I’ve been at university for 17 days, and yesterday had my fifth contact hour: my second tutorial. ‘Tutes’ are what an Oxford education is all about. They’re the reason any self-respecting applicant will give when asked why they’re putting themselves through a three-month ordeal of entrance tests; essay samples; interviews, and an agonising, Christmas-ruining wait. Of course we weren’t swayed by the architecture, the prestige or the challenge: what we really wanted, my sixth-form self often insisted, was the chance to be ‘taught by the people who write the textbooks’.
It’s now dawning on me that we’re not really ‘taught’ at all — not in the conventional sense. What we’ve actually signed up for is a tri-fortnightly process whereby our tutors set us a question about which we know precisely nothing and to which that week’s lectures are almost certainly irrelevant. After spending a couple of days in the library, teaching ourselves, we churn out an essay by dinner of day three. The next morning, we defend our arguments to someone who has written books on the subject. Intellectual carnage ensues. All we really wanted, we realise, was a couple of quads and some oak panelling.
Yet there’s nothing like being confronted with your own ineptitude to put iron in the soul. Debriefing in the queue for lunch nearly everyone will tell you after nearly every tutorial: ‘It was brilliant. Not my essay, obviously — got completely destroyed — but still just brilliant’. It’s a cliché, but I’ve left both of my tutorials so far wanting to completely rewrite my essay. And that’s the amazing thing about the system: despite finishing in a manic rush the night before and thinking that you never, ever want to consider Tocqueville’s views on administrative centralisation again, after the tutorial you genuinely would like to have another go.