Notes from a Summer in Oxford…

On August 24, 2011 by Grad Forum

oxford_erinAfter spending the month of July studying at the University of Oxford, a MALS graduate student reflects on her time studying abroad within the History, Politics & Society Summer Program.

Along with four of my peers from the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies (MALS) graduate program here at Dartmouth, I was enrolled within the History, Politics & Society Summer School at the University of Oxford this past July.  In addition to daily classroom instruction, the three-week program included daily plenary lectures on topics such as the current worldwide debt crisis and its impact on the Euro, international terrorism, the European Union, and the recent uprisings in the Middle East.

Like Dartmouth, Oxford is an institution steeped in tradition. Studying at a place where so many of the world’s most brilliant academics produced some of their greatest works was inspiring.  I think I speak for all of the ‘Dartmouth crew’ when I say that it was difficult to leave.

Prior to leaving the U.S., a friend told me that I was “probably a Hufflepuff.”  While I am not prolific in Harry Potter-speak, I knew enough to realize that this was an insult.  Everybody wants to be in Gryffindor.  I suppose I carried this indignation with me to England, for to the dismay of my many Hogwarts-aholic friends, I did not see the last Harry Potter film while I was there.  I did, however, see where the movies were filmed at Christ Church, punt on the River Thames, drink lots of tea, and take in the sights and sounds of the lovely Exeter College.

Staying at Exeter College was one of the trip’s highlights.  Founded in 1314, Exeter is one of the oldest colleges at Oxford.  Walking past the Exeter Chapel during one of its frequent choral concerts was like traveling back in time.  During one such concert, I had the opportunity to drop into the former room of J.R.R. Tolkien of Lord of the Rings fame. Despite the ominous organ music coming from the chapel next door, it was decidedly un-Middle Earth-like.  I sat in his room, thinking inspiration would strike and an epic trilogy would spill into my head.  It did not.

The irony of being blessed with a piano in my dorm room despite no discernable piano-playing talent was lost on no one, especially not the crowds that gathered outside of my street-level window to heckle my attempts at learning.  Similarly, my fellow MALS-ian Heba Issa wowed the Exeter crowd nightly at mealtime with her impressive array of food allergies.  Thankfully, her inability to process sunflower oil, kiwis, or most carbohydrates didn’t slow her down.

“I loved every piece of Oxford, from the fudge shop that hands out free samples everyday, the sidewalk cafes, the indoor and outdoor markets, gardens, the Bodleian library, and the many opportunities to go dress and fascinator shopping,” says Heba.  “But I have to say my favorite spot was the Chez Hassan Food Truck.  Four words: Cheesy Chips and Beans.”  I can personally attest to Heba’s late-night food truck habit.

Shamar Whyte, a MALS student on the Globalization track, also took advantage of all that the program had to offer, participating in debates, pub crawls, and weekend excursions.  Dartmouth pride certainly swelled when Shamar’s team won the Exeter College debate on the emerging importance of China in relation to the United States.  While it cannot be proven, many suspect that Shamar’s zinger of  “I could say that I’m not wearing blue pants, but it doesn’t make it true!” was what clinched the win for his team.  For the record, he definitively was wearing blue pants.

“The weekend trip to Stratford-upon-Avon was also a lot of fun,” says Shamar.  “Seeing MacBeth at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre was the best.  The acting was superb, and it was great getting a tour of Stratford from two renowned Shakespeare scholars.”

While Shamar extoled all of the historical and cultural excursions in which he took part while at Oxford, I seem to remember him enjoying the local Jamaican restaurant with fellow MALS student Zanes Cypress with an equal amount of gusto.

But my classmates were not alone in seeking sustenance outside the walls of Exeter College.  Frequent pilgrimages were made to the Eagle and Child, a pub in Oxford known for being the home of the Inklings, a literary group that included such luminaries as Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  According to local lore, the Eagle and Child is where the group had standing weekly meetings to presumably discuss “Very Important Things.”  My own purely research-driven visits were of course equally fruitful.

