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Welcome

to a journal about my year at Oxford. . .

I am an undergraduate at Columbia University studying art and architectural history. My interests cover medieval cathedrals, medieval art, map making, and urban studies.

During the 2017-18 full academic year, I was fortunate to study History of Art as a visiting student at Saint Catherine’s College, Oxford.

This blog documents my experience abroad – my tutorials, my work, and my experience at Saint Catherine’s. I posted to this website every other week; posts are ordered chronologically. Scroll down for more or browse by month.

I hope this website will be both encouragement for others looking to study at Oxbridge and a personal memento of this personally transformative experience.

Enjoy,

Myles Zhang Cursive Signature

New York, September 2018

 

 

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Thoughts on Oxford

One year later. . .

There are possibly three Oxfords. A tourist’s Oxford includes the Radcliffe Camera, the New College Chapel, the “must-see” Harry Potter scenes at Christ Church, and finally Cornmarket Street before boarding a train back to London. The second Oxford is for learned senior scholars and staff with a lifetime commitment, and for privileged students with a three-year incarceration before knocking on doors of the real world for a 9-5. Thirdly, there is the Oxford for a very few fortunate young persons from all over the world in quest for inspiration. It is this third and greatest Oxford that I will always reflect on as a former visiting student at Catz.

My home institution, Columbia University, is situated in the sleepless valley of a skyscraper canyon of New York City – the geographical opposite of Oxford in almost all ways. Columbia values its Core Curriculum, a suite of required interdisciplinary classes, stretching from seminars on the classics to large lectures on science. Naturally, I did not need to declare my program of study at Columbia until almost halfway through my four-year degree. Therefore, when Oxford asked me to select tutorials on my desired subject, which I had yet to be adequately exposed to at Columbia, I felt intimidated by the thought of sitting face to face with a leading scholar once a week.

As I soon discovered, Catz was a perfect place to launch my academic journey of study abroad. Approaching Arne Jacobsen’s gem (a Category I national landmark) for the first time on foot, I was immediately captured by Catz’s open aura with clear glass and lush landscaping, no walls, weaving into an enchanting community for students, fellows, and staff. Catz accepts more visiting students (50 from all over the world) than any other Oxford college. To ease the academic transition from abroad to Oxford, Catz’s welcome included many thoughtful details, such as matching a roommate to share joys and stress with, or help navigating the paperwork maze of visa applications. For academic introduction and advice, expert help was only an email or a staircase away at Naomi and Helen’s office.

As Columbia University writes, “Study abroad should not be a parenthesis in your life, but rather an experience that shapes and influences your future.” My future has been shaped by the Oxford experience, which often included twelve 2000-word essays and thousands of pages reading per term. The year-long rigorous academic program endows me with an “Oxford state of mind,” defined by the tutorial process – asking questions, seeking answers through reading and self-reflection, and contemplating conclusions with the tutor. My demanding professors always pushed me beyond Oxford’s medieval castles into the real world, in the present and past. In two terms, including the in-between five-week breaks, Professor Cathy Oakes assigned me cathedral visits in London, Canterbury, Northern England, and even Continental Europe. Professor Amanda Power encouraged me to brave an academic trajectory beyond her medieval studies. Professor Paul Barnwell shared with me his experience on “the long and at time hard and solitary road” and his profession “in which one continues to grow and develop like no other.”

With Oxford’s tutorial system, I enjoyed freedom unavailable in any “traditional” universities and marveled at the Bodleian and over 100 libraries, as well as dozens of college chapels. My little red bicycle took me to surrounding canals, meadows, and even cemeteries, where J.R.R. Tolkien, Isaiah Berlin, and James Legge rest. Wheels hitting cobblestones during my nightly ride left a comforting sound in my memories. My new friends accommodated me in their homes in Bournemouth and Southern Bavaria. Most of all, I even had the great fortune to find someone to share my life with.

Without a doubt, I will treasure this gift through my academic and life journey.

Best wishes, Myles Zhang

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Oxford in a Box

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This is a paper architectural model of the University of Oxford. The model folds out of a re-purposed, antique leather box measuring 7 by 14 inches with a depth of only 1.5 inches.

One half of the model features the historic university buildings: The Radcliffe Camera, Bodleian Library, Sheldonian Theatre, Church of Saint Virgin the Mary, and the Clarendon Building. The other half features the campus of Saint Catherine’s College.

This model is made from paper cutouts, measured and folded to form the shape of various buildings. Below is the image of one of these cutouts before assembly, and the groundplan of the campus before the paper buildings were mounted on cardboard.

This model in a suitcase will be a souvenir of my study abroad experience. Below is a view of this model with my hand for scale. Attaining this amount of precision in so small a model is difficult, but it is possible. This model represents about two weeks (or 100 hours) labor.

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Myles’ Tour of Oxford

This is an interactive map about my year abroad at Oxford. Each icon on the map represents a place on campus I spend significant time at: my room, the St. Catherine’s College dining hall, the Bodleian Library, the Ashmolean Museum of Art, et cetera.

