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Out of the Tunnel: Serious Academic Adjustments!

It’s been awhile since my last post, but for good reason. Navigating the academic system here at Oxford has been much more challenging than even expected, and after nearly a whole term (yes, I can hardly believe it, but my first of two terms ends in just two weeks!) I think I am finally figuring out just what in the world I am doing here. But it hasn’t been easy. In a few days I plan to follow-up with another post detailing the other, non-academic aspects of life here in order to counter-balance this overload of academic experience. But given the fact that my studies and relevant concerns have consumed most of my time during my first month at Oxford, I think it is only fitting to devote a blog post to my struggles with the educational system here.

To start…I have mentioned this before, but it is crucial to understanding just how different my experience here has been: the University of Oxford operates on a tutorial system. Each week, rather than attending the usual 4-5 classes I would at Whitman (totaling approximately 12 or more hours of class time) , I attend 1 or 2 hour-long tutorials per week. And unlike at Whitman, my work never deviates from a standard schedule of one essay (1500-2000 words) per tutorial. In preparation for my essays, I spend vast amounts of time reading, either alone in my room or in one of the many (many, many, many–like seriously, check this out) libraries of the University. After weeks of solitary reading and writing, I can see why this is one of the most challenging universities in the world. The system is very personally engaging, but also extraordinarily isolating. I’ve never been a fan of group projects, but I could definitely go for one right now! There are lectures, too–generally giant rooms filled with students who need to get a broad understanding of a subject to prepare for exams–but these are not exactly social environments either. People rush in as the lecture begins and rush out of just as it ends, and tend to drop in and out from week to week because attendance is neither mandatory nor enforced.

It is hard not to get personally attached to your work here when you are expected to be so independent. My general attitude towards the week is often largely influenced by the one tangible thing I produce: my essay. A good essay means a good week, because I have made myself and my tutor proud! A bad essay means a bad week, and tends to make me wonder what could have gone wrong (after all, the essay is the culmination of a week’s reading, thinking, and writing). As you may imagine, my first few weeks were not good ones. I had no idea really what my tutor expected, and my anxiety at producing something worthwhile ironically made most of my writing much worse. Even little things got in my way (it took me at least three weeks to fully understand that my tutor did not want an original title, as US professors expect, but was extremely agitated when I did not use her essay question as the title).

The term is remarkably short (8 weeks!) but luckily, I have had time to get my bearings. And it has made my recent successes so much more fulfilling. Over the last few weeks I have become increasingly adept at taking apart vague essay questions and figuring out each aspect that needs to be addressed. I have learned to incorporate my readings into solid arguments, both showing that I have read and understood the author’s ideas and proving that I can utilize the most relevant parts of those ideas to make my own strong point. Clearly I’ve written many essays in my lifetime, but there is something about the ones I am tackling here that make them trickier. It could be the phrasing of the questions, or more likely the approximately two-day time frame during which I have to write them. All I can say is that when I received my comments on my last paper, which were consistently positive and were accompanied by a congratulations from my tutor, I could not have been happier.

As I mentioned, I have two more weeks until break. While I hope to continue improving academically until then, I also hope to take advantage of my new skills to worry less about homework and focus more on the experience of being here. In my last post, I mentioned all of the unstructured time that I have here. Honestly, most of it (until this week) has been spent either 1) reading and writing or 2) worrying about not reading and writing or not doing it well enough. Having had a similar experience when I first got to Whitman, I know that I have a tendency to value myself based on my academic success, and panic if I’m not meeting my own standards. But I found a balance there and I can do so here as well! There is plenty to learn outside of the library. I have been on a few adventures, which I am excited to write about in a few days. Hopefully by then I will have gone on a few more as well. :)

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