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!