Click on any map icon to read a brief description about the place. Click the image that appears to launch video.

navigation

 

Virtual Tour of Oxford by Bike

Above is a 19 minute long virtual tour of Oxford by bike along the green route traced on the image below. The film footage is overlaid with an interactive GPS tracker to show where I am on the bike route and audio narration of all the sites we are passing. I recorded this tour on my very last day at Oxford, just as students were about to take their final exams and graduate. So as you watch, you might just see a few students wearing their formal academic gowns.

Graphic Map of Oxford with Green Line

Every week, I enjoy taking my little, red bike around Oxford, between its various medieval streets and back alleys. I cycle round each bend and curve on the rutted, medieval road. There’s a sense of spontaneity and unpredictability to Oxford’s ancient plan. I’d like to think the experience could be analogous to the academic experience of a student – of desiring to graduate yet not quite knowing what surprises the future has planned. A year ago, I could not have seen around the next bend of the academic road and to have anticipated I would be studying here.

More about this bike path and biking in Oxford can be found on my interactive map.

 

Pictured above: My red Apollo brand bike. The bike is a few years old and rusty on the wheels, but works perfectly fine otherwise. A few weeks ago, almost at the end of Trinity Term, my rear wheel was severely punctured and I had to fork over £28.00 to fix my flat.

Pictured Below: The Thames Bike Path is a beautiful and scenic little path that leads up the Thames to Stratford-upon-Avon and down the Thames as far away as London. I like to bike every week – sometimes twice or three times a week – on the section between Oxford city centre and three miles north to Port Meadow.

Thames Bike Path near the Oxford Train Station

The Food at Saint Catherine’s College

Meals are served here three times a day at scheduled hours. I enjoy having common meals with all members of the college; it’s a good opportunity to meet new faces. The dining hall, probably more than any other place in Oxford, is where I’ve met and cultivated most of my friendships – over food.

Click here for past menus from Catz, or visit my interactive map for more about life at Oxford. A schedule of the meal times is displayed below.

Saint Catherine's College Meal Times

 

Profile Picture in the Dining Hall of Merton College
With a friend at formal hall in Merton College, Oxford

 

A Brief Reflection on the Crusades

During my second term at Oxford (Hilary), I had an immensely enjoyable class on the Medieval Crusades 1099-1291. I had signed up for this further subject as an optional extracurricular, knowing that my performance in the course (positive or negative) would in no way count toward my Columbia degree or my focus of study at Columbia: Architectural Theory and History.
In reflection, the most important insight I gained from this course (and Oxford more generally) is not knowledge of specific facts, events, or dates. Frankly, I will probably forget these specifics and details twenty years from now – the timeline of the Fourth Crusade or the fate of the Fifth, the phases and patrons of English architecture, the causes of the Black Death, etc. etc. But, the aspect of this course that will remain with me is an appreciation for primary source historical documents and the nuance these documents can shed on our understanding of history. And the aspect of Oxford that will remain with me is a deeper respect for scholarship, and the work required to produce scholarship.
I entered this course with the maybe naive hope that didactic and exact parallels could be drawn between past and present. Now, after the course (and the final essay I submitted), I’m not so certain that such parallels exist; I’ve begun to doubt myself more and to question the degree to which my interpretation of the Crusades and of history is somehow coloured by contemporary events, the modern understanding of Christianity, and the contemporary reinterpretation of the idea of a Crusade for political rhetoric or propaganda – both among members of the Muslim State or in American culture. In short, I think my dedicated and passionate Oxford professors have helped me earn a deeper appreciation for nuance and uncertainty.
Not knowing isn’t exactly a comfortable place to be in. But, maybe, it is also a sign of intellectual maturity and intellectual growth… for which I have my Oxford experience to thank.

In Retrospect…

Emotional growth is something realised only in retrospect. Spending my junior year studying abroad at Oxford and travelling across Eastern Europe with funding from Columbia, I had time to reflect on the differences between my host culture and the familiar urban world of NYC, where I had spent much of my life. These travels leave me with an aching, yearning sense of homesickness for my Columbia family, teachers, and mentors. And yet, although I am now far from home, I can carry forward the lessons learned at Columbia and the Core Curriculum, applying old ideas and texts from Lit Hum and CC to fresh contexts. It’s a process of synthesis, of walking down the street, seeing something familiar, and then realising: “Wow, I learned about that painting in Art Hum my freshman year.” Or maybe, it’s the moment I realise some text I read years ago in French language class is relevant to a research paper I am now writing in English architecture. Study abroad is a sum of these magic ah-ha moments, after which I can accept that Columbia might be only four years, but the lessons learned there can last and enrich a lifetime.

The Orient Express

As I write these lines, I am sitting on the train from Munich (Germany) to Zagreb (Croatia). The train ride is eight hours and passes through the following regions: Bavaria, Austria, Slovenia, and finally Croatia. At the border between Austria and Croatia, I will need to show my passport, a photo of which I am including below.

