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Tutorials and the art of the blag

Oxford is a unique place to study at an undergraduate level. Its centuries-long history of elitism, pomposity and academic excellence separate it from the other Russell Group universities. However, as the only member of my ‘home’ friendship group to have gone on to study at Oxford, I find myself trying to convince them that it is not all that different.

When my friends have come to visit, they have enjoyed the novelty of punting and the charm of Turf Tavern. Seemingly, they have always left with a sense that, while Oxford may have its quirks, the place and its people are not fully alien. They’re not completely wrong – as brilliant as it is to go to Oxford, it’s ultimately just another place to get a degree. When it’s all over, we will still struggle to find a job and have heaps of student debt to pay like everyone else.

However, the notion that Oxford is in any sense normal is a brazen parody that can often deceive the visitor. The Oxford that I present to my friends from back home is a much more ordinary version. This is because the people here, myself included, are masters in the art of the blag.

When I, or any of my friends from Oxford, have hosted ‘externally educated’ companions, we will tend to pick a time that contains the least amount of work possible. Oxford won’t allow you to take a friend into any of its grandiose, historic libraries, so the prospect of working with a friend when they come up to visit is a near impossibility. Luckily, this practical issue works in our favour, presenting the illusion that at Oxford we don’t just work. While this may be true – we might, from time to time, have the chance to go to the pub in the evening – this is only at the end of another seemingly endless 9 a.m. shift in the library.

Alongside pretending to do much less work than I truly do, I will also host my friends to a night at ‘The Bullingdon’ with the sweet melodic rhythms of drum and bass ringing, rather than the incessant compilation of ‘Love Story’, ‘Timber’ and ‘Angels’ at the moribund club, Atik. I try to convince them that we don’t do the latter far more often.

Ultimately, I suspect that I am not the only one who commits this act of tampering with Oxford’s coolness scale. I think, like me, some Oxford students are rather successful at this forgery because they have learnt how to be somewhat economical with the truth. The tutorial system is one of the key culprits.

Before my first tutorial at Oxford, I was shouted at for coming in too early, accidentally disturbing the tutorial before mine. This gave me the sense these were incredibly personal, intense, even sacred spaces that must never be interrupted. But, over the last five terms I have spent at Oxford, I have had other tutorials with a much different feel. One of my tutors once popped out at the beginning to buy some Twix and Cherry Bakewells, something that effectively threw away my initial fears as a fresher. Even worse, the last tutor I had would vape as the session took place. Maybe this suggests that our meetings were so intense that he needed a hit to relax, though I lean more on the side that it may have just been a nicotine addiction.

During my time at Oxford, I have had a range of tutorial experiences. But what they all have in common is that they forced me to think on my feet. The system teaches you to try to come up with something profound and interesting on the spot. This means I often find myself arguing a point with the conviction that suggests I have been reading on the topic for at least several weeks when, in reality, I came up with it five seconds prior. Tutorials teach you to give the impression that you know more than you actually do.

Tutorials do have other merits of course. You are taught not to consult your notebook of information and produce a heavily evidenced opinion with several points to prove your argument. Yet that’s not the point. It’s to be able to cope with the scrutiny of a world-leading expert, on a topic they have studied for many decades, and come up with something interesting. Through this process, you are taught to make connections you have never made before. The tutor will sneakily puppeteer you to an answer, making you join the dots. I have found through this process that these freestyled ideas are my best ones, which stick in my head when it comes to an exam.

By this point, you may suspect I’m a paid employee of the Oxford tutorial system. Perhaps I can reassure you by arguing that fashioning new ideas for a future exam is not the most useful element of the tutorial system. The most extraordinary, and potentially most surprising, consequence of the unique pressure of tutorials is that it teaches you to become a masterful ‘blagger’. To be able to deceive the tutor into thinking you’re much better read than you truly are, which is a necessary skill in such an environment. Tutorials have taught me the art of false impressions. This has allowed me to convince my friends at other universities, where they may have spent half of their first year hungover, that Oxford is a much more normal university than they might think. I have been able to assure them that we shop at Tesco, not Waitrose (this is actually true); we hardly ever go to formal dinners (less true); and that we always go to ‘The Bullingdon’ to enjoy our weekly dosage of EDM (completely false).

Oxford presents many opportunities, including teaching us how to create an illusion of knowledge. By extension, this offers us the ability to create an illusion of ‘coolness’, an underrated skill. We have the tutorial system to thank for this.

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