CU Abroad: Hannah MacLean

Stories and reflections from across the pond.

Tip of the day: Slow down and eat a popsicle.


It’s the Fourth of July. It reminds me that I’m home. My mother is upstairs making food for a picnic and fireworks later, I don’t have to go to work because it’s a holiday, people are (for the most part) posting statuses all over Facebook about how great it is to be American.

And despite the country’s flaws, it is. I have been here just over two weeks and I have settled in pretty well. I don’t have to walk everywhere anymore, and I haven’t had any problems driving on the right side of the road. I know that you always tip 20% (and the waiters always come to check to make sure your food is okay), I know to bus my own stuff in cafes, and I know that it’s not weird to hug most people I know almost every time I see them. In fact, my hug deficiency is growing less every day. I have been cooking for myself–and I am even using flavorful ingredients (including salt!). I have not touched a potato since I have been home (that will change, I am sure). My freezer is well-stocked with my favorite popsicles.

There are little moments when I realize I am back here. When I went out to eat lunch with my coworkers yesterday, my boss threw a fit when the buffet we went to added a gratuity to the tip. The group has been there many times and it has never happened. Honestly, she would have put down a larger tip if she hadn’t been forced to pay one. The idea that someone was forcing her to pay a tip (for very minimal service) outraged her. It was all a little silly to me, but it reminds me of the fact that oftentimes Americans can get very worked up over very small things — the British don’t. I don’t think I ever saw a Brit fly into a rage and request to see a manager over anything, let alone something that really didn’t need to be a big deal (although, it was not written on any sign or menu that such a gratuity would be added). The fact is, in America, we tip. But apparently some of us get angry when we are demanded to do something. I’m not sure the British like being told what to do either, but they certainly wouldn’t get upset over it. It’s true that customer service in America is completely different. We expect everyone to bend over backwards to make us happy if we are giving them our money. And customer service always does so, because that’s just how it goes.

I also forgot how everyone is always in a rush to get somewhere, to meet with someone, to do something. Time is perhaps a more valuable commodity than any other here. Oxford could be similar because it was filled with busy students. But here everyone is multitasking all the time because everyone has a thousand things to get done. As an intern, it can be intimidating to go check with my bosses to see if they have something for me to do because I don’t want to interrupt whatever they’re doing, even if I know that if they do have something for me, I’ll be saving them time by getting it done.

Despite the demanding nature of Americans as well as their propensity to be in a rush, I am happy to be here. I do miss running into the cats on Norham Gardens. I miss my friends, the Saturday night pub outings, my favorite cider, the open schedule (even if it was filled with work), the walk through the parks into town. I made a lot of great memories in England, and I’m happy I get to keep them. Perhaps someday I’ll go back.

But today, I get to hang around and enjoy family, friends and fireworks. And popsicles. I love popsicles.

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April Showers Bring Summer


There are two kinds of people in Oxford. The ones studying for exams, and the ones enjoying the sun which just started shining earlier this week.

Apparently this is the wettest April Oxford has seen since records started in 1910. We’ve had more than three times the amount of rain than is average for the city by some records. This doesn’t really surprise me given that I don’t recall a single day with sun in April – or the beginning of May. But all of the sudden this week, the sun has come out. And all of the sudden students (and tourists) are everywhere. It’s summer.

It’s incredibly exciting. I was slammed with a heavier than normal load my first 4 weeks here (which isn’t light to begin with), so I, like many of the students taking exams right now, was pretty much shut up in my room/the library/my favorite coffee places doing work. Every Oxford student has some weeks like that.

And actually I should say something about exams because they are kind of taking over. A man in a bright orange suit, presumably responsible for delegating tasks to volunteer Oxford city cleaning workers, was telling another brightly clad man, “I want you to go clean High Street. Students are taking exams.”
“Exams?” the man responded.
“Yes. Pretty much from here until the beginning of July, students will be taking exams in the Exam School building. Oxford is all about the students. And these are the weeks when their grades count. When they finish, they are done with their degree. And they come out and throw confetti all over the place so we have to clean it up.”