The view from the large picture window to my left reveals thousands of hectares of pine trees, rolling hills, remote mountain villages, and the occasional farm tractor and person travelling on bike. In the far distance, stretches the eternally snow-capped Austrian Alps with frequent glacial lakes scattered between. To my right are the other passengers I am travelling with. While waiting on the platform to board this train in Munich, I noted how the passengers looked and dressed distinctly different from the smartly dressed businesspeople and travellers I was accustomed to seeing in France and Germany. The sound of the language, too, is changing as I travel. The coarse auditory texture of German replaces the suave sounding pronunciation of French, and now the sounds of Slavic and Eastern Europe replace German. Everyone on this train is Croatian, Austrian, or German. In addition to myself, there are only two other tourists on this train: a young couple with child from Australia. They are speaking loudly in the nasally Australian accent, and complaining about the motion of the train and sounds of other passengers. As the scenic alps unfold around them, the male of the two with several dozen tattoos and piercings just announced that he will be re-watching Star Wars to pass the time during this “boring” train ride.

Above is a video of my train ride through the mountains toward Zagreb via Salzburg.

This train journey is part of my spring break between the end of my second term at Oxford and the beginning of my third (and final) term. The train journey will last four weeks total, starting in Oxford and ending in Istanbul. The distance is around 3,200 kilometres, which I am covering entirely by train. I am taking the following trains: Oxford to London, London to Paris, Paris to Stuttgart, Stuttgart to Munich, Munich to Zagreb, Zagreb to Belgrade, Belgrade to Sofia, and then finally Sofia to Istanbul. At each major city along the train journey, I will be spending three to four nights in local accommodations (AirBnB or family friends). What I find surprising about this journey is that such an ambitious plan can be accomplished entirely by train travel, as described here.

I am attaching here the detailed day-by-day itinerary for this trip at this link: click here to view.

The trip may seem to have required a lot of planning. Although for one person, such a journey requires only three to four days of planning during term time. First, securing the right train tickets via the Interrail train service, in addition to purchasing my connecting return flight from Istanbul to London. Then, purchasing a temporary mobile number for use abroad. Then, searching AirBnB and my list of contacts for accommodations in each city. Then, messaging each host with the details of my arrival and departure from the location. Then, updating my schedule to create an itinerary of all the places I will see and visit. Then, notifying my bank of any travel plans – so that my debit card is not blocked for “suspicious behaviour.” Then checking for Visas and any entry requirements for the countries I plan to visit. Then, the day before departure, I must pack all my belongings into two small bags of 20 kilos total – which must contain all the supplies and clothes I need for a month-long journey. And, after all this planning, I set out and put my plan into action.

The initial assumption for this trip to be possible, and for me to even have enough time to plan out the rail-trip details weeks in advance is as follows: My Oxford term is not too busy or too stressful that I no longer have the time or energy to travel. I’ve been lucky this term.

Language is one of the biggest barriers when travelling. I speak French fluently, so visiting Paris and navigating the culture there is easy. Germany is a little more difficult than France for me, but most Germans in urban areas have at least some limited proficiency of English. However, the farther east of Europe one goes, the fewer people one finds who are fluent in English. As a result, I must communicate with hands gestures, motions, and the unwritten (but international code of) body language. Train reservations also get more difficult as one travels in Eastern Europe, with the train reservations of Belgrade to Sofia and Sofia to Istanbul needing to be purchased in the local train station the day of departure. Conversely, as language and travel become more challenging, cost becomes cheaper. Two nights in a shared bedroom in Paris will cost the same as seven nights in a fully furnished penthouse apartment in Belgrade. Were I to travel in India or Iran (which I one day hope to visit), the price gap would be even greater. Here’s the link to the budget for this trip.

 

Photos of the train from Villach (Austria) to Dobova (Slovenia).

As the trip continues – I have three weeks of travel left before I arrive in Istanbul – I look forward to seeing the southern mountains of Transylvania, the bombed ruins of Belgrade, the churches of Sofia, and finally the Golden Horn and ancient walls of Istanbul. In Serbia, I know the train will pass by Syrian refugee camps, populated by individuals headed in the opposite direction. In particular, I look forward to the gradual shift of cultures one witnesses in accelerated speed while riding the train. Slowly, ever so slowly, one can watch the culture and architecture shift from the Christian lands of Europe, to the multi-cultural and multi-religious melting pot of the Balkans, to the more solidly Muslim world of Istanbul. The climate, too, can easily change in the space of a single hour, with variations between palm trees, flat plains, snowy mountains, and remote forests. This degree of diversity is simply invisible from an airplane flying at 750 km per hour at 10 km above ground in the midst of puffy clouds.

When I arrive in Istanbul, I will be tired, exhausted, and have a bag full of dirty laundry. But, I will be happy in the knowledge that I completed a trip that few Europeans and even fewer Americans will have completed. On a final note, I will now leave you with a few videos from my day trip to visit the family and farmstead in rural Bavaria of a dear friend I made in Oxford. He is a visiting student just like me in the same academic program of the same year long duration. I hope you enjoy! I will post more videos soon.

The Train from Paris to Munich

The train from Paris to Munich crossed the poppy fields of northern France. The countryside in the vicinity of the World War I trench lines is dotted with cemeteries, a British flag flying over one and a French flag over the next. During the First World War, the dead were not brought back to their hometowns and or homelands to be buried; they were buried a few miles from where they fell. As the train rounded the next hill, one could see the lines of the trenches etched into the ground: a zigzagging band of different-coloured grass stretching into the far distance.

Tutorials this Term

My Room at Catz
My Desk at Catz. Lots of Books.

