A Pinch of Reality

Participating in a continuing education course at Oxford University is an English teacher’s dream. Thankfully, with a pinch of reality, it can also have practical implications for classroom instruction.

Have you ever had one of those weeks where you are so immersed in a place or experience that you love that you’re sure you’ve left reality and are living in a dream? This is the beauty of my current, surreal state of existence.  I am living my own English teacher’s dream—as a student at Oxford. Even after writing that sentence, I feel like I need to stop and pinch myself to make sure I’m awake.

For the past six nights, I’ve been sleeping in a building built in the 19th century. I’ve taken my meals in a dining hall, which was built in 1618. After swearing the traditional oath that I would follow all the library rules, not the least of which is to avoid burning any books while reading in the library reading rooms, I was issued a reader’s card for the Bodleian libraries, where I am currently sitting. 

When I was applying to programs last winter, I don’t think I could have known what being a part of this historic, academic world would mean. I knew that Oxford was a unique school because of its history, but I’m learning that it is also unique because of the way it organizes study.

Unlike my American undergraduate and graduate programs, Oxford does not run classes. Instead, students are offered opportunities to attend lectures from a variety of scholars, who have often spent their lives specializing in a very unique and focused area of study.

In addition, depending on a student’s chosen topic of study, she will meet regularly with a tutor to discuss reading and written work either individually or in small groups.

Grades are not earned for particular courses. Instead, students are assessed at the end of their first year to see how they are progressing. They are assessed again at the end of their third year. If they pass their exams at the end of the third year, they earn a degree. How well they do will determine what level of degree they earn.

My program is organized similarly. Each morning, my peers and I attend a plenary lecture on a variety of literary topics. In addition, I signed up for two seminar topics–Victorian Fiction and Contemporary Fiction. Each seminar has a reading list, which I was expected to complete prior to my arrival, and will culminate with a paper.

In between the reading and the writing are tutorial sessions, which my local friend assures me he and other students call tutes (I think he may be putting me on). These tutorial sessions are two hours long and have been at once the most stimulating and unnerving learning opportunity I’ve ever engaged in.

As there are between eight and ten students in each tutorial, it is incredibly hard to hide from the tutor. The tutors are also Oxford lecturers, which means they are easily the smartest people I’ve ever been in a room with.

Each session consists of discussion of a text, both on an overarching level and then more specifically with themes, characters or particular passages. As we talk, we take notes on ideas that surface, which will hopefully turn into inquiry questions or lines of thinking worth pursuit in our essays.

It has been a long time since I was in an academic environment where I was the student and not the teacher. However, it is fascinating to participate in my studies looking at everything through both lenses.

I’m not sure if it is the size of the  class or the rigor of the environment, but my brain intuitively knows that I can’t be a slacker and be successful here at Oxford. The teacher side of my brain desperately wants to know how to recreate that feeling for my students. How do I make Horizon High School feel like Oxford for my students?

Even though I will soon be immersed in research about the structure and monetary purpose of serialized publications in Victorian England, I hope I can also come to some conclusions about how best to take this experience back to my practical world.

In the meantime, I will continue to pinch myself every so often to make sure my dream world and reality continue to align.

  • MarciaPowell

    Make your own Reality

    Jessica,

    This is a fabulous opportunity.  I have a bazillion questions, but I’ll limit it to three:  

    1.  What is the scope, length, and depth of this opportunity, and will you have any opportunities to share your unique vision as a teacher-leader with counterparts in Great Britain?

    2. In your seminars, how do you think is would be possible to break down walls across content, combining the study of literature with contemporary sociology or science or ethics?  This question, in particular, fascinates me.

    3. How does the atmosphere of the library create connections in your memories to other classic and/or popular literature?  As I think of books that have libraries as a centerpiece, I am reminded of tomes of dusty books or old, gnarled tables with ink stains and candle wax and granite staircases, along with spiderwebs or forgotten corners.  That’s probably hogwash, of course, as this is a current and functioning library, but are there nooks and crannies that remind you of long ago?

    Ok, bonus question:  does the architecture suggest that JK Rowling spent time at Oxford, or was she more of a King’s Cross station writer?