Idiosyncrasies abroad: Lessons from an Oxford student


America and England go way back. Sometimes we were each other’s last standing allies, and at other times (cue: the American Revolution) we were mortal enemies. But through good times and bad, we had one thing in common: a mutual dislike for the French. In my time thus far studying at Oxford University, I have relied on this commonality more than once when a conversation began to lag. It’s pretty easy for a Brit and an American to revive a dying introductory conversation by thoroughly mocking the EU (and most European tendencies, for that matter). And herein I can share my first lesson from Oxford: England is not Europe.

England takes pride in the fact that it is neither America, nor Europe. It is both literally and figuratively, an Island. This I learned pretty quickly through a succession of (culture) shock therapy sessions.

It was surprising that a country so similar to the US is also so completely different. Not only were the expected things hard to adjust to, such as deciphering accents, adjusting to the increase in walking, and the chasm of a difference between American and English english. (Here fries are chips, chips are crisps, and cookies are biscuits.)

But of all the differences I have had to adjust to, the Oxford style of academia has certainly been the most challenging. I knew Oxford University would be different from the average U.S. university, but there is quite a difference between knowing a thing, and experiencing a thing.

Here, there are no required lectures. Nearly every lecture within every topic is open to any student of any major—with that in mind, it isn’t surprising that no one is there to take attendance. If you sleep through your alarm and miss a lecture, well tough. That’s one more class you won’t have the notes for that you definitely needed. The lectures range from massive to intimate, depending on how obscure the topic is. But always, they focus on the student listening and taking detailed notes. Questions are certainly asked, but more often than not the lecturer is treated as a distant source of knowledge, to be listened to, but not approached.

Nicely coinciding with the open lecture system is the tutorial system. Every term a student is assigned a primary and secondary tutorial—basically, there’s one one hour meeting with a professor once a week, and another one hour meeting with a different professor every other week. The challenge with these? The meetings are one on one. If you haven’t studied and written your paper in preparation for your tutorial, it will be painfully obvious. Generally, in American universities, we as students are able to make cost benefit analysis about how much time we want to spend on homework. Sometimes we don’t get all the reading done, and on those days, we just keep our mouths shut in class or slump down deep into our chairs hoping not to be noticed past role call. At Oxford, that’s just not an option.

Unlike the lectures, however, the experience of attending a tutorial is both intimate and interactive. While lectures encourage diligent listening and note-taking, tutorials instead encourage conversation and argumentation. A tutor embodies the socratic method by asking questions and taking stances they may not even hold, just to cause their pupil to better think through and understand their own arguments.

Both of these systems, so different from the American system, completely alter the ways in which students study and prepare. At Oxford students have almost the entire week available as unstructured free time. You can attend lectures, or not. You can join a club or sport team, or not. You could study, or not. The only thing you must absolutely do here is attend tutorials.

This lack of structure can be daunting in the amount of responsibility it shifts to the student. In order to thrive at Oxford, a student must be able to have enough self-discipline to keep a schedule of their own creation. They must enforce study habits that no one will patrol them to keep. If you succeed here, it is because you study for the sake of study, not for the sake of arbitrary grades incentivizing you along the way.

Which brings me to the largest difference of all: the grading system (or lack there of). At Oxford, you take two tests—one coming in, and one going out. That’s it. The rest of a student’s time here is dedicated to reading, writing, and speaking. This is, on the one hand, great, because it removes the over prevalent red-herring of education that is: grades. When you aren’t fighting for a letter, but rather simply to understand, the purpose of education is better internalized.

On the other hand, having only one test determine your grade for your entire college experience is incredibly daunting, and, needless to say, terrifying. The point of doing this is to see if you have, in fact, over the past 3 to 4 years, actually mastered your topic of study. This aim is understandable when trying to quiz myself on information learned as a freshman that I promptly forgot after taking the final. Still, despite the holistic approach this form of testing takes, I can’t say I prefer it to the American system. At least in the U.S., if I do poorly on a test, it doesn’t shape the rest of my career. I can always do better next time—the American dream!

Despite all of these academic adjustments I have had to make, not to mention the embarrassing number of phobias and faux pas I have had to overcome, my time here thus far has been resoundingly more good than bad. I have laughed to the point of tears with a shop lady over President Ford’s tendency to fall over. I have debated Hayek v. Kaynes with a handsome British man, with whom I agreed that if I could meet one person from history it would be Margaret Thatcher. I have shared anxiety with a group of English women, all of whom were also trying salsa dancing for the first time.

All in all, Oxford has been wonderful. The English have a warmth and exuberance of life that inspires and challenges. It is sad to think I only have a short time left to live here. But then again, after that short time, I can once again have Shake Shack. I guess there’s a bright side to everything.