbing as anything I experienced in Canada. It may not be possible to discern if Oxford has these characteristics in common with Canadian universities due to Oxford’s influence on all English-speaking universities, or if this sameness is due to the feed-back loop caused by the constant circulation of students, faculty, and staff among the world’s universities. Regardless of the cause, these common elements of university life allow the foreign intruder to feel at home at Oxford.
There are other features that make this university different from others. These features, although inherited from the mists of Oxford’s history, help maintain its sense of other-worldliness. A perfect example is the use of academic gowns by students for many different occasions – from induction ceremonies, student examinations, the oral defence, and formal meals in college dining halls.
This brings me to the college system itself. Although other celebrated institutions are federated universities, Oxford and Cambridge are unique in the level to which each graduate student’s life revolves around his or her respective college. Many students “live-in”, as in “live in college.” Almost every college has its own rugby, football, and rowing squad (which is truly impressive given the expense in operating a rowing club and the difficulty in learning the sport). Every college will have its own clubs, causes, and other student groups. As a former student leader, I have been amazed by the many ways both graduate and undergraduate students can become involved in student life. And this does not take into account the many university-wide activities, mirroring and adding to those available through the colleges, such as the Oxford Union debating society and the varsity sporting teams.
My doctoral research is focussed on the evolving relationship between governments and universities, with a particular interest in periods of dramatic, historic change in higher education. From the early 1800s to the early 2000s, Oxford has followed a particular mantra when attempts have been made to reform the institution and its traditions: principally opposition and opposition on principle. While this position is not unique to universities, what is unique is that Oxford is usually successful in rebuffing crusades for change. And this is part of what makes the university special and capable of providing a different experience to any student choosing to study here. It isn’t for everyone, but for those few who want a glimpse into the medieval origins of the European university tradition, there is only one other place to find it. And I wouldn’t be caught dead there (or so I have been led to believe).
Andrew Boggs is a Canadian doctoral student at the University of Oxford. Here he shares some of his initial thoughts on the graduate experience at the oldest university in the English-speaking world.