November 03, 2014
Will Brantley '15
As cliché as it sounds, it is truly difficult to adequately express my experience at Oxford these last few weeks. Before explaining my experience, I should perhaps explain the Oxford pedagogical system. There is no physical University of Oxford, but thirty-eight constituent colleges that make up the university.
For example, I am a member of Worcester College. There are no tradition classes here at Oxford. Instead, one goes to periodic lectures that are pertinent to one's course of study; however, these lectures are neither compulsory nor always directly related to one's studies. They are simply a means to contextualize or provide a basis for one's readings or studies. Having said this, I think it is important to point out that there is a tremendous amount of work done by Oxford students.
The system hinges on what is called "tutorial" in which one meets one-on-one once a week with a professor to discuss a paper and the related topic. (Ironically, one of my tutors is American, and she went to my rival high school and grew up five blocks from me in Memphis, Tennessee.) The tutorial system is in many regards the reverse of the American system; the majority of the actual learning is self-directed and is done outside a classroom. The tutorial provides an opportunity for the student to demonstrate not only that he or she has done the reading, but also can discuss and defend his opinions to the tutor. A typical tutorial will require the reading of between five hundred and a thousand pages and the writing of a two-thousand-word paper. The system gives students a tremendous amount of freedom to explore their ideas and pursue their individual interests.
Typically, a student takes a major tutorial that meets once a week and a minor tutorial that meets every other week. For example, my two tutorials are "The British Empire in India from 1757-1857" and "Institutions of Empire: from Enthusiasm to Embarrassment." Both tutorials concern subjects that greatly interest me, and as the term progresses, I have the opportunity to influence what directions and what specific topics are focused on in each session.
Although the nature of the Oxford system allows tremendous freedom to explore one's interest, there is also much expected from students. The grading at Oxford is radically different from the United States system; instead of marking down from an ideal paper at a 100%, they mark up from a failing bench line. For example a 60 out of 100 is fairly good, equivalent to roughly a B+ in the United States. It can be jarring for an American to get a 60 on a paper. However, the ethos of Oxford seems illicit an intellectual curiosity and vibrancy rarely found in the United States. I don't know if it is the cobblestone streets or the eight hundred years of architecture on display, but the town itself seems to be suspended in time - neither aging nor progressing. It at times is daunting to realize that one is walking the same streets or sitting in the same chairs as some of the greatest minds ever to speak the English language, but it is easy to feel that one is at the intellectual epicenter of the English-speaking world.
Being among the brightest students and esteemed professors in the world is invigorating. I hope in the future more Hampden-Sydney student will pursue studying at Oxford. Oxford not only gives one the opportunity to truly explore a subject, but it also allows you be around people who are equally devoted and curious about their own disciplines. I can truly say that it has been a life changing experience.