What's an Oxford tutorial (or Cambridge supervision) like?
May 28, 2016 8:16 AM   Subscribe

My nephew (who is American) is applying to Oxford and Cambridge to do (read?) English. I'm excited about the idea, but he's not able to go over to visit before he applies (and presumably does his interview.) Can you tell us more about what a tutorial/supervision is like?

Just that, really. Interested to see what a Cambridge/Oxford tutorial/supervision is like for an undergraduate. Any specifics from the humanities in particular are helpful (we do know someone who did biology at Oxford, but presumably it would be quite different?)

The more details/stories/anecdotes the better!

Any other life as an undergrad at Oxford stories thrown in would also be useful, though I think right now he's thinking about what the actual classes would be like.
posted by heavenknows to Education (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I farmed this one out to my spouse, who's been a tutor at Oxford for some years now:
An average Humanities tutorial at Oxford involves the tutor and a small number of undergraduates: two is optimal, one is possible if it's a paper with a small intake, four is the theoretical maximum. Generally, each student will have been asked to research and write an essay during the week leading up to the tute, based on a reading list the tutor supplies. The essay will usually be ~2k. Practice differs between tutors and colleges; when I was an undergraduate we brought our essays to the tutorial, and one of us would be asked to read their essay aloud, as a springboard for discussion. This is quite old-fashioned, and I ask my students to submit their essays a little in advance, giving me time to mark them and return them in the tute. During the tute itself, which lasts anywhere from an hour to ninety minutes, the tutor will ask the students about their essays: questions like 'I didn't follow your logic here, can you explain in more detail?' or 'do you have any other examples which support your argument about x?'. This will then turn into a general discussion of the topic and points arising from it. The idea is not really for the tutor to transmit lots of knowledge to the students (that's what lectures are for) but for the students to try out their own ideas and expose them to criticism, although in my experience I often have to spend some time filling gaps in background knowledge before we can really get into the good stuff.
Best of luck to your nephew -- I do think there's no better place than Oxford to study.
posted by monster truck weekend at 9:01 AM on May 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

The fundamental point about Oxford and Cambridge humanities is that undergraduate teaching is primarily done at the college level, so you're very close to a very small group of peers taking your subject, but much less close to the larger community of undergraduates in your year reading the same subject at other colleges. You'll have occasional contacts with them because certain subject areas will be farmed out to tutors affiliated with other colleges or to lecturers affiliated with the faculty, not a college.

I'm loath to talk about the current tutorial / supervision experience, because the technology available to students has changed so much: 20 years ago we were still handwriting essays, often at the very last minute before the tute, and tutors didn't use email. But the core of the tutorial, I think, remains the same: using student essays as the springboard for discussion.

So, from my experience: either one or two students, very rarely more than two. For a 2-person tute, one would read and the other would hand in, and reading duty would alternate during the term. During the reading, the tutor would make notes, and frequently interrupt to ask the reader to elaborate on a point, or suggest a counterargument, or go off on a tangent triggered by a particular, often asking the other tutee if he/she agrees with the line of thinking or to make other suggestions. After the reading, depending on the time remaining, there'd be a broader discussion of the week's topic, and the reader would then hand in for marking.

I know that occasionally for me, the act of reading was very good at cementing some points or exposing the bits where I was skimming or bullshitting my way through an argument, and I'd say "actually, now that I'm reading this back, what I meant to write was..." and extemporise (or cover my arse) a little.

For English at Oxford in the 90s, lectures were useful, and vaguely related to the syllabus, but neither essential nor compulsory: the standard pattern was for the lecture theatres to be full in First Week and nearly empty by Fifth and Sixth Week. (They were, let's be honest, also a good way to check out your peers at other colleges, outside of libraries.)
posted by holgate at 9:10 AM on May 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm an American who read a humanities subject at Oxbridge for undergrad, and I have further Oxbridge degrees as well. Feel free to MeMail me if he would like to chat (by email or on the phone or whatever he would find most useful).
posted by ClaireBear at 9:39 AM on May 28, 2016

