Christ Church Meadow

The Oxford tutorial system is not meant to break you, we were told. You are not here to beat it.

That’s true, but there are sure are times when it feels like it. Like when you have three 3,000 words papers due within a span of ten days, or when your tutor asks you to assess the plausibility of the argument of his best-selling book—when you know your best isn’t good enough but what you’re reading aloud through a sleep-deprived fog isn’t close to the best you can do.

Then you remember that you’re studying at one of the most prestigious universities in Europe, that when you go home you have to take things like Microeconomics and Theories of Political Systems, and that you are having tea and scones at 4-o’clock, and things begin to look up.

It’s four weeks into Michelmas term—in other words, halfway—and I thought I’d come up for air to give you a taste of what it’s all like.

The Oxford tutorial system is composed of a primary tutorial, meeting once a week for 8 weeks, and a secondary tutorial, meeting every other week for 4 weeks. These are complemented by lecture series on everything from learning Old Norse in eight weeks to Politics in Sub-Saharan Africa. (Yes, I am attending both of these. No, I do not yet know Old Norse.)

My primary tutorial meets on Monday afternoons at Blackfriars College. The entrance is a black-wrought-iron gate off St. Giles Street but I have seen little beyond the porter’s desk, my tutorial room, and the wooden bench outside it with its deflated red cushions and oriental tassels. My primary tutorial is in C.S. Lewis—if I was saying this in the proper Oxford way, I would say I was reading C.S. Lewis with Dr. Michael Ward.

That’s right, the same Dr. Ward who wrote Planet Narnia comparing each of the Chronicles of Narnia to a medieval planet and is quoted on the back of virtually every other C.S. Lewis-related book in Blackwell’s. I got over the worst of my intimidation after he spent the whole of my first tutorial walking around the room, stretching, and looking at the rain out the window as I read my paper aloud—then proceeded to question my pronunciation of historicity (too American) and praise the imagery of my introduction (very Lewisian). During the second meeting, he remained firmly seated across from me wrapped in a trench coat and a blue, green, red-striped wool scarf—at the end of that paper he was “almost moved.” I consider this good progress.

The cycle of one essay a week in fairly grueling and inevitably evokes the feeling that if you had twice the time for research your work would be half as long and twice as good. Add the additional research and writing of a second paper every other week and you realize that the same day you return one set of library books you are checking out another, that closing out one Word document means staring at a brand new blank one, and that sleep is for when you are dead.

I am reading English Literature from 1740-1832 for my secondary tutorial, a time period that begins with Samuel Richardson, runs through the courtship and gothic novel, and culminates with Jane Austen and the Romantic poets. If my primary tutorial induces mental calisthenics on philosophy, theology and the mythopoetic (go ahead, look that one up), my secondary has me giggling behind fans and creeping through secret passages with a guttering candle. Needless to say, this provides for some much-needed balance and a breath of fresh air.

I didn’t anticipate enjoying the research as much as I do, but this probably stems less from a delight in musty library books and the shivering vaults of the Gladstone Link than from a disinclination to start writing. Essays have always been the assignments I looked forward to most and put off as rewards—here, because they are the only assignment, they have turned into somewhat daunting and dreadful things.

This is not to say that I don’t enjoy the process, because I do, but some of my most enjoyable moments have come sifting through collections of C.S. Lewis’s letters to friends (discussing everything from diving to new books to Christmastime), discovering the piquant humour of Evelina, and stumbling on passages such as this one, which make long days and weeks in the library hunched over the warm glow of desk lights fruitful and rewarding—

And what the others saw I do not know: but John saw the Island. And the morning wind, blowing offshore from it, brought the sweet smell of it orchards to them, but rarified and made faint with the thinness and the purity of early air, and mixed with a little sharpness of the sea. But for John, because so many thousands looked at it with him, the pain and the longing were changed and all unlike what they had been of old; for humility was mixed with their wildness, and the sweetness came not with pride and with the lonely dreams of poets nor with the glamour of a secret, but with the homespun truth of folk-tales, and with the sadness of graves and freshness as of earth in the morning. There was fear in it also, and hope: and it began to seem well to him that the Island should be different from his desires, and so different that, if he had known it, he would not have sought it.

–C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress


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