Since Trinity Term began four weeks ago, I have been busy working, writing, reading, and studying for classes. After returning from my winter break travels in Europe on December 27th, I have been studying every day with breaks only for exercise and lectures.

My four main activities this term as follows: Sleep, Eat, Exercise, and Study. The first three I don’t do for pleasure or enjoyment, I simply do them as a reprieve from studying and to keep myself in good enough mental and physical shape that I can continue studying. I don’t drink, and I don’t go to parties.

I am taking three tutorials this term: one tutorial on the Crusades that meets 14 times over the course of 8 weeks, a second tutorial on Medieval Art (4 meetings), and a third tutorial on English Architecture (4 meetings). This yields a total of 22 class meetings over 8 weeks, during which I must complete 13 essays of between 2,000 and 3,500 words each and 2 oral presentations of 15 minutes each. This work load may or may not be representative of the average expectations of an Oxford undergraduate; I suspect, it might be a bit more than the visiting student’s average.

I begin each week with a trip to the library where I check out the relevant books pertaining to my upcoming essay. I then skim these books for their most interesting content, with particular concentration on the book’s index to aid in finding the specific passages and topics that relate to my essay. Given the shortage of time, I cannot afford to read any book or text from end to end. After a few days reading, I will begin my essay which takes (on average) five hours to complete with footnotes and citations. I like to let my essay sit for a few hours before I send it to my teacher. So… I’ll go to bed, sleep a good 7-9 hours, wake up, do some exercise, and then proofread my essay for grammar and factual errors. And then, finally, I will send my essay to the teacher for comments and feedback at our next one-to-one meeting.

At the end of each term, each tutor assesses the quality of my work and assigns a letter grade. I receive their written assessment, which is crafted both to inform me of how I can improve and to inform others/employers of the kind of work I completed whilst under each tutor’s supervision. The personalized and customized education one receives at Oxford is unique for each student. And it is frequently difficult to infer the nature and content of a class from its title alone; that is, the syllabus in my case was modified to reflect my interests and preferences. So while I began last term studying one subject for my Gothic Architecture course, I ended the term reading something different entirely.  These customized classes are, I feel, one of the greatest strengths of the tutorial system and Oxbridge education.

Thus, the tutors’ report in my view helps to standardize assessment. Click here, for instance, to read my tutors’ reports from last fall 2017. I do not know to what degree these grades and comments are reflexive of the institutional average.

Watercolors of St. Catherine’s College

I painted these watercolors on paper over the weekend. Painting is a good break between studying and essay writing. Unfortunately, I do not have as much occasion for painting as I would like.

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St Catherine's College in Watercolor and Pen
Saint Catherine’s College from the air

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St Catherine's College
Drawing made with ink on paper

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St Catherine's College in Watercolor, Pen, and Pencil
Entrance to the College: across the moat and into the quad

Update: These watercolors were printed on postcards and sent to current students and alumni as past of the Catz’s 2018 fundraiser. Great success!

A Quick Academic Year

The academic years at Oxford are faster-paced than those at Columbia and almost all other institutions. More work and more essays and more readings in less time and in fewer years than other classes. Cumulatively, I will have worked just as hard at Oxford as I did at Columbia, except I will have accomplished more work in a shorter time with fewer classes: 28 weeks per year at Columbia vs. only 24 at Oxford, and 12 hours of class per week at Columbia vs. only 1 hour of class per week at Oxford.

The academic year at Oxford feels as short as the paragraph you have just read. And, eight weeks, feels shorter still if one is working hard.

A Tour of my Room

My college has around 1,000 students. Some live off campus, others on campus. I am fortunate enough to live on campus. I live on Staircase 12 (out of 16 staircases) in a double I share with my roommate, who is another visiting student from from Hong Kong. He is a talented, intellectual, and an aspiring future lawyer.

My room is a “home away from home.” As such, it is a personal space whose order and design is a reflection of my personality. I took the time to ‘decorate’ the room with lamps on the tabletops, throw pillows on the couches, and old books on the walls – nothing too expensive or ambitious, but just enough to make the space comfortable. Given the short duration of my stay, I would not want to invest too much in the décor.

My room and its desk are a comfortable place to study – particularly with cup of tea in hand. The view outside my window looks toward the River Cherwell; ducks, geese, and various birds fly by throughout the day. For the manicured lawns of an Oxford college, Catz is vibrant with wildlife. The sounds behind me vary from the muffled sounds of slamming room doors to the louder sounds of drunken peers returning from Friday night parties. My room feels tranquil, generally, and a pleasant place to relax after a day’s work in the Bodleian Library.

Christmas in Oxford

Oxford is on the trimester system. There are three trimesters of eight weeks each, with a five week break between each trimester. This year, winter break lasted from late December to mid-January.

I chose to spend my winter break traveling in Europe – with a few days each in Zurich, Milan, Venice, Florence, and Siena. Each city has its unique and distinct personality. Traveling alone is an opportunity to explore the differences between these cities, and to examine their art and architecture. I prefer to see travel as a natural extension of my art history studies – an opportunity to explore during my travels the art I can only read about in class.

