1st Week at Oxford: An Anthropological Perspective

I want to talk about rituals. Not sacrificing a pig kind of ritual: the important ones. Coming of age rituals. Good luck rituals. Crucially, joining a group rituals. Most of my reading this week has been anthropological, looking at how culture functions as a set of understandings to guide the behaviour and define the identity of a group. This feels particularly appropriate this week, as I’ve settled into life at Oxford. Last week I spoke about the Ontological Change of status, and the gradual growing used to Oxford life. This week, I want to explain what actually makes me an Oxford student.

Let’s get anthropological.

Considering how old the University of Oxford is, it’s unsurprising that it has a great deal of traditions- be this last week’s Mertonian admission ceremony, the need to wear gowns for dinner or even the centennial hunting of a wooden duck at All Souls. But besides little quirks, what’s the point? Why do we uphold these traditions? The answer is in the symbolism.

Interlude on the Funeral of a Policeman

The route of a somber procession moves through Oxford

On Monday morning, I left one lecture to run across Oxford to another but found that my path was blocked. As you may have heard, the funeral of PC Andrew Harper- who had tragically died in the line of duty earlier this year- was held this Monday in Oxford. The event, according to BBC News, saw 800 mourners converge upon the centre of Oxford to watch the procession of hearse and police horses. I followed this event down the entire length of Oxford’s high street in an effort to find somewhere to cross to my lecture on the other side of the road, and must admit that it was incredibly moving. Every five paces, on both sides of the road, for just under a mile, there was a policeman in full, black uniform, head bowed and mourning. A fitting moment of remembrance for a man who gave his life protecting the nation.

And also a powerful piece of symbolism.

I don’t think for a second that the intentional purpose of this display is what I’m about to suggest, but I do believe that it’s a valid result. Stepping back from the individual experiences of those involved, this display can be taken as some very clear symbolism. The police, when united, had the power to shut down Oxford’s busiest street and trap 800 people into respective positions on either side. They also had enough uniformed officers to post two vigils every five paces for nearly a mile. Why did these policemen have to wear uniforms to the funeral? Why was the hearse accompanied by police horses and police motorbikes? It’s a message of solidarity from the force to PC Harper’s family, perhaps, but that’s only the conscious message.

This act of mourning was also a symbol, a warning, of the police’s unified might.

And that unconscious projection is what I’m talking about when I refer to symbolism.

End of Interlude

But what has this got to do with becoming a student at Oxford?

Yesterday morning, we undertook the final part of the process of becoming official Oxford students: Matriculation. This ceremony involves waltzing from your respective college to the centrally located Sheldonian Theatre, wearing full sub fusc (Oxford’s academic uniform). There, a five to ten minute ceremony takes place in which one of the Deans present introduces the assembled students in bulk to the Vice Chancellor of the University, in Latin of course, and the Vice Chancellor makes a response in Latin which makes us official students.

Merton, Balliol and University College matriculate in the Sheldonian Theatre

Compared to the College Admissions Ceremony I described last week, it’s a hell of a lot less atmospheric and a hell of a lot less intimate yet, somehow, it comes out as more important. Why?

Simply? Because of its symbolism.

The intimacy of Merton’s College Admissions Ceremony is private. Only Mertonians are permitted to the chapel, only Mertonians witness the writing in the book. In contrast, Matriculation couldn’t be more of a public affair. Every student in Oxford descends in the famous uniform to the centre of the city, where they proceed to hang about, appear in countless tourists’ photos and make a show of themselves. It’s tradition that, on matriculating, the student remains in their sub-fusc for the remainder of the day- in my case, this involved a trip to the post office in black tie and gown. For the majority of the students, it means trips to Wetherspoons, pubs, clubs and (in some unfortunate cases) A&E in the same.

A bunch of jolly Mertonians in the moments following matriculation.

The symbolism is clear. Where before matriculation, we students were practically indistinguishable from the townsfolk, upon the ceremony’s completion we by nature ‘stand out.’ A phrase I hear a lot in Oxford is ‘town and gown,’ referring to the splitting of the city between locals and students. This dichotomy is solidified by the tradition of wandering around in sub-fusc all day. The uniform breeds a community built on a set of standards and traditions which guide its behaviour- this is the first true time that the students notably followed the rules and regulations of the university (part of the Vice Chancellor’s speech in Latin). It’s thus the first time they become enveloped in the culture.

There are other subtler syncretisms I’ve noticed too, other small things that bind people together. At Merton particularly, food is a big element of building a culture. Most meals are eaten together in Hall (*insert Harry Potter comparison*), but due to the isolation of independent library work, tutorials and lectures, this goes from simply meals to a key part of the day. People make arrangements to meet their friends in Hall, often for the first time since the previous night’s dinner. It becomes a central tenement of the community- we all eat the same, we all share the same opinions on the food, and from this grows a subtle frame of reference which binds us together by excluding those who don’t have the same experience. All communities are built on this process of inclusion and exclusion; it’s just understandable that community amongst students grows so quickly when central parts of their lives, like eating, have to be social.

The final point I want to raise is in regard to language. Language is crucial to defining community- think of the words that have meanings only you and your friends understand. Regardless of whether you’re conscious of it, the linguistic universes you share with people tie you to them. Oxford, naturally, has a rich and complex vernacular which is used only amongst its students and staff- from words as simple as ‘Hall’ to refer to the place you eat to deeply packed words like ‘sharking,’ ‘crewdate’ and ‘sconcing.’ That, after just two weeks, I have a ‘bodcard’ in my wallet, use it at the ‘radcam’ and from there gather information to deploy in my ‘tutes’… is bizarre. But it’s also essential. A university is a mixing ground of different cultures, experiences and linguistic universes- by providing its own linguistic universe, it can close the gaps between its students by binding them together in a new culture specific to their university experience.

Now, I want to make it clear that I don’t believe Oxford necessarily does all of this intentionally. Matriculation is certainly an intentional process, but food and language are much more organic growths. I think they come as testimony to the social nature of the human being, and its ability to adapt to new environments by rapidly forming and adopting new cultures. I also think it goes to show the importance of studying anthropology, as a way of understanding the processes you yourself are constantly undergoing- be it consciously or not.

And the moral of the story? I suppose it’s that you needn’t worry about fitting in at Oxford, or at any university for that matter. As soon as you begin to share meals or words, as soon as you can use the symbols that denote your new community, you become a part of it. It happens without you knowing it. That’s just being a human being.

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