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Just keep swimming…

October 19, 2009

I just saw John Barrowman: my life is complete.

Exaggerating, of course! But to see Captain Jack Harkness in the flesh really did make my day. I noticed that he was doing a book signing at the local Border’s so I arranged to stop in just as he arrived. I didn’t stand in the massive queue so I didn’t get to shake his hand or anything, but he passed within five feet of me and that’s good enough! He was wearing a pink sweater and looked quite as good as on TV, if anyone’s interested to know.

Moving on. Today is the start of the second week of term: I have been to two tutorials and written two papers so far.

For Austen, I wrote on the issue of reading/novels/intertextuality in Northanger Abbey. It was my first real paper in five months, so getting started was a bit like pulling teeth, but I was able to come up with 8 pages of original thought/secondary criticism in the end, and I was actually pretty pleased with the result.

My tutor for Austen, Dr John Ballam, is quite mysterious. He teaches creative writing and continuing education, and a cursory google search returns an award-winning memoir on growing up in rural Appalachia, but my other tutor thought he was Canadian and he sounded British to my untrained ear the first time we met.

So far, he’s soft-spoken and funny but also completely intimidating. The first part of the tutorial we talked about my thoughts on Northanger Abbey, which was fine. Then he read my paper out loud, marking as he went, with frequent pauses for discussion or clarification.

For this I was literally shaking in my boots. I’ve never had my work read out loud before, so it was very strange to listen. I’ve also never had my work marked up right in front of me, unless it was some kind of draft, but once I was at least partially recovered from my state of utter terror I found I enjoyed it, because when he would ask me to defend an idea on the spot, and I was able to, it made a difference. For a professor back home, if you didn’t write it well enough in the first place, or if your thought was misread, you’ll be marked down with no chance to explain yourself. Which is arguably part of why my writing is serviceable today–but I still liked having the opportunity to stand up for myself.

This is only possible, I think, because here one isn’t graded on one’s paper alone. The one-on-one nature of tutorials makes it so that professors don’t have to set aside a somewhat arbitrary percentage of your grade for “participation.” You receive a single grade at the end of term which does reflect the quality of writing, certainly, but also the quality of learning–which can be demonstrated in the ability to effectively defend one’s thoughts on the material.

So. Tangent done. Austen is my secondary tutorial, so it won’t meet again this week, but next week I’ll be writing on film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice (squee!).

My primary tutorial, on Chaucer, I’m finding to be much more difficult. For one, Chaucer takes much more time to comprehend (I live and die by footnotes). For another, my tutor is also the fellow in charge of visiting students, Dr Elisabeth Dutton, whose visit to Smith last fall was three-quarters of the reason I applied to Worcester in the first place. Of course I’m overjoyed to have her, just also overwhelmed. She’s a super-lovely, super-smart Superwoman of a tutor, so I get all stuck when I try to write for her just because I’m so anxious to impress.

Finally, I’m also finding it difficult because we started off with Troilus and Criseyde, which is not known for being Chaucer’s most accessible text. Last week, I wrote a close-reading on a very specific section of lines in Book I. This week, I am tasked with addressing the question “Is Troilus and Criseyde the first novel in English?”

I don’t know. Period. How would I know? I barely know what the other candidates would be–therefore I’m not going to talk about them. I’m going to talk about whether or not it has the characteristics of a novel, namely: plot arc, conflict, character development, resolution. Ignore the fact that it’s written in rhyme royale.

Now I just have to decide which way I’m going to argue, yes or no. Does Troilus and Criseyde adequately fulfill the characteristics of a novel, as I (and hopefully some easily-found literary critic) have defined them? I’m leaning towards “yes.”

Good thing I have until Wednesday.

Other aspects of life in Oxford so far…

I’ve locked myself out of my own room, twice.

My toilet has broken, and been repaired.

My fridge smells awful even though I cleaned it with something called “fridge cleaner.”

I’ve been out to pubs! I recommend the still cider, although sparkling is good too.

One of the porters knows me by name. I’m going to call that one a positive and leave it at that.

I’ve been to formal hall and chapel service, both of which are pretty unique to Oxford. Formal hall is pretty much like Harry Potter except the candles don’t float, the food “magically” appears from servers, and it’s bring your own wine.

I went to the Eagle and Child, also known as the Bird and Baby, a pub that was the haunt of Tolkein and C.S. Lewis, among others.

Food is devastatingly expensive. I’ve marked out a £50/week budget (£40 food, £10 alcohol, £0 books, clothes, fun) and it is shoestring. Ah, the life of a student.

On the plus side, student discounts are everywhere, and the college bar is taxpayer-subsidized!

In other news, I turned 21 last week. I spent my birthday morning and afternoon writing what I was sure was the worst Chaucer paper ever written (thankfully Dr Dutton didn’t agree, but I didn’t find that out until the next morning). That evening I went out with Dianne from Smith to a little pub called the Gardiner’s Arms in Jericho, a trendy neighborhood near where I live, which was lovely.

Meeting people is a slow process but coming along. I find I have a lot of time to Think, which I prevent by watching British television. (Including the new “Emma” series and the slightly older “Lost in Austen,” so it’s basically homework.)

I had wanted to do a picture-post of some of the sights to see around Oxford, but I haven’t taken the pictures yet and today is rather gray, so it will have to wait.

Wish me luck on Troilus–suggestions in the comments are appreciated!


5 Comments leave one →
  1. Grandma Jeanne permalink
    October 20, 2009 11:58 am

    Congratulations on coming of age!!! I meant to email you, but forgot until two days late. Oh, well I DID remember early(is that possible?) Have to say I’m very impressed with your writing style AND your erudition. It seems that now that you are a continent away I may get to know you.!!Keep it up,you”re amazing. Luv , me

  2. October 21, 2009 3:40 am

    Sarah – absolutely a lucky find to stumbled upon your Oxford adventure! Thanks for sharing.

    What a happy thought indeed to HAVE to write a paper on the P&P adaptations. Now, that is actually something that I could contribute to. Chaucer – well, NO. Muddled through it long ago and unfortunately did not have the advantage of a tutor like yours. Just a bored English Lit prof who had obvisously taught the class too many times and was sleep walking.

    I remember my 21st also. A senior in college in California and on a class field trip to fruit growers and wineries. Bought my first legal bottle of wine! Later went to a Pablo Cruz concert on campus. That will date me, but it is still a very happy memory. Your memory of coming of age while at Oxford is much more exotic and a great story for your grandchildren!

    Will check in from time-to-time to see how you are progressing. Best of luck.

    Cheers, Laurel Ann

  3. Caroline permalink
    October 22, 2009 9:51 pm

    ah your classes sound so intense! glad you’re enjoying them 🙂

    also, happy (late) birthday!


  4. diane permalink
    November 4, 2009 10:27 pm

    way to go, Sarah. So great to hear your “voice” the unmistakable sparkle of humor, wit, curiosity….sounds like you’re having a great time, thanks for letting us “in” on the journey.

  5. Peter permalink
    November 18, 2009 2:32 am


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