Academics at Oxford (posted by Jimmy in England)

Today Times Higher Education came out with their yearly rankings of the 400 best universities in the world.  The top seven universities were:

7. University of Cambridge

6. Princeton University

5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

4. Harvard University

Tied in 2nd– University of Oxford and Stanford University

1. California Institute of Technology

The rankings use a system based on specific performance indicators including teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook.  With that news buzzing around campus and the lurking start of my term coming up in a few days, I wanted to dedicate this entire post to the academic side of Oxford.  In the months prior to my arrival, I knew that Oxford was an incredible institution, but I didn’t know what set it apart from the rest of the world.  After being here for a week, I can begin to understand why people think so highly of it.

To start, by the time you apply for admission to Oxford you are already expected to know what degree you want to receive.  This is very different from the liberal arts system of the U.S. where we can spend a few years taking different courses to see what interests us.  Included in the admissions process to the university, prospective students take specific examinations in the subjects that they want to pursue.  If they do well enough on the exam, they are offered an interview with a college professor.  During the interview, they are not asked the typical U.S. college interview questions like, ‘Why do you want to attend our university?’ or ‘what are some of your strengths and weaknesses?’ Rather, they are asked questions to see if they really grasp the academics that they have studied prior to the application process.  I spoke with an engineering student that is starting his first year at Oxford.  He was telling me some of the questions that he was asked, one being incredibly interesting. The interviewer showed him a picture of a man running with prosthetic legs and asked him to describe how we would build a replica.  I have been in university for two years and would not have a clue how to answer that.  This institution is world renowned because they demand that you know what you want to study.  They don’t allow you to take any time thinking about potential majors, they want you ready to come in and work.

A second reason that Oxford is world renowned is because of its academic system.  The school year is broken up into three terms.  Each term a student takes one major tutorial and one minor tutorial. Major tutorials meet 8 times over the course of an 8 week term and minor tutorials meet 4 times.  It may seem like only meeting 12 times in a trimester is easy…. Ask any student here and they would laugh.   A tutorial is nothing like the American lecture style learning.   Tutorials, in the simplest analogy, are a 60 minute one-on-one cage match with a tiger…. A massive tiger that is easily capable of destroying you, like the ones in The Gladiator.  In a tutorial, you meet a professor in an assigned location.  It could be an office, a lecture hall, a public café, or anywhere that you decide.  The meeting lasts for one hour and is based entirely on the work that you have done in advance.  All of the work for one tutorial, which usually includes reading mounds and mounds of books and papers and preparing one essay, must be turned in 48 hours before the meeting.  The tutor then reads your work and prepares questions/ commentary for you.  When you arrive, you have to defend your points for one hour against a Ph. D. My first tutorial is next week and I have to read 15 scientific papers and 8 chapters from 3 different text books.  Then I have to write a 2000 word essay answering a specific question outlined in the document that my tutor sent me.  At the visiting student introduction ceremonies yesterday, the Dean of the college said that the minimum amount of time that is usually spent on academic work per week is 40 hours.

Oxford does not have regular tests or mandatory lectures.  They hold end of the year collections exams which rank students and they also hold beginning of term exams which force students to retain the knowledge from the previous years.  Every subject at Oxford offers optional lectures that correspond with it.  None of the lectures are mandatory and anyone can go to them.  This means that even if someone is a linguistics or history major, they can sit in on a biophysical chemistry lecture.  This system is different from any educational system that I have ever experienced.  In America, it seems like there is a lot of structure and if you follow the right path you can succeed.  Here, you are fully independent.  You cannot hide in the back of a classroom or cram the night before a big test.  They demand that you start your work early and continue throughout the week.  At many universities across the U.S. libraries are open 24/7.  At Oxford, there are many library buildings, but all of them close before 10pm on the weekdays and some are closed on Sundays.  The most famous of the libraries is Bodleian Library.  Aside from holding many historical texts and being a frequent place of work for J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis, the library’s architecture is a favorite location for filmmakers. It can be seen in the opening scene of The Golden Compass and the first two Harry Potter films, in which the Divinity School acts as the Hogwarts hospital wing and Duke Humfrey’s Library as the Hogwarts library.  

While on the topic of Harry Potter, yes, it does feel like I go to school at Hogwarts.  Aside from Harry Potter actually being filmed at various locations in Oxford, there are many strikingly similar features.  The main one is in Oxford’s formal dinners.  Every evening the colleges have optional formal dinners that go from 7-8:15pm.  Most students attend these dinners every night.  Students arrive at 7 and sit down at a table.  At 7:15, the dining staff stops admitting students and all of the people in the hall stand up.  The professors and deans walk through a door dressed in their college robes (black, like in Harry Potter).  All of the students are quiet and must stand until the faculty has sat down at the head table, which is located at the front of the Hall and is elevated higher than the other tables.  Some colleges do not have a dress code for students but others require students to wear formal dress along with a black robe.

This place may not have any ‘Defense Against the Dark Arts’ courses and I am not likely to play quidditch, but there are reasons why Oxford consistently produces people who go out and make the world a ‘magical’ place.  See what I did there?  Until next time, keep drilling life.  How good are you going to be?

Here’s to the Crazy Ones.
The misfits.
The rebels.
The troublemakers.
The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently.
They’re not fond of rules.
And they have no respect for the status quo.
You can quote them, disagree with them,
disbelieve them, glorify or vilify them.
About the only thing that you can’t do, is ignore them.
Because they change things.
They push the human race forward.
While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.
Because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world,
are the ones who do.

-1997 Apple Commercial

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