Students getting ready to take exams.

I might add that they also (apparently) spray each other with all sorts of pink goop and dump all sorts of liquids on each other. Which can be odd because they all have to wear black caps and gowns to take exams, and if they wear their black and white sub fusc (special name for the fancy outfits) incorrectly, they get fined by the university (seriously). It’s a big deal and it’s stressful. But they do get to walk/stand/dance/do cartwheels on the lawn that no one is allowed to walk on for 30 minutes after their exams are finished. It is a special privilege granted to those who are done with exams.

The exams are the only grades which count for their degree at Oxford. None of their other work is formally graded. They have some preliminary exams to see how they are doing (if they fail at the end of the first year, they get kicked out, but that rarely happens), but their degree and their marks and/or degree of honors is based on about 2 weeks when they sit for exams just about every day. Including Saturdays. I remember one kid saying he had 14 exams in 10 days (which weeks and how many exams one has depends on his/her subject). I have rarely seen any third years this term because they are all so wrapped up in revising their work and getting ready for/taking exams. Let’s just say I don’t envy them.

Enjoying my reading outside in the gardens

However, the rain was keeping pretty much everyone inside. Now those of us who aren’t taking exams are are punting, cavorting around the University Parks, picnicking outside, and otherwise trying to enjoy the weather while balancing the readings and essays we still have to do. At this point though, I keep telling myself that I only have three weeks left. In the last 2.5 terms (21 weeks of schooltime), I have completed 8 problem sheets, written 23 essays, and read I don’t know how many thousands of pages of literature. I have 4 essays left. But more importantly, I have three weeks left to enjoy the weather and the friends I’ve made here.

Students swimming in the Cherwell

I think I have spent most of my Oxford experience stressing out. But this weekend I’ve realized that I’m actually much more settled here with friends than I thought. We have bonded together mostly by empathizing with each other regarding the stress of our work. But we have also bonded together by eating countless dinners together, pubbing or cooking or (now that it’s sunny) eating dinner in a punt on the Cherwell on Saturday nights, working together in libraries and coffee shops during the days we don’t have tutorial, running errands together, and in general sharing the Oxford experience. I don’t think my study abroad experience is the same as the ones my other Cornell friends have had – I have much more work and I didn’t travel as much during the term (though I traveled as much as I could!), but I have made lifetime friendships and I have settled in. And since it took me two terms to settle in, I figure I’ll spend my last weeks here enjoying the time I have left with my friends and the beautiful weather which Oxford has so graciously decided to bestow upon us.

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Bangers and Mash, Anyone?


I walked into the kitchen and saw my neighbor standing over the pan with an egg. Not cracked. He timidly tried tapping the side of the pan with the egg. Nothing happened.

“Um. How are you doing?” I asked.

“Alright. Just trying to cook this egg,” he replied.

“Um. Well you have to crack it first.”

“I know, but it isn’t cracking.”

“Uh, well, do you need help?”

He handed over the egg. I cracked the egg and dropped the edible part in the pan, throwing away the shell. I noticed he had the stove on high heat, so I lowered the heat a little bit. I made my tea. At some point I asked him if he was going to take it off the stove because it was very done. He didn’t have a spatula. Or a plate. Not wanting him to leave the egg in the pan and burn the egg, I used a fork to scoop the egg into a clean bowl nearby. He thanked me and I left the kitchen, wondering how someone, anyone, could get through 21 years of his life without knowing how to cook (or crack!) an egg. Shortly I returned to the kitchen to get some milk for my tea.

He was still there. Trying to crack another egg. At that point I said, “Look, let me teach you how to cook an egg” (because apparently he wasn’t watching the first time).

As we were waiting for the egg to finish cooking, a girl walked in with this old 1960s-looking metal thing.

“Does anyone know how to use a can opener?” she asked.

