Merton College libary
Wednesday, July 11th was our final class day. The topic was ‘place’ and how the students had experienced Oxford as place and in what ways their experiences changed. Each student contributed his or her insight into the way in which Oxford-as-place affected them. Some of the ideas shared included:
- from unfamiliar to familiar: getting one’s bearings
- same but different: how Oxford and its people challenged us to see the world through different eyes but in many ways they found a core of the familiar
- insiders and outsiders: tourists and ‘natives’; St. Hilda’s as ‘home’
- place through food: longing for American comfort food but finding alternatives here
- finding one’s place in the group: moving from strangers to friends
- connecting with locals through shared love: football for one!
We end the session by encouraging them to consider carefully what kind of capstone project they would want to undertake as a summary of their experiences.
Thursday we left Oxford and drove around the Costwolds, a rural area in England with picturesque villages. Our theme this day was nature as place. Our visit to a Falconry Center included a demonstration of birds of prey and how they negotiate their own ‘spaces’ and ‘places.’ Every imaginable bird of prey was there in the aviary and the guide assured us life was far better there than in the wild.
We also visited a number of small town, bustling with visitors where those who live there try to make their way through the many transient tourists, like us. I felt a certain degree of sympathy for them, even as we recognized the financial boom their lovely villages have brought them. Where is the tipping point when a genuine community becomes a tourist destination and thereby loses its soul? –A question for another day.
Buckland: dead panther, anyone?
July fourth is just another day in England. So we had our class and learned a bit about King Charles I, the Civil War, Puritans and Quakers, what meats one would eat, and Christ Church. William Buckland caught our attention and his goal was to eat every animal on the planet–not all of them but simply to try all of them. The anecdotes in our text were particularly attention getting: jackals under the table munching on guinea pigs. We did ponder if we really could draw a line between eating one kind of animal (chickens, say) and others that seem quite upsetting to us (dead panthers.) Other points of discussion:
- the fall of the great and mighty (King Charles I and Cardinal Wolsey)
- the wives of Henry VIII and his error in blaming them for a lack of a son
- William Penn, the Quakers, and Quaker Oats. Turns out that Quakers had nothing to do with Quaker Oats…
But perhaps the most riveting activity was we decided to hold our very own All Souls’ entrance exam essay on one word. Our word was… pots. This choice was inspiring by an impassioned outcry of injustice and rebellion against the apparent theft of the kitchen pots and utensils, thereby depriving our group from their ability to cook their own dinners. The resulting array of essays were All Souls’ worthy: spanning meditations on Native Americans, poetry rhymed in couplets, one’s family cooking traditions, idea of a pot as the key to civilization, and many more. We hope to publish the full array in the near future.
This afternoon we visited the delightful exhibit at the new Bodleian on J.R.R. Tolkien and his magical kingdom. What struck me quite powerfully is the geography and the language that he created so meticulously and thoroughly. The allusions to the Norse myths were
very strong if not seemingly acknowledged by the exhibit itself.
The weekend saw the students going off on their own to explore a range of sites and events. They clearly do not lack for adventure! I would run into them occasionally but this Monday morning we all convened for our class which introduced us to Percy Shelley, a less-than-successful student of University College but a man who led a reckless and creative life. They conveyed that they thought Mary Shelley was the real genius in the family. Interesting. This chapter took us down Merton Street to explore the south corners of Oxford, including the Botanic Garden. Oriel College, coffee houses, and rebels in general. Our discussions were lively, albeit tending to wander a bit too close to home at times:
- coffee shops as places for communication, debate, intellectual engagement vs. the Starbucks grab ‘n go.
- politics and helplessness: global communication as both a force of information flow that allows us to be aware but also as overwhelming us and leading to that state of hopelessness.
- conversing with strangers around Oxford: sharing views of America
- Places here to which students gravitated and felt ‘at home’
spiny little flowers
After lunch we all visited the Botanic Garden which turned out to be not very successful with the students. True, the sun was beating down and quite brutal but I was surprised by how little attention the wide and lush flower beds received. Later that day the entire group did attempt punting on the Cherwell. They survived and I suspect will have a grand tale to weave.