Oxford University has no classes. Note that I didn't say that Oxford has no class. It has class out the ying-yang. (Is it declasse to say "ying-yang"?) But for the most part students don't do as I did many years ago at the University of Maryland: Follow a set curriculum that forces their butts into desks at certain times on Tuesdays and Thursdays, or Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Instead, Oxford undergrads have tutorials. Every week they're given a list of books to read and lectures they might want to attend. And every week they meet their tutor (solo, or with another student) to go over the paper they were required to write. The lecture, or seminar, is the lifeblood of Oxford and I've been to plenty over the last few months. What I find interesting is how confrontational they're supposed to be. Not confrontational in the sense of shouted threats, flying fists and the sweaty grapplings of post-doctoral fellows, but intellectually confrontational. Every lecture, it seems, is a thesis defense.
I went to one yesterday afternoon at the European Studies Center. The Reuters Institute's Antonis Ellinas (PhD from Princeton; Fulbright scholar; expert on European nationalist politics) was giving a lecture on Greek politics and the media, specifically on an emergent far right party there. I now know 3,000 percent more about Greek politics than I did before, including about the anti-semitic, anti-immigrant LAOS party. After Antonis delivered his 30-minute lecture--sketching the Greek political system, outlining the rise and fall of earlier nationalist groups, taking us through exit-polling data--it was time for questions.
It's traditional for the chair of the lecture--the person from the department who sort of commissioned it--to ask the first question, and that's what Othon Anastasakis did. He had four or five questions, in fact, but he saved the killer one for last: Given the strong conservative sentiment in Greece was it correct to characterize LAOS as a far-right party at all?
Anastasakis had basically just introduced the possibility that the central tenet of Antonis's argument--the very foundation upon which it stood--was flawed, was non-existent, in fact. I imagined what I would do if my life's work was questioned. I saw myself leaping from my chair, running into the street, flagging down a taxi, heading to Southampton and signing on as a crewman on a cargo ship.
Antonis acquitted himself just fine, and I'm not really interested in that question or that answer. What fascinated me was how mannered the debate that followed was. And how illuminating. At these Oxford seminars the lecturer delivers something that is picked at, pulled apart, poked and prodded. The idea isn't (usually) to score points or to refute. It's to explore. By communally navigating the distance between the lecture and the questions, the lecturer and the audience reveal hidden features of the landscape.
I was also struck by how easy students of American political science have it. They only have to master the machinations of two major parties: Democratic and Republican. Antonis and others who study European politics have to keep tabs on dozens of political parties, groups that rise, prosper and die like so many mayflies. It's like following professional baseball, plus all the farm teams.