As a historian, I have long since forgotten what human interaction is like. Unlike scientists, mathematicians, classicists, linguists and other folks doing proper subjects, I’ve basically been abandoned. Where my girlfriend (a Physicist) is occupied continuously from 09:00 until 17:30 on one of her busy days, I find that my busiest day normally involves two non-consecutive contact hours. It’s like I’ve been forgotten about.
I’ve got to admit, this nearly put me off accepting my Oxford offer. I’d heard stories from other historians that the teaching of history consisted of the presentation of a reading list and then an encouraging shove in the direction of the nearest library to fend for oneself. It sounded overwhelming and terrifying and, perhaps, just a little impossible. The education system I’d existed in for the last 14 years had spoon fed me nearly everything- having to teach myself seemed like a step down, and a particularly unpleasant one at that. I genuinely didn’t believe I’d be able to cope with such abandonment.
And yet, now in my fifth week, I find myself loving it!
To understand why, I’m going to take you through the four main segments of my average week. Luckily for you, they mostly happen to line up chronologically with the days of the week. Good times!
Reading! (Sunday Afternoon, Monday, Tuesday)
Ah! Reading. Not the town on the Thames and Kennet rivers in southern England but rather the process of flicking through endless piles of books in the desperate (and somewhat frenzied) search for usable information. I love it. It’s great. I’ve been doing it for fun for ages, but now I get to do it for a living. What more could you want?
The process starts on a Sunday afternoon with the arrival of a reading list. These are scary beasts that I’ll inevitably write a separate post about, but in short: imagine a big list of interesting books, so many in fact that the person setting the list recognises the impossibility of reading all of them.
My Sunday afternoon is spent reading the essay question at the top (or formulating my own in the terrifying moments when my tutors are a little vague), then moving through the list to work out which books are worth my precious time. At first this is quite difficult, I have to admit, but once you get used to the writers on a particular topic you get a sense of who to run to and who to avoid (Natalie Zemon Davis is great for Anthropology, Ernst Badian is not particularly useful for Roman diplomacy, your tutor is definitely worth reading for all occasions). I then proceed through my chosen books and work out which of Oxford’s 104 libraries (ONE HUNDRED AND FOUR) I need to go to.
The next step is the actual reading. For Ancient History, I try to use Mondays for general outlines and understanding the big arguments, then my Tuesdays become a race to support or challenge these with the ancient sources, whilst also inevitably finding another big argument I missed on Monday.
Side note: the last few weeks, I’ve found myself at about 10:30 on a Tuesday panicking that I haven’t done nearly enough reading. Consequently, there’s also a nice moment at about 14:30 where I realise that I’ve actually done more than I thought and that I now have a good understanding of what’s going on. It’s rather lovely!
My only word of warning when it comes to reading is to keep a good hold on the situation. I’m a fairly quick reader so I know that I can choose far too many books/articles to work through and still get most of them done in a reasonable time, but if I was a slower reader I can imagine losing a lot of time trying to get through the same amount. The trick is to find how much works for you- I like a lot because I can get more views, others might like less views with more focused perspectives. Just find your preference and keep to it- someone said in Freshers’ Week said that with this type of work, it expands to fill the time you give it… so choose how much and stick to it.
Essays: Planning, Writing, Editing (Tuesday Evening, Wednesday, Thursday Morning)
Having done all that reading, I now need to do something with it. This usually involves retreating to my room on a Tuesday evening and having a good old ponder. Most of the time, I have an argument by the end of Monday but this is a good time to update it with new findings and find a way to actually support it. Mostly the planning process of the essay is furious pacing, deep overwhelming regret towards life choices and then a beautiful moment of realisation that what you’re thinking does make sense. I formalise it by typing a rough structure of subheadings in a Notes document, then filling in with quotes from my handwritten notes and also those crucial writers/page numbers that make referencing so much easier.
Wednesday arrives and with it a procrastinated getting out of bed, followed by as many tasks as I can find to do before I need to get to work. (Consequently, I do my laundry on a Wednesday.) The actual essay process is a lot of fun once I’ve got going. I have a big reminder on my desk of a maxim I picked up a few weeks ago: ‘This essay should walk through the process.’ I write my essays now, or at least I try to, in the style that I’m guiding the reader through the series of information I uncovered, explaining my realisations as they occurred. It’s quite fun and makes for, I hope, enjoyable reading.
