In defence of the humanities

In defence of the humanities

Confession: I just finished reading Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and I have no idea what I just read.

If that doesn’t sound ‘meta’ enough of a lead to entice further reading, I’ll add in an extra pinch of shamefaced nihilism for good measure: I don’t know why I read it in the first place.

In fact, I don’t know why I read half of the books I do for my degree. Knowing how some medieval visionary mystic saw God in a trance is no token for my personal salvation, understanding the mechanics of Austenian irony won’t find me a Captain Wentworth as future husband, and deciphering the ‘semiotic praxis’ (or other postmodern claptrap) of Bella Italia’s menu certainly won’t help me bargain for a cheaper meal. To my more practical peers who prefer the laboratory to the library, a degree that entails endless reading of ‘story books’ after which you lyricise about how you ‘feel’ seems gratuitous at best and self-indulgent at worst. After all, these people are either on their way to NASA stardom or MSF-ish altruism, gearing themselves for the noble cause of contributing to human progress and third-world improvement as we novelist manqués obsess over the inconsequential le mot juste a la Flaubert.

This impression must resonate all the more under the current climate of austerity, when the coalition government has no qualms about cutting research funding for the humanities in favour of STEM subjects. At the risk of sounding too apocalyptic, one fact appears increasingly true:

The study of the humanities is in crisis.

An academic celebrity like Stanley Fish may insist that “whatever does or does not happen in the ‘real world’ is not the issue; the issue is what happens in the academic world”, but such an insular view is likely to be the exception rather than the rule, as most scholars today are aware that the humanistic industry must, for the sake of its ongoing existence, find what John Guillory calls a “legitimation narrative” to maintain its social relevance. Gone are the halcyon heydays of 80s postmodernism, as fate’s sleight of hand has turned the English professor – once the rock ‘n roll darling of the academic intelligentsia – into an archetypal Randian villain who leeches off the toil of others by always criticising and never creating (vide Ellsworth Toohey in The Fountainhead). Since the corporatist society in which we live favours a Gradgrindery approach to understanding ‘value’, profit-making has become gospel and statistics its default yardstick.  We seek consolation in numbers because its absolute nature eliminates the mental labour of considering alternatives, and we proclaim data to be the source of wisdom because hard ‘facts’ offer the illusion of ‘truth’. As we are forced to confront growing figures of graduate unemployment, the Arnoldian injunction of literature offering “sweetness and light” suddenly seems nothing more than woolly waffle than serious cultural critique, removed from all parameters of harsh reality.

Yet defend the study of humanities we must, and I make two arguments for its case: first, it is not so much the economic ‘value’ as it is the cultural importance of humanistic learning that society should emphasise; second, the ‘critical consciousness’ that it cultivates in university students is crucial to responsible citizenship at large.

I remember going to Professor Helen Small’s lectures on Victorianism back in first year, and being bowled over by her intellectual brilliance. Yet I take slight issue with the title of her recent book – The Value of the Humanities (Oxford, 2013), as the connotation of numerical worth in the word “value” seems to concede the very grounds she aims to contend. It is an enlightening work, wherein she argues that we should “keep instrumentalism at a clear remove from our language”, and to give in “as little as possible to the formulaic language of the bureaucratic statistician”, which is why I find her lexical choice curious, if not ironic. For too long, the idea that ‘social utility’ is contingent upon financial returns has prevailed in the public mindset, but this is a dangerous misconception because it reduces individuals into mere economic agents and revenue mills. This may explain Stefan Collini’s woe as expressed in his insightful LRB essay ‘Sold Out’, namely that “scholars now spend a considerable, and increasing, part of their working day accounting for their activities in the managers’ terms”.

In an era that allows the principle of efficiency and the legitimisation of greed to run amok, we demand immediate gratification as spiritual reassurance: seeing tech stocks rise trumps mulling over a literary classic in the adrenaline stakes any day. What’s unfortunate is that the government champions this mentality by way of a false analogy in practice, as it arbitrarily imposes the standards of one social pillar (economics) on another that serves a different, but just as significant, purpose (culture). It is as if someone is asking you to evaluate the taste of marmite in terms of Nutella; the humanities can’t win, because the odds are stacked against it in the policymakers’ ‘priority hierarchy’. In fact, it’s hardly surprising that defenders of this field eventually find themselves stuck in a justificatory cul-de-sac, as they are forced to face the impossible task of quantifying the unquantifiable, struggling to describe something that by nature defies the prescribed language of description.

As such, the first step is to reinterpret ‘social benefit’ by recalibrating the weight ascribed to financial returns and cultural impact. From a monetary vantage, there is indeed no getting away from the fact that the rewards of humanistic studies will always fall short of its more lucrative STEM cousins, but rather than taking this as an objective shortcoming, perhaps it is high time we adopted an alternative, albeit no less meriting, criterion – that of what the late Brazillian educator Paulo Freire calls ‘critical consciousness’ in his 1970 work Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

While Freire explains the idea of ‘critical consciousness’ as one’s “reading of the world”, it may help to understand it as a self-questioning impulse fuelled by one’s encounter with various narratives and perspectives, which is something that a detailed study of the humanities affords. Personal judgment is often challenged only when exposed to alternative views, and the ability to reconsider the validity of one’s own opinion is what sustains social debate. At a fundamental level, this counters pride and encourages empathy. When applied to the numbers-versus-narrative framework, it puts under scrutiny what Leon Wieselter acutely observes as the modern-day “overconfidence in trying to use numbers to explain human life”. But won’t going to a library in your spare time also do the job? Why is it necessary for us to spend three years (not to mention nine grand per year) labouring away at something we could easily access on our own?

