I’m not entirely sure what I was supposed to have gotten out of Oxford—why, that is, some generous Princeton alumni decided to send me here. It certainly wasn’t a degree: this was clear to me two days after I was informed I received the scholarship, and proceeded to awkwardly explain that my chosen course wasn’t actually offered by Worcester College. The scholarship coordinators said that didn’t much care what I studied. I just needed to go to Oxford and do something. What that “something” is—whether to learn, row, drink, or launch my campaign for a seat on the Supreme Court, I still don’t know.
Absent answers to this more cosmic question, though, I have put some thought into what I’ve learned about how an American graduate student—I make no pretense to speak for those not fitting this description—can make the most of her or his time in Oxford. Some of this advice I followed, some I wish I had followed, and other elements I would never myself follow, but figure someone should:
1) Study only in pretty libraries. Oxford is known for its fabled tutorial system, in which students work one-on-one or two-on-one with a don every week. In reality, though, few graduate students get tutorials: instead, we prepare from thoughtlessly assembled reading for disjointed seminars taught by a rota of professors taking turns at the unpleasant task of instruction. Most of the masters courses here, from what I’ve heard and experienced, suck.
At first, I found this frustrating, until I realized that classes—or essays, or reading lists, or exams—were little more than necessary impediment to my real education, which has come from pursuing my own research, attending open lectures, and interacting with the incredibly diverse range of people in my course. Academically, Oxford has been a joke, but intellectually, I’ve never been so stimulated. That’s why I suggest only studying in Oxford’s prettier libraries: learning in this place comes as much from the physical milieu as formal instruction, and the senseless requirements of various courses aren’t worth sweating unless you’re, at the very least, sitting somewhere pretty.
2) Row, or at least drink with rowers. I don’t actually think everyone should row. Although I love the Worcester College Boat Club to death, I’m not quite sure it’s particular concatenation of pseudo-athleticism, binge drinking, casual racism, and heteronormativity is likely to work for everyone. That said, I think rowing is an excellent way to avoid the greatest mistake many of my American friends studying in England made: not meeting any English people. Rowing was my window into undergraduate life, one which constantly reminded me that I was living amidst a distinct culture—not just America-with-funny-accents—and which illuminated the uniqueness and idiosyncracy of my own undergraduate experience. Not everyone should row, but everyone should drink at least a pint of Pimms in their college boathouse before they graduate, and realize that English undergraduates—to generalize terribly—are a fun and immensely creative bunch.
3) Do not try to change Oxford, as it does not exist. It’s easy to spot the tourists in Oxford: they’re the people wearing “Oxford University” gear. True Oxonians only wear garb advertising their colleges, because the colleges are where instruction takes place, friendships are formed and—as I realized far too late—meaningful changes are enacted.
One of my greatest failures at Oxford was the attempted creation of an already-defunct Oxford University Vegetarian Society. I abandoned this project with the lament that a 900-year-old institution is unlikely to change. In retrospect, I was wrong: Oxford can change, but only insofar as this change has passed through all 39 colleges, from Christ Church to St. Benets.
4) Travel, but don’t go too far. Yesterday, I went to Prague, and today I am in Dresden. It’s cool. I’m enjoying my current European gallivant, but am acutely aware that much of the continent remains unexplored. How have I spent two years with easy access to cheap Ryan Air flights, and not visited Riga, or Budapest, or even Rome?
I do wish I had traveled more. But more than anything, I wish I had seen more of the United Kingdom. Those places I have visited on the Isles—Stoke-on-Trent, Sheffield, Manchester—are not particularly pretty, but seeing them has enriched and contextualized my experience at Oxford in a way that visits to sexier destinations on the other side of the channel would not have.
5) Buy the Big Issue. Oxford is a bastion of privilege and home to Britain’s finest—at least, so long as you stay within 500 meters of the Bodelian Library. Venture outside of the city center, though, and the city changes dramatically. Out Cowley Road, there is about as much ethnic diversity as in Manhattan; south of the city center are the shelters and soup kitchens that maintain Oxford’s substantial homeless population.
“The Big Issue” is a mediocore magazine hawked by some of these unhoused individuals on practically every street corner of Oxford. Buying it is more than a way to assuage liberal guilt and catch up on celebrity gossip. It’s also a way to—in a small way—engage with this other version of Oxford. The non-student, non-dons of Oxford have a lot to teach us too.