Fuse Twilight and Gossip Girl, plonk them down amongst the clock towers in Oxford, and you get Oxford Blood. The novel revolves around Harriet French, a fresher reading History at the fictional Lilith College. Facing mild unease as it is, settling in amongst the numerous sets of cutlery at Hall having come from a “working class northern state school”, Harriet soon finds out that she has much scarier problems on her hands than which fork to use first: vampires. Not just normal vampires either; they are wealthy, aristocratic, and incredibly handsome vampires with their own elite dining society, The Cavaliers. This is not just your average white-tie dining society either. They dine on pan-fried breast of duckling accompanied by the finest vintages but of course, being vampires, they also drink the blood of their dates. Inevitably, Harriet is soon smitten with one member – the terribly dashing, albeit suspiciously pale and oddly cold, Tom. Unfortunately for Harriet, her familial connections to the highest ranks of The Cavaliers make it a challenge for her to be with the boy of her dreams. The novel follows Harriet as she struggles with tutorial essays on British History, dreadful hangovers and a society of powerful vampires intent on keeping her away from the man she loves.
What is immediately noticeable is the author’s love for Oxford, which naturally makes her novel captivating to anyone studying here; Derwent’s descriptions of Oxford life are charming in their familiarity. She mentions the mysterious omniscience of the porters, conveys the crippling sense of inferiority one feels when overshadowed in tutorials, and the delight in finding the right bop outfit. It is also, however, a stereotypically romanticised version of Oxford. Aristocrats’ offspring abound, bringing along with them incredible opulence and a reminder of our own mediocrity. This may not be the most accurate portrayal of a university with so many other dimensions, something the author is sure to clarify in a personal note, but it is nevertheless congruent with the fantasy world Derwent soon dives into. In fact, she even manages to make Oxford seem a tad more believable through her fantasy world – ever wondered how to get a first and a blue? Be a vampire, and make sure it’s a nocturnal sport.
While Derwent has done a fair job in recreating Oxford realistically, this does not extend to the alternate world of vampires. The novel is at numerous points unbelievable, and the author seems to exploit the inherent flexibility allowed by fantasy to rescue herself from difficulties presented in the plot. That the best and brightest amongst the Oxford student population could so regularly disappear from the university with feeble excuses, and have been doing so since the English Civil war without anyone noticing, is somewhat incredulous. In a world of the author’s imagination, anything is possible – but it still requires believability, and it still needs to function according to an internal logic, which the book does not always do.
Another element hampering believability is the characterization, or in many cases the lack thereof. Most of the characters are one-dimensional and dull, and the author seems to lack enough interest to make them anything more. There is no development that builds up to the characters’ mistaken convictions of love and sudden break-ups. As a result many of these scenes just seem like random splatterings interspersed through the novel which are hard for the reader to care about. Moreover, the star of the book is not the protagonist herself, who does not come across as a particularly engaging individual, but Harriet’s mother. Her mother’s flashbacks are refreshing, and lend the book the much-needed emotional depth that it is otherwise lacking. Unfortunately these are few and far between, and ultimately this strong-willed, imposing woman gives in to her daughter, who with the exception of her determination to be with Tom, is otherwise weak-willed herself – and she even starts to waver on that one towards the end of the novel.
This is hardly the next great English novel, nor is it aiming to be. What it is, however, is humorous light reading that pokes a bit of fun at Oxford students. If you want to read something intellectually stimulating though, your reading list for the next tutorial is probably a better bet.
Screaming Spires, the next book in the series is currently on sale, with Ivory Terrors due for release by the end of the year.
The proposition argues that being tutored by post-graduate students results in a quality of teaching far below what we might expect from Oxford (despite the possibility of increased tutor shagability).
Postgrads are us in three years. When undergrads choose a paper, they might be tutored by the world experts on the subject: professors with a quarter of a century’s experience under the belt. Or, they might be tutored by a postgrad. The allocation of undergrads to tutors within a given paper is presumably random, leaving it up to chance whether you enjoy the tuition of a seasoned professor, or use your reading to give tips to a 2016 version of yourself who’s struggling with a DPhil.
Postgrads were probably among the brightest and best in their undergrad years, but that doesn’t mean they have any talent for or interest in teaching, let alone any relevant training. The benefits that undergraduates are meant to be able to derive from the brilliance of a postgraduate genius are significantly dulled by the inability of said genius to communicate with other (younger, clueless) human beings.
Even the rarer, socially competent genius types have usually specialised to a pinpoint of a topic. This leads to a tendency among DPhil-writers to spend tute after tute telling you all about the relevance of a particular semicolon in a particular line of a particular legal text to our understanding of the literary conventions of a particular decade, when what you require is a comprehensive understanding of the century. Postgraduate tutors are a disadvantage to ambitious undergraduates, who must compete, in the exact same exams, with peers who are lucky enough to have tutors who actually know more than they do.
For us undergrads, the primary merit of being taught by postgrads rather than more senior academics is that we’re more likely to (think about what it would be like to) shag them. I realise that this is not an insignificant benefit. The pain of learning about, say, the intertextual details behind Chaucer’s dream visions, which you can’t read because they’re in French, can be significantly alleviated by imagining one’s tutor naked.
But, I implore you, think of the postgrads. This is you, in three years, being dumped in front of your 19-year-old undergrad counterparts, who between them have almost certainly read more than you, and will therefore be more interested in your abs than your understanding of Spanish law. A postgrad tutor is a weary specimen, trying to reconcile completing a DPhil with the fact that he’s getting too old to go to Park End and still make it to a 9am tute. The last thing he needs is equally hungover Freshers who have read more and care less.
Fiona Macgregor responds that there are similar (or worse) drawbacks to being taught by experts, and that at least post-grads might be slightly more able to relate to the life of an under-grad.
It sounds to me as though the writer of the proposition has been embittered by a series of post graduate tutors who are both frustratingly incompetent and exasperatingly fit. My experience of student taught tutorials have been blessedly free of either of these hindrances, which is more than I can say of some of the tutorials taught by fully-fledged academics.
I see no reason why post-graduate students should be any worse at imparting knowledge than their counterparts on the other side of their DPhil. As the prop mentions, tutors at Oxford are here by virtue of being experts in their field. Unfortunately this virtue, believe it or not, does not magically turn them into communicative personages who are incredibly skilled at translating their knowledge into a revision-friendly format accessible to the tired, stressed out student who does sort of remember writing their essay, but went on a crew date last night, made a twat of themselves on the cheese floor, and still has Teenage Dirtbag ringing in their ears.
The tutors that have taught me thus far have been a fairly mixed bag, and include a fair few post-grads, but were I to pick out the few that I’ve had most difficulty learning from, and gained the least benefit from my tutorials, they are invariably from among those who already have a doctorate. While it’s true that they might just possibly know more, the only real benefit in being taught by a non-student is that they potentially have more years teaching experience, but experience is very far from equalling competence. Some of the worst teachers at my school were just about to retire. And while a post-grad might get hung up on a relatively minor point, I rather doubt that the tendency as academics progress is to broaden their interests. Some academics will have written a book as well as a DPhil on their personal bugbear.
How good your tutor is, post-grad or not, will always be the luck of the draw; even if you tailor which college you apply to in order to be taught by a particular tutor, the chances are they’ll be on sabbatical by the time you arrive. However a significant part of me would much rather be taught by a cleverer, more knowledgeable and altogether more conscientious future version of myself than a century-old academic, probably born with a beard and elbow-patches, whose only experience of the student world are the occasional terrifying glimpses of it he catches in the drooping eyes of his clinically bewildered tutees.