I blinked. This had to be a joke. The kid who couldn’t cook an egg smiled and handed me the can and the can opener. In her defense, it didn’t really look like a can opener; it was so old. But I’m fairly convinced anyone who is familiar enough with regular can openers could have figured it out. I opened the can and smiled, trying not to judge. She thanked me and left. I finished showing how to teach the other kid how to cook an egg before heading back to my room with my tea.

I need to write a disclaimer: not everyone in England (or even at Oxford) can be this clueless about cooking. There are people who cook (usually foreigners though, often the Asian students). In general though, the kitchens are rarely used except on Saturdays when the dining hall is closed. Usually when I see my hallmates cooking though, it’s frozen food that they warm up. I think the frozen food thing is a college thing. But even when my friends and I eat in pubs here, the food is quite bland. The typical meal features some kind of meat (often sausage), some kind of potato (fries, aka chips, or a baked potato, or mashed, or roasted) and maybe some other veggies sometimes. As a vegetarian, it can be tiring to find things to eat, let alone variety; there are very limited options for vegetarians here.

It is a weird phenomenon that I can’t really say I understand. I find it curious that they don’t really care about flavor (I find myself putting salt on everything, something I never did in the USA), or wishing things were cooked with spices or some other flavoring. In general, the food isn’t bad, per se—just really bland. After a few weeks, it gets boring. The weird thing is that at home, I never had the urge to cook; in fact, I hated it. At this point, I’m wishing I had more resources and easier access to groceries so I could cook here. I thought I was a hopeless cook. But after helping my peers with eggs and can openers, I don’t feel that hopeless.  In fact, I’m looking forward to being able to eat more variety and more flavorful things when I get back. Until then, I’ll try to embrace the ‘simple’ cuisine of the British. Except for this weekend. This weekend I get to hang out in Venice with a few friends and eat all kinds of delicious foods (trust me, I’ll be enjoying every minute of it).

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If I had one piece of advice to give


I don’t know that I’ve ever been so grateful to be back in a place where everyone is going to be stressed all term (exams are this term; I’m sure I will write about them at a later date). Not that being stressed out is my favorite thing, but I’m finally settling back in after a very long break. After visiting Sicily and Germany, I met up with a friend in Edinburgh and then traveled to Ireland for about 8 days. The longest I was in any one hotel/dorm/flat/house/hostel for the entire time I’ve been away from Oxford has been 3 nights — and most nights I only stayed a night or two. It was incredible, and it was also exhausting.

That said, I think if I had one piece of advice to those of my readers who are planning to go abroad, Oxford or elsewhere, it would be to travel. There’s just nothing that really compares to it. Every day something new, every day new people, sometimes new languages, always new adventures. I visited more towns than I care to count at the moment, but it was the little moments in those places that I will remember. You never know what’s going to stick out to you. I think mostly I just enjoy meeting new people. I guess I can’t tell you exactly why you should travel; everyone has different reasons for doing it. But I can tell you about some of the people I met.

I met a middle-aged artist in a hostel in Galway, one who had given up alcohol and painted a representation of it, a portrait of Pegasus, which was on exhibition in a posh restaurant in town. I met a South African student who over packed way too much and was switching from pre-med to a degree in public health. I met a girl from Mexico who stayed in different countries for months at a time and earned her keep by making breakfast and cleaning toilets. I met a 8.5-month pregnant lady who had proposed to her fiance because he hadn’t proposed in the time frame she had set. I also met countless ducks, sheep, cats, horses, and cows. I met a few oddballs.

I told an Irish man that I and my friends would be visiting one of the Aran Islands (small islands belonging to Ireland) and he told me that  the people there were odd. I asked him what he meant.
“They speak Gaelic. And they’re on an island. That leaves them kind of isolated. Island people can be really weird.”
“Ireland’s an island, isn’t it?”
He paused, clearly not having thought of the irony of what he had said. I smiled and he returned it. It still seems to me that people are people everywhere.

