A Different World

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A Different World
[Note: The Tolkien at Oxford Conference was held at Exeter College. If that name doesn't sound particularly familiar, it's probably because Tolkien didn't teach there. It's the college at which he was a student, and we don't normally hear as much about that part of his life.]

Some people actually live in Oxford, which boggles my mind. To someone who had never been outside North America, it  might as well have been the moon (assuming the inhabitants of the moon spoke a language somewhat resembling American English). After I got off the bus from the airport and was wandering around looking for something called "Exeter College," I found myself sharing a "You are here" map with a couple visiting from Manchester. When they asked me what my first impression of Oxford was, I replied, "Old!!" - not negatively or humorously but with a sense of awe. And I wouldn't know how right I was until the guided tour the next day.

I'd probably walked past Exeter College several times before I figured out what it was. Unlike the university where I work, there was no large sign out front proclaiming its presence.  Exeter College, like other colleges in Oxford, is made up of buildings that face away from the outside world and toward the interior quadrangle(s), making them appear like small walled towns; adding to the resemblance is the fact that entrance is through a high, arched passageway with a huge, wooden, medieval gate that's closed and locked at night. (As the week went on, I realized that the most common indication of a college's presence, at least during the day, was a small sign just inside the open gate listing the hours that visitors are welcome.)

Exeter is actually one of the newer colleges of Oxford University, not being founded until 1314 (more than half a millennium before the founding of the college from which I graduated, which is one of the oldest west of the Mississippi). And Oxford University, I soon learned, isn't a place in the same way as the university where I now work. It's made up of semi-autonomous colleges that are scattered throughout the central (old!) part of the city. Because I could tell the bus driver that I was going to Exeter College, he could tell me at which stop I should get off. If I had told him I was going to Oxford University, I'm sure he would have just stared at me; when you're in Oxford, the university is all around you. Being there, even for just a few days, was a cultural immersion experience. After I returned home, some of my co-workers thought it was too bad I didn't have a chance to "see the sights" in London or elsewhere, but I think leaving Oxford for a side-trip and then coming back would have lessened the impact. Besides, I didn't even have enough time to see all the things I really wanted to see in Oxford.

The collegiate system used at Oxford and Cambridge (and, I'm told, nowhere else in the world) would never make it in the United States: it's just too inefficient. U.S. universities are made up of colleges that do different things; besides the general undergraduate college (usually called the "college of arts and sciences") and the general graduate college, there might be a variety of colleges depending on the university's specialties: engineering, business, divinity, medicine, law, veterinary science, etc. This is a very efficient arrangement and if Americans value anything it's efficiency.

Not all American colleges are part of a university. There are also technical colleges that teach only their career-oriented and hands-on specialties and, at the other end of the spectrum, small liberal arts colleges such as the one I attended (note to non-Americans: "small liberal arts college" is one word - there is no such thing as a "large liberal arts college") that educate only undergraduate students and pride themselves in turning out well-rounded individuals (who tend to spend their time reading books authored by Oxford professors and writing material for non-income-producing websites, because they never learned a career-oriented, hands-on specialty).    

The closest I can come to an American-friendly description of Oxford University would be to call it a collection of  a couple of dozen separate small liberal arts colleges all within a few miles of each other that are loosely joined in a sort of federation. Each college is a self-contained entity with its own library, chapel, dining hall, living quarters, offices, administration, faculty, and lecture halls. American colleges in the same situation would have merged centuries ago in order to share resources. (I asked about science facilities and was told that the colleges do share labs, etc., because nowadays the cost of each college having its own would be prohibitive. This would not have been a consideration in 1314.)

Okay, if I have my fellow Americans shaking their heads at the inefficiency of it all, here's the kicker: Did you notice anything missing from that list of resources in the previous paragraph? Like classrooms, maybe? Yes, there are lectures given in the lecture halls, but students at Oxford don't "take classes" the way American college students do (and, I'd guess, the way college and university students do just about anywhere except Oxford and Cambridge).  Do you know why? Wanna guess what the faculty:student ratio is at Exeter College? Try 1:2! And, believe it or not, the teaching isn't done by grad students - the Exeter person showing us around his college was horrified by that idea. So if Oxford and Cambridge want to claim they provide the best education in the world (which, of course, they do - claim it, that is), I'm willing to believe them. Going all the way through college with a professor as a private tutor? Why didn't I know about this option 30 years ago?
Being introduced to the Oxford collegiate system, even if not really comprehending it, helped me understand some things about "our" Professor's life, such as why there are so many stories (often from previous students) based on individual teaching sessions in the Tolkien home; such sessions would be virtually unheard of at American colleges, but wouldn't be out of the ordinary at Oxford. One thing students from the various colleges do do together at Oxford is take examinations; there's a specific building for this. That fact makes it easier to see how Tolkien could have taken on extra work grading examination papers in order to supplement his income; in American colleges, a professor (or a graduate student!) would grade papers for only the classes he or she taught. Without all those examination papers to grade - to the point of beginning to doodle on them - who knows if we ever would have gotten, 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit'?

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Copyright 2006 by Trudy G. Shaw