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Time December 29th, 2008 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

In spite of being extremely excited about my return to the good ol’ US of A, it was surprisingly hard to say goodbye to Oxford. I spent my last afternoon with Alastair, catching up on the conversation that takes place outside of academia. It will be the conversations and people in Oxford that I will remember most fondly.

As I waited for my connecting flight in Charlotte, I called home to discover that Columbus was covered in a nice slick sheet of ice. My mother was deeply concerned that this would lead to the cancelation of my flight. She gave me the number of an uncle to call in case this happened. Fortunately it didn’t, and less than 2 hours later, I was at Port Columbus swamped my her hugs. Families come in all shapes and sizes, but they are what make places homes and it was good to be back home.

And now I begin the frightening process of re-acclimating to America. What scares me the most is that I will be graduating in May. Basically this means that I have t-minus 4 months to figure out what my next step in life will be. This has been one of the issues that I did not anticipate being such a big deal as I was applying to study abroad. I am still optimistic that I will be able to manage, and I absolutely do not regret the decisions I made to study abroad but the next few months will be a bit of a struggle. For example, many graduate school application deadlines have already passed.

However, coming back for Christmas is amazing. The holidays are just an absolutely phenomenal time, and getting to spend time with family after 6 months away has helped me to appreciate my family relationships all the more. It was hard trying to find gifts that could fit in my suitcase, but I managed and it has been a great couple of days. It was a good year for the tie.

I don’t think it is possible to sum my experience down to just one event, one word, or one relationship. However, there is an amalgamation of miscellany  that I do plan on taking with me. Memories, unlike physical baggage, can be packed into much smaller areas.

In my time studying in England, I have learned that there are a lot of decisions that cultures make about the proper formation of society. I have learned that being patient and open-minded and smiling and grateful and friendly is extremely beneficial. Listening carefully to people gives them a sense of dignity, and this respect is essential to build relationships across cultural barriers. For example, in my final days abroad, I was able to do some traveling and got down to Spain to visit a cousin. While there, I learned about the tremendous amount of pride that Spanish people have about their culture, their art, and their sports teams. Last summer, I worked with a number of Spanish students who appeared to struggle with authority and playing by the rules. After experiencing their culture, I have realize now that what appeared to be “insubordination” or “disrespect” was more a clash of cultures and the students struggling with reconciling the American educational-social system and their Spanish heritage.

The attitudes toward colonialism within this country are also something that I will never forget from the IFSA Butler study abroad England program. Maybe I was a little too acutely aware of colonialism because of its relationship to different kinds of Shakespeare criticism, but there seemed to be some sort of remorse or regret associated with colonialism and the role that England played in that practice. I remember walking back from a rowing outing and talking with my boat’s cox, Amelia, about what colonialism and empire building mean today. I’ll never forget how apologetic and frustrated her response was. It was honestly like she just felt sorry that her country had done all of that. Even though colonialism never affected her personally, she sounded like a child whose hero turned out to be criminal. Her face was pained and she was clearly sickened by the practice. It was a powerful response that stands in stark contrast many perceptions of empire building stateside.

And with that I believe I will conclude my Oxford blog. Thank you all for reading. I hope that it has given you a small picture of what it is like to study in the city of dreaming spires.

Wishing you all the best in the season of good cheer,
Owen

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Sadder now that its over, It is finished, and Conversations

Time December 9th, 2008 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

All of the above apply now. Week 8 of my term here in Oxford is finished. It was a very good idea to study in England for a longer period, and extend my stay here in this city of spinning spires to allow for some decompression, thesis preparation, and most significantly conversation before returning to the states.

On Wednesday, I had my collections with my primary tutor, Lizzie. Essentially it took about five minutes for her to read out a summary of her comments on my work for her as well as prepared comments from my secondary tutor, Alastair. I was very pleased with my work, and I think they were fairly impressed as well, and this was an incredible encouragement. Unfortunately, having the collections a little early made it hard to focus on the final Shakespeare paper knowing that it would not be reflected as much as my work earlier in the term.  I think this caused some amount of procrastination. However, the lack of pressure also helped me to be a little more honest in my Shakespeare criticism, and though the paper was fraught with typos, there were lots of good ideas, and my conversation with Lizzie on Thursday was probably the best that I’ve had during my time studying in England.. I got a little swept up in a debate between two critics, but it was actually a lot of fun trying to figure out who had better captured Shakespeare and why and what this meant.

I didn’t really know what to do with myself on Thursday afternoon with all of my assignments done. I couldn’t bring myself to return my books to the library, so I decided to have coffee with Joseph, a friend from Keble college. He’s studying Chaucer, and we’d had a few silly conversations about studying 400+year-old literature earlier in the term. The conversation this afternoon was stimulating as always, and I think reflected one of the biggest ideas that Oxford seems to be about: conversation and that life is about a lot of different things, but most of them only appear in (really good) conversation.

After that conversation, I began a long line of “see-you-later” conversations with other people that I’d met throughout the term. A lot of the other Americans are traveling in small groups that have been leaving sporadically over the last couple of days. If there is one thing that the Oxford system offers, it is long vacations that allow you to really take advantage of other opportunities to augment your own education. I wish my journey weren’t drawing to a close, but at the same time, it was incredible to be part of helping others plan their adventures in Europe. On Saturday night, all of the remaining Teddy Hall American students went to Maxwell’s, a restaurant near Cornmarket street that has a menu lodged somewhere between Applebee’s and Max & Erma’s. I had a huge “Oxford Blue” burger. It was super tasty. Afterward, we bought hot chocolate, ice cream, and cookies to wash down our hearty diner dinners. We eased the digestion by watching Elf and Wall-E, categorically American childrens’ movies, that had surprisingly grown-up elements and themes.