In fact, I enjoyed my visit to the Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands. We stayed overnight so we had a little time to explore. We took a horse-buggy tour of the island, and our tourguide told us about life there. It was the most populous of the islands with about 900 year-round residents. It was the only island to have a police force, and it also had one doctor (no dentist), though no hospital. That such a place could be so small and that people spent their whole lives there was pretty amazing to me. The island had sharks at the bottom of one set of cliffs, seals in another area, and horses all over. It was very peaceful. But it made Ithaca look like a big city. I imagine that everyone probably knows nearly everyone else on the island after spending their whole lives there, and I can see why that kind of life might be appealing.

I guess that’s what traveling is about. Seeing all sorts of places you’d never live in, and therefore meeting all sorts of people you’d never otherwise meet. Perhaps along the way you find some places where you could see yourself living, and then you know something more about yourself. Travel travel travel… then you’ll have lots of stories to tell. What more could you want?

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A Big Family


I was on my first flight out of 7 during break (I still have a week before my last flight, which will take me back to Oxford), and the lady next to me took out a piece of chocolate. Clearly she was Italian. She knew I didn’t speak perfect Italian so she spoke a mixture of Italian and English.

“Vuoi? Want?” She held out her chocolate bar, bidding me to take a piece.

“No, no, grazie.” (No thanks)

“Mangia! Eat!” I smiled and took a piece, and in Italian I told her thank you, it was very good.

Soon we were talking a bit, and she was asking loads of questions about the Oxford system and how I could possibly be a dual major in America. The man sitting next to her was an Italian professor of English who had studied at Cambridge so he translated when necessary for either of us, and he told me about the Italian school system, which was entirely foreign to me. I found it interesting that she was so curious, noting how different it was from the times I had been seated next to a Brit. I asked her what she did for a living, and she told me that she was a sociologist. “Oh, so you study people,” I replied in Italian. Yes, she said, and in half English, half Italian, she explained to me that we all descended from the same parents, so we’re all one big family.

Perhaps that’s why I found myself so at home with Italians. That encounter encapsulated my ten days in Sicily in many ways. Everywhere I went, Italians were always ready to start a conversation with me, as if they had known me for years. Waiters joked with me as if I were a familiar face, telling me to take home the cats I kept feeding from the table. The owner of a B&B at which I stayed with my grandparents sat down with us to have wine and told us stories of his life; it didn’t matter that he spoke broken English and I spoke broken Italian — somehow we managed to understand each other perfectly. When I found myself sitting alone on a bench at some point, a young man sat down and started talking to me (yes, what they say about Italians being very forward is completely true). Everyone treats everyone else like friends and family (indeed, strangers will fight as if they are bickering with family as well). Oh, and the Italians are loud. It wasn’t out of the ordinary to “overhear” other people’s conversations in every place we went; in fact, it was impossible not to. For whatever reason, Italians speak as if every conversation is a dialogue on stage, to be heard by the masses.

It was quite an adjustment to travel from that kind of attitude of familiarity to Germany, where the citizens value their privacy over just about anything else. The two most defining and conspicuous traits I found most prevalent in the Germans were their tendency to keep to themselves and their way in which they follow rules like it’s their job. Most German students live in flats rather than dorms, and all students live in singles. It is the norm for the walls to be essentially soundproof, very unlike the hotels in which I stayed in Sicily or the dorms in which I’ve lived at Cornell (although the Gothics with their stone walls are somewhat similar). The Germans will watch you as you walk down the street (it’s okay to make eye-contact, unlike in England), but they generally won’t talk to you and they will leave you alone. The exception to that was the people who lived in the flat in which I was staying; they were friendly and they were happy to talk a bit, but they certainly left me (and my friend) alone unless we were in the common room.