My answer is simple but probably unpleasant: It is exactly the mental labouring over linguistic nuances, rhetorical tapestries and secondary analyses that doing a humanities degree requires which will trigger and hone one’s urge to question. Reading a book for leisure is an altogether different matter: you are, by definition of ‘leisure’, most likely seeking a mental break through the experience of reading, and even if you were a highbrow sucker for Shakespearean soliloquies or Derridean deconstruction, I doubt that you’d willingly subject your brain to a rigorous analytical grilling ‘just for fun’ after a day’s work.

This is also why the university is such a crucial place for humanistic study: it serves as an intellectual ‘playground’, a fecund academic space for ideas to pluralise and engage with one another. It is where students are handed the license to experiment with different modes of argument, types of ideology and structures of analysis without the baggage of workplace politics. This echoes the “free play of mind” which Matthew Arnold advocates in his 1864 The Functions of Criticism, and to Professor Small, this sort of intellectual freedom is what “checks the mechanical following of any ‘mean master-concern’… providing more curious, less dully habituated employers and employees”. Students sometimes complain about the open-endedness of humanities essays, but this open-ended quality is in fact the point at which democratic dialogue begins, and while for Oxbridge students this translates specifically into the Socratic method of learning, it is universally transferable as a way of coming to terms with the world’s pluralistic complexity.

This mindset explains why the humanistic discipline is so integral to social well-being at large: by exploring rhetorical implications and enabling narrative interplay, humanities scholars remind us as citizens of the constant need for intellectual flexibility – the capacity to dispense with bigotry, to question with curiosity and to ‘agree to disagree’ in a Voltairean spirit. As my tutor Philip Knox sums it up aptly: “We need the humanities to challenge the idea of knowledge as a received and static commodity – this is crucial to our lives as political agents. The value of a humanities degree cannot be understood as a return on an investment, but rather as a personally fulfilling and socially useful participation in the generation of knowledge.” Ultimately, Google search can offer us all the information available in the world, but it is the painstaking study of what such information means for humanity that will truly generate knowledge of relevance to everyone in our society.


PHOTO/Jennifer Chan


Careers special: meet the librarian scholar

Careers special: meet the librarian scholar

Trinity beckons, and while April showers bring May flowers, this sort of proverbial frivolity won’t mask the less cheery fact that it’s also Finals season, which for all current third-years basically translates into crunch time in Oxspeak. Dare you expose your identity as a non-finalist in the Radcliffe Camera, and you run the risk of incurring the (rightful) wrath of your territorial elder peers, whose solemn countenances and Goliathesque notes should suffice to deter you from venturing into that ‘pressure vessel’. But you already know this, and what you just read was simply an obligatory acknowledgement (if not hazard warning) of the fact that finalists are stressed so, provoke them at your peril. What you probably don’t know, however, is that meanwhile the librarians in there are wondering why on earth students only ever approach them when they need directions to the printer, because news flash: These people aren’t glacial automatons whose job begins with telling you to put away that Morton’s flat white and ends by checking out Siegelbaum’s Stalinism as a Way of Life. Not quite, and just because they work in a dome-shaped factory of academic toil doesn’t mean that they are necessarily walking zombies of Grimville. “These days, students don’t tend to talk to the librarians, which is a bit strange. What they really should do is approach us with their research ideas,” says Jed Foland, a library assistant-cum-history tutor at the Rad Cam (What a mate, definitely taking him up on that offer come dissertation prep). I recently spoke to him about what the view is like from the other side of the pond, and apart from wangling the mandatory ‘A Day in the Life of’ and behind-the-desk skinny from Jed, I made some interesting discoveries about library science, Bodleian mechanics and what it’s like leading the ultimate scholarly life as a tutor by day and a librarian by night. Here’s a little teaser: It’s not so much about books as it is about you – the reader.

When asked how he first got into the field of librarianship, Jed chuckled and said, “I’ve always loved books and wanted to become a history professor, so when I heard that the History faculty was hiring a part-time assistant to shelve books, I applied – and there’s never been a dull moment ever since I started five years ago.” His passion for the job was at once contagious and electric, as evidenced by the frisson of delight in the way he referred to the “nerdy academic je ne sais quoi” of Oxford. Yet it wasn’t until he started working in the company of books galore that the irony hit him: Being a librarian is primarily about customer service, and it’s more important for one to acquire communication skills than to memorise a modern-day Bibliotheca Universalis. As the guy who’s usually at the front desk tending to patron’s queries, Jed is one of the ‘public faces’ of the Bod, and while we have the liberty to punctuate work with Facebook procrastination sessions, he’s always working away on that Staff Desk computer, either going through faculty-prescribed syllabi and making sure that the reading lists are well stocked in the database, or organising thesis fairs and workshops for students at the Exam Schools – that is, when he’s not shelving books in the Gladstone Link, ensuring ready access to reading materials or showing students how to navigate the nuts and bolts of the Bod. True to the Oxonian ethos, he’s constantly on his feet and there’s never enough work to be done. “Every time your professor adds a new text to the syllabus, it is our job to find, purchase, process and eventually place it on the shelf for use. While we are the ones making sure that the books are constantly moving back and forth between the Swindon Book Storage Facility (BSF) and the Rad Cam, the more senior librarians spend a lot of their time liaising and planning the logistics.” To think that so much work goes into the situational mechanics of just one book in the library makes me recoil a bit in sheepishness, since I’m a faithful member of the voracious book-hoarding tribe that tends to unthinkingly yank a book off from the shelves only to realise that whoops, I won’t be needing it today after all so I’ll just leave it there on the table. In the morning, Jed gives tutorials on the history of science, medicine and biology (my sleuth work also tells me that his doctoral thesis was on Enlightenment microscopy), which means that he literally works round the clock save for Sundays. This dual identity at times leads to comic encounters between ‘Dr Foland’ and his students in the Upper Camera: “I would literally be scanning books next to the students who I’ve tutored an hour ago, and they’d be sitting there, writing an essay – for me.” How bizarre, I rejoined nervously. “It’s probably more so for them, I reckon. But I think that’s what a library should be: a place where students and teachers can work in the company of one another.”

