Blog: May 2014

Strange Oxford Traditions: Ascension Day

Oxford is a place of old traditions. This is never more in evident when linked to the Churches in Oxford. To this day, on Ascension Day, when the Church remembers Jesus’ going up into Heaven, celebrated 30 Days after Easter, you will see something very odd happening in Oxford. Something that has happened in England since before 1066, indeed it is recorded from the time of Alfred the Great!

At around 11am, after a short service, a large group of school children, no older than eleven or twelve, accompanied by Teachers, Parents, a Priest, and normally a fair few students, emerge from the different Churches clutching long wooden sticks.

The group proceed to walk from the Church to different points in the city, through shops and Colleges alike, to do something known as ‘Beating the Bounds’. What they are doing is marking out the boundaries of the Parish (the area for which the Church is responsible)… a practice which made much more sense in a time before maps.

This is done in a peculiar way – drawing a marking on the wall (or the floor) at different points in chalk, normally a cross, with the initials of the Church and the year in each quadrant. The children (and often students too) then take the wooden canes and hit the marker, to encouraging shouts of “Mark! Mark! Mark!” At each point, the marking is often followed by the singing of a Hymn.

This happens in Shopping Malls and in Colleges. Indeed, it even happens on the floor of the world famous Codrington Library of All Souls College, something for which there is a special Act of Parliament giving right of access.

Often the Colleges will provide a welcome and refreshments to the parishioners, as they wind their way through the city, carrying out this tradition which has been observed for over a millennium.

Posted: May 27, 2014

How Tutorials at Oxford Summer Courses help you defend your argument better!

One of the great strengths of the tutorial system is that you are forced to defend your position. The benefit of having to present, clarify and defend your argument is that you are forced to take a side and get off the fence on important issues. This might seem mainly to apply to humanities, arts, and social science subjects, but it’s often the case in the “hard sciences” as well that key positions are up for debate, or at the very least their consequences and political implications. Often, unless you have to defend a position in reasoned (if sometimes heated) debate it’s difficult to see the full strengths and weaknesses of that position.

Having to defend your argument also sharpens your rhetorical and presentation skills, and improves your confidence, of course. But I think even more valuable is the fact that you know you will have to stick up for what you think. That forces you to make your mind up and genuinely think deeply and carefully about tricky issues.

Some tips for defending your argument in a tutorial:

First, you have to prepare your argument with a view to what sort of facts somebody unsympathetic to your position might bring up. How do you deal with those facts? Are they anomalies that can’t be explained by your account—or is the person disagreeing with you misinterpreting those facts? Can those facts be put into a different narrative that actually supports your argument? This is an important insight in any academic context (and in many contexts outside academia).

Second, the tutorial doesn’t end when the Tutor calls time on the discussion, there are wealth of books and articles out there to read, and if someone at Oxford Summer Courses has had a tutorial on the same topic then you will have all afternoon, and the next day to sit and talk together about it, to unpick the issues together and ask new questions of one another’s arguments that you hadn’t covered in your respective tutorials.

Posted: May 15, 2014

How Tutorials at Oxford Summer Courses help you understand your subject better!

The whole point of teaching is that the pupil leaves with a better understanding (or at least on the way to a better understanding) of the topic that is being taught. In that sense, it is very easy to tell when a teacher has failed – the teacher has failed because the pupil doesn’t understand anything better after the teaching.

I am sure we all know the feeling of leaving a lesson or a lecture thinking ‘I got nothing out of that’ or  ‘I didn’t understand a word of that’. That feeling tells you that something has gone wrong – either you weren’t paying attention and the best efforts of the teacher made no impact, or they were doing something wrong, maybe going too fast, maybe too slow, maybe too much depth or maybe not enough. Sadly, when teaching 10, 20, 30 or 50 people, that is what happens. The teacher cannot make the lesson work for everyone there.

Tutorials are the complete antithesis of that. Because it is one-on-one the tutorial will progress at the pace and in the directions that you need it to. Which is wonderful because it means you will leave with a better understanding of the topic, whether or not you entered the tutorial understanding it or not.

I remember two stories from my second year which illustrate this well. The first was in a philosophy tutorial, we were studying metaphysics – and asking questions about what sorts of things are ‘objects’, the whole thing was incredibly confusing and I got to the tutorial, having done all the reading but really not understanding it at all. Over the course of the hour the Tutor slowly and methodically helped me to unpick my confusions and misunderstandings until I began to feel like I might be able to understand the topic one day. I knew leaving the tutorial, that I still didn’t fully understand, but that I knew I COULD understand if I did some more reading. So I took a day and a half to do just that over the vacation and finished understanding a topic which had been completely incomprehensible to me before, thanks to the careful and considerate direction of my tutor.

The other story is of a politics tutorial, we were discussing the idea of freedom in political theory. What does it mean to say of someone that they are ‘free’? So, is someone without a plane ticket free to fly to America? If not then what makes them not free? If they are free then what would make them not free? It is a fascinating topic which can have some vitally important implications for how we conceive of other things like rights and duties. I entered the tutorial with a good grasp on the literature, but a few conceptual confusions. By the end of it my tutor and I had moved at a wonderful range of speeds through a series of thought experiments designed to help clarify my thoughts, and by the end of it I felt like I wanted to take back the essay I had written and rewrite it, because I knew it could be so much better!

All this goes to illustrate that wherever you are with your understanding of a topic, the tutorial will help you to better understand it. In helping you understand your subject better it will give you the increased confidence in your own abilities which is so important!

Posted: May 3, 2014

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