There was no such thing as a typical day at Ruskin College, at least in my time there in the early 1980s. Every day was new and different with so many things to cram into it that for the first time in my life I really did feel that there were not enough hours in every day to fit everything in.
Ruskin used the Oxbridge tutorial method instead of the lectures and seminars that are found at most universities. At the start of my first term I met my tutor for the next eight weeks, in my case a certain Dr Victor Treadwell, who was the head of the history department in those days. Vic gave me an essay topic that came complete with a reading list and sent me off to write about 1,500 words on the subject.
I cannot remember what the title was, but I do remember going into the bar of the Oxford Union, ordering a pint, and telling the student-barman that I had an essay to write for the following day but had not yet managed to actually do any reading for it. “Welcome to Oxford,” he said, very quietly, as he passed over my brimming pot.
It took me almost the whole of my first year to fully come to grips with the intricacies of essay writing to order, a skill that all of us had to learn for ourselves.
The tutorials were nerve-wracking at the start. A student fresh from industry – or the dole by the early 1980s – had to sit face to face with a brain on legs who knew more about the topic under discussion than the student ever would. After an hour of having the essay torn to pieces most of us would stagger out of the tutorial room feeling that we knew absolutely nothing, but determined to show that next week we would do better.
Of course we did. Slowly but surely we improved our powers of analysis and writing styles until we could pretty much write any essay on almost any topic.
Oxford helped that process immeasurably just by being Oxford. Since history was the major component in my diploma I joined the History Faculty Library. I thought I was doing that to read books, but I found that the best thing about it was morning coffee and afternoon tea that the library laid on for its readers. Often what should have been a quick spot of refreshment turned into a morning’s debate on the topic that was more or less connected to my next essay, and if it wasn’t, I still got to debate with some pretty serious minds in a beautiful building.
In those days it was hard for a night owl like me to find sustenance after midnight, with only a handful of catering vans owned by the Foley family offering anything hot. Those death burgers as generations of Oxford students called them were supplemented a few times a term with midnight raiding at Balliol College. On those marvellous nights the buttery would open at around midnight and snacks and coffees were served up to half the student population of Oxford.
However, most nights when the Oxford Union bar finally stopped serving would find me with a group of friends from many colleges, sitting up in someone’s room, talking long into the night about whatever topic we found agreeable. All in all, it was education at its most open and democratic because geographers sat next to historians, listening to a political scientist’s latest theory, whilst slurping endless cups of coffee.
In a way I feel I was luckier than most of my Ruskin contemporaries since I spent the whole of my two years at the college in the main building on Walton Street, rather than having to spend the first year in Headington. I still think that the man who swapped rooms with me got the worst of the deal, but the fact that I was able to spend two years in the very centre of Oxford, doing what Ruskin students had been doing since the college was established in 1899, which is both complementing and challenging the university, is something that I will never forget.
Kenneth Bell's writings are available from Amazon, and the paperback versions can also be ordered via your favourite bookshop. If you want signed copies please drop him a line to email@example.com. He blogs at www.kenbell.info, when the mood takes him.