One of the major draws for me when I was considering applying to Oxford was the tutorial system. It’s not a British or English thing: it’s pretty much just an Oxbridge (Oxford + Cambridge) thing. My typical week here is drastically different than a typical week at Cornell, and though both are challenging in their own ways, I’m finding myself constantly pushed to be better every day here — and a lot of the time, I’m the one doing the pushing.At Cornell, my weekly schedule would likely be Mon-Fri (though last spring I somehow managed to swing classes only Tues-Thurs), probably consisting of two small lectures (about 40 people) and two seminars (about 10-15 people). As much as I felt like I should take five, I never took more than four classes in one semester. I’d do readings and essays primarily during the late afternoon or at night, or potentially during some of the tiny bit of down time I had. The bulk of the work, realistically speaking, would be done during the daytime on weekends.
Here at Oxford, my schedule looks virtually empty. I take two tutorials, a major/primary and a minor/secondary, both literature courses and both one-on-one — just me and the tutor. My major tutorial meets once a week, and my minor meets once every other week. That means on odd-numbered weeks of the term, I have one contact hour with my tutor, and on even-numbered, two hours. To any of my American friends reading this, that sounds like absolutely nothing. (Keep reading, I promise I’m actually doing stuff!)
Obviously, the structure of the workload is pretty different. For my major tutorial (Modernist Literature), I read one primary text — usually a novel — and a few secondary texts, such as related short stories, letters/diary entries, or pieces of criticism. The work for my minor tutorial (Contemporary British Literature, loosely) is pretty similar, but I have two weeks to finish those. A day before each tutorial, I send my tutor(s) a paper on the week’s readings, topic of my choosing.
The instruction, being one-on-one, is a totally new world, as you might imagine. I meet with the tutors, they ask me questions about what I’ve read, I answer to the best of my ability, we have a conversation about general things that interested/confused me, discuss my paper, and set readings for the next meeting. It’s kind of like intense office hours, but sometimes there’s tea.
In a typical English literature course at Cornell, I would probably read six to eight novels or plays in all, depending on what kind of class it is. Potentially even fewer than that. I would probably write four or five essays total, none exceeding 12-15 pages. This year, I’m reading way more, and writing way more, too. On top of that, I generally have a lot less time to get it done (but more time during the day to work, so it kind of evens out).
Just the thought of being here is pretty daunting. Add in the extensive reading/writing and the pressure to impress and you’ve get a recipe for a large serving of stress stew. Yet even with all that, my experience with the tutorials has been amazing so far. It’s incredibly independent, but I think I’m at the point where I can handle it now. Last week, my major tutor asked if I was comfortable with directing my own research/reading, so I’m basically creating my own syllabus for that tutorial. And of course, the tutors expect a lot from you. There’s literally nobody else to answer the difficult questions the tutors ask when you’re the only person in the room.
As someone who rarely speaks up in class, that is a terrifying prospect. (Sidenote: I’ve discovered that I’m more scared of judgement from my peers than my instructors, so that’s something.) But both of my tutors have been hugely supportive and not the least bit condescending; I can tell they’re genuinely invested in helping me grow as a student/scholar during my time here, and they definitely don’t think I’m a moron, which is always good. They also both told me I’m strong writer, and the relief I felt upon hearing this cannot be stressed enough. At the same time, I’m getting so much more constructive feedback on my writing, particularly in an academic capacity, and I know it’ll help me improve immensely. Tutorials are undoubtedly challenging, but I’m taking them head-on. Wish me luck.
Week in review: This week has been pretty work-filled. I went to a reading group at Albion Beatnik Bookshop, which might be my new favorite ever. There are stacks of books threatening to topple over everywhere as well as a floor-to-ceiling shelf of assorted teacups and mugs, which you pick yourself before ordering tea or coffee, and maybe even a little treat to go along with it. Superbly eclectic, the place makes my heart warm just thinking about it. I’ve had a few afternoon teas at cafes around town to take breaks from work (or shopping), not starve, and of course feel more English. Last night I went to formal hall, which is code for fancy dinner, and today I went shopping, wandering into Cowley for the first time. Currently searching for a ball gown for the Oxford Union Northern Lights Ball on November 4th… Wish me luck with that as well!
Bonus British Bit: Cakes are a huge deal. Everywhere, cafes advertise “Tea – Coffee – Cakes.” Of course there are the cakes you can order when you stop in for afternoon/high/cream tea, but even at Tesco (the major grocery store in Oxford) you can find little individually packaged cakes. Nice cakes, at that! Not Twinkies and Ding Dongs and Ho-Hos! I love cake like a fat kid loves cake. A lot.