What if I don’t know the answer? What if I don’t understand the reading? What if the tutor thinks I’m stupid?
These ‘What ifs’ went around in my head over and over again during my first term at Oxford. I was sure the tutors must have made a mistake; I wasn’t clever enough to hold a discussion with the world literary experts.
Obviously, I was absolutely terrified before my first tute. The topic of discussion was our vac essay on the Literary Canon. We had been set readings in the summer before starting Oxford, from the Norton Anthology of Literature, the biggest book I had ever come across. Sadly, far from feeling like I was reading English texts, the essays within seemed like they were written in a completely different language. The complicated wording and terminology left me feeling clueless. I read them and read them and read them until at last felt I had sort of grasped what they were saying. How wrong was I?
Once in the tutorial, the tutor announced that I got the complete wrong end of the stick and that if I liked I could ‘re-write it for her’. She must have been having a laugh; I’d already been set two essays for the week, re-writing another one simply wouldn’t fit into my schedule. This was made even more stressful by the fact that I was alone with the tutor, there was no one else to bounce off.
I found the whole tute experience pretty overwhelming. She just kept firing more and more questions at me and I was supposed to know all of the different critical views and then put forward my own opinion. I was struggling to remember everything I had read and under pressure it was made even worse. There was no escaping though, it wasn’t like at school where someone else in the class would answer and if you suggested anything at all it was a bonus. Here there was an expectation that you fully engaged with the topic and were able to discuss it for a whole hour.
I came out of the tute feeling like I really didn’t deserve to be at Oxford. Apparently, this is something that most people feel in the first few weeks. You are so used to being top at school and suddenly you come to Oxford and everyone is just as clever or, in your mind, much cleverer than you.
Back in my room after the tute, I phoned my parents up and couldn’t stop crying down the phone about how I was so thick compared to everyone else. Unfortunately, there was a yoga class going on next door and the instructor shouted for me to be quiet. Could my day get any worse?
Although this first tute was horrendous, fast-forward a few months and though the tutes remained challenging, they weren’t the horrific experience I had once envisaged them to be. If I didn’t know the answer, I’d ask questions and make educated guesses. If I hadn’t understood the reading, I’d keep going over it and then explain the areas I had struggled with in the tutorial. Every time I felt stupid because I’d got it wrong, I’d remind myself that if I knew everything already there would be no point in being at Oxford.
Remember that everyone is in the same boat, everyone is nervous when they start at Oxford, some people are just better at hiding it.
Make sure you prepare; there is nothing worse than sitting in front of the tutor and not having a single thing to say.
Remind yourself that you are there to learn and the tutors have been researching these topics their entire life, of course they are going to know more than you!
It WILL get better, even if your first few tutes seem disastrous, over time you will become more confident and develop a rapport with your tutors.
If you are applying to Oxford, ask yourself whether this system of teaching, where you will constantly be in the spotlight, is right for you.
Tute – abbreviation of ‘tutorial’ where tutors and students meet, usually on a weekly basis, to discuss that particular week’s work.
Vac essay – these are essays given in the vacation (the holidays) outside of term time.
Literary Canon – a guide to the major works of evolving literature.