Wednesday, 14 May 2008

The Oxford Lecture: It's All Greek to Me

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.

Party Hearty
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.


Sarah Laurence Blog said...

I thought there was plenty of time, given that we are only halfway through the last term, but this is the last week of lectures! Tutorials and exams continue. I remember from my junior year abroad in London, that lectures were truly optional. Most of the undergraduate teaching is done in tutorial.

The only grade that counts is the one you get on your exams at the end of 3 years – I pity those students taking them now in this glorious week of sunny weather. Plus Oxford students have to wear the black academic gown, trousers/skirt and tie to sit exams. When they’re done, you may see them popping champagne and dousing each other.

Candadai Tirumalai said...

In "Brideshead Revisited," an evocation of aspects of 1920s Oxford, a senior advises the freshman to go to all the best lectures, regardless of subject. I suppose it was possible to follow them in those days--apart, that is, from the hard sciences.
A.J.P. Taylor, who was once praised by a fellow-don for delivering the most popular lectures without the aid of any notes, wryly remarked that his lecture-halls were full at the start but became less and less so as the term progressed.
Some would consider Proportional Representation and the variety of parties it leads to the bane of European politics and others its blessing.

Josh Braun said...

I had friends who used the same system as undergrads in America - only attending the most interesting lectures. Of course, most of them never graduated. But I digress.

Henry said...

oddly enough, I was once a crewman on a cargo ship, and there are a lot of similarities between life below decks and life as an Oxford don. For instance, there's the heavy drinking, the strange rituals, the prevalence of crusty old men in positions of authority, and...umm... actually I guess those are pretty much the only the similarities.

Once my tutor fell asleep while my tutorial partner read out his essay, but to be fair it was about 11.00 am so both of them were well stuck into the sherry

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