I had a week free between the end of term and the date of my departure for Europe. College emptied out of students, and the campus gradually slipped into the quiet of winter break mode. For a few of these days, various high school age applicants arrived for the infamous Oxford Interviews – to be questioned by faculty and accepted or rejected by the University. During these days, the ambience of the dining hall was filled with a visible tension of stressed students worrying about interviews to come or doubting their performance on interviews passed. I was surprised to think that a mere two years ago I, too, was in their place whilst applying to Columbia.

A lot can change in two years as one grows older and (hopefully) more mature.

 

Above is a video of the dining hall. In typical Oxford luxury, there is a large Christmas tree in our dining hall, festooned with blinking lights, blanketed with colourful decorations, and crowned with a star. For a small college, it is a large tree – surprisingly large considering that by the time it is erected most students will have already left for winter break. But, then and again, Oxford has no shortage of funding for such fancies.

The table in foreground is set with white porcelain and silverware for the faculty meal. Every weekday evening students are served a three-course meal by waiters in black vests; most weekday lunches, faculty are served. The meal is typically followed by tea per English tradition. Such social events are not directly related to academic work or student studies – but they are an important opportunity to meet fellow members of one’s college and make new friends.

 

The Sheldonian Theatre is a historic amphitheatre in the centre of Oxford – erected in the style of a Roman temple around 1667 (by my favourite architect, Christopher Wren). Most of the formal and most important university events are conducted in the Sheldonian – including the matriculation and graduation ceremonies conducted in Latin that mark the beginning and end of one’s Oxford career. The most prestigious event in the Sheldonian might be the Encaenia held yearly to confer honorary degrees.

I attended Christmas Carols at the Sheldonian – an event held yearly by Oxford’s Christian Union. Accompanied by the university’s brass band, students sing Christmas carols and religious songs. Malala Yousafzai was in attendance this year, sitting near the top row and quietly joining along in the caroling.

My travels alone brought me to Zurich first – from which I travelled by the Bernina Express to Italy. Over the Alps and through the snow, the train wound itself up and spun around and through the steep mountain passes. Finally, as the train descended, we arrived in Italy. The climate gradually morphed from snow and pine trees to the wet rain and occasional palm tree of Northern Italy.

Below is a picture of me on top of the Duomo in Florence. I ascended in the afternoon and spent three hours surveying the city from the cathedral’s God-like perspective. All Florence was spread below me, with the thousands of Renaissance rooftops and ant-sized people forming a living and urban landscape. I watched as the sun set over the horizon and the nearby mountains of Tuscany. The street lights of the city flickered to life as the sun descended, and the city was illuminated anew.

 

Florence 9.27.04 PM

 

And, finally, after two weeks travel and a slog-of-a-plane-ride, I arrived home to my room in Oxford. The campus was, by now, deathly quiet and entirely dark – save the glimmer of light emanating from the room I share with my roommate Edward. As always, he was studying hard during winter break – typical of Oxford students and scholars.

And, here I am, doing some studying of my own in the uplifting library of the Radcliffe Camera. Originally built in the 17th century as the science library, it is now the history library – and as such a fittingly beautiful place to study the great men* of world history.

 

 

inside the radcliffe camera
Hard at work in the beautiful rotunda of the Radcliffe Camera

* History and the arts are historically male-dominated. And so my phrase ‘great men’ is sadly a statement of fact, and not an attempt to be in any way chauvinist.

Catz Night

Catz Night Series 2Catz Night is the one-night each year that the college hosts a fancy meal followed by a party and drinks in our Junior Common Room (think ‘student lounge’). Fancy meals are hosted elsewhere during the year, and there are no shortage of black tie events. But, Catz Night is our night and is the one fancy ball unique to Catz.

The event is heavily sponsored by the University – tickets cost only £14 entry. We are served by waiters in black tie a three course meal with red and white wine. This year, the first course consisted of fish and a light salad, followed by chicken, vegetables, and polenta for the main course, and chocolate pudding for desert.

Remarkably, the hardworking dining hall staff at Catz are able to pull off this feat of Herculean proportions. Each of the 600 attendees is served 3 meals on 7 pieces of porcelain per person, with 7 eating utensils per person, and 3 glasses. We are given a new plate for each course, with a new set of fork and knife, and a new glass for each sample of wine. In total, this makes for 1,800 separate meals, 3,600 plates to wash, 4,200 silverware to polish, and 1,800 wine glasses. For weeks before hand, I could catch glimpses of the waitstaff preparing for this meal – polishing cups with cloth and hot water, stacking and dusting dishes, and various other menially repetitive tasks.

 

Catz Night Series 1

After our three course meal, we proceeded to the lounge area where the festivities continued. More drinks. More live music- this time on the ‘dance floor’ with a DJ. More decorations and colorful paper bunting around the room to set the ambience. The dancing and partying continued towards midnight and into the early hours of the morning.

In reflection, it is a privilege to join such a party and to be surrounded by peers one has grown to love over the academically intense course of an Oxford term. I don’t think many schools, other than those in the canon of Oxford or Columbia, could afford so fancy and meticulously planned a party. But, such is Oxford… an academic culture and a lifestyle. It is possible to attend Oxford and avoid participation in its lifestyle of high-class dress balls (simply by not attending). But, it is not possible to attend Oxford and avoid participation in its culture of hard work, intense readings, and a deep love of learning.

