Oxford ≠ Nerdville

This is an article I wrote a couple weeks ago for the study abroad column at Jewell.

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Karen Rice made up a game, once upon a time. It’s a conversation game, and we play it a lot.

I’m sure you are all familiar with the difficulty of recapping a major life experience in everyday conversation. “So how was your summer in Peru?” “Uhhh….” It’s a shame, really. There are a million ups and downs to summers and semesters and junior years abroad, but with questions like that, they tend to all get lumped into a meaningless generalization like “good.” Even if your interrogator didn’t mean for you to give a one-word answer, sometimes a paragraph summary is just too difficult to compose on the spot. Obviously, this doesn’t make for very productive conversations.

Karen’s game spares us that fate. And it’s easy to play: you just ask, “What were two highlights and one lowlight of _____?” And in return, you get a pleasant amount of detail. It works quite well.

This, I believe, is an occasion for the game. If you ask me, “How’s Oxford?” I’ll be at a loss, and the most detail you’ll get is, “Good.” But one highlight– I can do that justice.

I imagined that Oxford would be the nerd center of the universe, and a pretentious one at that. That turns out to not be the case at all. The city is full of academics, it’s true, but they are the sort of academics who go out to the pub five nights in a row. Sometimes it seems like a contest to see who can do the most extracurricular activities and still keep up with their degree. Tutors go by their first names. I’ve yet to hear a single word about the proper formatting of an essay. In the entirety of Fresher’s Week (a rather alcohol-saturated version of orientation), not once did a faculty member sit everyone down and proceed to wax eloquent about what a fine institution this is and how privileged we are to be here and then exhort everyone to carry on the tradition with excellence.

There are reasons for this nonchalance. First of all, Brits seem to have an aversion to anything that resembles bragging. And at Oxford, your grades don’t count until the very end– you might write thirty-six essays in a year, but technically speaking, none of them matter. (As a visiting student, my essay grades do count, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt more laid back about my own work. I must have absorbed some of the British attitude by osmosis.) Plus, “I go to Oxford” has an impressive ring to it until you’re actually in Oxford, and there are approximately 21,000 other people who can say the same thing. The prestige of it all gets left behind somewhere on the bus ride from London. Don’t get me wrong– it’s a special place, and most of us work very hard. But the specialness speaks for itself when your library was built in, say, 1300.

As if that wasn’t enough, the University delegates a (sometimes disconcertingly) large amount of responsibility to its students. When 20-year-olds make the decisions, college life takes on a distinctively informal flavor. Consider, for example, Über Brew. It’s a Sunday afternoon tradition here at Regent’s Park, and it’s basically a college-sponsored opportunity for the undergraduates to stuff their faces with chocolate and fruit and miscellaneous junk food. I imagine that if Jewell were to attempt this, it would take place in the sterile environment of the Union, with real grown-ups doling it out in equal portions and everything kept neat and tidy. What happens at Regent’s, on the other hand, might be living proof that Hobbes was right about man in the state of nature; it’s not quite like any other experience I’ve ever had.

We start hovering like vultures at a quarter till four. People shove couches and tables together, creating a near- impenetrable fortress of bodies and furniture. And then we might talk amongst ourselves a little, but mostly we watch the clock and the door. The student who is the designated bearer of Brew is undoubtedly the most important person in college on Sundays. When she finally arrives with two bulging Tesco bags, their contents are dumped unceremoniously onto whatever surface is available (some weeks this has been the college ping-pong table) and immediately devoured. The whole lot of us becomes a tangled mass of arms and mouths. There are no rules, just a lot of grabbing. £25 worth of the cheapest junk food can disappear in less than five minutes– and if the men’s rowing crew didn’t happen to be out on the river at that time of day, who knows what would happen? I would photograph it to give you a better idea, but again, all you’d see would be arms and mouths (and besides, I wouldn’t get anything to eat).

Über Brew is an extreme example; Oxford usually isn’t quite that undignified. But it’s under the surface all the time. Yes, supposedly there’s a tutor at Christchurch who gives one-on-one tutorials in his academic gowns. Yes, there’s a building devoted to the study of ancient biomolecules, whatever those are. Yes, once a friend reported running into two drunks on the street arguing about Nietzsche. And yes, people here are brilliant. But they’re also, to my pleasant surprise, very normal– a heck of a lot more normal than your average Oxbridger (don’t freak out, I’m allowed to say it). It is at Oxford, of all places, that I’ve learned that it’s just an essay, to give it my best shot and then let it go.

Oxford highlight #1: it’s hard to take yourself too seriously.

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~ by Jess on February 28, 2012.

One Response to “Oxford ≠ Nerdville”

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