Excuse me, I’m looking for the university

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Tourists must think people who live in Oxford are a bit thick. The first thing they ask us is such an obvious and innocuous question, yet we look utterly flummoxed and start flapping around helplessly.

So I thought it was about time, having spent almost half my life associated with the place in one capacity or other, that I explained very briefly: Where is the University?

Well first off I should say as I always do in my prefaces:Oxfordhas two universities. And Oxford Brookes, which I know well through its amazing creative writing society and its deeply cool arts curriculum, is far the more interesting as an academic institution. But it’s not the one the tourists mean.

Where to start? Flapping, see! You could start by downloading this map, courtesy of the university’s website, and seeing just how scattered all over the shop the university is. I’ll start by saying Oxford is a collegiate university. Which is to say that it isn’t one thing in one place. It is made of distinct parts. There are almost 30 colleges, each one an autonomous body with its own governance structure. Most of them home to undergraduates and graduates (every student must be part of a college), though some only have graduates. That’s before we get to the Permanent Private Halls, which also house students and tend to have a religious affiliation, run by monks of one stripe or other, or something similar. There’s a full list here.

When people ask to see the university, what they most often mean is the colleges. They, after all, are the pretty buildings.ChristChurch’s Cathedral,St John’sgrandeur, the ancient Mob Quad in Merton,WorcesterCollege’s lake, the chapel and stories about a plague pit atNewCollege, the sheer barking brickwork of Keble.

But if you work in the university, you’ll discover the colleges aren’t actually part of it at all. They’re separate bodies that house students and hire and fire their own staff, many of whom (the Fellows, whose collective noun is, of course, a Company) also work for the University (there is as much politicking as the novel suggests, and one of the key political issues is whether a Fellow is more loyal to their college or their department). Colleges have their own umbrella body, Conference of Colleges, which sits alongside the university.

The University usually refers to a conglomeration of departments and other centralised bodies. Departments (there’s an index here) deal with subjects and the teaching and thereof, and research thereinto. And are grouped into divisions according to what kind of subject they are. As a student the main distinction between colleges and divisions you’ll notice is that as an undergraduate you’ll spend your life in college, whereas as a graduate you’ll spend your life in the department. As a tourist what you’ll notice is that departments are generally located in big old houses or concrete monstrosities (most monstrous of which is the central building in Wellington Square which hosts much of the University Administration Services, a suitably Kafka-esque carbuncle that administers the complex administration of other administrative bits of the university) and aren’t what you’re looking for when you ask for the University.

But there are other bits. Bits you may well want to visit (sadly one other distinction is you can’t “visit” departments, which is sad because ugly though many are they are fascinating little hives of intrigue and alternative Oxfordness). Such as the libraries, of which there are many, the most famous of which is the central Bodleian, and the most photogenic of which is the Radcliffe Camera. And the museums, from the grandeur of the Ashmolean through the labyrinthine Pitt Rivers with its shrunken heads to gems like theBateMusicMuseumand the Museum of the History of Science. And the parks and gardens, from the massive University Parks where touring cricket nations often begin their stay inEnglandto the hothouses of the Botanical Gardens down by the banks of the Cherwell.

So that’s an overview. It gives the gist. Purists will find inaccuracies on every line, of course. But then as we know the collective noun for purists is “victims in my next book” so I’m not overly worried by that. This gives a flavour. A sense of the monumental possibilities for intrigue, secrecy and suspense. Some ideas for your next visit.

And most of all some understanding of, and sympathy for, those confuzzled looking residents who just can’t meet a simple question with a simple answer.

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~ by danholloway on May 22, 2011.

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