Catz Night 1
The table is set for a fine meal

Catz Night 2
Appetizer

Catz Night 3
Entrée

Catz Night 4
Dessert

A Video Update from Oxford

Below is a brief, two minute video that I recorded on December 9th as I walked to the Library. I reflect briefly on my experience abroad thus far, the campus, and its libraries.

 

Below is a panoramic view by night of the Radcliffe Camera – a beautiful place to read, work, study, and learn.

Stress at Oxford

Or the lack thereof…

Studying at Oxford is a potentially stressful experience – with several hundred pages of reading assigned per day and at least one 2,500 word essay due per week. And, if one joins a social or cultural organization outside of class, that is another set of demands…

I haven’t found my time at Oxford in the least stressful, maybe on account of my temperament, the fact I chose not to join any clubs or societies, or simply my selection of tutorials this term.

Village of Wytham
My bike at left and a telephone box at right in the village of Wytham. The structure with thatched roof in distance is a medieval dovecote or ‘barn’.

I bike several miles per day – out of the need to travel several times per day the distance between lecture, class, and St. Catz. Sometimes on weekends, I bike out of the curiosity to see and explore more than I otherwise could on foot. My favorite weekend bike ride is to the nearby medieval village of Wytham and back – about six miles round trip. On the way, I ride by bike over the scenic River Thames and the idyllic barges that dock the riverbank, under the rail trestle of the train to London, and then under the overpass of the M40 highway – finally arriving at the rolling countryside of Oxfordshire and Wytham Woods – the University’s nature preserve.

On other weekends, I take the bus to London, Cambridge, or Canterbury – often spending several hours at a time in the medieval churches of these cities. This weekend, my professor has sent me to the nearby village of Dorchester to examine the medieval church and monastery therein. The ride is 20 miles round-trip by bike – and will hopefully be a scenic journey. For me, being ‘assigned’ to visit a church is not so much an assignment or chore as much as an activity I would do anyway – with or without Oxford.

I’d like to think that frequent exercise lightens the demands of academic work and alleviates stress. With fresh mind and full awareness after a good ride, I can study more effectively and write faster than otherwise possible. Maybe college is all about finding the healthy balance between personal and academic pursuits, work and play. Or, ideally, as I sometimes find: work and play are one and the same at Oxford as the texts I read here are texts I would read anyway, and the writing I do here is writing I would do anyway. I just happen to be at a place that values the kinds of work and activities that I enjoy most.

Life is less stressful when I do what brings me joy – all else be darned.

Wytham Woods
Panorama on my path through Wytham Woods. Sheep are grazing in the far distance.

Reading at Oxford

It’s been a few days since last I posted. I just wanted to reflect briefly on the differences between studying at Oxford and Columbia University (my home institution).

Oxford is academically intense in ways different from Columbia, or most American schools for that matter. At Columbia, I had a busy schedule of classes, lectures, and assignments – several hours of class a day followed by mandatory extracurricular meetings and events. I was genuinely busy at Columbia and at many times stressed.

At Oxford, my schedule is quite different. I am busy here, not by obligation but by choice. With two tutorials per term – the first meets weekly and the second fortnightly – I spend only 12 hours per term in class. This means that, over the course of one academic year, I will have spent a total of only ~45 hours in required classes. The rest of the day and year are for me to fill in the manner I see most fit. It is possible to fill this time with watching television, traveling Europe, or partying – all of which are quite easy at a diverse and cosmopolitan city like Oxford. It is also possible (and likely more justifiable) to fill this free time with self-directed studies, completing one’s reading, visiting art museums and cultural venues, or attending lectures in related disciplines.

Factoring in all the non-mandatory lectures I attend and optional events, I probably spend more time in class at Oxford than at Columbia. This is entirely by choice for only now am I able to craft my daily schedule as I see most fit.

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The reading room of Duke Humfrey’s Room at the Bodleian Library. The printed books behind my computer are from the 1500s.

Reading and writing are probably the most enjoyable aspects of filling my free time and daily schedule. Entering Duke Humfrey’s Library or sitting beneath the Radcliffe Camera, I feel ennobled as if this were truly the only and best place to crack open a book and peruse its pages. Some dark dorm room, some bland low-ceilinged reading room, or anyplace else would somehow diminish the value of a great book – one cannot read a great or enjoyable book in an environment that is unbecoming of the book’s value and beauty.

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All books in the Bodleian Library system have their covers stamped with the symbol above.

The nearly 30-some college chapels are also wonderful places to read and study. There is a certain somber silence therein, with the smell of burnt candles, wood polish, and incense. All places have distinct smells, and associated with each smell is the aura (positive or negative) of a place. The ceiling of the chapel stretches up into the darkness if it is night out. And, if it is still day, knife-shafts of light penetrate the chapel interior. The chapels of the more popular colleges are rarely quiet, as the streams of tourists interrupt the somber study of great texts. The chapel of the less-famous colleges are equally beautiful but quiet places more appropriate for silent study. As nobody is around, I can sit in the choir stalls with oak paneling all around and a red cushion beneath. As nobody can disturb me, occasionally I stand up and walk around the chapel in the perfect silence of intellectual contemplation. The sounds of the outside voices and street may penetrate the chapel interior, but those sounds feel a distant world away.