Sunday I went to church at St. Ebbe’s with Joe, a history student and a friend from Teddy Hall. Beforehand, we had a long conversation over a cheap English breakfast about religion in Shakespeare and Britain and America. I stayed up late with the group of American’s getting ready to go to Buddapest. At 5 am, I saw them to the bus-stop, their back-packs filled to bursting. It wasn’t goodbye, but see-you-later.

After Monday’s departures, there are only a handful of students straggling around Dawson street and Isis (the other residence hall). Three of us went down to London to catch a performance of Twelfth Night. It was absolutely fantastic. Derek Jacobi played Malvolio. Throughout the performance, I kept thinking about a conversation I’d had with a co-worker last summer. She had proposed that Shakespeare never really portrayed people in love, but rather that love was a bit of a joke, more absurd than anything than anything we could possibly ever imagine. After a term of reading Shakespeare at Oxford, I cannot say that she was wrong. I can also affirm the value of conversation and the importance of talking to people and figuring out what exactly they are thinking and saying. It seems like a bit of a childish thing to learn at such a lofty place, but when I think about why President Bush thought Barack Obama won the election, that is that, “most people voted for Barack Obama because they decided they wanted him to be in their living rooms for the next four years explaining policy,” I can’t help but think that it is a pretty important lesson to learn and I am incredibly privileged to have learned it at all.

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Thanksgiving in England?

Time December 2nd, 2008 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Week seven featured: the infamous Christ Church Regatta: boat-fulls of mediocre rowing, an English take on Thanksgiving, and the towering, epic tradition that is Teddy Hall’s Christmas Feast.

Christ Church Regatta is basically an opportunity for all of the novice boats to spread their blades and crash… or see who was able to make the most progress in 1.5 months of training. The races began on Wednesday and lasted through Saturday.  The whole thing is generally pretty entertaining, as long as your boat doesn’t sink, at which point things get frustrating, cold, and wet pretty quick. On Tuesday night the Ice Man boat shared a pasta feast and watched a little Top Gun for motivation. Our matching shirts helped a bit too. In the first round we beat Worcester C. Our second round race on Thursday was canceled half-way through because one of the boats in the race in front of us had cracked its bow and was sinking as it tried to dock. In the re-match, which took place Friday morning, St. Anne’s A ran aground on the start and we therefore beat them. Unfortunately, that was where out luck dried up. University College A beat us by about a length in the next round later that afternoon. We chalked it up to too much rain and not enough erging. But we did the best we could, and we looked worlds better than our showing at the Nepthys Regatta.  It felt good to get as far as we did. The Teddy Hall Men’s A boat crashed on their start during their race on the first day.

Thursday was of course thanksgiving. I hadn’t been expecting much, but in a college that apparently regularly hosts American students and also counts a number of Americans as tutors, I probably should not have been caught unawares when an invitation for Thanksgiving Dinner and Drinks appeared in my pidge (pidges are basically mailboxes… they work like email except not nearly as many people use them). So anyway, all of the visiting students came out for an evening of English interpretations of one of the greatest American traditions. I think the biggest difference was that this meal involved wine, champagne, and winter pimms (a fruit-laden, alcohol-based, English hot drink for cold weather). I wasn’t sure that the Puritans would have had too much of this at there dinner, but I’m not complaining. It was a phenomenal meal, and I got to sit next to the Principal, Michael Mingos. We talked about his childhood in Iraq and living in during his studies in Chicago. To my left was an engineering tutor, Amy Zavatsky, who had lived near Pittsburgh and studied at the University of Pennsylvania. I can’t think of any other times in my life when I’ve been able to talk to such intelligent people from such diverse backgrounds and specialties. Their insights into the differences between the cultures were priceless. After the meal and a Thanksgiving address courtesy of Woodrow Wilson, we gathered around the television (there’s an American tradition) to watch A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. It was absolutely marvelous.

Time has flown by during the study abroad England program (as you probably can tell from its perpetual repetition in these blogs), and on Sunday the college hosted its annual Christmas dinner, complete with an advent chapel service and a number of rousing carols sung slightly off-key while standing on the chairs and tables of Wolfson Hall, where we had just finished eating. The food was a little reminiscent of Thanksgiving, but then it occurred to me that I guess the two meals are generally pretty similar, unless someone decides they want a Christmas ham. I suppose those are quite popular.

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this meal nearly as much as Thanksgiving because I had my final paper for 20th century british drama due on Monday. The paper was on Sarah Kane, a playwright who killed herself shortly after “finishing” her fifth (extremely violent and fairly depressing) play. The plays are full of shock-tactics, like cannibalism and limb-severing and flowers growing out of the stage. I felt sympathy for her because she killed herself, but I think they were just shock tactics and if they were, then she probably wasn’t a very good playwright. But it is hard to say that about someone who died so tragically and in such recent memory.

I’m really sad that coming to study in England is finally drawing to a close. I tried not to think about it during my tutorial this afternoon, because every time I did, I realized how much I really enjoyed my tutorials this semester and that I really don’t want them to end. I’m going to need to devise some scheme to keep in touch or figure out some way of coming back or something.

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Distractions and Fifth Week Blues

Time December 1st, 2008 in College Study Abroad | 1 Comment by

Sixth Week Blues are actually supposed to happen during fifth week, but for me I think maybe they happened during sixth.

