Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Oxford Rituals

Come exam weeks , you’ll see students in academic gowns treading cobblestones past ivory towers. It doesn’t feel like Oxford has changed in centuries until you look closer.

Undergraduates read (ie study) only one subject, with the exception of some new hybrids like PPE (politics, philosophy and economics.) There are qualifying exams at the end of the first year and weekly tutorial papers. However, the only thing that counts towards the final degree are the exams sat at the end of 3 years in 10 subfields.

If that weren’t enough pressure, the students are required to wear 19th century kit known as subfusc for exams. Young men must wear: a white bow tie, shirt, black suit and black shoes under an academic gown. Young women substitute a black tie and can wear either a black skirt or trousers. Don’t say “pants”- that’s underpants in British! On hot days they can at least sit the exam in their shirt sleeves.

A more recent custom is to don a carnation on the lapel. On the first day of exams, which can last 10 days, the flower is virginal white. During the middle days it is pink. On the final day the carnation is red, as if it had been soaking in a red inkwell, slowly reaching saturation, not unlike the student.

Not everyone is on the same examination schedule, so lunchtime in hall is an amusing clash of period dress. At Oriel there were lads in their sports kit elbow to elbow with suited chums. Gowns were hung on pegs to keep tidy. The lunch food was institutional. I had mystery meat on a skewer. Fish? Chicken? Pork? Quite unlike a high table feast. No one seemed to mind as they ate heartily after morning exertions.

Most exams are sat at Examination Schools in silent, cavernous rooms. I could feel the tension in the air when I peeked my head in on my way to a history lecture. It’s a grand 19th century sandstone building with an enormous two story foyer. The halls sport black and white checkered floors and colorful walls leading to stone steps. The whimsical feeling is misleading.

These third year exams count for everything and are administered by the university, not the separate colleges. Very few students graduate with a First Degree. Most get a Second, and the worst get a Third or fail. There are nicknames. A Lower Second (2-2) is called a “Bishop Desmond.” A Third is called a "Richard."

The joking spins out of control after the final exam. A student’s mates greets him/her with balloons, silly hats and necklaces as they exit. They are covered in treacle so that tossed flour will stick to their gowns. A plate of pastry cream or shaving cream is shoved in the face. Traditionally the student was sprayed with champagne, but the police have been cracking down on that. I still spotted students chugging champagne bottles on side streets.

This elaborate Oxford ritual is called “trashing.” Plenty of drinking and celebration follows at the pub or in the dorm rooms.

Out punting on a Saturday, I spotted a trashed student in his filthy gowns by the river. At the urging from his bank-side mates and more students in a punt, the lad dove in and swam out for a glass of wine. He was offered the entire bottle but declined in a posh accent, “Christ Church ball tonight.”

Every other year the colleges hold a Commemoration Ball, a white tie affair that starts in the evening for dinner and lasts all night. At dawn there is a violin serenade with champagne and a greasy full English breakfast in hall.

I went to a similar ball at Cambridge University back when my sister-in-law was there. We ladies wore floor length ball gowns and danced all night under the stars. Well, we didn’t actually see the stars, but they must have been there twinkling over the dense fog.

The final ritual is Oxford’s graduation ceremony held in the Sheldonian Theatre, designed by Christopher Wren. It’s too small to fit everyone, so the students graduate on separate days. I attended the honorary degree ceremony, called Encaenia, meaning "festival of renewal" in Greek. A bit of a misnomer as most of the ceremony was conducted in Latin!

The ceremony opened with a trumpet fanfare, and then black robed officials with white hair and long silver staffs escourted the honorands inside. The University Chancellor sat upon that golden throne conferring degrees.

The ancient language could not keep up with modern times. The introductory speech for Sheila Evans Widnall, former US Secretary of the Air Force, waxed poetic about Icarus and such.

The only honorand I recognized was Thomas Nagel, a philosopher of mind who once asked “What is it like to be a bat?” Thanks to a translation sheet, I now know how to say bat in Latin: vespertilio.

Another Encaenia ritual was to thank (in English) the donors – that was dull! The speaker livened up his speech with jibes against rival Cambridge University, the “daughter school.” Then all the dons in their academic gown processed outside into the rain.

I enjoyed seeing the Encaenia spectacle but was sorry to miss fellow Oxford blogger John Kelly give a new media presentation at Reuters. Since I couldn’t be two places at once, my husband, Henry, will take over the blog from here. Our daughter snapped this photo of the Kelly family before they flew home to Washington D.C.

One of the real delights of this year has been getting to know the Kelly family. John is a columnist at The Washington Post who spent the past year as a Fellow of The Reuter’s Institute for the Study of Journalism researching the red-hot topic of citizen journalism. He presented his findings last week.

Citizen journalism hit the front-pages (oh, the post-modern irony of that phrase!) in the aftermath of 9/11, the Tsunami, and the 7/7 bombings. Nifty new technologies like mobile phone cameras and wireless broadband mean that just about anyone can be a reporter, by-passing “old media” journalists who are, John reports, less trusted than even estate agents. User-generated content (UGC), wikipedia, youtube and blogs have created powerful new networks which have turned upside-down the old relationship between reporter and audience.