The contrast between the Germans and the Italians was quite striking, but I found that I felt quite at home in both places. I enjoyed the friendliness of the Italians, but as an introvert, I also really appreciated the fact that the Germans respect your space. I don’t find either culture better or worse, just different. It seems to me that different cultures have different personalities, just like different people. And of course there are individuals of various propensities to be quiet, loud, private, or public in every culture. In general, Italian culture is loud and friendly, and they don’t care much about rules (I suggest to everyone not to rent a car like my grandfather did in Italy… it ended up being like bumper cars in so many places), and the Germans tend to be quiet and very wary of the rules (driving seems so much safer there, although I didn’t drive). The British tend to be private, mellow and often sarcastic. Each culture values different things.

The Italians value expression, the Germans value privacy, the British value their expression but also their right to keep to themselves. It’s kind of cool to see what different cultures value on the whole; I think what I’m learning through studying abroad is that no one is truly hard to understand out of context. People from different cultures react to different situations differently because they come from different angles. I guess it’s one of my goals to understand where different people are coming from so that I can better understand more people. After all, cliche or not, we are one big family, and we’re all kind of stuck in the world together (especially in America where people come from everywhere); we might as well try to understand each other so we can at least try to get along. And part of learning to understand each other is learning what people value, since what they value most is at the core of their being. If I could only take one thing away from my study abroad experience, if there were only one thing I could learn, that would be it: to understand people.

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The British: The Conspicuously Inconspicuous


Spending time in England with other Americans makes me feel more acclimated. I don’t find it weird that the pound notes are different sizes, nor do I find it weird that 1 or 2 pound notes are actually coins. I am fluent in British coins and often had to pick out the right ones from my parents’ hands when they were paying for things to avoid awkwardly holding up the line. I know which grass one can walk on and that on which one can’t. I know when it’s okay to run across the street and I only have to look both ways once and not four times. I understand that ‘cheers’ has nothing to do with drinking. Oh, and I know that you can’t sit down in a cafe with takeaway cups.

I have a friend with me this week who thinks it’s odd that I can distinguish many Americans in Oxford simply by their choice of sneakers (called ‘trainers’ here) for shoes or the fact that they’re walking down the street holding a water bottle. That and the fact that they stop to take pictures of everything… although that is common to all the Americans, Italians, Germans, and French people (and probably many others) who come through Oxford. I guess in general Oxford is pretty international. What I didn’t know but probably should have guessed is that London is far more international. At least two of the three people I came across in London either didn’t speak English or obviously spoke English only as a second (or perhaps third) language. I visited London a few times briefly this past term, but I spent the better half of last week there, and I’ll be going back at the end of this week. It’s busier than Oxford, but despite the fact that most people aren’t British, they all ignore you anyway. It is a peculiar thing about England that everywhere you go people pretend you don’t exist. In fact, even the dogs that people walk here ignore you when you stick your hand out — in America the dogs come up and sniff you and wag their tails as you pet them. In England the dogs walk right by, just like their owners. London isn’t much different; there are just more people speaking more languages.

The fact that people ignore you most of the time has a tendency to make you feel like you usually don’t stand out, even if you’re a tourist. And being among all the internationals also makes me feel like I don’t stand out all that much. In London, it was rarer to bump into British people than international people, even when speaking to the people working in shops. In Oxford the proportion of internationals isn’t quite so large (it probably isn’t the majority), even if it is quite sizable. I like being an international student; I like feeling like I have a good grip on two very different cultures – maybe more, given that I spent a month in Italy last summer and spent most of my free time observing Italians. In any case, I have learned to appreciate my standing as an international student. Although it does make me much more aware of the tourists, which makes me feel like being a tourist in England makes you stand out (even if they ignore you) in a place where everyone tries to be as inconspicuous as possible.

But even if I stand out a little bit (although I spend most of my time observing the ‘natives’ so that I won’t stand out so much), I enjoy being in new places and I especially enjoy learning about different types of people. From London I’ll be visiting Sicily, Germany, Scotland, and Ireland, and I think the thing for which I am most excited is the people-watching I’ll get to do in multiple countries. It will be interesting to see how the people in other cultures interact. Stay tuned – I’ll be writing about my adventures when I have moments to reflect.

