Before arriving at Oxford, I knew that Michaelmas Term would be different, due to the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic: no (official) matriculation; no (proper) college formals; and, crucially, no bops. That being said, I wasn’t going to allow a virus to decrease my enjoyment of my first term at Oxford – especially since, as an MSt Classics student, I only have three terms before my currently allotted time is up (and the powers that be can decide whether I end up staying for longer…).
I was, of course, upset at being denied a proper Oxford matriculation in the Sheldonian, but I’m lucky in that respect because I did my undergrad at St Chad’s College, Durham where I had not only the official university matriculation in the b-e-a-utiful Durham Cathedral (as featured in Harry Potter and The Avengers), but also a cute college one in our wooden chapel! So, I guess, I know what it feels like to be dressed in your gown in a throng of slightly hungover students having Latin spoken at them which most of them (except me, my fellow Classicists, and those who didn’t throw the ancient languages out of their brain post-sixth form) don’t understand, before trying to get a half-decent photo to send back to the folks at home. I did, nonetheless, take part in the higher-than-expected gown sales, in preparation for a day of posing around Oxford’s landmarks in sub-fusc with a bottle of prosecco in hand, bumping into friends old and new at a two-metre/one-metre-plus distance. Honestly, whilst some may complain (in a Facebook comment/Tweet/Oxfess that usually ends with “…just a thought”) that these parties in the street shouldn’t have occurred at all, all I saw were students behaving mostly rightly and abiding by the COVID safety rules. Surely having that moment to celebrate and realise that “yes, I made it to f*cking Oxford during a worldwide crisis” seems quite affirming and in line with the Government’s message of being able to have a ‘proper University experience™’, whatever that means. I wasn’t too surprised at missing matriculation given my undergraduate graduation is currently scheduled to be a little more than 3 months before I (hopefully) graduate from my Master’s.
My college, St. John’s, did try and succeed in replicating some of the traditions in a COVID-secure manner. Formals did happen, but it all seems a bit strange and limited with the plastic screens basically muting all reasonable speaking volumes, a 45-minute time slot, and not being able to sit facing your friends, instead sprawled out along one long table as if you’re at a chess tournament. These were, though, great opportunities to meet complete strangers – basically like speed-friend-dating – from the entirety of the college, and I’ve had lovely conversations from JCR and MCR members of all years, from DPhils to undergrad freshers. The bar was open in a heated marquee until Lockdown 2: Electric Boogaloo was implemented and the atmosphere and the COVID-regulations were both excellent. Even when the bar had to close as an alcohol-serving establishment, college, the JCR, and the MCR worked together on some law-abiding social events, such as film nights (organised by yours truly as MCR Culture Officer), mulled wine and mince pie evenings, and much more. I’ve seen – or even heard in the case of Merton from my kitchen window – many colleges organising many an event on that theme.
In terms of academic life – i.e. “what I’m actually here to do” – the Classics Department has been superb. I’ve had one in-person seminar a week and my Zoom/Teams supervisions and tutorials have been excellent. I’ve actually enjoyed having more time in between each thing: there’s no mad rush, as I experienced in my undergrad, to traverse half of town in 10 minutes because of frankly ridiculous timetabling; instead, it’s a relaxing moment to have a drink, a walk around my room before clicking on the next link (which I have, of course, saved in my Calendar and not left to be found on an expedition into my overflowing Outlook inbox). Also, I can drop in and out of the Faculty Graduate and Public seminars whenever; I think the ease of changing commitment week-to-week is definitely something I’ve liked.
The only thing I’ve found difficult is library access. There are two ways about it: either wake up every day at 8am without fail and book a university library slot for the next week (and then manually insert it into your calendar since, for some reason, there ain’t no handy button to auto-add); or, forget and be consigned to working in your room forevermore. Still, there are times when I’ve turned up to the wrong library, or the right library at the wrong timeslot, due to simple human error/incompetence/tiredness. When all things do fall into place, however, (about 65.4% of the time) it’s a nice change of scene to push on with the daily grind.
If I did have cause to moan about anything (clue: probably the libraries or the Conservatives), then I was fortunate that I had a great group of friends in my accommodation. We did a US election all-nighter, numerous beer pong matches, and a big ol’ Oxmas dinner, for which everyone chipped in to cook some fine cuisine – everything from heaps of delicious pancetta carbonara to Iranian delicacies. I also had a few friends already at Oxford, so I was able to meet up with them for some socially distanced pizza, pints, or walks (depending on current guidance). If it wasn’t for them and the efforts of college, the MCR and the Classics Faculty in organising so many different plans to match every possible (random?) government decision I don’t think I’d have enjoyed my first term – one-third of my time amongst the Dreaming Spires©– anywhere near as much. MT20 has been a challenge, but it’s felt certainly been more of a success than Rita Ora’s compliance with COVID laws.