Mid-essay insight

2006-02-24

in Oxford, Writing

Overwhelmingly, the Oxford system privileges speed over perfection. This may be well suited to their self-styled role as gatekeepers to the British political and intellectual elite, but it produces a style of learning quite thoroughly at odds with the immortal image of the scholar surrounded in well-thumbed books and meticulous notes, composing the authoritative treatise on some question. The point is to gain the ability to spend a couple of days taking in key parts of key texts – the specific selection entirely up to you – and then write something cogent, but not fully formed, on the basis of that reading.

For anyone with an interest in journalism, this method is probably ideal in many ways. Both require a fairly broad base of general knowledge – at least wide enough that you will know where to look for more specific information and will not make obvious missteps in somewhat unfamiliar areas. Both are based on a multitude of overlapping deadlines and the need to produce something intelligent and defensible, though certainly not authoritative in the final account. Both involve the requirement to write about things that are not necessarily of direct interest or within your existing scope of expertise. Finally, both involve close contact and coordination with individuals in similar circumstances. The social and cooperative elements are critical to success.

In the end, it’s a curiously roundabout way of teaching self-reliance: to arrange highly specific tasks in a string of frequent deadlines. It certainly forces you to come up with a system that works for you and, while it may not conform to one’s ideals of creativity and extensive research, it must nonetheless stand the test of the storms that batter it.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

B February 24, 2006 at 12:44 am

The need to deal constantly with issues not directly related to work, but still critically important in terms of being able to get it done, is another journalism/Oxford parallel. Think of dealing with banks and other bureaucracies; finding housing and maintaining health and sanity; as well as various financial considerations and travel issues.

Anonymous February 24, 2006 at 2:07 am

Same goes for having to relate to family and friends mostly through email – for foreign correspondents, at least.

Ben February 24, 2006 at 9:31 am

That describes weekly essays, but of course your thesis is the chance to spend longer on something more well considered and polished.

Robert Jubb February 24, 2006 at 11:38 am

Not only does it not refer to the thesis, but it sees weekly essays as weekly essays, not as preparation for exams, which, particularly for undergraduates, but also for graduate students, is their ultimate function. I remember from being an undergraduate the sense of a view of the whole subject which did not emerge until after all the tutorial essays for the paper in question had been written, and indeed to some extent until all the other papers had been done. Tutorial essays are part of an ongoing process of learning, the sum of which is not reducible to the learning involved in each individual essay considered as an atomised individual.

Milan February 24, 2006 at 12:57 pm

Unlike writing papers, exams serve no purpose external to evaluation. They don’t increase your knowledge. Indeed, given the incentive to learn a lot of information in a way that only sticks around briefly, they may actually discourage it.

Ben February 25, 2006 at 12:15 am

I’m not sure that’s true. I think I’ve come out of exams before having suddenly seen (under time pressure) how some things fit together…

Tristan Laing February 25, 2006 at 7:37 pm

The greatest victory of the exam is lost in the administration. An exam doesn’t just exemplify, it shows in written words the sum of your accumulated knowledge. If I wanted to know everything I knew in a philosophy of science course I aced last year, I could read my exam – it’s all there. But, I can’t. The exam is stuck away in some file a couple thousand miles from where I am. All my knowledge is in that exam, and it is written in such a way – by me – that if I were to read it again even the form of it would aid in its coming back to me. But alas, the exam is lost. Exams are the papers whose keeping would hold onto so much more than keeping our papers.

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