Despite his love for working in the presence of students, there are nonetheless aspects to being a Bodleian librarian that are not as pleasant. For starters, having to deal with tourists on a regular basis can be annoying, especially for the one working at the front desk, who often has to play porter and ward off unauthorised visitors or anyone without that sacred Bod card. Tourists aren’t even allowed to peek through the crevice and take photos of the Rad Cam’s interior, because that would invade the privacy of students. And don’t try to pull a fast one on the staff by giving someone else your card, because their super-sharp radars will pick up on this and “report” you to the authorities (on the grounds that your card has been stolen). The issue of tourism is a tricky dilemma, and Jed is aware of the nuances at stake in the debate: “At the end of the day, tourists are important, both to the town’s economy and the Bodleian’s image. Still, we don’t want this to be a public reading room where anyone can casually go in and out. It is, after all, a university library.” While the Rad Cam is the iconic emblem of Oxford (as the postcards on sale in High Street newsagents will attest to), a flip side is that it has also taken on a mantle of establishmentarianism, and whenever there are protests or strikes, dissenters against whatever administrative follies will circumvent this first port of ‘siege’. Ever since the 2010 Bodleian take-over in response to the coalition government’s tuition fee-rise policy, more stringent security measures have been implemented; for instance, the library would hire more guards before an impending protest movement. “But as far as we’re concerned, students, academics and books are the most crucial things.”

With this imperative of scholarship in mind, Jed expressed another source of frustration for the Bodleian, which is the problem with limited funding. “Say if we wanted to subscribe to a top American academic journal, this would have to depend on whether or not enough money has been allocated to the item in the budget. The Americans have become a lot stricter about copyright restrictions in recent years, and nowadays professors can’t just photocopy or post on Weblearn any American book or journal document, and so they must either get permission from the publisher or refrain from using that specific text as class material. This is a real detriment to education, because it isn’t possible for one to always be in the right university at the right time.” That there are still such barriers to learning is indeed a real shame, especially in a digital age where ‘egalitarian’ dissemination of knowledge should be a principle pursuit in academia. Yet while Jed laments this obstacle, he is also optimistic about its remedy. “The way to go about this is through the academics and librarians themselves; every good academic or librarian I know of will bend over backwards to get you the information you need, simply because they are so passionate about what they do.” So how would he deal with a situation wherein the information someone requests isn’t available on SOLO? “If I’m familiar with the topic, I will recommend something else of equal merit or use. Alternatively, I or my colleagues could show them where to get a review of the work they were looking for.”

Ultimately, the Bodleian staff is equipped with the ability and know-how to blend librarianship and academics, which for Jed is where their real edge lies in. Students would no doubt benefit from an awareness of this fact: librarians aren’t just latter-day Ariadnes who can show you the way out of the Gladstone Labyrinth or decipher enigmatic call numbers purposely designed to aggravate your stress levels. Instead, they are scholars who would willingly answer your dissertation queries or offer research suggestions, because as Jed puts it cheekily, “we’re smart cookies.” Indeed, and we’d be fools not to utilise this readily accessible intellectual resource. At the end of the day, the library’s book-people dichotomy goes both ways: For librarians, it is about catering to students’ needs with recourse to texts, whereas for students, it should be about seeking academic help from both fronts, be it in the form of books or a shelver of books (who most likely has a masters/doctorate). Just don’t let any of them catch you red-handed with a kebab in the Gladstone Link, because chances are, he or she might be your next tutor – and that’s hardly the way to make a great first impression.

PHOTO/Jennifer Chan

Your Ultimate 2014 Guide to College Balls

Your Ultimate 2014 Guide to College Balls

St Anne’s

Lucy Fielding and Liviana Sordo-de-Cock

St Anne’s Ball 2014 (10th May, Saturday of 2nd week) is the only college ball to be held outside of Oxford this year at Kingston Bagpuize House and Gardens, an 18th century home and its surrounding parkland, which is entirely at the disposal of ball-goers for one night. The sheer size of the space allows the Ball to host fairground rides which you can’t get into most colleges’ grounds, different marquees for music and entertainment, and more food options than the average person will be able to take advantage of. If you are starting to worry about transport, don’t. Transport is arranged there and back, with all coaches leaving St Anne’s College early in the evening, and returning every half hour from midnight onwards.

The theme is La Belle Époque – a luxurious era in French and Belgian history that was all about lavishness and enjoyment. It’s exactly what you want from a college ball. The choices are endless in both food and entertainment. College balls often offer you a narrow selection of premixed drinks, this one will offer you all the standard drinks you would expect from a night out (G&T, vodka lemonade, Jägerbombs etc.) as well as beer, wine, soft drinks, cocktails and mocktails for those of you who don’t drink alcohol (or need to wake up and be productive the next day). If you start to feel a little bit tired towards the end of the night there will be tea and coffee, and if you just want a warm drink there will be hot chocolate too. To accompany all these drinks there will be food, lots of it, both sweet and savoury. In terms of the latter there will be burgers, pizzas, and Croques Monsieur (French toastie). For those with a sweet tooth there will be crêpes, donuts, and a chocolaterie (think of the film, Chocolat, and you’re close). Within these options will be more options, including ones for vegetarians and allergy sufferers (dairy, gluten, and nuts).  We defy anyone to say there’s nothing that tempts them there.