That’s good news if you think the old media are a complacent elite delivering patronising lectures - isn’t it better to choose what you want at the buffet than have some snooty waiter decide for you? A citizen journalist broke the story of Obama’s “bitter” comment, and bloggers spread the word, leaving the old gatekeepers flat-footed.

On the other hand, many fret about the erosion of the old journalistic values of professionalism, objectivity, and fact-checking. Instead of a vibrant cyber-democracy, these folk see a cacophony of ill-informed opinion - a view hilariously captured in this Mitchell and Webb spoof of the the BBC’s "Have Your Say" fixation.

John steered a helpful middle course between these extremes, holding onto the hope that we can figure out a way to get the best of both worlds. He noted that the same technology that allows every Tom, Dick or Harriet to post something bogus also allows anyone to correct it in real time. “Check, then publish” is a good old-media rule, but “publish, then check” has its merits in a networked world.

In any case, the evidence is that most citizens don’t actually want to be journalists - less than 1% of the BBC’s on-line traffic is UGC-related. We’ll always need objective, contextualized reporting and informed analysis. Journalists who can deliver this AND who are savvy to the latest media will be in high demand. Journalists, in short, like John.

We miss you and your family already, John. Keep blogging back in the USA!


John Kelly said...

Thanks for the lovely write-up, Henry. You proved that it's possible to deliver in 200 words what I dithered over for 15,000 words.

I was sorry I had to miss Encaenia, too, Sarah. But your report put me there in the Sheldonian.

I'm slowly getting over my jetlag. The hardest thing to deal with is the fact that when I pull myself out of bed and pad out for the paper, people in Blighty have already been up for five hours. Oh well, I prefer to think that the glass is half full, just like that pint I was holding in your back garden. Cheers.

tina said...

That all was so interesting. I wonder what the students have to do to study? All night cramming? I would think that would result in a not so good degree so I hope not!

I know Wikepedia has been in the news a lot lately. Not reliable at all and we couldn't use it as a reference in college. I had no idea it was known as UGC but most things on the web seem to be that way now a days. Technology is something else!

Anonymous said...

Henry, when I called up the Mitchell & Web spoof on Utube I got a message "this video is not available in your country"!

It must be a real humdinger.

Sarah Laurence said...

John, it’s daunting seeing how much work it is to move back home, knowing that will be us in a couple weeks. Didn’t the Oxford Sabbatical just wiz by? Best things do.

Tina, Henry will have to answer that exam question when he’s back from London. He seemed to get a mighty fine education at Oxford and still manage to have fun too. Wikipedia isn’t a UGC, it’s a wiki-page, but they’re all similar. Academic jargon is confusing.

Dad, good thing you’re on your way to England now – you can watch it here. Looking forward to seeing you soon! Too bad about the clip – perhaps they thought the dry English humor wouldn’t translate.

Cindy said...

Thank you for such an insider's view on the "Oxford Rituals". It is really fascinating to me. I especially like that the carnation is blood red by the end.
I also enjoyed your husbands spot as guest blogger.

Bee said...

The lowdown on the Oxford exam and graduation rituals was fascinating. I've gathered bits and pieces of info over the years, but this really helped put it all together.

As much as Americans moan about "high-stakes testing" there really is nothing in the American system that is as all or nothing as these final year exams.

John Kelly's area of study sounds fascinating. I have a good friend who is a magazine journalist and she was complaining that there is pressure for her to also contribute to a blog. As Henry pointed out, the potential for connectivity (and speed) makes blogging a really original and exciting medium.

Once again, thank you for such a well-written, entertaining look into the rarified world of Oxford.

Sarah Laurence said...

Cindy, I was fascinated by the 3 color flowers and asked Henry, but he didn’t know. The custom wasn’t around in the 1980’s or wasn’t as prevalent. He asked a be-flowered student for the story. Henry’s a huge help with both my novel and blog research. There are so many rituals at Oxford, some old and some new. I feel like a kid picking up rocks, looking to see what’s wriggling underneath them.

Bee, I prefer the American system of multiple evaluation. Oxford is unique in its all or nothing approach – even Cambridge doesn’t go that far. I can’t imagine the pressure on those students. It makes sense they’d go so crazy after it.

There are very few journalists like John, who really understand and appreciate UGC’s, blogs etc. With time, I suspect blogs will be more accepted by mainstream media, just like television. It’s exciting being part of a new wave. I read blogs, but I also read newspapers. I find it less passive than watching TV. Still, my favorite diversion is reading a good novel.

Alyson | New England Living said...

Wow, so interesting. Oxford is even more daunting than I imagined. I have new found respect. I also thought the flower tradition was so interesting. I've always been intrigued by tradition and symbolism.

I also enjoyed the commentary on John Kelly's presentation. It gets you thinking.

Sarah Laurence said...

Alyson, even after a year in Oxford, it remains an enigma. Back home I think it will be easier to step back and get the full picture from these blog snippets. This is the book I’ve wanted to write for so long. As for John’s analysis, a blog is in the moment so it’s fascinating to see it as part of something bigger with lasting implications.

