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All about Freshers & Firsts & Fairs & Fall

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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