Oxford: Open Sesame!
August 31, 2012 10:03 AM   Subscribe

Visiting researcher (also, a rower) at Oxford- in a land of gated communities- how do I 'get involved'/'dive in'?

I'll be in Oxford soon for an extended collaboration. All the logistics (transport/housing/uni cards etc) are squared away (whew). I'll be hosted by a School, but I didn't request affiliation with a specific College (at least for this term). What tips do you have so I make the most of my experience anyway?

Last year when visiting the school, I spoke to a visiting scholar who'd been involved in as many events/social circles/traditions as he could (especially anything with ceremony or black-tie). He explained it wasn't what he'd ever normally do, but he saw it as part of his 'Oxford experience' and a totally unique time in his life. Upon hearing this, another scholar lamented he'd spent much time 'observing' these from afar as a cultural curiosity. He wished he'd pushed himself to be more social and get more involved, but confessed to being intimidated. It occurred to me there was a fine line in respecting the traditions/closed doors and being open/expressing interest/attempting to be active in various communities.

Not to be unrealistic- I know many, many things are not accessible to non-permanent faculty/non-college members... but which ones are? I really appreciated the invites to lunch at the Colleges (as a guest)- is that very common? What are places/experiences/events not-to-be missed? In ostensibly an entire town of 'gated communities', how does one know how/where/when to 'dive in' or get involved without offending tradition? I normally live in a tourist town inundated with people who don't seem to pick-up well on the local norms... there must be funny/ typical Oxford faux pas?

I'm equal parts extrovert & introvert- left to my own devices, (and with a cool new project to work on) I often hole up and time just disappears- like _months_! But Oxford is a much bigger town than I've been living in, I'd love to be much more social, go to evenings & events, meet interesting people etc. Also, I'm newly single and looking forward to meeting new people in a new place.

Lastly, I rowed in undergrad... Div I, so basically, I majored in racing & crew was life to the exclusion of all else- including social life. I'd love to try something lower-key (fun?- yes! fun!), sweep or scull, _as_ something social. The college boathouses are limited to members- but which public clubs are best to inquire with? Are there any public clubs that have higher quality singles for hire? (that's a rowing question ha-ha)

I'm mid/late 30's, female, apartment near to St.Hilda's College/The Plain, also I'm considering a half-marathon so any running routes near town would be awesome!
posted by iiniisfree to Human Relations (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Which nationality are you?
posted by semaphore at 10:09 AM on August 31, 2012

posted by iiniisfree at 10:16 AM on August 31, 2012

Given your goals, you really need to do whatever you can to join a college. Without more specifics about how long/why/where you're visiting, it's difficult to say how you'd make this happen. What do you mean by "school"? What institution are you actually visiting?

If you can't join a college then, given you like rowing, find a postgraduate who rows for theirs. Ask if you can join their boat club. The rules about participation with out the proper affiliations/degrees, etc. aren't enforced at the level you're talking about.

The idea that there are uniquely Oxford faux pas is a myth cultivated for tourists.
posted by caek at 10:22 AM on August 31, 2012

I really appreciated the invites to lunch at the Colleges (as a guest)- is that very common?

Generally, yes. Lunch is usually fairly informal cafeteria service and you can just put someone on your tab; dinner varies from college to college, but there's usually informal and "formal hall" service, with occasional be-suited "guest nights". That's especially true with the graduate-only colleges (e.g. Wolfson and Linacre) because grads tend to socialise across their faculty/department rather than within their own college. If your collaborators are college members, tap them up. If they have High Table rights, even better.

More broadly, check Daily Information to see what's going on, and check the School-specific noticeboard. Often, just showing up and making acquaintance (and letting people know that you're visiting) will open doors. I think the "respecting closed doors" thing is slightly overstating it -- colleges are, especially at the undergraduate level, really intimate groups, because they live in each other's sock drawers for three or four years, and it's that they're protective of, more than whatever silly traditions come with college life.

On preview: I think caek's right that a college affiliation will help a lot; and by School, do you mean one of these?
posted by holgate at 10:26 AM on August 31, 2012

I was a master's student at a large, new, extremely friendly graduate college with a decent scotch collection. If you enjoy scotch and mad, wonderful groups of graduate students, make friends with the St. X crowd. Colleges are especially good for working, as the libraries have extremely limited weekend and night hours. Many college libraries are good in their own right, though this varies dramatically by academic specialty and college. It sounds like you would very much enjoy being attached to a college, as lunch and dinners are a good low-key time of meeting up with people and in turn meeting new people.

I had a fantastic time and actually very little of what I did socially was through my college, aside from my dorm and lunch/weekly dinners. Many of the Societies like the wine clubs are, I think, fairly flexible about joining up (I know someone who was a member and isn't currently a student but still pays dues and does tastings). Almost every fancy dinner I went to was with friends who were more involved in clubs and groups, and I highly recommend you take advantage of those, if you can. These could include: the Royal Navy, political groups, international politics, men's groups-with-co-ed-dinners, the wine societies...Many lectures take place in colleges, so it's both educational and fun to see other sides of Oxford. If your specialty has lectures or seminars in All Souls, definitely do go to those! Oxford is teeming with groups and performances during term time; you should see adverts for various events plastered everywhere, and often for lessons or auditions. I was lucky in having friends who were substantially more outgoing than I was. I would second that rowing should be possible, and that you would have more luck speaking to a grad student who rows from a graduate college like St. Cross or Wolfson.

