Hilary Term in Review

Once again, we have reached the end of term here in Oxford.  Hilary term has been an adventure, to say the least, full of new friends, hard work, and making memories.  This term St. Catherine’s had our college Ball, something that only occurs once every three years.  It was an amazing night full of good food, ample drinks, and wonderful music.  This term also saw the inauguration of Stephen Fry as the visiting professor of contemporary theatre here at St. Catz, including the obligatory welcome lecture which was both hilarious and thought-provoking (and I was within 3 feet of him as he walked by!).  With the Christ Church College Choir, I was fortunate to have the amazing opportunity to sing in the beautiful chapel of Windsor Castle, surrounded by the tombs of deceased British Monarchs.  Of course, Hilary term was as educational as always and I’ve learned a lot, both about my field and about myself.

Over the past two months, I have been taking Egyptology, Assyriology, and Theology.  All of these have been fascinating and exciting.  In Egyptology, I’ve learned about ancient Egyptian myths and religious beliefs, while in Assyriology I’ve focused on key moments in history, such as the fall of Babylon to the Persians and the disappearance of cuneiform writing (which were about 600 years apart).  My Theology tutorials have taken me on a whirlwind tour through the New Testament, spanning from the Gospel According to Mark to the Revelation to John.  I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the complexity and depth of the Holy Bible, and for history in general.  One thing that my tutors remind me again and again is the importance of stepping out of my own cultural conditionings to try to view the past in the eyes of those who lived there.  I never cease to be surprised by what such practice reveals.  There are both amazing continuities over the millennia (such as ancient Egyptian letters from husbands to their deceased wives protesting that despite the accusations, they did not sleep with the maid), and substantial discontinuities (such as a myriad of Egyptian creation myths, some of which appear to be impossibly divergent and contradictory to modern eyes, which are all accepted, incorporated, and given equal weight).  Studying the ancient past offers glimpses of both how humanity is fundamentally the same across time and space, but also how much of what we perceive as ‘obvious’ or ‘common sense’ is actually the product of millennia of culturally specific developments that may not be universally true.

In addition to all I’ve learned about the ancient Near East this term, I’ve also learned a lot about myself.  Perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned quite a bit about my own limits.  I’ve seen 4am this term whilst working on essays more times than I would care to admit.  It comes down to a matter of my poor time-management.  I have finally come to terms with just how much I procrastinate instead of doing my work in a timely manner.  Although I can handle the occasional all-nighter to pull off a last-minute essay, this term has shown me that doing so too regularly wreaks havoc on my physical and mental well-being.  It’s a lesson that has been a long time coming, since I know I’ve always procrastinated on my work for as long as I can remember; I’ve just finally found a place where doing so simply isn’t practical anymore.  I’ve already taken a few steps towards better time management (though taking Candy Crush off my phone took a surprising amount of mental fortitude), and it will be my goal for my final term here in Oxford to establish the better work-life balance that I will need to make my hopes for long-term pursuits in the study of the ancient Near East possible.

Overall, I think Hilary term has been quite successful.  I’m having fun, learning lots, and making many new friends.  The past 8 weeks have been without a doubt the most academically rigorous weeks of my life, and I foresee the trend continuing into Trinity term.  But for now, as Hilary draws to a close and my friends and I say our goodbyes for the Easter vacation, I am looking forward to a month of relaxation, travel, and adventure throughout the UK (all of which I will continue to blog about, of course!).

What I Study, and Why

As a college student, I find the question that I most often get asked is “what do you study?”  My answer—Near Eastern Studies—almost invariably provokes the same response:  “Oh…” (stares off into space with a perplexed look for a moment)  “That’s really neat!  What is that?”  After I do my best to explain, I usually encounter the follow-up question, “but what do you DO with that?” or my personal favorite:  “but… but WHY?”  This post is my attempt to answer all these questions.

First and foremost, I should differentiate between what I study at Cornell and what I’ve been studying so far at Oxford.  At Cornell, my major is called “Near Eastern Studies”.  This encompasses the history, literature, and cultures of the Middle East from the beginning of human history to the present day.  At Oxford, I have been taking courses from the Egyptology (Ancient Egypt), Assyriology (Ancient Mesopotamia), and Theology (particularly early Christianity) departments.  In my studies, both at Cornell and at Oxford, I have mostly focused on the history of Iran and on the civilizations of the pre-Islamic Near East.