Audrey Davies

Keble Ball, Oxford’s largest annual black tie, is back again with “Romanov Russia” as its theme. The Tab reported Keble Ball 2013 was “a quality affair” with “strong and plentiful” drinks and “a photographer that made you look attractive when you’re actually really ugly”. Well, you’re in for a treat, because this year it promises to be even better. Our catering team have hinted at a Bolshevik Beer Hall, towers of macaroons and truffles, and of course every Russian’s “water of life”; vodka – and yes, we’ll have stock loads of it, so get psyched. These themed additions will be complemented by a wide array of world cuisine, in addition to the return of last year’s hugely successful cocktail bars and a line up filled with big names. Honestly, a premium black tie event with tickets at just £90? This is a guaranteed steal.


Leah Matthews

On May 10th 2014, Oxford’s most beautiful yet underrated college will transform each of its unspoilt 15th century quads into Heaven, Hell and Eden. At only £90 for a non-dining ticket, Lincoln’s Paradise Lost ball is set to be a night of cosmic proportions, at least where fun is concerned. Guests will also be given the chance to experience Lincoln’s renowned Cordon Bleu-standard food, with dining tickets for a scrumptious three course feast set at just £129.  Rumours are already flying of a huge headliner from an up-and-coming American band, and a newly signed London talent, not to mention one of Oxford’s biggest DJ’s taking control of the dance tent. Guests will be invited into the splendour of Paradiso where they can revel in sheer decadence, before descending into the perils of Hell to party like sinners until the sun comes up. In short, Lincoln Ball has something on offer for everyone; if a night of hedonistic partying in Hell is not for you, then the legendary Ringaringaroses Garland-making company await in Eden, alongside multiple other exciting features to beguile the senses (watch this space!). What is more, the committee have some of London’s hottest street food vendors lined up, such as Anna Mae’s legendary Pulled Pork: spotted at last year’s Bestival and shortlisted for the BBC Good Food Awards. The committee will soon be making more tantalising foodie announcements, and have promised that a sumptuous feast will be available.

St Hilda’s

Rebecca Jones

As one of the cheapest balls in Oxford, we provide a plethora of entertainment options, which basically means the Hilda Ball is the ultimate value-for-money ball. Set against the backdrop of Fin de Siecle, the night promises to be one of justified decadence, glamorous indulgence and shameless debauchery. Music acts include Collector’s Club, Teddy and Dot’s Funk Odyssey, as well as Hilda’s very own Jack and the Beanstalks, whose popular appeal in the past means they’ll be returning for the third year in a row. The night is expected to end with a silent disco conducted by DJs from Babylove (Action Stations) and Cellar (RUNDFUNK). If that doesn’t tickle your fancy, there will also be a huge 25ft sq bouncy castle, a thirty-player game of lasertag, giant connect 4 and even an oversized game of chess. For those who prefer something a bit less hectic, there will also be an interactive photo booth and a shisha bar where you can just relax and listen to the several acts lined up for the acoustic stage. And who can forget about food? Those with dining tickets will be able to tuck into a delicious five course menu featuring a host of rich, provocative French cuisine. For informal dining, there will also be tons on offer, including our resident favourite G&D’s, a gourmet barbeque and rustic beef Bourguignon. Lastly, what’s a night of revelry without unlimited alcohol and vibrant cocktails? With so many fantastic choices on offer, the Hilda ball at least wins in the variety stakes.


Andy Thomas

Returning to Worcester as part of a triennial cycle, the 2014 Commemoration Ball coincides with Worcester’s 300th anniversary and will be the pinnacle of the College’s events marking the tercentenary year. Befitting the occasion, 2,000 guests will be treated to a night of elegance, sophistication and bespoke entertainment, spread amongst the College’s extensive grounds and gardens. With the orchard and lake forming part of the enchanting backdrop, an evening of the spectacular is guaranteed. In addition to our ground-breaking partnership with The Ministry of Sound, many closely guarded secrets remain, and will be revealed in the build up to the Ball. Our guests can expect the finest cuisines, handpicked from outstanding national favourites and boutique local suppliers, complemented by a diverse and exciting array of drinks to be served throughout the evening. A glittering musical and entertainment line-up, showcased across several indoor and outdoor stages will captivate from the setting of the sun until the first light of morning. In such a historic year, this will be a truly unforgettable occasion. To those lucky enough to hold a ticket – we look forward to welcoming you through the gates of Worcester this June.

St John’s

Flora Sheldon

St. John’s College Commemoration Ball, the Ball of the Year, will take you on a grand journey through the seasons. On 27th June, there quads and gardens undergo a transformation into different seasons. They recently signed a fantastic band who will be headlining their main stage, and this mysterious guest will be joined by many more great musical acts that they have lined up on all three stages. From a summer festival to a wintry fairground, there will be festivities for everyone from dusk until dawn. The unlimited drink and many seasonal food options we have on offer will keep you going all night, and those of you that do make it will, of course, be treated with a fine breakfast in the morning. At just £155 for a year’s worth of fun in one unforgettable night, make sure you get a ticket whilst they are still available.


Your Guide to Niche Nights

Your Guide to Niche Nights

Having spent our first year at Oxford familiarising ourselves with the Cheese Floor and Wahoo, we decided to broaden our night time horizons out and experience some of Oxford’s less busy nights out. If you’re considering something a bit different to your standard trip to Park End or Bridge, we’ve reported back on our findings from deepest darkest Cellar and Babylove, so you’re prepared should you decide to venture out.

Our foray into the more obscure side of Oxford clubbing began with a slight embarrassment at Extracurricular at Cellar. In the belief that it would save us £2 each, we wrote our names on the wall of the event, having been warned that “obvious jokes would not be accepted”. When we got to the door, we found that our names weren’t on the list — I guess this must make us “obvious jokes”. But once we were in and had adjusted to the Cellar ambiance, that is, the dark, stuffy heat, we actually started to like it. Red Stripe in hand (drink of choice in Cellar) we braved the dance floor. We weren’t strictly familiar with the music — the night had advertised itself as “no genre in particular — but soon found that it was quite conducive to rhythmic thrashing of the extremities. Slightly concerned that we’d embarrass ourselves, we kept an eye on others’ moves, and were pleased to find that no dance move is too embarrassing. For an hour or so, we made full use of this: the others may be wearing crops tops, unusual t-shirts and peak caps backwards, but everyone’s dancing is equally uncool. Even a newbie loves to see the beat drop.

