‘Pretworking’: A Spotter’s Guide

Aidan Balfe on the modus operandi of student hacks, and his attempt to introduce a new term to the Oxford idiolect

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Oxford has historically been seen as a training ground for the British political, journalistic, and professional elite. Gone are the days of the famous “tap on the shoulder” from a man in a long coat, and the status of an Oxford degree (of any classification) as a guarantee of a top-tier graduate job is not so solid as it once was. Yet this institution remains one in which students not only receive a formal education, but also pick up the practices and techniques that become essential skills out in the Real World. Those “transferable skills” — never listed on CVs — which distinguish the career-climbing, high achievers, from the average graduate, are still learnt and refined at Oxford.

Before this all becomes too self-congratulatory, I should point out that I am not committed to a view of absolute Oxford exceptionalism. And I don’t mean that Cambridge also exists. The university experience — wherever it is had — is a mixture of an academic education and a training in the exercise of key interpersonal skills. But the exact phenomenon which I wish to examine seems to be a particularly prominent part of life here. As a steady stream of Guardian articles will attest, the notion of an Oxford degree as a launching pad for a top-flight career is still commonplace.

Those students who invest most heavily in the secondary Oxford education are often those most involved with the familiar extra-curricular activities on offer. Whether they are involved in the Union, journalism, theatre, or the multitude of other groups and societies, most of us will be aware of, and regularly come into contact with, the “hack”. You might have gone for coffee with one. Maybe you’re not incredibly close to them, but they were keen for you to be involved with their next play, or wanted to know if they could rely on your support in an upcoming election, or just wanted to “catch up”.

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It’s this maintenance of a web of contacts, collaborators, and (usually) friends — so often taking place in Oxfords numerous coffee shops — which I call Pretworking. It’s one of the key tools in the arsenal of the hack. An innocuous coffee with the Pretworker is always, either explicitly or implicitly, a means as well as an end in itself. It never hurts to keep those people that the Pretworker may well need to solicit help from in the future familiar and sweet.

Am I guilty of Pretworking myself? Yes, probably. My point is not to call out these people for doing something wrong. It is clear that this is simply the way the world works. We rely on our friends and acquaintances to aid us in our own personal projects, whatever they are. Nor do I mean to suggest that the Pretworker sees their friendships simply as avenues for advancing their own goals. I’m sure that even the hackiest of hacks occasionally goes for coffee just for the sake of going for coffee.

But it is interesting that — through this phenomenon — we can more properly understand what it is that makes and Oxford education continue to be valued so highly. Not only will the Pretworker go on to use this skill throughout her career, but often it is the very same contacts she has made here at university, with whom she will continue to do so. So next time you’re in Missing Bean, or Handlebar Café, have a listen. Amongst the chatter, you might just make out the incessant hum of the Pretworkers.