What are they? I think it has something to do with getting over the hump in the middle of the term. I have put an enormous amount of work and concentration into everything that has been going on here, and last week it got a little easy to think about the magnitude of the work and lose focus on the object of attention. Its kind of like swimming a length of the pool without taking a breath, only to come up on the other side and realize that now you have to swim back to where you started again without taking another breath. That and the weather has finally become fairly rotten, although not nearly as bad as what I hear from Ohio and France (where it is snowing, slushing, and sleeting with a vigor that England has yet to witness).

So anyway, last week was that week for me. I had two tutorials again. They were both fantastic as always, but there are some definite issues that I want to work on in my writing about Shakespeare. For example, I have a dreadful tendency to misquote or miss-spell things. In this week’s paper, I misquoted daws as doves. I think this had to do with a footnote that I read on a certain passage in Othello, but regardless of the reasoning, I haphazardly used the wrong word. You would think that something this little wouldn’t matter very much, and in a certain sense, it probably doesn’t. It didn’t really render my argument invalid, but it is a distraction, and a fairly significant one. I want to blame this on Word’s spell-checker or the internet, but that is woefully problematic.
On a similar note, I also realized that I miss-spelled Guy Fox day in my previous post. That should be Guy Fawkes Day.

On Friday, it hit me that a return to the United States of America is looming on my horizon, which is also a distraction of sorts. I dealt with this distraction by putting it off till later. I will now return to the states on December 23rd instead of the 10th. This will give me some time to work on my senior thesis after term ends. Basically I have access to the best libraries in the world here, and I would be foolish to try to write something about the books they have in them without the immediate access that I now have to them. The extra time in the country will also let me to do some traveling and sight-seeing that I have been unable to do thus far, most particularly to Stratford-upon-Avon, where I would love to watch a little Shakespeare and develop something of my own interpretation of a background on his life.

I think the fifth week blues also might be associated with the drying up of my adrenaline and the excitement of being in a new place. Life is not as easy as we always want or imagine it to be from a distance and this week the reality of the challenges I am dealing with became a little more vivid and a little less blurred by the speed of their occurence. But I think this is a good thing. Someone said something once about the importance of “knowing thyself” and I think that this week, I learned a few things about that self.

This Saturday, Teddy Hall B Crew, aka Ice Man, had its first race. This is my boat for rowing, which is made up of a tremendous group of guys, but we didn’t do too well. Actually, we got slaughtered. It was good though because we can only get better now, and we need to, because the Christ Church Regatta will be later this week.

To end on a positive note however, the Oxford-Wells lectures commenced last week. These are lectures that are being given by David Scott Kastan, a general editor of the current series of the Arden Shakespeare. His first lecture was absolutely phenomenal. He drew attention to an emerging issue in Shakespearean criticism: that criticism is more interested in postulating agendas into Shakespeare’s life and plays than at examining the text of the plays themselves. Kind of a bizarre issue, but he made it interesting by satirically rebutting the work of James Shapiro (who I believe was present in the first row) as remarkably “entrepreneurial.” I think I got those names and facts right, but if not, I will correct them soon. Details and Distractions…

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Getting Settled In & Guy Fox Day

Time November 14th, 2008 in College Study Abroad | 3 Comments by

It is about time, now that I’m 5 weeks into the IFSA Butler study abroad England program, but I think I’m finally settling in and figuring out how to get work done and learn here in Oxford.

Last weekend there was a fireworks presentation in South Parks to celebrate Guy Fox Day. The funny thing about Guy Fox Day is that he is something of an anti-hero, and its not really clear why the Brits celebrate him. Guy Fox apparently tried to blow up Parliament sometime around the reformation or the British civil war. However his plot was uncovered and parliament was preserved (only to be destroyed within a few years and replaced with Big Ben and the Westminster Abbey that are now so iconic). Anyway, it is hard to tell whether the Brits are celebrating that he got caught or the spirit of his plot. And apparently, this doesn’t matter too much. The more important thing is that there are lots of fireworks and a huge bonfire. This huge bonfire is really what separates it from other national holidays that include fireworks, and it is pretty cool. The fire at last weekend’s celebration was created by stacking shipping pallets about 30 feet into the air in a giant horseshoe around a huge wooden Roman soldier, which was lit first with blow torches on the end of 8-foot poles. I could feel the heat of the flames from more than 150 feet away. The weather was a little crummy and the ground exceptionally muddy. I realized when I got back to my room that I could have watched the whole thing for free from the comfort of my apartment. Oh yea. It cost 6 pounds too. Its good to get out for a bit though.

Last weekend I also got a huge head start on my reading for this week. I read 3 Harold Pinter plays and watched Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, which is quickly becoming my favorite movie. This week I realized again that I really am enjoying my decision to study in England, and that it really is amazing. I discovered “The Arden Shakespeare CD-ROM,” which allows you to examine the full text of all of Shakespeare’s plays while simultaneously looking at the commentary and editorial variations as well as facsimiles of all of the oldest copies that we have of the Shakespeare texts. It is also portable, unlike most Shakespeare resources. Please forgive my nerdiness here, but being able to look at Shakespeare like this basically allows me to appreciate what Shakespeare not only meant for people in his own time, but what has meant for the last 400 years, and subsequently what he means today, which is the most persistent question in my tutorials.