Supermarket, the second stop on our journey of discovery, is hardly niche these days. To use the useful, albeit extremely obnoxious term, it’s best characterised as “entry-level niche” — sounds just right for us. We did our research beforehand and were reliably informed that the smoking area was Supermarket, as long as you don’t mind missing out on the Beyoncé and on a picture with a trendy filter (which, despite the possibility of harm to our credibility, we didn’t mind). In light of this knowledge, we decided to save ourselves a fiver and literally only go to the smoking area, with some spare friend-making Rizla in hand.  But we’re here so you learn from our mistakes, so a top tip from us: go on the right night. Odd weeks, silly!

Having found Cellar quite enjoyable, we went back for more at LoveShy. A surprisingly busy night, we found ourselves having to queue for at least half an hour. However, we didn’t mind because it accidentally gave us the opportunity to interview someone who tried to bum a cig off us. “I really like Cellar”, says an unnamed fresher (because we forgot her name), “because I get really fed up of spending time too much time around Oxford students.” We’re not sure if this is really the opportunity to mingle with townies, but the feel of the place is certainly different to Camera, for example. Once we were in Cellar, and comforted by the ubiquity of the now familiar red and white of the Red Stripe cans, we took a minute to get to know our surroundings. The attire was especially surprising to us, since we hadn’t realised that geek chic had made a comeback, and there were some questionable choices in eyewear out that night. The music was also a surprise to us. Far from being out of our depth we found it a sort of remixed throwback, with bits of songs we recognise from our youth: “Babycakes, you just don’t know how I love you so”, and also that one that goes “One, two, three, four, let me hear you scream if want some more…”. With only a can of beer in us each, the booming bass line meant we were still able to appreciate the joys of rubbing against suspiciously sweaty strangers, which only reflects well on the night. On the downside, we were promised crisps, and we didn’t get any.

On the night of Burning Down the House, Wednesdays/Fridays of odd weeks, we did actually enter Babylove. The music is versatile and varied, considering that Burning is an 80s night rather than a specific genre. But generally, it is best characterised as fun, danceable pop, or otherwise as “a Radio 2 listener’s paradise”, as one regular put it. We did find it especially pleasing to be able to dance along to Kate Bush and Blondie playing very loudly in a room of likeminded people, which you can’t really get anywhere else in Oxford. The atmosphere was also unique: intimate, friendly, and this time, when we were promised sweets, we did in fact get them. There was no real “type” of person or of attire there, though it was probably above average in trendiness. The odd nod to the 80s in fashion was valued: think oversized clothes and outrageous patterns. We also did some research at the bar: it’s expensive, but the barman has confirmed that the greatest alcohol to price ratio is a double vodka and lemonade. In the smoking area, again with our friend-making Rizla, we asked another regular what their thoughts were on Burning: “I stay until the end because I like it.” We ourselves agree we, and we also stayed until the end, and at 2.56am we were treated to Wuthering Heights (what’s two years?). Unfortunately an underrated night — personally, we had the most fun there, and found its atmosphere and familiar music the most enjoyable during our foray into niche nights.

So will these newbies go back? We found that trying out some “niche nights” every now and then is a great way to break up the routine and experience something a bit different to your standard fare at Park End. Usually these nights are lacking in the numbers that the bigger clubs draw, but in the small venues, that can also be a good thing. Now with this guide, you have nothing stopping you.

How to Be A Reformed Procrastinator 101

How to Be A Reformed Procrastinator 101

‘Grats, comrades of the scholarly pursuit, for making it to 3rd week. Michaelmas has come and gone, and here hails Hilary; although to anyone well-versed in the seasonal implications of Oxford terms, the word “hails” is likely to be so jarringly out of context as to sound like an ironic clang, or the first note of a threnody to blizzard-less bliss, harbingering the gloom and doom that will soon materialise into a snowball of essays or problem sheets. For the university student, January blues embodies not so much a sentiment as a wintry way of life; an opportunity for one to defiantly subvert the aphoristic wisdom of “you snooze you lose” by hitting the dreaded button and the cosy hay all at once, and to do so without any qualms in a way that would make even the poster enfant terrible Holden Caulfield proud.

Unless you are a sorry sadomasochist whose relationship with work is characterised by Stockholm Syndrome, then the response to HT2014 should really just be “work, shmerk”, with an added dose of self-righteous spice on the side. Adam and Eve may wake up early and work in Milton’s Paradise, yet we postlapsarian sinners can’t help but appreciate the odd (ahem) slothful sleep-in, especially when the week’s essay topic literally screams boredom and we’d much rather take a wonky-eyed insta-selfie of #CBA-ness than contend with Quantum or Quintilian. But alas, rants will always be subordinate to reality, and despite the visceral vindication that bitching offers, it is markedly less helpful in terms of dealing with our primary source of pain – the material mass of reading that taunts our wilful disingenuousness on a weekly basis. Naturally, being the wronged but wily souls like the Oxford students that we are, we adopt the tried and tested approach of flight instead of fight by carrying out a policy of procrastination a la Chamberlain until the deadline comes beckoning, only to find out that history is known to teach lessons for a good reason. So alas, we inveigh and ignore to scant avail, and therefore must eventually succumb to travail. While I hope my cringeworthy attempt at poetic concordance did manage to induce a slight twitch in that frozen frown which (I suspect) has been present on your face since the New Year, I must nonetheless stress a foregone conclusion: students will always be ‘losers’ in the struggle against work, and harbouring any delusions to the contrary hardly helps with making progress. Apparently, students have developed such a bad rap on getting things done that we can now actually lay claim to an exclusive ‘syndrome’, creatively termed “Student Syndrome” which is really just clinical code for lazy bums who think that essays will somehow magically write themselves.