Also, at least in my time (which wasn't very long ago), you could only apply to *either* Oxford *or* Cambridge for undergrad, not both. Subjects often have different emphases at Oxford versus Cambridge. E.g. PPE at Oxford includes Economics and is a quasi-pipeline to British politics, versus SPS or PPS or whatever they're calling it at Cambridge these days, which has a more social sciencey orientation and is frankly a bit less prestigious. For sciences, Cambridge offers combined sciences versus Oxford's single science degrees. English specifically is rather different at Oxford versus Cambridge too (especially in how medieval/Old English stuff is offered, not least because Cambridge offers ASNaC as a separate degree). So potential applicants are advised to be pretty clear on their specific interests within the subject they're applying for, and choose carefully between Oxford or Cambridge depending on fit. College choice is important too. As I said, I have pretty recent experience with this stuff, and lots of thoughts on preparing for the interview (which basically makes or breaks the application - it is *much* more important than the warm-and-fuzzy alumni interviews that colleges do in the States). Anyway, I'd be happy to chat with your nephew and answer specific questions, so feel free to MeMail me if he would find that helpful. I'm an American and I also have a graduate degree from an Ivy (and taught undergraduates at that Ivy) so I have some comparative perspective as well. Since he's an American, I think that having an American perspective on how to prepare, different emphases from the American educational system, the type of student who would be best suited to the very unique Oxbridge system, etc. would be quite helpful (or at any rate, I really would have appreciated it before applying!).
posted by ClaireBear at 9:51 AM on May 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

Very briefly (MeMail me if you want details): in my year at Cambridge on an exchange scheme, in History and Philosophy of Science, I basically did three things: (1) Attended lectures in the general areas where I planned to take exams (I was in the third [final] year of the Cambridge HPS curriculum), (2) had tutorials in the fields of my exams, and (3) worked on a "dissertation" (what we would call an honors thesis in the US). The tutorials involved writing a 4-5 page essay and reading it aloud in tutorial, with the tutor (different depending on the exam subject, which was probably because HPS was a small field and my college—Trinity, very big!—didn't actually have a tutor in the subject) and 1-2 other students. It was great intellectual give and take.

The most important difference between Oxbridge and US colleges, even the most elite, is the degree of self-instruction that Oxford and Cambridge expect. Even at the University of Chicago, my courses had very detailed reading lists, indicating what we were supposed to read, with some additional suggested readings. At Cambridge, I was given a large bibliography in each of my subjects, but also instructed to take it as a starting point: I wasn't expected to read everything on it, but I was expected to read things that weren't on it, depending on the direction my interests took.

If your nephew is genuinely curious and a self-starter, an Oxbridge undergrad experience can be amazing. If he expects to be told what to do, it might well be awful.
posted by brianogilvie at 6:52 PM on May 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

I was never a student the Oxbridge system; I have been various kinds of faculty there and taught supervisions across a couple of humanities subjects. Most of the general advice above is a good guide to what to expect. I would say that it is a little less eccentric now than it used to be, as there has been a drive to, for want of a better word, standardise and professionalise the system.

That said, the teaching varies; reading aloud is relatively uncommon now, but the staff giving the tutorials can range from the most senior professors through to what are the closest the UK system has to adjuncts, and so pedagogical approaches might vary widely. As others have said, this is great for self-starters and self-confident students who appreciate being exposed to a range of different people and ideas. It can be challenging for students who like more system and consistency - and particularly for those who, often as high achievers, are more comfortable when the expectations of them are explicit, standardized and clear.

On that second point, one thing that I found American students in particular struggled with was that supervision work is not graded (formally) and does not 'count' towards your graduating grade/class - for many degree courses your final grade is entirely dictated by your performance in end of year exams. Cambridge, and I believe Oxford, strictly separate teaching from assessment, which means the people who teach you through the year have no say at all in the grading of your work. This is again challenging for students who like to have a sense of progress and/or a reassurance that they're 'on track'.
posted by AFII at 11:31 PM on May 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

Oxford undergrad thirty years ago - all the above is quite accurate (I do wonder how technology might intervene in what really was a books-papers-discussion- based exploration of knowledge. The points about lectures quickly becoming peripheral, and about studying being somehow very distinct from exams&grades are salient, I think. Also: do not underestimate the drinking (well, particularly in the first year), but maybe that's par for the course at any uni.
posted by progosk at 12:23 AM on May 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Your nephew might find it helpful to take a look at Thanks, You Taught Me How To Think (pdf). Don't be put off by the rather self-satisfied title: this is a valuable collection of essays (by Richard Dawkins, among others) which I think conveys the flavour of the Oxbridge tutorial/supervision system pretty well. Chapter 8 (pp 68-71) is by an English Literature scholar (Emma Smith, of Hertford College), explaining what the tutorial system is supposed to achieve, and what students can do to prepare for it.
posted by verstegan at 3:06 PM on May 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

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