‘It is an academic Disneyland’
Simon Mee, doctoral student at Oxford University, on his working week in university
I wake early and step out of my door on to Merton Street, an old lane full of cobble stones. It is the first day of fine weather in Oxford for a long time. As a first-year doctoral student in economic history at Oxford University, I will be spending this week researching and preparing for an upcoming archive trip to Germany.
I look around. There is something exceptional about the way the sunlight reflects upon the city’s architecture. Many of the buildings are built from stone quarried from the Cotswolds, lending a golden hue to the streets and pathways.
At Oxford there is no central “campus”. Instead students belong to a college, of which there are more than 40 scattered across the city. Some colleges are centuries old, others quite modern. I am a student at University College, the oldest one. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, scientist Stephen Hawking and even a young Bill Clinton have all studied within its walls.
Next stop, the social sciences library. I spend hours hunkered over books while sending emails to finalise arrangements for a trip to Frankfurt next week. The days of study can be long, but I count myself lucky.
“It is the most flower-like time in one’s life,” Oscar Wilde once quipped, reflecting on his years studying at Oxford. “One sees the shadow of things in silver mirrors.”
Others are not so fortunate. The city has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the UK. As students walk to lectures and tutorials, they pass several people covered by blankets in the cold.
I help out with a local food run for homeless people every second Monday. Tonight a small team of four walk around the city, giving sandwiches and hot drinks to those who need them the most. In a city characterised by utter privilege, it is a sobering experience.
I return to Merton Street and study in my bedroom until midnight, eventually falling asleep exhausted.
At 8.30am I meet my girlfriend, Ani, at Zappi’s Café on St Michael’s Street, which easily serves the best coffee in town,before hitting the library again.
While Oxford has a central library, the Bodleian, dating back to 1602, there are dozens of smaller ones around the place often devoted to a specific discipline. It’s an academic Disneyland of sorts; each morning you simply cycle to the one that suits your daily workload.
I spend today working on my thesis. My topic looks at how the West German central bank utilised the cultural memory of the 1922-3 German hyperinflation as a means to influence inflation expectations during the turbulent decade of the 1970s.
Even today, politicians and journalists cite the German “aversion” to inflation. My research looks a bit closer, and asks whether this antipathy to inflation was, at least in part, constructed by policy makers in post-war West Germany for their own ends. But it is nearly 5pm already.
I rush to Nuffield College to attend an economic and social history seminar. Many of the attendees are already suited-up for a formal dinner afterwards at Merton College (conveniently, not too far from my front door). Though quite fancy, many formal dinners are heavily subsidised by the colleges themselves. Tonight’s three-course meal costs about €6.30. Every college has a dining hall, lined with long benches and large paintings of dour, irritated-looking men staring down at you. But the beauty of the Oxford college system is that you get to talk and hang out with people outside your discipline, and this often leads to interesting conversations.
This morning I exchange some emails with my supervisor, an economic historian from All Souls College. The aim is to finalise some travel-grant applications for another, longer summer research trip to Germany before the week is out.
Oxford is made up of communities. Each college is a tight-knit group; and the same goes for every academic department. I am part of a growing Irish community at Oxford. The number of full-time students from the State at the university has nearly tripled in the past decade. Sometimes it feels like you are in a mini-Dublin with the number of Irish people you come across.
A long run in Christ Church meadow. Some smoke to relieve stress; others like to down a few pints. I run around in big circles a lot. It keeps the body fit and you always come back with a good idea or two.
Those ideas can wait, however. Tonight there is a WCR meeting. The WCR is a graduate committee elected by students to represent their interests to the college. Since arriving last October I have had an amazing time with the graduate community at University College. The committee discusses accommodation issues, welfare updates and organising the next college party.
In the late afternoon I meet up with the new WCR president, TJ, to help carry bottles of fizzy stuff back to University College. The WCR committee is hosting a drinks reception after a “Martlets and Martinis” black-tie formal dinner.
Still new to the Oxford scene, I realise I have no idea how to tie an actual bow tie. I eventually succeed after what seemed like my sixth video tutorial on YouTube. I arrive somewhat late, but have a great evening of food, drink and conversation. Surprisingly, the bow tie holds on till the end.
It is countdown time. I will be hopping on a bus to Stansted Airport tonight at 1am to catch an early-morning flight to Frankfurt. Slightly hungover, I spend the morning packing . I meet up with my best friend, Jason, who is also studying at Oxford, and grab a quick lunch. We have known each other since we were 12, growing up in Lucan, Co Dublin , and it is always refreshing to just talk to someone about non-Oxford stuff.
After a few more hours of researching in yet another dusty library, my girlfriend and I head for a quiet drink at The Turf, a favourite among students. Tucked neatly behind an alleyway, it escapes the attention of most tourists.
Shortly after midnight, I walk through the streets of Oxford towards the bus station. But despite a three-hour bus journey and early morning flight ahead of me, I look forward to what is to come .