But at the end of the day, didactic chat cannot prove the remedy for the academic epidemic that is procrastination, because incentive to change must come from within the self, and before you dismiss what follows as the sort of motivational codswallop that your secondary school teachers used to force down your throat in after-school talks, here’s some paradoxical but constructive food for thought: spend two more minutes procrastinating (which you obviously have been by reading my article) to discover how the twin methods of self-privation and self-quarantine can help you curb and combat – yes, you guessed it, the grand problem of procrastination.

Method 1: Self-Privation 

If ever there were a 21st century devilish antidote to the Holy Trinity, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube would be it. As long as you have a laptop and eduroam/college wifi isn’t being a temperamental sod that day, I am willing to wager almost anything (save perhaps my laptop and wifi) that these are the first websites you click onto upon logging in, bar none. What usually follows is a period of mindless surfing-scrolling-stalking, as one becomes helplessly subsumed by the gravitational lure of information infinite, even when ploughing through photos of your non-university friends’ latest club night shenanigans amounts to little else than a comparative exercise at self-pity. Otherwise, you engage in random chat with that tempting online presence of who the Facebook algorithm thinks is your ‘top friend’, only to realise that by the time you get to “xxx” the two-hour conversation was simply a cyber-manifestation of each other’s daily rants or a cryptic, albeit intimate, exchange of links derived from Imgur or Youtube (high five for more sources of distraction). As if ‘News’ feed (read: treasure trove for nosy people) isn’t bad enough with its python-like ability to ever-expand, tweets are arguably even worse, as they increase at a rate of about one per millisecond and don’t stop proliferating until you actually click away from the page. Finally, the escapist haven that is YouTube takes home the trophy for being the king of all procrastination culprits, as its highly effective but lethal “Recommended for You” bait most likely implies a day’s wasting on vlogs and Vevo.

While I doubt that we can sue Mark Zuckerberg and the Silicon Valley crew on charges of exploitation of weak human will, I do know that there’s always ‘Cold Turkey’ to the rescue. As you’d expect, Cold Turkey is a free productivity program which allows you to block the aforementioned websites, and what makes it more useful than simply installing a site-blocking extension on say, Chrome or Firefox, is that it blocks them for all the browsers in your system and won’t reactivate access unless you uninstall the program from your computer. Sure, it’s not a perfect solution, but by subjecting yourself to the faff of having to wade through the multiple ‘barriers’ before actually getting to that step of uninstalling, at least the program ensures that there’ll be a higher chance of you reconsidering your priorities at hand before once again falling into the abyss of cyber-dithering.


Method 2: Self-Quarantine

Ok, so you’ve installed Cold Turkey and the only websites that are now even remotely ‘procrastination-worthy’ are Nexus and Wikipedia, both of which cannot be blocked – the former because your tutor might pull a volte-face on that day’s tute times and the latter because we all need an authoritative encyclopaedic source of knowledge for essay-writing. Just when you think there’s literally ‘work come at me’ branded on your forehead, however, temptation strikes in a tangible form, which most often manifests powerfully as either food or phone. Crap, and the fact you’ve exhausted that remaining dearth of self-discipline by blocking yourself from Facebook doesn’t help with the situation at all. Allow your eyes to conduct a sweeping survey of the rewards gained from that latest Tesco trip, and before long you will have become Bridget Jones 2.0 aka BFF of Ben and Jerry’s. Give that phone a swift sweep, and the next thing you know either Candy Crush or Snapchat has taken your concentration hostage. In the face of such a distracting plenitude, all you can do is to remove yourself from it all, hence the act of ‘self-quarantining’.

And where else more suits the cause than the good ole’ library? As Oxford students, we even have the added luxury of taking our pick, but my personal recommendation for maximum work productivity is none other than the architectural marvel that is the Rad Cam, where postgraduates and professors alike toil away in serious intellectual labour, all the while looking immaculate in scholarly garb and suave in professional assurance. Dare you sully that epitome of academic brilliance with a Snapchat ‘selfie’ (ugh)?! Just wait till the dons call sacrilege on you. Usually, I operate by a policy of bringing an extra jumper to the Lower ‘igloo’ or bringing an extra cushion to the Upper ‘cave’, but if you want maximised results for concentration, then ignore this piece of advice completely and let the cold/hard chairs intimidate you into some hard-core focusing. Leaving aside concerns of a cardiac arrest resulting from library-performance anxiety, at least you will finally be able to get a move on that bloody essay. So with that modern entourage of distractions sufficiently out of the way, your extra two minutes of procrastination is up, and it is now time to do some work. Without Facebook. Or Digestives. Or the comfort of your own abode.

Dropping out of Oxford: Reasons, Risks and Results

Dropping out of Oxford: Reasons, Risks and Results

When I first set out writing an article on Oxford drop-outs and what they were up to now, I thought I would be talking to buzzing young people bored by university life and on their way to creating the next Facebook. But instead of a nest of tech start-ups, what I found was a whole range of people, from the now-famous-and-made-it to students who suffered from mental illness. And unfortunately, the spectrum of drop-outs was heavier on the mental illness side.

Oxford has one of the lowest drop-out rates in the country; 1.6%, compared to 8.6% nationally. But from anecdotal evidence (the University does not publish data on dropped-out students), it seems that many of the few who leave Oxford do so due to mental health issues, ranging from stress to depression to anorexia.