By the time I’ve finished the essay, it’s usually lunch time so I have a well earned extended lunch break, before setting about the effort of editing. A basic edit is made on Wednesday afternoon- grammatical, mildly stylistic, removing extraneous words, expanding on some ideas, cutting down others, finding new connections and building them in. The main edit is the job of Thursday morning- I find sleeping on it helps a lot. I try to ensure that I send it off by lunch, because if I didn’t set my own deadline then I’d begin to fixate on little details which wouldn’t achieve much at all.
Lectures (Monday 11am, Thursday 12pm)
When I was applying to Uni, I didn’t expect to be able to move for lectures. I thought they’d be my lifeblood, my oxygen, my every waking second. For an Oxford historians, I’m afraid, this is just not true.
For the one and a half modules I’m currently studying, there are two directly applicable lecture series. For Ancient History, the lectures on the essay topics are delivered a week after the essay topic. For Anthropology, the lectures are randomly given so it’s really down to luck. Crucially, however, this is not a bad thing! Lectures aren’t meant to give you answers so much as introduce new ways of considering things- they’re more about perspectives than content, or at least that’s been my experience. (Apologies to my lovely lecturers if I’ve been massively misinterpreting things)
The benefit of this is that you can attend lectures for subjects you’re not studying- in fact you’re encouraged to! As a result, you end up finding whole new perspectives you wouldn’t have considered otherwise. I went to a lecture on Tuesday night on the Greek Symposion and its presentation in pottery and funeral inscriptions. It has gone on to influence both my Anthropology and Mid-Republican Rome studies. As someone who loves a bit of multi-discipline learning, I think this structure is great.
Tutorials (Fridays. Mostly.)
And here we get to the main part of the Oxford experience. The Tutorial. You’ve no doubt heard of them: the private meeting of a world renowned expert with one or two plucky undergrads for an hour long discussion of essays, academia and everything in between. Oh how you must wonder what arcane academic rituals take place behind a closed tutorial door!
Answer: We chat for an hour, and it’s fantastic. Having spent a week immersed in reading materials, and having spent every waking second considering an argument, you now use that understanding as a springboard into deeper conversations about wider topics, with someone who has (literally) written the book on the subject, as well as looking at how a fellow student (your tute partner) interacted with the same materials/question in very different ways. In tutorials in the past, I’ve watched the conversation progress from Roman involvement on the Illyrian coast to specific epigraphical nomenclature, from the contrast of pop culture and elite culture to the difference between religion and magic. It’s rare I leave a tutorial not feeling energised and excited about studying History. The dark Tuesday morning of the soul is instantly forgotten and my passion is reaffirmed. Heck, on the morning of this post’s writing, I walked all the way from a tutorial to my room without my smile breaking once.
Now, I will admit that my initial fears of being alone weren’t unfounded. I have three tutorials a fortnight usually, so the vast majority of the time I am on my own academically. I think, though, that the system rewards this. The culmination of this meditative exile is a euphoric hour of discussion and idea building- every moment in the library is breathed new life and new excitement all over again, and new perspectives and understandings are born. Also, as you’re sharing this with a tutorial partner, you always have at least one other person to discuss with (or curse for getting the books from the library before you!)
More importantly, though, you become quickly independent. Your daily life becomes centred around constructing and researching academic arguments, and because you’re on your own you have to develop your own style and process. If you ever struggle, there are plenty of people around to help (graduate mentors, your tutors, fellow students) but the fun bit is in the independence. The essays we write each week aren’t assessed, so they’re encouraged to be experiments- if something works, fantastic. If something doesn’t, that’s fine, the only consequence is you don’t include it in the future. That freedom from expectation complements the freedom from direct instruction: you become a self-made historian, guided by others’ experience but ultimately dependent only on yourself. This element that, reasonably, terrified me at first is now my absolute favourite part of Oxford. I’ve quickly realised I’m fully capable.