Wednesdays are quickly becoming my favorite days. They generally mean a lot of work through the morning finishing my essay, but then there is this incredible endorphin rush after I turn the essay in at three pm. And then in the evenings, I treat myself to Teddy Hall’s formal hall, which means getting dressed up with my academic gown and heading over to hall for a four course meal that includes a little wine. This week’s formal included salmon, and that made it extra special for me, because I love salmon so much.

This weekend will be filled to the brim with preparing for next week, another even week. There is also a college talent show called Teddy Hall’s Got Talent, that I am trying to go to (if I can get my work done). It should be amazing. I believe my secondary tutor, Alastair, is going to be doing a poetry reading. That’s the rumor anyway. We’ll find out tomorrow. Thanks for reading.

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London Weekend

Time November 7th, 2008 in College Study Abroad | 3 Comments by

I have survived another even week and found myself halfway through one of the most challenging 8 weeks of my life.

Last weekend was the London weekend organized by IFSA-Butler, which didn’t help me study for my tutorials any. I hopped on a bus in Oxford on Friday afternoon, and 2 hours later found myself in London. Actually, It was closer to losing myself in London. The Oxford Tube was not stopping where Will and I had anticipated because of construction. Fortunately, we figured out that we had walked in the opposite direction before it was too late. We found our way to the Mexican restaurant on the north side of London where all of the other IFSA-Butler students were catching up on life and school in the United Kingdom. The Mexican food was some of the best that I’ve had on this side of the Atlantic, but I think they could still learn something from Chipotle.

IFSA-Butler helped out with travel expenses as well as a hotel for the weekend, and this made the trip quite affordable, which feels really good when the news can’t seem to stop talking about how the crashing markets.

Saturday we were free to do whatever we wanted. I spent the day looking around museums. I hit the South Bank and the Globe theater, the National Theater, and the Tate Modern. I am kind of a sucker for modern art, and getting to see some really outrageous and thought-provoking pieces like Thirty Pieces of Silver (Cornelia Parker)  and Lilith (Anselm Kiefer) was fantastic. These pieces force the observer to think about their content and the incongruity in what they are attempting to depict in their mixed mediums, and I love this about them. I also love that the Tate is free and open to the public. It makes the Art much more accessible, which is extremely important. After this, I headed back across the Millennium Bridge towards St. Paul’s Cathedral and grabbed bus towards Trafalgar Square because (surprise surprise) it was pouring down rain. There I went in the National Gallery and the Portrait Gallery. This was exciting primarily because of a fantastic image of Shakespeare. In it he appears slightly disheveled and unkempt, and almost irritated that he was taken away from his writing for an afternoon to have his portrait taken. He is alive and wild in the portrait just as he is in writing in the plays. I kind of wish I had a poster of the image because he looks so outrageous in it.

Saturday evening, I found that I could get tickets to a play by Harold Pinter, who I am coincidentally reading in my modern British drama tutorial, for 10 quid (pounds). I decided that it would be foolish to pass on this opportunity, and was quite glad I took advantage of the situation. The play was phenomenally performed by a cast that included two Harry Potter characters: Dumbledore (the newer one, MIchael Gambon) and Filch (David Bradley). I think you can summarize most of this  type of theater as people sitting in a room being witty. No Man’s Land is a very dark comedy that frequently seems to stray into satire. The play makes quite a few references to Oxford, and seems to center on the contrast between the two types of people who come out of the school: those who are successful and those who aren’t.

Also of interest this week was Election night, which was watched by a significant minority of the junior common room in Teddy Hall. Lots of Americans, but even more Brits, which was really surprising. It is amazing to see how much people from outside the states care about America, its politics, and how they are affected by who I vote for. This also served as a major distraction to getting my Shakespeare paper done, and I want to blame the election for the divisive and distracted nature of my essay this week. That said, I should return to preparing for next weeks essay on Hamlet. Thanks for reading.

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From the Birthplace of Worcestershire Sauce

Time November 3rd, 2008 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

It has finally gotten cold in Oxford. It has also begun raining in the afternoons. But that is no reason to let spirits be dampened. In fact, I would say that I am starting to get into the swing of things. I am really enjoying being here.

Last weekend was the IFSA-Butler study abroad England home stay. I didn’t know what to expect out of this, but I think I actually quite enjoyed it. I stayed with a family in Worcestershire. It was neat to see a part of England that I have never seen before. In a lot of ways, Worcester reminded me of the mid-west, and it was nice to be in an environment like this again. Phil and Karen, a retired designer and school worker fed me and Duncan (another Teddy-Hall IFSA-Butler study in England student) and showed us some of the more interesting things around the city. We left Oxford right before dinner and didn’t arrive till about 9, so Phil was gracious enough to take Duncan and I to a fish and chips place. It was delicious and cheap: 4 pounds, 50 pence, for both of us. In Oxford, you can expect to pay this for an 8 inch baguette sandwich.

On saturday, Phil took us to Witley church, which was formerly part of the Witley estate. In its hay-day, the Witley estate would have been on a par with Versailles. Before the steal industry faded in England, the family that owned the estate had owned most of the steel industry north of Worcester. Prior to this the family owners had been involved with selling arms to both sides of the English civil war in the 17th century. These were very wealthy families. However, that wealth dried up around the beginning of the 20th century and the estate was purchased by a demolition group has sold the most valuable parts of the estate, leaving behind a hulking shell of a building. It is a bit strange to see it today. I will upload a photo. Anyway, part of the estate was a baroque church that has been preserved quite well. Apparently Handel used to play the organ there.