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Weather Talk


Given the fact that I was expecting as much rain in England as there is in Ithaca, it has been remarkably dry while I’ve been here. Except this week. It was pouring cats and dogs today. Sunday was similar. I walked to church with a British friend, and once we got there I sat down and started ringing out the bottom of my jeans (yes, they were that soaked). I proceeded to embarrass myself.

“Too much rain. My pants are so wet,” I said innocently enough, squeezing the bottom of my pant-legs.

“Shhhhhh don’t say that,” she said and giggled. “Those are your trousers. In England, pants are your underwear.”

Oh. Oops. Um, well I guess I’m glad it happened with a friend who knew what I was talking about rather than walking into a shop and asking where the pants are.

Thankfully I knew better when I went on a ‘crew date’ with some friends tonight. A crew date is a little bit like a mixer, except not. It takes its name from an event when two crew teams from different colleges get together and have dinner to get to know each other better. It’s basically just meant to mean when two groups from two different colleges get together and meet each other.

It feels odd to be having meet-and-greet events during 8th week of our second trimester, though it didn’t at all feel odd when I was eating with everybody. Oxford is huge – there are more than three dozen colleges here (even if they are small). Lectures are huge so unless you come with someone, you’ll never sit next to the same person twice. Tutorials are too small to be able to meet many people. Schoolwork is very independent. Basically, academic life is not where you find your friends. Yes, I have a handful of other philosopher friends and we drink warm drinks and do work together (silently… on different topics). But by and large, friends are made in student-friendly restaurants and pubs at events like these.

Tonight I noticed that the British propensity to talk about the weather extends to getting-to-know-you conversations. Not that I’m surprised. I am still amused at the fact that I’ve basically never had a conversation with a British person without weather coming up at least once. I still don’t understand why this happens. Raining, sunny, cold, warm, overcast, snowing, drizzling…

In America, weather might be a conversation starter. In Ithaca, people complain about weather all the time. That makes sense when your umbrella goes inside-out and/or it’s raining sideways and you arrive to class looking like you jumped into a pool with your clothes on. Or when it is foggy, hails, rains, snows, and then is sunny all in the same day. In England, if you have a 3 minute conversation with a good friend you haven’t seen in a week, you will spend at least some of it talking about weather. I heard my friend talking to her mom after she hadn’t talked to her in 2 weeks. They only talked for 5 minutes, and yes, they talked about the weather for part of it.

I haven’t figured out this phenomenon yet. I would say it has something to do with the fact that the British people don’t like to get too personal with strangers or wear their thoughts on their sleeves. But they do it with close friends and family members. Maybe it builds solidarity the way it does in Ithaca. But the weather in Oxford has actually been much nicer than typical Ithaca weather.

Maybe, just maybe — it’s just a quirk of the British.

In case anyone’s wondering, the weather is currently very nice in Oxford; the sky is clear following today’s downpour, though it’s still kind of chilly.

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The Beginning of the End


It’s the middle of 6th week. That means I’m just about 3/4 done with my second term here. That means I’m more than half finished with my time at Oxford. What a weird thought. Granted, there hasn’t been much time for thinking about such things.

I’m not sure that being past the half point makes too much of a difference in terms of the work I’ll be doing. It does mean that many people are starting to freak out about finals (the real ones which actually count here). I am noticing that my hall, while still quite loud some nights after coming home from various ‘activities’, is starting to be noticably quieter during the day. No one is freaking out yet. But I am beginning to see the effects of looming finals. Each course is a little bit different; some actually have their finals at the beginning of next term rather than at the end (which means they have a rather nice last term), although most of those who are in their last year will have finals at the end of Trinity term.