Not surprisingly, even fewer of the sufferers themselves were willing to talk to me about their personal problems, on why they have left or are seriously considering leaving. Instead the examples come from friends of friends, or swirl around the bottom of the internet in anonymous forums featuring plaintive pleas for help and advice. A third-year English student told me of one friend who managed to get into Oxford while still battling anorexia in hospital, but was overcome by the disease alongside with the stress of Oxford life. She left Oxford soon after arriving. Another friend developed depression while at university, but did not seek help or tell his friends for the longest time; the source characterised his college as possibly having been even a bit too supportive. By giving him options to choose from, instead of firmly insisting that he leave immediately and seek help, she thought his college had hindered his recovery from depression rather than helped it.

Yet at the other end of the spectrum of Oxford drop-outs, there are the well-known who have climbed to the top, either in spite of or because of their decision to drop out. Examples include the actress Kate Beckinsale, the band Foals, and the recently deceased comedian Mel Smith. One dropout is Polly Toynbee, the prominent Guardian columnist who matriculated at St Anne’s in 1966 to study history and stayed less than a year, and who was kind enough to tell me about her experience of dropping out of Oxford. Before starting university, she took a gap year where she worked for Amnesty International in Rhodesia until she was thrown out under Ian Smith’s government, then imprisoned briefly in South Africa. Consequently, she says, “the ‘real world’ seemed to press in, and Oxford seemed somehow irrelevant”. Moreover, her first book was published during her first term, which she says was a “mistake, as it set me up to be some kind of Oxford celebrity, which I wasn’t”.

Toynbee’s college was “not at all” supportive of her decision; “I was frightened by fearsome threats that I would regret it all my life and however hard I begged they would never, ever, take anyone back”. Her academic family put her under great pressure to get a first; her great aunts, one a don, lived “up the road” and came to talk to her tutors to find out how she was doing. But today, her only regret is that “it seems a spoiled thing to do now that students have to struggle so hard and are weighed down with so much debt… I was just lucky in a very different era, not to need a degree in days when only one in seven went to university. Now, it’s a basic necessity, and even then you may still end up waiting tables.”

However, there are other options before dropping out. One is taking a year out to ‘pop the Oxford bubble’. Colin Jackson, a finalist in PPE at LMH, spent the past two years in his hometown New York to work for the Obama campaign, and later for a smaller city-level campaign. He says, “My experience in the smaller campaign was very informative: let’s just say I’ve gained a lot of respect for full-time activists. But even though I had a less positive experience for the second half of the year, I’m grateful to have gained it. After all, if I hadn’t, I’d still be sending CVs to my local congressman right about now, looking for a job which today I know isn’t quite what I expected.”

Another option that allows a student to refrain from dropping out is changing the degree course. For example, in this year’s Maths and Philosophy degree intake of 16, two students have switched degrees – one to Philosophy and Theology, which required a change of college in Hilary, and another to Philosophy and Italian. Elliott Thornley, the former student, is now at Mansfield and says while he would have tried to stick with it at least until prelims exams, but “[he] might have decided it’s just not worth it.” Meanwhile, he has found catching up on another course “tough, but not unbearable”.

While these stories indicate that some happily find a way to enjoy Oxford by changing course or taking a break, there are many stories of students who are unhappy with an Oxonian’s life but who nonetheless choose to plough on. After all, Polly Toynbee’s words ring true: nowadays, a university degree is simply a basic necessity.

A Yorkshire Man Abroad (i.e. in Oxford)

A Yorkshire Man Abroad (i.e. in Oxford)

Well, not actually abroad. But as far as many of us living in Yorkshire are concerned the South may as well be a different country; once you cross the border people stop putting gravy on everything and Greggs become scarily infrequent. After having moved to Oxford on a semi-permanent basis, I’ve come to realise some of the cultural differences that separate different areas. When I arrived last term, someone genuinely asked me if we had Wi-Fi and colour television up north. The answer is yes, yes we do. In an attempt to I get rid of this ignorance I’ve decided to prepare a brief guide to Yorkshire – God’s own country.

Let’s start with food, something for which the North harbours a strange amount of pride. Once you get past all the pies and pasties our most famous export tends to be the ‘Yorkshire Pudding’. After all, what would the Sunday Roast be without this vital ingredient? Traditionally it’s actually a starter course to the main meal but in most other places in the UK it’s just eaten alongside the meat dish. A slightly lesser known treat is a type of sweet cake called ‘Parkin’ made from ginger and treacle. It’s usually served around Bonfire Night but has become fairly common all year round. But if these dishes are too ordinary for you then some parts of Leeds market used to sell a much more unusual foodstuff. It’s called ‘Kicker’ and to put it plain and simple – it’s horse meat. That’s right, we ate horse long before the whole Tesco situation. Although I don’t expect it would become a popular dish in any of the college halls.

Although Leeds United isn’t quite the football team it used to be (having a reputation for disappointing their fans week after week) since the Olympic Games I’ve claimed the right to boast for Yorkshire’s sporting achievement. At the London 2012 Olympics competitors from Yorkshire received 7 gold medals, 2 silver medals and 3 bronze medals. In fact, from these statistics, if Yorkshire had been treated as a country it would have come twelfth in the global medal table. Not too bad if you ask me – I expect to see a statue of Jessica Ennis in Sheffield city centre any time soon. But if we put normal sporting achievements aside for a moment, one strange test of stamina has become typically associated with Yorkshire. It’s called ‘Ferret Legging’ and I can assure you that, despite any of the stereotypes, I’ve actually never seen it happen in my life. But it involves putting a live ferret down your trousers and seeing how long you can keep it there. The winner is the last to release the animal from their trousers, the record for which is currently five hours. Think you can beat that? Maybe we could introduce it as a component of Eights week…

Moving on from bizarre games to culture, I was surprised recently to read in an article that Yorkshire has produced very few writers. As far as I’m concerned that assumption is entirely false: as well as being the birth place of Ted Hughes, Alan Bennet, Tony Harrison and W. H. Auden, Yorkshire is most famous for being the home of the Brontë sisters. The dark moors of Wuthering Heights are a very real setting, and the Parsonage the three sisters grew up in can now be visited as a museum. For many people the remote moors and dales of North Yorkshire are a beautiful place to go walking and, as writer Bill Bryson one said, they are perhaps: “the finest place there is until I have died and seen heaven” – he means apart from Oxford, of course. Yet if literature isn’t your thing, then perhaps the music scene will be able to persuade you; Arctic Monkeys and Kaiser Chiefs being but two of the county’s biggest exports or, if you’re looking for something a little more high-brow, then one of England’s largest national opera companies ‘Opera North’ is based in Leeds.

