Lessons from the Stacks

I am already halfway through the term and I feel as though I have never learned so much in such a short time frame. There is a saying here when talking to someone about your academics. Rather than asking “what are you studying?” you ask, “what are you reading?” The reason for this is because reading is the primary means through which our learning is conducted here. What you read is what you absorb. I have meandered through Oxford with Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Tennyson, Dickens, Hobbes, and Locke- eager to pick up a few more friends along my way.  

The Oxford tutorial system is a highly unique form of education. I am taking British Novels and Poetry, and Political Thought. For both I have a tutor (professor) with whom I meet weekly or biweekly to discuss my academic discoveries. For eight consecutive weeks, they will provide me with a primary text, and then I read. After I have spent some time in independent research, thinking, and writing, I will return to my tutor and show what I have learned and where my thought process has led me through the reading. I will bring two copies of a roughly six-page essay to my meeting, then I will read my essay aloud. What sets the Oxford tutorial system apart from typical classes is that they consist solely of argumentation and discourse. Rather than spending the entire hour discussing my potentially errored claims, the tutor will use my essay to broaden my ideas and show me where I might further my research in the future.

It can be easy to get distracted by the architecture around me.
My favorite place to study is the Upper Level of the Radcliffe Camera.

When I first began this process, I struggled to begin writing. I would choose a topic, write a few sentences, then delete all traces of my thoughts. It was terrifying and intimidating to read as much as I could in a week by that particular author, then attempt to create a coherent summation of what I learned in that week, to then read out loud to an expert in that very topic, who teaches at such an esteemed university. Eventually I wrote my first essay, but it was nowhere near my best work. I was holding back, unsure how to trace my thoughts. I began to feel as though I had overestimated my own abilities in studying here for the term, that my words did not deserve to be read, or even written.

During Second Week I had a very important realization. I was sitting in the Upper Reading Room of the Bodleian Library reading Keats’ “Ode on Melancholy”. I got to the lines “Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue / Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine” and stopped. Before this week, I had no idea that Keats was only 23 when he wrote his most famous works. He wrote these words, suffused with imagery, emotion, and wisdom just two years older than I am now. I was mesmerized at how his youth did not hinder his writing, but rather bolstered its ability to write with such ease. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed in my own poetry. If all I had to leave behind to reveal who I am and the values I possessed were my attempts at poetry thus far, I would be disappointed in myself. Reading Keats’ work made me realize what it meant to create in a world which was uneager to include your words. The further I considered Keats and myself, I began to realize that I needed to claim my thoughts, knowing they are unfinished and not as well-informed as an Oxford scholar’s might be. I just needed to write.

Outside the Bodleian Library, near the Bridge of Sighs

My political philosophy tutor is traditional in the sense that he has a prompt through which he wants me to work before our next tutorial. He provides a specific reading list of roughly 30 books, then points out seven to nine particular sources, which he believes would be the most helpful. I spend the next two weeks in a voracious pursuit of reading. By the end of the two-week period I have what I believe to be a very clear and detailed argument for my perspective of the prompt. My tutor prefers an essay in which I explain how the primary author developed their political theory and how I would interpret and envision such a theory’s success. Back at Messiah College I had a politics professor explain to me that the best way to tackle a politics essay is to treat it as a court case for that topic. You need to strongly, effectively, and succinctly argue for your position and prove to the reader why it is the most reasonable perspective. I feel as though I have been successfully doing so in my political essays in Oxford.

My literature tutor has a drastically different approach to the tutorial. He prefers primarily independent thought, questions, and ideas. He is not necessarily concerned with my achieving a detailed knowledge of the life of that particular author. Instead he encourages me to read a single book or collection of poetry, and to be cognizant of what raises questions, disagreement, or inspiration as I read. My tutor gives me an author, like Keats maybe, and nothing more. A week later I return with my six-page paper and show where my headspace has been. This course has been significantly more challenging for me. It feels as though each week I discover a new fault with my writing. My first essay was dull. I was trying too hard to sound academic and ended up forgetting to include myself in the actual work. Another issue is with my introductions. I have always struggled with the introduction of any essay. I can never pin down a succinct, driving entry into my argument. One issue that has become prevalent since my experience with the tutorial system is that I stray too far from my thesis. Because I have only one week to discuss that author, I almost panic in my essay. I feel as though I need to prove to my tutor that I have a broad array of thoughts regarding this particular author.

I have learned, however, that my tutor is not as concerned with my ability to synthesize texts. Instead he is seeking to refine how I present my ideas. Discovering the weaknesses in one’s writing abilities under such an intense environment and concentrated time constraint can be taxing. I have walked away from tutorial sessions feeling like a terrible writer- having no conception of the writing process. The next week I would return with my essay and feel triumphant- introducing my paper with clarity and ease that would persist throughout the body of my argument. I have learned that in the midst of these emerging insecurities I cannot allow myself to become discouraged. I must utilize my time in Oxford to refine my writing techniques- to shape myself into a better writer.

Looking out from a window in the Upper Reading Room

It would be impossible to stay caught up with my work without structuring a daily schedule. An average weekday for me roughly resembles:

  • Waking up at seven a.m.
  • Getting ready for the day
  • Reading for an hour in my room
  • Leaving the house and arriving at the library between nine and 10
  • Returning home toting books and marmalade, past the accordion player dressed in green.

That last activity fluctuates daily, but the sentiment remains the same. I like to wander a bit on my way home- discovering a different section of the city that I haven’t yet uncovered. I always celebrate a bit when I stumble upon a curious shop filled with little treasures. The street performers I pass along my way serenade the rest of my travel home. Oxford is filled with musicians and artists who share their music as an ode to the city. When I leave Oxford, I will recall in raptures my footprints along the streets, tracing my progress. These footprints will be imprinted with the books I have read and the music I have heard.  

Featured image “La Plage” by Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, courtesy of Pedro Ribeiro Simões, used with permission under a Creative Commons License.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Davie Gilmour says:

    You make me want to read again—thank you


    1. I’m glad! Reading is one of my defining qualities


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