Oxford may produce cool-minded academics, but I think most new students are all jitters at the first tutorial. The system of learning here is different, individual, and oh so intense at first. There are very few lectures and even those are optional. Almost all learning happens in once a week, one-on-one meetings with a professor who is an expert in your area of interest. During the tutorial hour, the student reads aloud a previously assigned essay, hears the professor’s critique, and is given a reading assignment for the next week.
The day of my first one was chill and bright when I set out. A week before, I received an email instructing me to find my way to Dr. so and so’s rooms “in college,” on “this day week.” I left far too early, but this was grace, for I was swiftly lost. I wandered at least two wrong lanes in my hunt for the right college. Oxford is a series of narrow cobbled streets threaded twixt creamy, high stone walls. Massive oaken doors etched by iron studs rise every block or two amidst the stone, and behind these, like tiny, hidden cities lie the colleges.
Square gardens and cloisters framed by mossy walls wait behind those doors. Cut glass windows framed in ivy look down on quads that seem set entirely apart from the world. These become fairy walks in the starlight, I’ve seen them. But as I pattered down the street that first day, I forgot that. No fairy tale was coming my way until I figured out which wall hid the right group of gardens. I finally arrived at the porter’s lodge, having hit upon the right oaken door and asked for the rooms of Dr. so and so. I was given kindly but rather vague directions. Miraculously, I found the right staircase and two minutes later, knocked with feigned confidence at my tutor’s door.
The room I entered was piled with books; I think this is inevitable in Oxford. I’ve visited the rooms of three tutors thus far, and the first thing you feel is the stare of those books, as if their varicolored covers and countless weathered pages symbolize the mind you are about to encounter. Twenty whirlwind minutes later, I emerged, slightly overawed, but heartened by the surprising normalcy of the person I met, the plan I had in hand for the next eight weeks, and the book list for my first week of study. I breathed a sigh of relief. I glanced at the booklist. I stopped breathing.
When I gasped back to life, I ran to the library, sure that I needed to start immediate reading in order to finish by next week’s tutorial. For the next five days, I worked feverishly, turning every so often to a notebook in which I hoped my thoughts might eventually cohere into an essay. Two days before the tutorial, I wondered how I got myself into this. One day and I stayed up to ungodly hours, trying not to repeat the same phrase in a hundred different ways. The day of the tutorial, I yielded to a sense of doom, give the paper a last edit, and walked to my tutorial feeling that I had taken my life in my hands.
I had to read my paper aloud. (I saw every punctuation error as I did.) I came to the last full-stop (what they call a period here in England) and held my breath. This, I thought would be the point when my tutor would express shock at my lack of knowledge and point out the dozen errors I was sure I had made in my paper.
“Hmmm,” was all my tutor said. Then, “now that part about MacDonald’s landscapes, that was intriguing. Tell me more.” Slightly dazed, I did. Lo and behold, the axe never fell. There was no great criticism to be faced. A few “footnoting issues” of course, but then, a simple discussion of the ideas I had presented. I was pointed to a book that might set my thinking straight. I was asked what interested me, and assigned a new essay. I walked out, feeling somehow reprieved . . . and a little disoriented. This felt more like tea with a friendly mentor than the academic rigors I expected.
I set back to work and found my study a little easier this week – at least I knew what was best to include in the essay this time. I still stressed until the absolute last minute on getting my paper done. But when I read it aloud, there was an extra note of confidence in my voice – my tutor was interested in what I had to say, genuinely curious to see what conclusions I had drawn from the huge amount of reading offered. The next week, I actually claimed something apart from the books I read. Now, I find myself almost on a treasure hunt as I begin the work for each new essay, for the quality of what I learn is dependent on me; if I read well and articulate clearly, the tutorial will be a further adventuring into new realms of study.
This is all so different from what I expected. My initial sense of the tutorial as a meeting with a mentor is far more correct than I thought because of a simple, underlying idea to the Oxford mode of education: every student is a scholar. This is not a title conferred upon you at the end of your studies, it is what drives and defines you amidst them. The experts are simply farther along.
This sense of your status as an independent learner is the underlying assumption of every tutorial, the reason that the iconic building of Oxford is not a classroom, but a library. On orientation day, when we new students were first shown our own college, and then shown around town, my friend made an astute observation. “They always show you the libraries first,” she whispered, “they’re the center of everything.” And she’s right, because the discipline of independent, thoughtful reading is what it means to become educated here in Oxford.
I have held a muddled idea of what it means to be a student – probably a common misnomer. I have considered a student to be one who collects information. One who is informed by an expert on the right views of the right books. Because of this, I have often felt inadequate because I never took the time to complete my college degree. I felt as if I were somehow lacking a certain amount of information that three or four courses in the right lists of English literature might grant me.
Oxford is refreshing my view of education. This is not a place where some “expert” will systematically flood you with a set amount of facts. I do most of my own learning here – I read for around three full work days a week and write for two more. I am guided to the right books in my tutorials, my false ideas corrected as they surface in my essays, but the whole process is one in which I am the active party in my learning. To be a student here is to be a scholar in training, to have my skills honed in the arts of reading, writing, and the intricate consideration of ideas. In the end, education is not the conferral of a set number of facts upon the mind of a student. Education is simply the process by which you are equipped to learn.
And once you start, it doesn’t ever have to stop. That’s the gift. I can continue in scholarship no matter where I am, as long as I can read. That is ultimately the education I will take home from Oxford. It’s a good one.
Sarah Clarkson is the author of several books including the best-selling The Life-giving Home, which she co-authored with her mother, Sally Clarkson. Sarah is currently studying literature at Oxford University where she's not only a brilliant thinker and writer, but is also the president of the C. S. Lewis Society.