So, if you’re planning on leaving the university for a bit of fresh air or a change of scenery, come up and visit. Assuming that you’ve spent a prolonged period in Oxford then you might have to show your passport at Northern border control, otherwise there shouldn’t be much of a problem. We’ll welcome you with open arms, show you the sights and maybe, as unlikely as it seems, Leeds United might actually win a game of football.

The Real Problem with Misogyny and Casual Sexism

The Real Problem with Misogyny and Casual Sexism

This is not a man-bashing article written by a militant feminist. I could easily write about how misogyny is worryingly apparent at Oxford, despite the fact that it supposedly harbours some of the brightest young minds in the country. I could bitterly complain about the fact that, “you really need to get laid”, is still used as an appropriate response to a female expressing a perceived feminist opinion on a night out, or that I know a certain male who stands in the corner of clubs specifically trying to locate the drunkest females in the room (both of which, I’m sure, I hardly need to report that I find disgusting). But I’m not going to do that. There are enough articles out there highlighting the problems of ‘lad culture’, sexism and misogyny in Oxford to sink a battle ship. The problem is, that these articles, whilst raising awareness of the issue, do not seem to have posed a noticeable impact: Misogyny continues to be an elephant in the room – a ‘touchy’ subject that causes disagreement between students on a daily basis.

The reason for this is, I believe, quite simple: The majority of publicity is given to the aforementioned ‘corner lurker’ type of misogynist. Most males wouldn’t dream of placing themselves in such a category, and indeed, would denounce it entirely. In so doing, many also count themselves as exempt from absolutely all misogynistic behaviour, despite actually committing lesser acts of misogyny themselves and often venturing into the territory of casual sexism.

This is not to say that these males are in denial and refusing to see their own conduct for what it really is, but rather, that they really do believe they are innocent of such behaviour and their actions are part and parcel of everyday life. The most common sexism, the sort that women encounter on an everyday basis, goes undetected by the vast majority of the male population. In fact, women are so used to such treatment that they often dismiss it themselves; after all, we’ve grown up with it, and have come to tolerate it along with other mild irritations of everyday life such as road rage and chewing gum on pavements. However, tolerance and acceptance are poles apart.

Herein lies the real problem surrounding sexism: If men don’t know that they’re being sexist, and don’t associate their behaviour with misogyny, and women come to ignore or, worse, accept it, then how can we ever expect to make progress in this field?

Everyday misogyny, not the in-your-face-outright-women-hating misogyny, is so inextricably linked with our everyday lives that it becomes hard to identify and even harder to denounce. Most females wouldn’t bat an eyelid at an unwanted wolf whistle on the street, or a cheerful, “smile love it might never happen”, as you walk past, although they may roll their eyes, mutter a sarcastic response (“It just did, sweetheart”), or perhaps smile in embarrassment. These are pretty innocuous examples.

Now imagine a female telling a male counterpart to “smile” because it ‘may never happen’, or a group of fifty year old women whistling at a teenage boy as he walks past. Instantly, these commonplace examples become socially unacceptable. In fact, they become downright creepy: I rest my case.

While it might not even cross a man’s mind that a female could conceivably find him intimidating or creepy, I have all too often found myself feeling downright uncomfortable or frightened in a male’s presence. Whilst walking home one evening this Christmas, I walked past a drunken group of men outside my local pub only to have one jolly chap in a Santa hat step out in front of me, shout ‘boo’ at me, stop me, tell me I have ‘beautiful eyes’ and ask me for my telephone number. Now whilst I’m sure this festive boozer had no intention of scaring me, and, indeed, paid me a fair few compliments, the mixture of the dark and the unwanted attention from a large group of very tall males, who towered above my rather vertically challenged frame, made it a very unsettling experience for me. If you think I’m ‘overreacting’, imagine yourself in my position, or even better, imagine the situation with the genders reversed.

Of course, I fully recognise and appreciate that often, females revel in male attention, and indeed, often exploit it in the form of free drinks, entry into clubs or bars, and other perks, as I am often reminded by my male friends when I try to argue that misogyny continues to pose issues for Oxford students. However, the sexist inconsistencies in society, however minor, combine to create a patchwork of inequality that women and men have come to overlook. I find it impossible to accept a widely held male opinion that misogyny “isn’t really a big problem”, or that women “exaggerate” when speaking out against inequality, or that “it isn’t really that bad”. Does inequality have to be ‘bad’ in order for its rectification to be justified? Surely the fact that it simply isn’t equal is enough!

So, to the well-meaning males who fully support female rights, and in no way consider themselves to be a part of a misogynistic culture: No, being refused entry to a club because you’re not wearing heels isn’t the same as being refused because you’re wearing trainers. A sexist joke isn’t ‘friendly banter’, it is never ok to call a girl a slut, and if a girl is friendly to you, the chances are it’s not because she’s interested, and no, that doesn’t make her a ‘cocktease’, and she isn’t ‘leading you on’. If you honestly don’t want to be a ‘corner lurker’, start by choosing your words carefully and putting yourselves in the position of the female.

To females, who gloss over both the misogyny and the casual sexism they experience, laugh along with sexist jokes, and who have come to accept unequal treatment, or even to profit from it – I urge you, quite simply: just don’t.

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