By Anna Formánková
Wet pavements. Red busses. BICYCLES. If you thought that a city centre without cars is a calm and silent city centre you would be terribly mistaken. The narrow lanes, broader streets, hidden passages: all the places are buzzing with life. From lectures into the libraries, a stop by the college to pick up the mail from the pidge, pop into the café for a quick snack and get back in time for the tute: the Oxford student never stops!
What is it like to have the chance to study at the University of Oxford, the ultimate scholarly dream of countless students in the world? It is busy. Time-consuming. Exciting. You never have enough time to do everything you want. You are constantly torn apart between your department and your college, your free time and your work, running around the city centre trying not to miss a single moment of your precious time here. And it is glorious.
The collegiate system
The collegiate system is one of the most important features of University of Oxford, and I wish I had been told just how significant a feature it was before I arrived because it would have saved me a lot of trouble. The university consists of faculties, schools, and departments on one hand, and on the other, there are the colleges. While colleges take care of your welfare, overlook your overall progress, and ensure that your university experience is the best possible, faculties provide for your actual teaching and academic supervision. Thus every member of the academia at the University of Oxford has a double affiliation, sometimes verging on double identity (bordering with schizophrenia): they become members of both the faculty and the department, having obligations and commitments to both bodies – though not always in equal measure. And if you become a fellow or a professor, you receive a double pay: part from your college where you might work as a tutor of undergraduates or college advisor, and the other part from your department where you work on your research, give lectures, and supervise students working in your field. Can you imagine how many things can go wrong? How many emails and memos might just fall through? All the missed calls and issues that nobody solves? And yet the university functions. What is the key asset of Oxford university administration? Mastering the chaos. Left hand might not know what the right one is doing, and yet, the whole organism is running. And it is running fast and forward. have you seen the list of all the brilliant names that studied here lately? No? What about the US National Security Advisor Dr Susan Rice? Or opera singer Dr Ian Bostridge? Or maybe actress Felicity Jones?
Faculties, studies, lectures
As for the academic year, it is divided into trimesters at Oxford: Michaelmas (autumn), Hilary (winter) and Trinity (spring). Faculty, or more specifically the department is your main academic “base” when you start studying at University of Oxford. Undergraduate students attend general course lectures which are organised by the department, various lecture series covering various topics for your Papers (let’s not go there, that would be too much detail for such a lovely relaxed article as this one, right), but the main individual teaching is arranged for by the college. As a graduate student, your education is provided for mainly by the department. Mostly there are closed seminars for a very small number of students which allow for intensive work, discussions, and presentations. Usually, graduate students work on two longer essays over the course of the first two terms and then write their dissertation which is typically around ten thousand words long – mainly due to the fact that most graduate courses last one year only and it would not be possible to write a more substantial work in such a short time. But if you still have free time on your hands you can attend undergraduate lectures – even as a graduate student – which are open to everyone, no matter what your subject actually is and on what level you are studying at the moment. Even the professors sometimes attend their colleagues’ lectures.
A college is an independent unit within the federative collegiate system of the university. There are tens of colleges at Oxford, varying in the courses they support, wealth, size, and number of students they have, the smallest ones may have less than 20 students while the others may admit hundreds of them. Not all colleges accept students in all courses, usually there is a list of courses and specialisations that each college supports, the number and variation depending on the specialisations of their senior members (and therefore, potential tutors), tradition, as well as on money. Each of the colleges is funded independently, usually through the estates and land they own, but it might as well be through shares in various companies and concerns, or maybe from a share in London O2 Arena; based on this system, there are inevitable differences in the amount of funding each college has at hand.
If you become an undergraduate (BA) student, basically all your teaching is arranged for by your college. You attend general course lectures, but you are also assigned a tutor, senior member of the college who is a specialist in your field, with whom you arrange for individual sessions (tutorials, in Oxonian slang “tutes”). At graduate level you consult two or three supervisors, each of them helping you with one of your big essays or dissertation.
