Though culturally England is fairly similar to the United States, one of the most unfamiliar aspects of studying abroad at Oxford is the academic experience. As I’ve explained in a previous post, Oxford features a tutorial system which necessitates a fair amount of writing, averaging about a paper-and-a-half per week.
As a humanities major, I’m not a stranger to writing papers, and as a writing consultant in the Writing Center, I’m used to reading a wide variety of papers and prompts. It took me a while, though, to realize that Oxford requires a different type of writing than what I was used to. At Vassar, creativity is prized and originality can go a long way in earning a good grade on an assignment. Thus, for my first assignment at Oxford—a paper on internal labor markets—even though I was assigned a straightforward question, I tried hard to make my thesis something interesting and creative.
As the weeks went by, however, I realized that my tutor was not interested in how I managed to make her fairly bland essay questions into exciting papers. Rather, she was only interested in how thoroughly I understood the assignment and the larger topic for the week. So I started to change the way that I was writing. Sure, in one of my last papers, I attempted to engage with a discussion of the nature of “inevitability” by asking if the decline of trade unions was inevitable, but overall I stuck more closely to only answering the prompt.
By my final paper, I had abandoned my attempts to make my essays creative and exciting. I wrote that paper slightly grumpily, knowing that when I returned to Vassar, my writing would be bland and formulaic.
While my papers may have been slightly boring, I’ve realized that Oxford’s writing demands have improved my writing in some ways. In short, my writing assignments have taught me how to write in a clear and concise fashion. If I could answer the question in four pages, I could stop after four pages. At Vassar, when a professor told me that I could stop after answering the question, he/she really meant that I should answer the question and then derive some sort of larger meaning from that answer. At Oxford, I only had to answer the question. Even more strange was that fact that there was a right answer to the prompt. I didn’t need to be creative, I only needed to be right. Sure, the resulting papers were far less nuanced, but it was not something that I had necessarily been asked to do at Vassar.
Moreover, I learned how to write quickly. At Vassar, I’d often write, obsess over, and perfect my essays before turning them in. At Oxford, I’d have to get my papers completed in a far shorter time, forcing me to turn out papers in a few days.
Although I’m only halfway through my time at Oxford, I’ve come to the conclusion that Oxford not only has a different educational system, it also has different educational values. Yes, Oxford wants its students to be independent and articulate; its tutorial system forces students to learn by themselves and then make arguments on the spot. This past term, I’ve taught myself more than I have in any Vassar class. But, at its core, I don’t think Oxford is an liberal arts institution.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with not being a liberal arts institution. Oxford has advantages that liberal arts schools could never give its’ students. Next term, I’m taking The Ancient Roman Economy and (Greco-Roman) Cultural Heritage Law, courses I’d never be able to take at Vassar. There are also far more networking opportunities at Oxford, as well as an emphasis on postgraduate skills. But as a liberal arts student, I value—and sometimes miss—the freedom and academic latitude that liberal arts institutions give to their students.
Ultimately, in addition to challenging me to write in different ways, Oxford has shown me some of the values of a liberal arts education that I hadn’t noticed before. In short, it’s given me a new perspective and made me realize that one of the best things about a Vassar education is not only that it teaches you how to think, but also that it gives you the freedom to think about whatever it is you want to think about.