Saturday afternoon, we went on a walking tour of the city Worcester, which actually played a pivotal role in Oliver Cromwell’s overthrow of Charles I. We also saw the place where Edward Elgar, who composed pomp and circumstance and had an amazing mustache, kept shop for his piano tuning business. It has now been turned into an H & M. We also saw the cathedral were Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway went to get a marriage license (because she was underage).

That evening we watched some television. There was a show on the BBC called Little Britain USA. I think this was the first time I watched T.V. in over a month. It felt a little weird. The show was full of sharp, humorous, British spins on American culture. While highly satirical, it was also extremely insightful. I learned a lot about how America is perceived by the nation that claims the lion’s share of responsibility for colonizing it.

On Sunday we went to Malvern Hills which form something of a border between Worcestershire to the east and Herefordshire to the west. The views were incredible in spite of the cold, damp, English wind. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many border collies in my entire life. Seeing all of these dogs reminded me of my border collie at home and made me a little homesick.

This weekend IFSA-Butler has arranged some activities in London, and so I will be spending friday night and saturday there. Hopefully I will get to see another show and experience a few more of the seemingly endless museums. And hopefully not spend too much money.

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Even weeks mean work

Time October 24th, 2008 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

And so another week has passed during my time studying in England at Oxford, that has yet to rain on my parade more than one day in a row.

The weather wasn’t the only thing that went well this week. The tutorials were also fantastic. On Monday, I met with Alistair, my modern British drama tutor. It went really well, aside from the smell of the cleaner that the scouts had used on his toilet. It smelled sneakily like rotten eggs. His office was at top of Emden tower and had an excellent view of the peons walking in the rear-quad below. The shelves overflowed with books and records.

More importantly, the conversation that we had about Samuel Beckett plays was really stimulating. While Lizzie prefers to pick out quotes from my Shakespeare papers, Alistair prefers to hear me read the entire thing out-loud, and he interrupts and challenges when he hears weak arguments or descriptions in the essay. For his essay I wrote about two plays: the infamous Waiting for Godot and the obscure Ohio Impromptu. While I thoroughly enjoyed Ohio Impromptu, I felt ambivalent about Godot, which I think is appropriate, if you know the content.

Reading Ohio Impromptu was ironic because I am here on the other side of the globe, reading British drama, and here is a play that was written and performed initially for a Beckett seminar at Ohio State University. The play has two people on stage. Reader reads passages from the last chapter of a book. Listener hears him and knocks on the table apparently controlling or emotionally responding to Reader’s book. And then when reader gets to the end, there is nothing left to tell. It is a really beautiful play, and it is really short, which makes it interesting to study. At several points during the tutorial, Alistair and I found ourselves kind of spinning in a logic that went like: Beckett’s plays don’t mean anything, but in that they don’t mean anything, they actually mean something, but you can’t really know what they mean, so they must mean nothing. Quite frustratingly circular. Kind of like the theory I established for seeing the meaning: the concept of zero, which is nothing, but represents nothing and therefore is something.

Shakespeare was challenging, because as soon as I finished working on the Beckett essay, I had to begin preparing for Shakespeare. A lot of leg work in the library, but when I finished my tutorial on Thursday, I felt like I had done not only a lot of work, but some very good work. While I am not anywhere close to being a Shakespeare scholar, I feel like I am beginning to see what this really looks like and what sort of thinking is shaping this vast ocean of thought today. It is really exciting. (wow… I didn’t ever plan to say that about Shakespeare…)

Thursday evening I also got to do some more rowing. I think my technique is starting too improve. Rowing is largely meant to be done with the legs, and last night I felt the burn in the leg muscles and not in my back and arms (which is where its not supposed to be). This was really encouraging. Afterwards, I learned (the hard way) that the gates to the university parks (where the boathouses are) close promptly at 6 pm and that there is only one that comes close to being scalable. I tried the three most direct fences first. What a humiliating walk home in the rain. 15 feet of cast iron is still intimidating, even in the post-modern age.

This weekend, I have a homestay with a British family. As long as you promise not to tell them, I will tell you what I made as a house-warming gift. I was really struggling with what to do for this. I had to really think about what happens in Ohio at this time of year. After much deliberation, I decided that peanut butter buckeyes would best represent autumnal Columbus, Ohio. So this afternoon, I have been making buckeyes. I’ve never done this before, but I’m quite proud of my work in my little kitchen. They are surprisingly easy to make. Hopefully my host-family doesn’t have anyone who is allergic to peanuts, because then I will end up with a stomach ache from eating them all myself.

Oh! Almost forgot. Thursday night I had my first experience with the Oxford Union debate society. They staged a debate on the following proposition: This house would vote for change over experience. Both the opposition and the proposition sides had 3 university debaters as well as an American representative. It was really interesting to see the Oxford Union hall packed with mostly British students who apparently have motivated interest in American politics. Many of the initial arguments were grounded in establishing how American politics inevitably affect the politics of the rest of the world. I never really thought of this till I left the country, but I think it must be true. The German Obama rally that fetched over 200,000 people last summer was my first clue. The Obama posters all over Paris were my next clue. The packed hall of Oxford Union full of students from all over the world to see a debate on American politics was the clincher. Unfortunately, the Union officer responsible for securing external representation on both sides of the debate did a mediocre to poor job of finding someone who could defend the opposition. The gentleman they did find spoke ineffectively and digressively about terrorist activity in Afghanistan and Iran. I was a little disappointed, but I nonetheless learned a lot, and I can’t wait to see another debate there.