Running: down the canal and the Isis/Thames. Dirt, lovely flat stretches, sometimes cows, lots of chances to watch rowing. Excellent pubs to sit at after longer runs, like the Perch and the trout. I believe there are several local half marathons so you might want to check their routes and see where they go. You can also run north out the way to the Ring Road, which I used to do at night as it's wider than most Oxford sidewalks and better lit. The city center is not a good area for running as it is usually very crowded with narrow streets and cobblestones.
posted by jetlagaddict at 10:41 AM on August 31, 2012

Going to other colleges for lunch is very common -- even better, you should try to wangle invites to other formal halls. It's easy to bring guests to hall, and it's very Oxfordy -- a traditional college will be in a big old room, by candlelight, with gowns and suits.

University-level sports have their own socials, and the less-popular sports usually run beginner sessions open to all university members. (I highly recommend the beginner fencing. Not just because I helped coach this year =) There's a running society -- 'Hare and Hounds'. There are also loads and loads of university societies that aren't restricted to colleges -- there's a big fair at the end of freshers' week where all the societies put up a stall and recruit like mad. Try to sign up to at least twenty of them; you just give you email address and they add you to the list, no obligation to turn up.

I nth that you should try to join a college if you can.
posted by katrielalex at 10:44 AM on August 31, 2012

The tl;dr version of that would be that a college is a very useful place for networking, library access, casual meeting of people, and decent food. Older colleges are substantially better for some of those but not all of them. If you have any other hobbies there is probably a club or society for it. Have fun!
posted by jetlagaddict at 10:45 AM on August 31, 2012

I hear good things about HallSurfing as well.
posted by katrielalex at 11:01 AM on August 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

There's a good running route if you do a circuit of the grounds of Blenheim Palace.
posted by Urtylug at 11:07 AM on August 31, 2012

Comment number three: my college has published its freshers' information pack -- obviously some of the information won't be relevant but a lot is about Oxford in general.
posted by katrielalex at 11:47 AM on August 31, 2012

If you're in town by 5 October and you're interested in the structured social side of things, go to the Fresher's Fair. Most of the intercollege societies and sports clubs will have a stand.
posted by caek at 1:02 PM on August 31, 2012

I live in Oxford but I don't study there, so this answer is a little general.

For general socialising/getting involved in stuff within the University: this website lists many (all?) of the Oxford University societies/groups (there are so many of them!).

I've heard good things about the City of Oxford Rowing Club, which is open to non-uni people.

Also worth pointing out in case you didn't know, even if you're not a member of a college, if you have a blue university card you get free entrance into most (all?) of the colleges, which I think is well worth using just for kicks -- especially check out Worcester (it has a lake!) and Magdalen (it has its own deer park wtf).

I should also say that there's a lot of interesting stuff happening in Oxford beyond the university -- "Wonderland" is a really inspiring zine which talks about artsy/community/environmental stuff happening in Oxford, which you can get involved in if that kind of stuff floats your boat.

Best of luck settling in -- Oxford is a simultaneously fun and weird place to live. Mefi meetup?
posted by the cat's pyjamas at 3:49 PM on August 31, 2012

Thanks all!
Just to clarify, when I say 'School' I mean an interdisciplinary institute affiliated with a large department (it is listed on Holgate's link/list), and that I'll be a visiting research fellow there.

Many of you are encouraging me to affiliate with a College, and I agree that since we're talking more than a few months that I should pursue that- I just haven't known how or which one (by boathouse? by Hallsurfing? by boatsurfing?? :) ) Most College websites say applications have closed (but some memailers seem to suggest it's more fluid than that?)- sounds like I should pursue it once I get on-site, unless you've more suggestions... One metamailer indicated there can be a fee per term for visiting faculty/researchers/fellows, and I'm still not clear about this or if it takes one 'sponsor' or 'two' (or if you identify this person before you identify the College or vice versa).

I will indeed ask postgrads who are rowing to join them- sounds like the orientation events might also bring leads... or maybe I'll just take up fencing!

Mixed responses on memail, re:'diving in'- some suggesting the exclusivity thing was overblown /advising 'just wing it', some suggesting "its complicated" with kind personal notes from former grads & how they made their way. The friendliness and enthusiasm in general has nipped in the bud some early social apprehension- so thankyou, esp. for the humor & candor!

The info/orientation links are super and I will have a university card, but didn't as yet know what it's for, so thanks for related tips- Also a mefi meetup sounds perfect!
posted by iiniisfree at 4:45 PM on August 31, 2012

For rowing, you might also want to consider the Academicals; I think you're probably eligible. You can also request to be an associate member of a college boat club - probably easier if you know someone within the club, but otherwise I'd just try emailing the Women's Captain of some of the college clubs.
posted by iona at 5:31 PM on August 31, 2012

Given the season, private boat clubs are your best first choice, with the graduate colleges second: the captains of the undergraduate colleges are going to be focused on easing complete novice freshers into boats (and onto the towpath at stupid o'clock). If you do end up affiliated with a college that puts together scratch/beer boats for the regattas, you'll probably be a welcome ringer.
posted by holgate at 8:27 PM on August 31, 2012

Getting some sort of college affiliation should not be too tricky. If you're staying for a full year and are academically very strong then formal stipendiary (and non-stipendiary) fellowships are an option, although it's probably too late for this year. These are advertised in the Gazette and on the college websites. Otherwise just email your future colleagues and ask if they can get you some sort of temporary membership to their college, or ask your department's graduate assistant or secretary for guidance, or ask around when you arrive.

If you have a choice, don't worry about how to pick a college. They're different, and you'll have different experiences at each, but it's basically impossible to be informed about/understand the differences in advance. The only people who have their heart set on a particular college are people whose parents/housemaster went to Oxford. The rest of us just stuck a pin in a map, and pretty much all of us ended up thinking our college was the best.
posted by caek at 7:59 AM on September 1, 2012

> Mefi meetup

I would love an Oxford mefi meetup. I'm leaving (sad times) in a couple weeks, but can easily come back.
posted by katrielalex at 2:05 PM on September 2, 2012

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