I, on the other hand, am doing my best to remember that the work here doesn’t count for each hand-in the way it does at Cornell. I’m still not very good at it. But I do find that I am learning to skim (or skip) the parts of secondary literature that I don’t need to read because either 1) I already know it, 2) it’s repetition, or 3) it isn’t important to the paper I’m going to write for the week. And yet somehow I still spend hours and hours reading and writing. I still haven’t adopted the attitude that it’s okay to give less than your best on any particular essay, but I think I’m getting to a point where I can stop stressing out quite as much.

Part of the reason is probably a conversation I had with one of my tutors a little bit ago when I turned in a paper. This tutor is the only one I’ve had so far who doesn’t read (or make me read aloud) my paper before or during tutorial. We discuss the material, then I hand in the paper I wrote for that week, and then she gives it back with comments for next time. The result is that, by the end of tutorial, I feel like my essay missed everything I was supposed to catch, because she’ll ask me all sorts of questions about the work for the week, often including questions not in the prompt and about things I have no idea how  I could have known before tutorial. Which is a little bit discouraging because I spend so much time doing so much reading before I write any paper.

Anyway, so I turned in my paper and said, “I feel like tutorial just made me realize that I didn’t know anything at all when I wrote that paper.”
“Don’t worry about it. You’re not supposed to get everything in the paper. That’s what tutorial is for.”
“But I feel like I missed so much!”
She repeated, “You’re not supposed to know everything — we don’t expect you to. If you did, we wouldn’t need tutorial.”

Here, you prepare on your own, you read, you research, you write. And only then do you figure out what it all means and make sense of it — when you have a tutor who questions you about all of it and corrects your thinking if it is incorrect. The paper is just a way to show that you did the prep work. In the States, it’s the opposite. You do prep work in class. Professors tell you what you need to know, ad they make sense of most things for you. Here, you’re forced to try to make sense of it first, and then you’re corrected. At home, you’re graded on how well you know the material as it’s been presented to you. Here, you don’t get marks on papers, but you’re graded (in the end) mostly on how hard you work to understand the material on your own, and you’re not expected to get it all. Of course the professors at home expect you to understand things; they teach before you write the paper. Here you learn all you can on your own, write the paper and that becomes the jumping off point for the real understanding.

I think it’s probably more difficult this way, but at least no one expects you to know everything. It certainly involves a lot more preparation for ‘class’, but as long as you’ve done the work, the tutors are there to fill in the rest of what you need to know.  Knowing that I can give my all for each paper without ultimately having to know everything is a good place to be for the second half of my Oxford experience. Now I’ll just have to work on reminding myself of that each time I find myself getting worked up about how much I don’t know every time I walk into tutorial.

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I never thought I’d see the day someone skipped a tutorial. Well, it’s 4th week, and one of the three girls in my primary tutorial has skipped not once, not twice, but three times. And she’s the one out of the three of us who has to take an exam at the end of this year, since this is apparently a third year course and she is a British student. Granted, the tutor said she was ill one of the weeks, maybe two… but apparently she e-mailed him this week to say she was definitely coming, and then she missed tutorial anyway.

I understand skipping lecture. Everyone skips lectures. Lectures aren’t mandatory. But tutorials? One cannot inconspicuously miss a tutorial–not when the main goal of tutorial is to defend your work to a tutor.

I also never thought I’d see the day when someone here showed up  to tutorial without a paper. Last week, right as I was arriving to my secondary, 1-on-1 tutorial, another student was leaving. The tutor asked him for his essay.

“Well, um, I was unaware it was required that we submit an essay every week, so I didn’t write one this week.”
“Wait. You didn’t really do an essay this week, or you really didn’t do an essay?” The tutor responded.

He didn’t have an essay. He left, and she told him he’d regret not having one when time for exams came around. The first five minutes of my tutorial was then taken up by her ranting that if there’s no essay, there’s no tutorial, and how the university technically mandates that tutors can’t require more than 6 essays per term because students are “busy” but that this is coddling students, etc. She was quite unhappy. And I was pretty surprised. I guess I just don’t understand how someone could show up to a 1-on-1 and not have an essay.