And that about does it for this update from Oxford and the IfSA-Butler study in England program. Tune in next week for news from the home-stay and Shakespeare’s history plays.

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English Weather: Shockingly Pleasant?

Time October 21st, 2008 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Week One

Well, I’m 1/8 of the way done with my time here in studying in England. I participated in my first Oxford tutorial this week, and though it was challenging, the hour flew by far too quickly. We barely had time to address the portion of my paper about Brutus. The conversation between my tutor, Lizzie, and I was fantastic. We talked about criticism and lectures and ways for me to inform myself about current research on William. After this, Lizzie drew out the weak points in the 9 page paper that I composed during freshers week. It was a little embarrassing to have her tease out everything in my paper that was ill-concieved or non-specific. She challenged me on vague constructions and labels, and there were a few times when I had to stop and seriously think about what I wrote. I think my inability to focus was due partially to an existential crisis attributable to living my dream of going to Oxford. Fortunately, she offered me a cup of coffee at the beginning of the session, and that got the juices flowing like oil out of a pump.

Aside from the coursework, I have also participated in a few freshers/novice rowing sessions. On Thursday evening we had an ERG session on the rowing machines in the boathouse by the Thames. The focus was on technique and rhythm. This was good for me, because I am almost clueless about what the proper technique should look like. To my dismay, I found that my technique was far below what I had hoped it might be: my arms are still sore on Saturday.

One of the things that I really enjoy about collegiate level sports here at Oxford is their casual nature. The point of the sport isn’t so much to be the best in the world, but mostly just to have a good time and take a break from studying. Well that’s not entirely true. I think they do aspire to be good, but they have a more realistic perception of sport: it cannot be the sole occupier of a student’s consciousness. There must be time for studying and social things too. Walking-on, which seems kind of impossible with most collegiate level sport in America, is derigor. All of this is perfect for me, a fellow who hasn’t really done any sport regularly save swimming in high school, indoor pick-up soccer through the last two summers, and jogging when he thinks of it.

This week I also began preparing for my modern British drama tutorial, which is now fast approaching on Monday afternoon. This week will focus largely on Samuel Beckett. After the intense focus of Thursday’s tutorial, I ended up spending most of the afternoon trying to “relax” by reading primary texts and watching performances of Samuel Beckett’s minimalist and absurdist drama. It wasn’t exactly relaxing. In fact, I felt quite on edge at the end of Endgame, Not I, and  Play. Waiting for Godot wasn’t really much of a walk in the park either. Beckett throws around some serious imagery. The mother and father figures in Endgame deliver all of their lines from inside rubbish cans inside a barren room. Not I is just a mouth on an otherwise dimly lit stage speaking in phrases about a girl adrift in a meaningless, unanchored life. Play featured two women and a man standing in body sized urns for the entire script, delivering their lines, which are all about the man having an affair and the women finding out, in triple time. Like I said, not exactly relaxing, but a definite break from the Shakespeare.

The weather during the study abroad England program has been shockingly un-English. Friday was so beautiful that I actually took the long way home from the post-office and took pictures the whole way. The fruit of that labor will be online at some point in the near future.

Thanks for reading.

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All about Freshers & Firsts & Fairs & Fall

Time October 13th, 2008 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Freshers week at Oxford may be one of the most exciting things that happens on the face of this planet. The city buzzes with humanity. Between shopping for the things that I wasn’t able to bring with me, meeting my tutors, and figuring out how to live in a completely new environment, I hardly found time to sleep. I found my heart racing from the moment the sun peaked through my skylight window till I fell asleep catching up on my reading for my tutorial.

Oxford is unlike any American university experience. After one week of experience within this new system, I would say that the keyword to describe the difference is organic. If the American university system seems to be institution breeds students, the Oxford tutorial and college system seems to be students breed an institution. If the American system is pragmatic, the Oxford system is organic. If the American system is rigid, the Oxford system is fluid. I don’t mean this in a negative way, even though it sort of comes off like that.

I learned the most about the differences between the two systems at Wednesday evening’s induction dinner. It has a very Harry Potter feel to it. All 120 or so freshers and visiting students at the college were wearing commoners gowns and full sub-fusc, for a formal dinner elbow-to-elbow in Wolfson Hall. The commoners gown is kind of a silly looking robe that extends just below the waist and has little black strips of cloth that hang off around the shoulder. Sub-fusc is dark dressy clothes. The dinner is very elegant; the tables are replete with wine bottles bearing the Teddy Hall crest, silver candelabras, and all the accouterments necessary for consuming a formal dinner. The seating is separated by department and conversation flourishes accordingly.

At the end of the dinner, the Principal stands up and tells us about how the hall has been around as an educational body since the 12th century, but how it wasn’t a formal college until the 1950’s. He talks about how scholars would come together to support tutors and tutors would come together to share an administration and eventually this became a college that is part of the university. The details are exceptionally murky. After he narrated this nuanced history, he asked us to raise our hands and he swore us in as members of St. Edmund Hall, aka Teddy Hall.

Teddy Hall seems to be a very small place. There are approximately 400 undergraduates and 200 graduate students. The campus seems to have 3 main areas: the library and cemetery, the front quad, and the back quad or dining hall. Combined, the 3 main areas take up about as much space as an American football field or two. The college is tucked neatly between Magdalen and Queens colleges, and hidden from High Street by a row of shops.

