Learning in and from the Oxford colleges

Oxford is organized into colleges where, undergraduate education largely takes place. They have tutors who assign projects and meet individually or in small groups with students. Officially, students apply to colleges, not to the University of Oxford. University of Cambridge is the same way. The research departments are separate. Their professors, postdocs, and grad students may affiliate with a college, but it is not always automatic. The colleges vary in traditions, location, wealth, and sometimes primary discipline. We hear of the Scottish college, or the social science college. Some academics refuse to affiliate, eschewing all the old class system colleges stand for to some.

Other universities in the UK do not follow this pattern. I suppose these colleges, along with very few universities elsewhere in the world, represent what is most elite about education. They offer something that the best online course will never offer in their stamp of excellence.

We are not spending 10 days in Oxford because of these colleges. We are here because of another kind of excellence. Perhaps nowhere in the world has such a concentration of careful thinkers and experimenters on social evolution, particularly of the microbial kind. We hope to learn a lot.

Our view out our Pembroke College window

But in the meantime, we needed a place to stay. We could not barge in on the tiny private dwellings our colleagues call home. We could have found a hotel, or even a bed and breakfast. We might have couch-surfed, but it turned out we did not have to. Our incredibly generous friends are putting us up in their colleges. It turns out that visitors can only stay three nights in any one college, so we needed four colleges, from three friends. They are, in order of our nights, Pembroke, St. John’s, New, and Magdalen. It is a unique tour of the edge of Oxford college life. It is lucky we packed light and on wheels!

We began at Pembroke, right opposite Christ Church of Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter fame. Pembroke was J. R. R. Tolkein‘s college. I like Pembroke a lot. Its improbably green interior lawns had American high school students sprawled on them, jubilantly celebrating their first summer away from home. Sometimes they dashed from chapel, an indication that there was something they were taking seriously. Their angular accents carried up to our room, SJ3, in the Samuel Johnson building, the same room we had a couple of years ago when we were here for talks.

It is a large room, with both a desk and a small round table, so work was easy. It looks out on a back courtyard and on the edge of a wall where I missed getting a photo of a rook. It has a small refrigerator stocked with bread, butter, jam, and milk, and a teapot. It is on the first floor, second floor for Americans. Pembroke is opposite a church. Its closest food trucks are the pizza truck right outside Christ Church, and the falafel truck by the church.

Part of St. John’s from its huge private gardens.

Now we are in St. John’s, one of the richer colleges. It goes on for a long ways in a very central location. We have a long narrow room with four windows looking out on an inner green that does not allow itself to be stepped upon. Both a rook and a magpie looked over at us from the roof across the courtyard. We have an adjoining coffee room and a roof patio and garden, overlooking St. John’s huge back gardens. St. John’s also has its own pub, the Lamb and Flag, where Thomas Hardy apparently wrote Jude the Obscure. The pub’s profits benefit grad students, so we should stop in for some soft British ale. We are very close to the church bell in St. John’s. It goes off every hour, all night long.

Oxford, according to Wikipedia, is the second oldest university. I’m guessing the oldest is Bologna, in Italy, and so it is, from 1088. Oxford goes back to 1096, thirty years after French William the Conqueror took England in 1066. Town-gown disputes caused some to leave Oxford and establish Cambridge in 1209, quite awhile ago. You can wander around Wikipedia to learn about the concept of the university, how we all generally follow a model that was initially German, and what a challenge universities were for women until very recently.

We are in the college, but we are not of the college. We do not know where the library is, that we might sit at a desk and work, though we did find a kind of living room in this building. Also, there are plenty of coffee houses for that, including The Missing Bean, with excellent coffee. We are enjoying St. John’s and looking forward to New and Magdalen before we fly off to Spain for Dictyostelium meetings.

A magpie at St. John’s!

In some ways, Oxford reminds me of Harvard Square, or of Toledo (the one in Spain). This is because of the disconnect between inner life and external life. Outside at at the first two are tourists, street artists, shops selling cheap jewelry, maps, books, or clothes. Restaurants, pubs, wine bars, and coffee houses are full, with people talking, relaxing, or planning. The inner life is behind the academic walls, more private at Oxford than at Harvard, but green at both. Harvard has more trees. The other inner life is spent alone, thinking, reading, writing, and puzzling out important new ideas in places daunting becauase of all the others that did just this in centuries past.

Why add Toledo to the list? Because the outside there is such a small part of what they have. You can walk and walk past unbroken walls, knowing there must be lush courtyards on the other side. In Toledo, many of these green jewels are owned by the Catholic Church. I never got in to any, but caught glimpses walking past rare doors. Today the relationship of religion and scholarship is hard to understand, very different from the days when church manuscripts represented knowledge. But that is for another to write about. For now, we’ll enjoy both sides of the Oxford walls.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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