I suppose this is somewhat related to the last post in that it has to do with how the students here see their work. Tutorial is important. But in the end, your only real grade is your final exam. So what’s it matter if you miss an essay here or there?

All in all, this doesn’t happen often. From what I’ve seen, pretty much everyone does their work, and I’ve never heard of any other cases of this kind of thing happening. But it certainly is interesting… of course Oxford students are “busy”. I’m busy because I’m reading all day and then writing papers until wee hours of the morning. In fact, most people are out working in the libraries for most of the day.

But when there are no marks, and (apparently) no penalty for missing assignments, how do they keep students here on track? Something like this would never work in the States. Students in the States do their work because it counts towards their grade and it shows up on a transcript. The students here are working toward exams, and the third years I know are beginning to show some sign of strain, but it’s not close enough to June yet for them to be really worried.

Like I said before, essays don’t really count here, although they do matter, and they require a lot of work. For people like me who must do everything always to their absolute best ability, multiple essays per week are difficult. But on the other hand, it’s apparently pretty easy to be lazy here. Everything is independent at Oxford. It makes it even more obvious to me than it has always been that education really is what you make of it. At Oxford, no one is going to tell you what to make of it, either. In some ways it’s easier, and some ways it’s more difficult. Ultimately though I don’t this very independent system is better or worse. Just… different.

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Gross Domestic Point Average


I distinctly remember that time last term when I was freaking out about one of my papers and I didn’t know how I would get it done. One of my British friends told me that I needed to practice not giving a — (I guess the British use that phrase too). I told her I was bad at that. So she said, “But it doesn’t even matter for you – it doesn’t go into your GDP, right?”

Umm right. I guess it doesn’t. It also doesn’t get factored into my GPA, which is what she meant. I had had a conversation about the American system, and apparently that’s what she remembered. The British have no equivalent to the GPA system. They have no grades. The idea of getting any kind of numerical feedback during the term is foreign to them. Even the idea of getting a grade at the end of term is weird to them.

This week is another week like the one in which I had that conversation, except that this time I’m more acutely aware that the students here don’t really freak out about getting their work done. I have a better understanding of what she meant. The students here do have terms like “essay crisis” for when an essay is due in a very short amount of time and it isn’t finished yet, so they do apparently get stressed out from time to time. But because their work during the term doesn’t count for anything, they don’t worry about it all that much. Sure, they get it done. Yes, they worry about tests. But they only have one test that counts in their entire ‘uni’ career — the test at the end of their third year which counts for everything else. Any other tests they take (like Collections at the beginning of each term) are just practices for that final exam, and they don’t count for anything at all (except, if you do exceedingly well you get a “distinction” and if you do really badly, which most people do, your tutor might get irritated with you). But they don’t worry about their weekly work. And from what I understand, no one is really aiming for Firsts, and especially not the way people at Cornell aim for A’s. They want to do well, but there is no pressure to get a 100.

On the other hand, I’m so much more used to the system in which every essay or test is between a fourth and a half of your grade, and each assignment is sufficient cause to get considerably stressed out, especially if you have more than one major assignment due or test in a week. The amount of work I do here, and the way my schedule is free — it’s like having a Cornell finals week every week here at Oxford, and yet I have no finals at Oxford. The amount of work I have to get done each week makes me feel like it’s finals time. And yet, it doesn’t really count. I don’t even get marks back on my essays; I only get comments. I have no idea how I score until the last week of term.

So I guess that means I should stop worrying about each individual essay. I should stop treating each essay like my whole grade depends on it. After all, my GDP will not in any way be affected. Nor will my GPA. This is probably a very good thing. At least in this case, it probably wouldn’t hurt to adopt a bit more of the British attitude toward schoolwork.

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Class Blog: Voices from Cornell Abroad

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