My walk from my room in Dawson Street across the Magdalen bridge along High Street to Queens Lane takes about 7 minutes. I still have not quite gotten used to having the cars on the wrong side of the road. This has been fairly unsettling, and I am worried that I am going to get hit. I’ve had a few close shaves. Fortunately, I’ve discovered that the zebra crossings give pedestrians the right of way, and the only big street that I have to cross has one right on my way.

This week I also met my tutors: Alastair and Lizzy. Alastair will be working with me on Modern British Drama and Lizzie will be my Shakespeare tutor. Alastair seems to be quite jovial. He has a big red beard and has completed a masters thesis on Samuel Beckett’s play Breath. Lizzie has given me one of the most intense collections of Shakespeare criticism I have ever seen. She seems to be very intelligent, and I am a little nervous but also excited about having her read my own ideas about Shakespeare.

Thursday afternoon was the university Freshers fair. While the different colleges are all very independent (technically, I am not supposed to enter other colleges unaccompanied, let alone borrow books from their libraries), they share an administration and the Bodleian library, and this seems to open the door for students to form organizations across the entire university. This year’s fresher’s fair featured 350+ organizations filling most of the University Exam Schools building as well as some temporary tents erected outside. It was a little overwhelming at times, especially when I got roped into signing up for 3 martial arts orgs simply because traffic past the tables was a little congested and I clearly wasn’t going anywhere. Highlights included Octopush (something like underwater hockey), the Oxford Union (debate society), and Bacchus (the wine tasting society). I am looking forward to events put on by the Magdalen Film Society, the C.S. Lewis Society, The Oxford Drama Society, and the Oxford Forum (a university wide magazine).

One of the sports that I am most excited about at Teddy Hall is rowing. It seems to be a fair amount of work, but also a good way to exercise something other than my mind. I have attended a few events with the rowing team now, and I think I will enjoy it quite a bit. The walk to the boathouse is possibly one of the most beautiful in Oxford.

And so I’ve made it through the end of 0th or Freshers week of Michaelmas Term ’08. Tomorrow I will attend a few lectures in between some nice stretches at the Library.

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Orientating

Time October 6th, 2008 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Arrival in London was a little stressful: I actually missed my original train from Paris to London. I learned when I arrived at the station that check-in for the international trains to the UK requires about 30 minutes. Arriving at Gare de Nord 15 minutes before my departure was too late. Fortunately, trains on a Thursday afternoon are not overbooked (like some flights) and I was simply bumped to the next train.

Once in London, I found the orientation hotel without very much trouble. I only had to walk around the block the wrong way twice. It was amazing to begin meeting students. I found three Teddy Hall students sitting at my dinner table: Rory, Will, and Sarah. It was incredible to learn about the different backgrounds that we are bringing to Oxford. Will is a fifth year engineering student who is putting off grad school for a year in order to study physics at Oxford. Rory is from South Africa and will be studying Romantic literature (not too far from my own concentration). Sarah has worked for a summer program with students learning English, just like I have, except that her program was in the US.

Friday was the primary day for orientation. We had sessions on acclimating ourselves in English culture led by the London IFSA-Butler staff. These were very entertaining. Then we talked about academic details and the things that we could expect at Oxford in our different tutorials.

The highlight of the day was the third presentation by Lord Taverne of the House of Lords, who came to speak about English politics and how they differ from the US system. At the end of his talk, he allowed us to ask questions about his work for nearly 20 minutes. It was amazing to see Lord Taverne demonstrate what a Lord is supposed to do: offer advice on revision and moderation of legislation and resolutions. Is it possible that this was actually far more exciting in person than it looks in writing? Yes.

On Friday evening we went to a play called “Creditors” being performed in a small theater in Covent Garden. It was very interesting to see a very modern play performed after having so totally immersed myself in Shakespearean plays and history for the past month. I kept thinking about the differences and similarities like how Shakespeare seemed to average a cast of 12 significant characters, each representing different but necessary stereotypes to produce the drama. This play only had three performers and I kept seeing pieces of 12 Shakespearean stereotypes amalgamated into these characters. I think it was the writer’s ability to harness roles like the tragic hero and the jester into a single character that led to such an enjoyable and interesting play.

After a brief Saturday morning Q & A about life at Teddy Hall and a very nice lunch at a Greek restaurant, we have been set free on London to tour-ize and pick up last minute items before we leave for Oxford on Monday morning. A cell phone is at the top of my list.

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Oh my goodness this is really happening…

Time October 6th, 2008 in College Study Abroad | 1 Comment by

I have read a lot of C.S. Lewis. Not all, but quite a bit. It started when I was in second grade. I remember reading the Chronicles of Narnia as a child (and even having them read to me), and loving the magic of his stories. In “adolescence,” I fell for The Space Trilogy.  Just when I thought this had been a passing phase, I discovered his “adult” fiction and non-fiction like Till We Have Faces, The Great Divorce, and The Screwtape Letters. These books and a relaxed class on novels that allowed me to again read the Chronicles kept the flame burning. And then I started college.

I’ve thought that maybe my fascination would die or fade as I read other books and went on other adventures and misadventures. But after 3 years of university and a lot of different world experiences and travels, I am even more curious about his allegory, imagery, and characterization. I want to see the environment that produced these stories. I want to know the original context of the stories. I want to experience the history that Lewis drew upon when writing. I am interested in the craft of the stories, and how I might go about writing something like what he wrote. I still admire and respect him, his work, and his ideas.

