Julian Applebaum ’23 (Wellesley Hills, Mass.), a political science major, spent spring semester studying at Oxford University in England. He wrote this letter for The Words, the English Department newsletter.

I’ve been here about six weeks now, and it has been surreal in the best way. Oxford, from its architecture to food to culture, feels like a totally different world. I have attended more formal dinners in the last few weeks than I have in my entire life. I met a student who plays the organ and conducts operas professionally, another writing his dissertation on rare book bindings, and another in my politics lecture who writes all his notes with a fountain pen. I’ve drunk at a 700-year-old pub where Oscar Wilde, CS Lewis, Margaret Thatcher, and Ernest Hemingway have also drunk. I even got to attend a black-tie ball last weekend!

Perhaps the biggest adjustment I’ve had to make is operating in Oxford’s tutorial system. Oxford has a unique academic structure. Rather than attending classes, everyone self-studies the material and meets with a professor once a week or less. These meetings, called tutorials, are one-on-one with the professor to review the material. I am taking one English course this term: Victorian Gothic Fiction. I need to read one book from the reading list and submit an essay about it every two weeks. So far I’ve read Great Expectations, Villette, and Wuthering Heights. My tutor professor is an upbeat but stern British woman named Charlie who wears long, dark dresses with puffy sleeves and always has her hair tied back in a tight bun. Our bi-weekly tutorials feel like a rollercoaster; she asks me difficult questions about the novels and pushes me to deepen my analysis. I left the first tutorials feeling totally out of my depth and melodramatically wondering if I wasn’t fit to study literature. I had a sort of breakthrough recently, though, so my essays are getting better and I feel a lot more confident in my abilities.

For fun I have been hanging out at the college bar (yes, there’s a bar where the students live), competing with the Mock Trial team, and going to really interesting events around the university. A few weeks ago I attended a workshop with the Oxford English Society held in celebration of Virginia Woolf’s birthday where we went to the Bodleian Bibliographical Press to use the same kind of handpress and typeface that the Woolfs would have used for their first publications. I also bought a tweed jacket for fifteen pounds, which I’m thrilled about. Oxford feels like an academic’s Disneyland. There’s just SO MUCH to do all of the time!

Since this is The Words, I wanted to share some fun new British and Oxfordian words I’ve learned:

  • Rusticate: verb, to either be suspended from Oxford or take a leave of absence for welfare. It comes from the root “rustic” for country, and rusticate quite literally means “to return to the countryside.” You’ll hear students say “I’m thinking about rusticating next year,” for example.
  • Invigilator: noun, a proctor/someone who watches over exams to prevent cheating.
  • Plonker: noun, an idiotic or inept person.
  • Bugbear: noun, an annoyance or pet peeve. “The lack of sinks in the dorm rooms is a bugbear of mine.”
  • Scaf: noun, an informal self-service dinner held before the night’s formal hall.
  • Buttery: noun, the college kitchens. Originally meaning the place from which you request more butter/milk/tea when you run out, now used more generally.

Sending love,

November 21 2022

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