I should note that there is often a lot of confusion regarding the terms “Near East” and “Middle East”.  The Near East, with some slight geographic differences, basically refers to the Middle East before the start of Islam in approximately 620AD (although some departments, like Cornell, do not make a distinction between the two terms).

What I study is fairly straight-forward.  Why I study it is a little more convoluted.  For as long as I can remember, I have always been fascinated by ancient cultures.  My room is littered with books of history and myths.  I think this fascination is also what lies behind my love of fantasy novels, because most of them are set in medieval periods or earlier.  One of my favorite computer games growing up was Age of Mythology, in which you could either play as the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Norse, or the Atlanteans.  One of the reasons I loved the game so much (and still do) is that you could click on a unit and learn the history and myths behind it.  Overall, I just loved learning about how societies behaved and functioned before modern conveniences, and how different civilizations arose before collapsing or evolving into something new.

When I first arrived at Cornell, I was determined to study something ‘practical’, so I avoided classes on ancient civilizations in favor of exploring more modern-oriented fields such as psychology, government, and economics.  I even dabbled a little in computer programming.  As my foreign language requirement, I opted to take modern Persian (after being talked into it by an Arabic professor), since I figured that a Middle Eastern language would probably have the best career prospects aside from Mandarin.  This is where my love for the ancient Near East really began.  Until my freshman year of college, I mostly read about the ancient Greeks and Romans, medieval castles, and Old Norse myths.  In my Persian class, however, the professor exposed us to all sorts interesting history from ancient Iran and Mesopotamia.  Noting my interest, my professor suggested that I take his History of Iran course the following term, because he thought I would love it.  He was right.  From the very first lecture on the Achaemenid Persian Empire, I was hooked.  I decided I would study the Middle East.

My decision to focus on the ancient Near East did not occur until my studies here in Oxford.  When I was applying, I discovered that Oxford University does not have an all-encompassing ‘Near Eastern Studies’ program.  Rather, the Oriental Studies department is split into various modern languages—Arabic Studies, Persian Studies, Turkish Studies, and Hebrew Studies—as well as encompassing Egyptology and Assyriology.  At that point, I decided I would give Egyptology and Assyriology a go and try them out for a term.  After all, I loved a course I had taken the previous semester on the myth and religion of Mesopotamia, so why not?  As the term went on and I learned more about ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt (and ancient Israel through my course on Old Testament Texts), I’ve learned that this is where I belong.  I still wake up every morning excited to go to lecture, and I love all of the topics that I have to research for my papers, to the point that I get so distracted by some of the reading assignments that I end up checking the books out to finish reading them for fun.  I’ve had other courses that I’ve been excited about, of course, but none that have been able to hold me in utter fascination for months on end, as Egyptology and Assyriology have managed to do.

Those are the ‘what’ and the ‘why’; the answer to what I will do with my degree remains to be seen.  There is no doubt in my mind that I will apply to grad school to get an advanced degree in my studies; if I want to have any hope of a career in this field, I need at least a Masters, if not a PhD.  At this point, I have a decision to make.  Most, if not all, grad programs require that I choose either modern Middle Eastern or ancient Near Eastern studies.  Although studying the modern Middle East would offer more jobs, especially in government or corporate work, the ancient Near East is where my passions lie.  There are actually more jobs in this field than first meet the eye.  Although the typical career path would be to work for a university, there are also many museums and private collections looking for curators who understand ancient Near Eastern artifacts and texts, and there are literally tens of thousands of extant texts that have yet to be properly catalogued and published.  Far from being a dying field, the study of the ancient Near East is still in its infancy (or at most, its preteens).  There is still an unfathomable amount left to be discovered, both buried in museum and university archives, and lying beneath the shifting sands of the Middle East.  Just the thought of it is enough make me feel like a little kid, excited to go on a treasure hunt.