In retrospect, I do not feel I took full advantage of my Columbia University experience. I likely spent too much time socializing or attempting to build genuine relationships with my peers at Columbia. And I likely spent time on Facebook that I could have spent reading and learning in pursuit of greater intellectual joys. In retrospect, I realize that I shared more in common maturity-wise with people older than me than with people my age. The conversations with Columbia faculty over office hours were, in comparison to conversations with peers, rich and engaging dialogues. The Oxford tutorial is, ideally, a platonic dialogue between teacher and student – the kind of intellectual relationship I sought to have with my peers at Columbia and yet often failed to find.

I enjoy being and studying here at Oxford because there is nothing else in the world I could imagine myself doing than working and studying here – not studying for some future benefit but studying for its own sake and for the intrinsic enjoyment reading brings.

Life is short, and the time here at Oxford shorter still – and it is unlikely I will ever have the good fortune of one day returning to this place. Carpe diem!

The Oxford Tutorial

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A view of my bookshelf here at Oxford. Most of the books here are for class, except for the book titled The Black Death, which I am reading for pleasure.

The Oxford tutorial is, ideally, an ongoing dialogue between teacher and pupil. The face-to-face interaction, or the pairing of a single student with a single teacher, is essential for nurturing this personalized, intellectual dialogue. For an hour a week, or more, a student will discuss the weekly readings with their professor, who might listen and lecture to the student, initiate a platonic dialogue, or simply correct errors the student may have made in his analysis of the week’s readings.

The tutorial can vary significantly in format, depending on either the subject of one’s studies or one’s degree of familiarity with the subject. For humanities, the teacher will assign a weekly essay of 1,500 words or more. For sciences, problem sets may be due. The tutorial is an opportunity to review this information, to seek points of clarification, and to develop one’s essay or problem set in preparation for next week’s assignment.

The work created in the tutorial is, in a sense, never finished or completed. There is always room for improvement, for development, and for stronger writing. At high school or most other colleges, one turns in a paper – and it is finished – returned to the student with letter grade and marginalia. At the Oxford tutorial, knowledge from each essay or problem set contributes to the following. At Oxford, the work is cumulative and incomplete – not incomplete because it is lacking in quality – but incomplete because learning is a process and one is held not to the standard of student but to the impossibly high standard of a “scholar.”

It is easy to cheat. As one’s work is ungraded and the tutorial is so personalized, one is not under any obligation to do the week’s readings. The teacher, too, can choose not to give the student the full benefit of her time and energy, or choose to meet the student unprepared to discuss the week’s readings. However, the tutorial to function requires the equal commitment of student and teacher to the learning process; if either party withdraws their half of the contract, this learning endeavor will flounder.

I am taking two tutorials this Michaelmas term. (There are three terms of eight weeks each here at Oxford – Michaelmas in autumn, Hilary in winter, and Trinity in spring.) My primary tutorial is on Medieval Cathedrals, taught by an art historian specializing in medieval art of Italy. My secondary tutorial is Economics of Feudal Europe, taught by a historian on the medieval era and its economic system. I am taught individually in both courses – and weekly essays are assigned of 1,000 to 3,000 words.

Cathedrals­ consists of readings of primary source documents about the Middle Ages and its cathedrals (see Gervase of Canterbury), complemented by contemporary scholarship about these cathedrals. Economics consists of various readings assessing the social structure and systems of power within feudal society, complemented by selected and translated primary source documents of land transactions, work contracts, or land grants. Clearly, the emphasis is on reading, reading, reading – there is but little else to do here at Oxford. Time spent in class or with a teacher is minimal – limited to less than two hours a week in my case. Time spent in the library or with a book is maximal – sometimes up to a hundred pages of reading per day.

It is not possible to succeed in the tutorial if one does not read, and certainly not if one is not passionate about the subject. The tutorial prizes diligent work, close reading, careful analysis, and the motivation required to complete all this in time for the next meeting. As with any life experience or class, one only gets as much out as one invests in.

First Impressions of Oxford

I arrived in England last week (September 21), and I have been enjoying the ambience at Oxford ever since. Immensely so. There’s a certain indescribable aura of intellect and sense of history and tradition that pervades this place, with formal academic dress for final exams, ancient Gothic architecture, and a sense of place and identity not found in larger cities.
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I enjoy the architecture here; there’s a small bike path I use every day. It passes through a series of medieval alleys wedged between the various colleges that comprise the university. On the way, I pass by the bell tower of Magdalen College, pictured below. From around the city, this bell-tower is visible, as if a focal point or compass that orients the eye not to north or south or east, but toward Oxford and the center of its campus. Most every college at Oxford has its own tower or medieval spire – each one a compass of sorts.
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Magdalen Tower – built 1492

Like Magdalen Tower in Oxford, great works of art refocus our attention; they are compasses that point not to north but to Truth – Truth with a capital T. And I think this is why the study of art history and the mission of the university are both so powerful – among many things, they both teach one to admire and appreciate beauty. Someone versed in art history can read a painting as one reads a book – identifying its brushstrokes, content, and composition and extrapolating the story these details tell. Someone having attended college can hopefully, too, understand current events with greater depth and the benefit of a thorough understanding of history as cyclical.
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Both the study of art and the university should provide us, in brief, with an intellectual  compass through which to orient and understand ourselves. As Magdalen Tower is a literal compass to navigate the city of Oxford, an education is a symbolic compass to navigate life more broadly. Through education, I realize that all things and all events and all disciplines and all ways of knowing are interwoven in a larger web, more colloquially called the “Liberal Arts.”