Anonymous said...

@John: glad you approve of the summary, it was a great talk, and we miss you all. My only quibble is that the glass in the photo is technically ¾ full...

@Cindy, Bee and Alyson, many thanks for the comments!

@Tina - the joke about exam preparations was that you only really had to worry on the fleeting moment - about a month before finals - when the exams went from “too far away to worry about” to “too late to do anything about.” Survive that moment, and you could enjoy a stress-free summer term! In reality, we had to work pretty hard for our weekly tutorials because to get through an hour-long, one-on-one interrogation with an expert in whatever field it was you were writing about, you really did need to do some prep. So last minute revision really was more like revision, not like last-minute cramming. An odd cultural difference is that at Harvard, the cool thing was to talk about how busy you are, while at Oxford, the trick was to talk about how lazy you were. (In "Brideshead Revisited" one of the characters says, in private, something like: "I was up all night reading the latest "in" book because it's so banal telling people you haven't read it if you really haven't...")
As far as I can tell, though, everyone works about as hard at either place.

@Tony - the clip is on a BBC-sponsored website and because of the funding structure (Brits pay for it, you lot don’t) they are required to restrict access from foreign sites. You should try googling it on youtube - or come to England!

tina said...

Henry, Thanks for all that info. It is always nice to know and I find the English so much more interesting than Americans-to be lazy prior to exams-go figure!

Roberta said...

Fascinating, the rituals and how they've stayed in place there.

Sarah Laurence said...

Welcome, Roberta! Oxford is endlessly fascinating.

TBM said...

Very interesting, Sarah! I must admit that I am intimidated by the British School system. While we thought it would be a wonderful opportunity for our daughter to experience the local schools, we found that the school system in England was different enough from the States that we ended up just sending her to an American School. It'll be easier to slot her back in when the time comes.

I enjoyed your photos! We went to Cambridge our first weekend in England (we thought we might like to live there) and wondered about punting. Is it difficult?

kate smudges said...

That was an enjoyable romp through Oxford traditions. I used to think 100% finals at the end of each term were horrible - can't quite imagine them at the end of three years.

It was great fun to see pictures of the after celebrations ... I will miss your posts from England when you are back in the US.

Your photographs are always amazing!

Sarah Laurence said...

JAPRA, I can totally understand your concerns. The biggest difference for us is that our children are half English. We wanted our children to grow British roots, and my husband understands the system although it has changed a lot since his childhood. It’s a whole different mindset relocating a family for work. Tomorrow I’ll be blogging more about English schools and the expat adjustment.

My husband does all the punting, and he makes it look effortless (I say as I sip my Pimm’s cocktail during his exertions.) Every time punting, I’ve seen some poor guy fall in. The pole can easily get stuck in the mud. Henry says the trick is to let go immediately when that happens. The boat itself is pretty stable. I’ve seen some fine women punters too.

Kate, I’ve never liked final exams either. Not too surprisingly (given my profession) I preferred term papers. I will miss England too, but there is much to share about Maine. They are special in different ways – both make for good photography. I’m lucky to be on the other end of the lens.

Audrey said...

Hi, Sarah I'm new to your blog and came here via Bee (we have kids at the same school) and Plane. I really enjoyed the ins and outs of the Oxford system. Living about 30 minutes away I use Oxford a lot to do "city things" (shopping, theater, films etc...) and have always wondered what those college kids were up to. And now I can be a great deal more sympathetic!

My husband used to take me punting when I was pregnant with our first child and your post brought back those memories.

Sarah Laurence said...

Welcome Audrey! I recognize your photo from your funny comments on those 2 other expat blogs and see you have one too. I’ll check it out as we share some favorite books too.

There seems to be a reverse colonization of American women to the UK. Ladies, watch out for the charming English accent or you too may find yourself with a couple kids, wellies and a dog gardening in the rain [hmm, did I just say my dog was gardening?]

Audrey, you are lucky to live close to Oxford (and Bee!) You should come back and punt with the whole family. They have 80 punts and don’t accept pre-bookings. My parents are visiting, and we have plans to go punting with the kids IF the weather holds this weekend.

Sarah Laurence said...

I've just embedded the Mitchell and Webb spoof video "What Do You Reckon?" The old link to the BBC clip didn't work outside the UK. Anyone can view it now. John Kelly used this clip during his Reuters presentation. Sorry for the technical problems!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading this! I'm an American graduate student at Oxford reading Egyptology for an M.Phil. and just passed my preliminary exams. Tina, you were asking about what the students have to do to study - this really varies depending on your subject, but to give you an idea, it took me about three weeks to a month of intensive work (I was doing 14 hours a day at the end) to get ready for two 3-hour Egyptian language exams, including prepared hieroglyphic texts, essays on Egyptian grammar, English into Egyptian, and unseen texts. Rites of passage, if ever anything merited that label! Whew!

Sarah Laurence said...

Now that I’m back in the USA, even I can’t view the embedded Mitchell & Webb video in this post. Too bad as it was really funny as you British residents can see.

Welcome, Anneli, and thanks for relating the exam experience. How intense! Congratulations on passing the rites.