The Collegiate System

The most striking difference between Oxford University and the majority of American—and British—universities, after tutorials, is the collegiate system.  Students who apply to Oxford University are admitted to one of its 38 colleges and 6 permanent private halls, which are spread throughout the city of Oxford.  Permanent private halls operate roughly the same as the colleges, except that they have a specific religious affiliation.  The colleges and halls are independent entities, rather like states in the US, with the university being the ‘federal government’ that oversees them.  The colleges are all relatively small, the largest being St. Catherine’s College (my college!) with about 800 graduate and undergraduate students.  Many of the colleges are significant smaller, with some halls having fewer than 100 students.  The small size encourages a strong sense of community, as well as strong inter-collegiate rivalries.

The age of the colleges varies from those founded in the 13th century (University, Merton, and Balliol Colleges) to newcomers like St. Catherine’s in 1963 and Green Templeton in 2008 (from a merger of Green and Templeton Colleges).  Due to the immense age of the university, the architecture of Oxford spans the centuries from medieval to gothic to modern, and everything in between.  The character of each college also varies widely.  Each one has something that it is famous for and that it prides itself on.  Christ Church has its beautiful cathedral and meadow, Worcester (pronounced “Wooster”) has its brightly colored chapel and its orchard, St. Catherine’s has its open, modern architecture and very friendly atmosphere, and so on.  Every Oxford college is unique.

Despite their differences, the colleges all share the same basic structure and function.  Each college accepts students for almost any course of study; although some rarer subjects are only found in the larger colleges.  Each college also houses its students, provides a dining hall, laundry facilities, a gym, and pretty much everything you would expect a college to have.  Every college has a library, and most also have a chapel, some of which, such as Christ Church Cathedral, are truly spectacular.  The colleges also tend to have the cheapest bars in town, as well as lounges (called Junior, Middle, and Senior Common Rooms for the undergraduates, grad students, and faculty respectively).  The Common Rooms are also the names for the student government of each college.

Although much of student life is centered in college, much of a student’s academic life is often found outside of it.  Every academic department has its own center located somewhere in the city, and most departments either have or share a library.  Additionally, all tutors are affiliated with a college, and will generally hold their tutorials in their respective college or department headquarters.  Lectures are held all throughout the university, some in departmental offices, some in libraries, some in colleges, and some in the university’s Examination Schools (where the end of the year exams are held, hence the name).  Many clubs and societies are also university-wide, with their meetings held anywhere that is most convenient for the majority of their members.  As a result, students find themselves travelling all over the beautiful city of Oxford during their three years at university, surrounded by the “dreaming spires”.

Tutorials

Oxford University is renowned, not just for the high quality of its education, but also that it remains one the very few universities in the world that operates using the tutorial system.  Rather than the typical required lectures and seminars of most universities, especially in America, in which students attend several hours of lecture every day and perhaps take part in seminar classes of ten to twenty or so students, an Oxford education centers around regular one-on-one tutorials with their professors.  For their tutorials, students prepare an essay, typically around 2,500 words, about a topic which they have been given, along with an extensive reading list.  In the tutorial, the student presents their paper to their professor, known as their tutor; although some professors simply request a copy beforehand to critique, many still stand by the tradition of making their students read their essays aloud during the tutorial.  The tutor then critiques the essay and discusses information pertinent to the topic.  Most tutorials last about one hour, and take place either weekly or fortnightly.

The typical Oxford student, depending on his or her course of study, will have two or three tutorials a term.  St. Catherine’s College typically makes its visiting students (what they call their study abroad students) take two tutorials every term, one meeting weekly and one meeting fortnightly.  Therefore, over each of the three eight week terms, students will generally write twelve essays, or roughly 30,000 words.  In addition, most tutors will recommend lectures for students to sit in on that may pertain to the subject of their tutorial.

For Michaelmas term (the name of Oxford’s fall term), I am taking a weekly tutorial on ancient Mesopotamia and a fortnightly tutorial on select Old Testament texts.  In addition, my tutors asked me to sit in on a twice-weekly lecture on the ancient Near East and a weekly lecture on the Old Testament.  Often, the lectures will not directly reflect the material covered in the reading lists and essays for the tutorials.  Rather, lectures offer an overview of the subject, while the student works with his or her tutor to determine specific topics of interest to delve into further.  The result is an education that is broad in scope and substantial in depth, as well as personalized to a degree that is elsewhere generally only found at the graduate level.  It is well worth the sheer terror that comes with reading your essay aloud to your professor.