A little about me…

My experience so far at Columbia.

Many describe their lives as paths. I describe my life as a map that I draw and nurture with time. A path has no room for deviation. A map, however, presents all possible paths toward one’s destination.

P1580335Sitting at my workbench with the blank expanse of creamy white paper before me, I draw. The blank canvas has limitless possibilities. From this emptiness, I draw maps of entire cities, aerial views in pen and ink of my urban environment. Sometimes, I am tempted to use magnifying lens to attain the precision I desire. Other weeks, I am content filling several square inches in twelve hours continuous work, meticulously drawing every window and stone.

Drawing sharpens my mind, forcing me to block out all distractions and noise and to reflect on where I am headed. I experience life from the perspective of 61 inches above ground (add an inch if I’m wearing hiking shoes). The map empowers me, permits me to view my world and choices from above – To see not just the fork in the road but where either road will lead me, and the possibilities either road unlocks. Through drawing, I feel somehow relaxed, as if attaining a higher mental vantage point.

From my parents, I learned to define myself (and my map) not by others’ or society’s expectations but by the activities that brought joy and meaning to my life and to others’. I’ve worked to oppose the gentrification of my inner-city community of Newark and the privatization of its water, long victim to neglect by elected officials and government policies. To oppose the use of urban land for parking instead of housing and development, I spoke countless times before the City Council, photographed the decay of my city for my documentaries and artworks, and built computer simulations and interactive maps as urban planning tools to illustrate the dangers of both parking and over-development. When I speak before large crowds of neighbors and citizens, I feel the adrenaline rush of hundreds of eyes, the larger an audience the better. And, when I work in the archives of the city and state library, repairing, organizing, and digitizing historic maps, I reflect on the past and present of my city, and the role I play, however small. Looking back, I wish only I had done more.

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Image still of computer simulation.

From my history courses, I am learning to esteem scholarship. Inspired by the many cathedrals I explored and painted in my travels, I conducted research with my faculty mentor to develop a series of computer models simulating the construction and experience of visiting a Gothic cathedral, to be used in the classroom instruction of nearly 1,000 students per year in Columbia’s Art Humanities program. Through this yearlong process of building an accurate-to-the-inch model, I worked toward scholarship, balancing my time between five classes and eight hours a day researching cathedrals. More importantly, I realized scholarship requires the hard work and passion to share one’s knowledge.

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Plan of Saint Gall.

I continued to articulate my passion for maps when I discovered the Plan of Saint Gall: a meticulous map of the hypothetical and ideal monastery. As the only known map in the 900-year period between Rome’s fall and the Renaissance, it is a scholarly tool to understand the monastic life and world-view. The ideal monastery is insular, with all functions of daily life condensed within the walls of a self-sufficient world – a universe. As the (likely) subject of my thesis and (hopefully) research at Oxford, this map guides my path through the university – itself derived from the Latin word for universe: universitas.

But, my universe expands beyond my work and activism. From my mentors, friends, and family, I am reminded of my good fortune. To a certain extent, I earned my place at Columbia and Oxford, and I cultivated the relationships with my mentors. But, in larger part, I am not ready yet to measure my self-worth by these accomplishments, lest I fail to live up to the responsibilities of scholarship and the traditions of these institutions. From my university, I learned the value of scholarship and the hard work required. From my mentors – individuals further on their life paths than I – I learned the pursuit of knowledge is a constant in all stages of one’s life map. And, from my parents, I learned the value of caring for one’s environment and tending to one’s garden, both the literal gardens our family grows in the vacant lots surrounding our home and the metaphorical garden I must cultivate with love for family and community.

Scholar. Activist. Teacher. Leader. These are not words I would describe myself as. I am too young, too naïve, and too lacking in self-knowledge to truly embody these values. It is not that I lack self-knowledge or maturity in comparison to others, rather that I do not have the degree of self-knowledge I demand of myself. But, these are words I hope others will one day describe me as. Education is exactly this: the lifelong process of becoming.

I am not prepared to accept my time at Oxford as something earned or deserved. Rather, this is an opportunity to hold myself to a higher personal ethic – that of scholar and student. I prefer to believe I was accepted not on the basis of present-ability, but on the promise of future potential, on the promise of who I will become.

A path implies a destination. A map implies a journey. I do not know the destination of my life path; no one under age 25 could be expected to definitively know. But, I do know my life is a map, not the self-contained universe of the Plan of Saint Gall, but a map with many paths, one of which leads to Oxford and maybe once again in the sometime future, if I am fortunate. My map is unfinished and imperfect, but the greatest maps and the greatest works of scholarship are all, in some way, imperfect and unfinished.