It wasn’t all Tolkien and food, though.  Heba took ‘Human Rights in Perspective’, a philosophical look at what human rights are along with their applications and universality, as well as Dr. Farhang Jahanpour’s class on the Contemporary Middle East.

“Dr. Jahanpour is such a wealth of knowledge, not just about the Middle East, but history in general,” says Heba.  “He is a walking encyclopedia, which can be a bit intimidating, but he has the ability to make students from all fields of knowledge feel comfortable in his classroom.”

While I resorted to relying on smoke and mirrors to write my own research paper for Dr. Jahanpour’s class, Heba tackled the slightly more challenging topic of arguing that the Arab Spring was neither ‘Arab’ nor ‘Spring’.  Discuss amongst yourselves.

Kemi Adedokun, a MALS student within the Globalization track at Dartmouth, took classes entitled ‘International Human Rights’ and ‘Globalization’ while at Oxford.  In addition to her full academic schedule, Kemi also managed a feat that few others at the summer session were able: becoming friends with actual British people.  In between exploring Oxford and sneaking onto the forbidden Exeter lawn—I saw you, Kemi, don’t try to deny it—she managed to stake out her own personal spot.

“My favorite place to study was in Radcliffe Camera,” says Kemi.  “It was so beautiful and almost surreal to be inside the circular building with the tall glass windows.”

Despite my best attempts of avoidance, frequent studying was a necessary evil of the condensed summer program. My personal study site was inside the Exeter Fellows Garden, a beautiful enclave that provided a peaceful environment with stunning views of the city.  Along with the grassy courtyard where students milled about between classes, the garden also provided opportunities to informally meet with tutors and classmates in a social setting.  Facilitating a true academic community that exists in and out of the classroom, Oxford’s college system was one of the most rewarding aspects of the experience.   Some of the most engaging academic discussions I had at Oxford were over pints with my tutors at the Undercroft Bar at Exeter after dinner.

Shamar noted the close connections that he made with his Oxford professors, Ermeline Skinner and Christian Glossner.  In fact, Dr. Skinner’s area of research so closely aligns with Shamar’s own academic work that she will be serving as one of the readers for his MALS thesis on emerging forms of social media in Africa.  Zanes, who took Dr. Glossner’s and Dr. Skinner’s classes along with Shamar, also spoke of the appeal of taking a class about globalization through a uniquely European lens.

Having taken Dr. Winfried Fluck’s MALS class, “Mapping the Transnational Turn,” this past spring, Zanes pointed out how his classes at Oxford helped cement his prior knowledge by “putting a different spin” on transnationalism.

“While Dartmouth is an international institution, it’s still very much rooted within an American and Western framework,” says Zanes.  “In particular, Dr. Glossner had an exceptional handle of the EU, as did the majority of my European classmates.  His class on globalization and his emphasis on the German economic model helped me understand transnational relationships beyond the scope of the U.S.”

My own research was greatly aided by both Dr. Jahanpour’s class on the Middle East and Dr. Mark Radford’s class on Modern Warfare, and I look forward to receiving their feedback on my research as I move forward into my thesis work on combat photography.  While the perceptions of America both at home and abroad is a common theme for many a MALS class, it was nevertheless a valuable experience to discuss academic issues within a truly international community.  While this often turned into fielding questions about Ron Paul, fried food, and Michelle Bachmann—“Is she a REAL person?  Running for President?  REALLY?”—I nevertheless enjoyed my brief role as cultural ambassador for the United States.

Our fearless Graduate Student Council president, Wesley Whitaker, is currently studying across the pond.  Enrolled in Exeter College’s Creative Writing Summer School at Oxford, Wes informed me via email that he is enjoying living at Exeter.  Along with several other fairly cryptic musings on Oxford, Wes wrote, “The city itself is full of surprises, and you meet the most interesting people during your daily routine.”

I am currently taking odds that President Whitaker will venture back to New Hampshire with a) a bowler hat and bad Churchill impression; b) a pipe-smoking habit; c) a newly formed accent; or d) all of the above.

I look forward to W.R.R. Tolkien Whitaker’s response in an upcoming Grad News Forum post.

By Erin O’Flaherty

Hear more about Erin’s Oxford experience here

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