Apart from your tutor/ supervisor, you also have a college advisor. No matter what level your studies are, you are assigned a member of the college, usually a senior member as well, who either works in the same field as you do or had a similar career path, and therefore, knows what it is like to study the course you attend. The college advisor is interested in your welfare at the university, from your academic advancement to social integrity to personal issues. Thus whenever you have any problem which needs to be solved you have a chance to contact this more experienced person who should be able to give you a piece of advice or provide the necessary support. Which is a wonderful concept; the more when you arrive at the university as an exchange student and then you find out that your study programme actually does not exist (which happened to myself). At that moment you are grateful for any support. (Thank you so much, Dennis.)
The social aspect of a college was an absolutely new discovery for me. Once you become a member of the college it is your place to stay, there are the people you stick with; your college becomes your new family. You can never imagine how quickly you develop the sense of belonging and pride. After three weeks at Oxford I knew that my college was the best of them all, no matter what I actually knew about the rest. You get your pin, your college hoodie and nobody can fool with you anymore. Even if you do not live right on the college grounds, you still have your pidge (= pigeon hole) at the lodge where all your mail is delivered to.
The sense of integrity is even intensified by the fact that you are not only member of a college as such, but there is also a specific “Room” you belong to: Junior Common Room (JCR) for undergraduates, Middle Common Room (MCR) for graduate (MA) students and DPhils (aka doctoral students), and Senior Common Room (SCR) for post-graduate fellows, professors, and other senior members of the college. In each room there are several elected representatives who take care of welfare, sports, events and many more. At Jesus College, we have at least one MCR event each week during the term and it is a great opportunity to catch up with your fellow MCR members.
As a student you are very busy. If you attend lectures, seminars, consult tutors or work on your dissertation, the workload is usually rather big and libraries become your best friends. The magic of the word “work” is astounding and for a Czech student absolutely unique. At Oxford everybody is studying hard and everyone understands what it is like to have a deadline approaching fast, since they have all been there. Nobody will judge when you say you need to leave the wine party earlier or spend the Saturday evening at home reading. The fact that others actually respect your attitude towards your studies is an unbelievable truth for a Czech student, but at Oxford nobody will hold you by the sleeve trying to make you stay “a bit longer.”
But Oxford does not at all mean studies only. The events at your room allow you to get to know your fellow college members who usually come from all across the academic spectrum and thus you get to meet a lot of people from various different fields, not limited to your department only. Each college have their own bar and if you get to make friends at your department who belong to other colleges you can end up boppin’ (aka partying; party = bop) with them at their college! And night life is certainly not limited to college bars only, there are numerous pubs, clubs and cocktail bars all around the town.
However, night life is not everything (for most people)! Oxford has several museums which are mostly free to visit, local theatres have varied programmes of plays and concerts on; you can also do tours around other colleges (Fancy popping into the Exeter College to see J.R.R. Tolkien’s Oxford home?) – those are usually free for university students as well. Oxford is a place which photographers must love because of all the amazing buildings and lovely pebble stone paths… Though I have to admit these seem extremely romantic in theory, in practice, there is not a decent way of walking across them. Not even in hiking boots. And now imagine walking around in high heels.
If you are not afraid of water, punting is a good alternative to walking; you just sit in a boat and row down the stream enjoying the views. Apart from walks across the pebble stone (really, pebble stones, not cobble stones) paths and rowing in currents of the Thames, riding a bike is the most common way of getting around the town. The number of bikes on literally every corner is unbelievable; and if you need to drop into Tesco to get groceries or stop by the local Oxfam bookshop to check whether someone have not donated the one book you really need, bicycle is the best vehicle to use.
What is it like to study at University of Oxford? It’s a challenge. The whole system is so different to the one you are used to; people are coming to study there from all around the world and you are simply one of them. But it does not feel strange or lonely, because you have the sense of community thanks to the fact that even though you are a stranger, you get a chance to belong. On Sunday you meet your friends for brunch at the MCR, then you pop into Tesco to grab your 1 of 5 and pass the afternoon working in one of the libraries. And you feel that it is time well-spent.