It is something of a dream come true then to be able to participate in something that he was a part of nearly 50 years ago. It is incredibly invigorating to know that I’m going to be going to the same pubs that he visited and learning in the same system that he worked within. I think in this sense, going to Oxford was almost something of a pilgrimage, but I want it to be much more than that.

I want to engage this place. I do not want to simply be a visitor. Oxford seems to mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but I think for me, Oxford is like a grindstone or a knife sharpener. It seems like an incredible place take on challenges learn from your successes and failures. To simply visit a grindstone (unless it is the insert-uber-superlative-here grindstone) would be worthless. My biggest fear about this study abroad program is that my 9 short weeks here will go by so quickly that my stay will be more of a visit and less of an engagement.

That and missing my train to London. Thanks for reading. Next stop: Orientation.

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Pre-Departure Part 2: From the Chateau de St. Albain

Time September 12th, 2008 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

The final countdown has begun, and an even larger process has ended: the logistics of studying abroad. This week I completed what I believe to be all of the necessary paperwork and purchased my train ticket to England. In twenty days I will be traveling through the Chunnel aboard a Eurostar train, which will take me into the heart of London for my orientation with Butler.

Am I nervous? You bet. But I am also extremely excited. This week I received an email from my Shakespeare tutor at Oxford, Lizzie. The syllabus looks intimidating, but this is why I gave myself the month of September in the French countryside. I have 20 days to read plays without interruption. The really exciting thing about studying at Oxford is that I will only have two tutorials to work on during the term. I am a very detail oriented person, and to know that my time will only be divided between two major bodies of work instead of the standard 5 or 6 is enormously relieving. This week I also corresponded with my adviser at Capital about my senior thesis in English literature. While I have not figured out all of the details yet, it looks like my senior thesis, which represents one of my major hurdles before graduation, will also be completed over the next 3 months. If there is one thing I have learned while traveling is that it always pays to be thinking about what happens next.

This week I also spent some time hunting around online to find the building that I will be residing in while I am at Oxford. It looks amazing. It should be near St. Edmunds campus, but still a bit of a walk. However, as I was looking at images on Google Earth, I realized that a bit of a walk might not be such a bad thing. Oxford may be the most beautiful college town on the planet. Even from the satellite images, it was possible to imagine the open greens, Gothic towers, and rivers. Maybe I am still in the honeymoon stage, but I really think that I am going to love going to school in Oxford.

Packing: My goal in packing is to have as much empty space as possible. I know it is probably cheaper to purchase things before arriving, but I think having the empty space goal is a good way to keep the bags manageable. While money isn’t easier to come by, it is easier to carry than luggage.

And now back to Shakespeare.

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Pre-Departure Part 1

Time September 3rd, 2008 in College Study Abroad | 1 Comment by

My predeparture post is a little bit different from the others because I have actually already left home, but with just under a month before I leave for London for my orientation to Oxford University, I am still “pre-departure.” Can you tell I was on the debate team last spring?

So where have I been, what is happening now and what happens next? These are the three questions that I have been asking myself.

I just finished my second summer working for The American School In Switzerland. I worked as a counselor for the middle school program, helping students from all over the world practice their English. Working in Switzerland is one kind of international experience, but it has made making arrangements for my studies in Oxford, which will be a completely different kind of international experience, a little stressful.

For example, before leaving the States, it occurred to me that it would probably be better to have my Visa for England than to leave without it. This intuition was correct, but it meant that I had to do some leg work to get all the paperwork in order early. And then I was sending my passport away in the mail 2 weeks before I was supposed to leave for Switzerland. You can imagine my relief when I heard that I had been approved within 3 days and that my passport was back a full week in advance of my departure. Whew.

It was also a little hard to pack my bags in June knowing that I would not return till December. What is a person supposed to take? What does a person need at a place like Oxford? Fortunately, I already had the basic guides from Butler and my previous summer in Switzerland to help me plan. I still packed too much. I think. I might be glad for the extra sweater and dress clothes when I get to Oxford. Or they might be in a box that I mail home when I get to England.

So where am I now? I just finished a tour of Turkey with several friends from Switzerland. It was an incredible experience except for the fact that being a tourist is actually quite a bit of work and involves spending quite a bit of money. But I was blown away by the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya, and Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, which according to Wikipedia is the world’s 3rd largest city. It was amazing to watch ferries fly through the Bosphorous as heavy freight chugged along slowly. After dark, the boats become invisible except for their lights, which glisten off the choppy waters. I also got to see part of the US Coast Gard on its way to the conflict in Georgia. It was incredibly stimulating to be so near the activity on the world stage. The conflict loomed heavily over many conversations with people in Hostels, guides on boats, and even among the friends I was traveling with. The highlight of the trip was relaxing in the Mediteranean on a gulet cruise from Demre to Fethiye off the southwestern corner of country.

I also learned, after two overnight-bus rides across the Anatolyan Plateau that Turkey is a HUGE country with roads that need all current improvements and much more.

So where am I now? I am sitting at the Chateau de St. Albain in France, where I plan to do the bulk of the remainder of my preparation for Oxford. At Oxford, I will be studying Shakespeare and modern British drama. I am nervous about this because while I enjoy Shakespeare and the depth of his plays, they are exceedingly difficult to read. It will be a moderately lonely month, but I think that it is what I need to get the longer plays, particularly the histories, under my belt. Not to mention the fact that the cost of mailing “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare” back to the states would basically pay for my stay here.

So what happens next? Lots of reading. And catching up on the paperwork that I missed while I was in Turkey. And buying a plane/train ticket to England. And updating this blog. Thanks for reading.

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