Focusing on Tradition
Letter from the UK! Helena Winterhager talks us through Freshers’ Week at the University of Oxford.
Nov 09, 2015
Talk about too much of a good thing: At the end of the week, my mailbox was flooded – piles of incoming email, all of it offers and invitations from the Freshers’ Fair. Experienced Oxonians, as students at the University of Oxford are called, will be familiar with this problem.
Urged on by nice fellow students, it is all too easy to allow yourself to be persuaded to put your address down on this list or that, and right away, you start receiving feedback from all sides: the newsletter from the Buddhist Society, the membership application for the Ultimate Frisbee Club, or an invitation to the Tea Appreciation Society, where you can sample exotic varieties of tea every week.
There is a club or society for almost any topic in Oxford. I helped to run the German Society stall at this year’s Freshers’ Fair, so I wasn’t entirely uninvolved in the recruiting bustle: “Hey, if you want to drink real German beer sometime, you should join the German Society!”
And yet, the fair is just one of the attractions during Freshers’ Week, which precedes the autumn trimester, the “Michaelmas term,” in Oxford. During this kickoff week, there are not only introductions to specific subjects and libraries, but also social occasions at the college every night, such as wine and cheese evenings and pub crawls, or you can try out the rowing that is so typical of Oxbridge life during one of the rowing taster sessions.
This year, my college put on a speed meet, where people could get to know each other in a round robin setting, holding three-minute conversations one on one with each of the other participants – like speed dating, but without the dating. With all this going on, you might meet more people during this one week than you do in an entire year in Berlin, and some contacts lead to genuine friendships.
The next week’s focus is the official matriculation of the new students, which takes place in a ceremony held in Latin at the time-honoured Sheldonian Theatre. Participants are required to wear “subfusc,” meaning a black gown with a white blouse, ribbon and black skirt for women or suit and bow tie for men. In this outfit, you can certainly become a tourist attraction yourself – last year, during my matriculation, I was stopped by a Japanese couple who wanted to take a picture with me as a memento of their vacation in Oxford. Subfusc is also required wear for exams; in a vote taken in May, I was astonished that more than 75 percent of students voted to keep this tradition.
A less reputable tradition is the initiation rituals that are still practiced here and there among the undergraduates. Just recently, the whole of England was amused at reports that Prime Minister David Cameron had been especially wild as a new student in Oxford. This year, too, a couple of excessive scenes at New College caused a stir. But all in all, those things are more the exception than the rule. And by the way, not everything is just fun and games: I am supposed to submit the first chapter of my dissertation by Christmas – my desk awaits!