Studying at Blackfriars in Oxford, England, has been the most unique academic experience of my life. It also has been one of the most intense. While professors lecture very well on their subjects of interest, the Oxford tutorial is the most widely known feature of this system. I have taken full advantage of this unique learning style since my arrival.
The tutorial system allows a student to present an essay, one-on-one, to his professor. Normally, a student has a clear question to answer, a reading list, and one week to read primary and secondary texts, and prepare a finalized essay of approximately 2,000 words. If a professor lectures on his subject, even at another college within the Oxford system, he can attend those lectures and gain a better understanding of the subject. In fact, most lecturers I approached were more than happy to have another set of ears in the classroom.
Once the essay is complete, the student reads it to the tutorial professor. They discuss any errors therein, address the topic's place in the overall scheme of the subject, and debate the student’s conclusion. Since Oxford professors hear many essays each term, often on the same subject, they encourage students to think outside the box and attempt to teach the professor something new. The best outcome of a tutorial is for the professor to say, “That’s a good idea for an article. Either you write about it, or I will.”
If more than one student is working on a particular topic, professors occasionally have dual tutorials, where each student presents an essay, and the three of them discuss differences and similarities between the research and final conclusion. Whether there are only two people in a tutorial or three, the discussions are always challenging. Students walk away with a solid grasp of the material.
The Oxford term lasts only eight weeks. However, that indicates weeks of lectures. If one is doing tutorials throughout the term, then his planning begins a couple of weeks earlier. Imagine my surprise when I looked at the community calendar and saw “-2nd week, Michaelmas Term”! The weeks leading up to the term are allocated for students and faculty to schedule one-on-one tutorial sessions. During 0 Week, or Noughth Week, a student works on the first reading assignment and writes the first essay of the term.
In a standard four-tutorial course, augmented by lectures, I found myself entering the first essay with little knowledge of the subject and no idea who the experts were in the field. However, with each essay, lecture and tutorial, I gained a fuller understanding of the subject. If I chose to write a journal article on any of the subjects I took, I need only look at my essays for ideas. These essays and the professors’ comments are like starter kits for further academic work.
The average tutorial load is one tutorial per week, for a total of eight tutorials in a term. Some students opt for fewer, given their lecture load and other commitments. This term, I have chosen to do twelve. While I have little time for other interests, I may never have this opportunity again.
I would recommend a year at Oxford to anyone who seriously considers academic life a calling. The system encourages and rewards the disciplined student. As a Dominican, this experience has further shaped my commitment to the pillar of study. I look forward to reaping the fruits of this hard work throughout my Dominican life.