Thursday, December 07, 2006

Rooms with a view

One of the aspects of the Oxford interview process that I feel moved to comment on is the use of a tutor's office in their college as the venue for the interview. Whilst this may seem a rather odd thing to make an observation on, particularly given my own preference for an office where every available space is covered with books or paper, I have been quietly amused by how the venues for the three sets of interviews to date have conformed exactly to my vision of what that particular subject discipline conjures up.

The interviews for English were conducted in an environment of comfortable clutter. A large office was full of bookshelves stacked high with periodicals and literary volumes. The furniture was well-used, mismatched and, probably most revealing, there was no table separating the interviewers from the interviewees.

Modern languages occupied a light, airy office, with sunlight streaming through the wide windows, illuminating the darkest recesses of the room. The furniture was modern, neat and chic, with primary colours very much in evidence. Whilst there was a table, it had a functional role - it allowed the candidates to lay out their notes on the texts they had to comment on, whilst the interviewers had all their information on the applicant to hand.

The law interviews (of which more tomorrow) took place in a room that displayed a lot of dark wood - a magnificent desk, bookshelves with bound legal journals, and the candidate and interviewers grouped around a desk. Off to one side there were a set of armchairs and sofas (for tutorial discussions) set beside a fireplace (sadly without a roaring log fire, which really would have completed the picture).

So, apart from confirming some of my own narrow-minded prejudices and stereotypes, what does it mean for a candidate at interview? Only that, as an observer, it felt right that these were the surroundings that the interviews were being conducted in. Rather than being assessed in an anti-septic, artificial, utilitarian space, interviewees probably picked up, either consciously or unconsciously, a sense of the individual styles and preferences of those who, if they receive an offer and come to Oxford, will be their personal tutor for the duration of their course.

It is a significant element of the Oxford educational "experience" that sets the place apart from almost every other University in the country. Given how important it is that candidates make the correct choice for their future success and happiness, long may the world of the overstuffed armchair and framed artistic poster be a feature of the Oxford interview.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

As an Oxford graduate, it does bring back memories of being interviewed for geography in a utilitarian space devoid of any sort of character, or furniture or decor other than table and chairs! At least these applicants might have been more at their ease than I was - especially when I was thrown an early question about the likely weight of the table had it been made of solid steel rather than wood and aluminium!
I really think these reports will help us all to prepare students for their interview experience, so that they really can do their best.
Thanks Mike - keep them coming.

Anonymous said...

This post also reminds me of my own interview for Classics in 2000. Since Classics includes Philosophy, all applicants at my college had an additional interview with the Philosophy tutor.

His room was, on a December afternoon with the nights drawing in, lit only by a feeble desk lamp in the back corner. The atmosphere was infused with the smell of pipe-smoke, and there were enormous piles of books scattered absolutely everywhere: on the desk, on the chairs, bookcases, tables. The room had clearly once been an office but at some point all semblance of order had disappeared.

When the interview discussed came around to the essay I had submitted, I was amused to see my interviewer pause for a moment, reach his entire arm into one of the enormous book-mounds and pull out the sheets of A4 I had carefully prepared months earlier - stained with black coffee, nicotine and second-hand print from the pages (of much more intellectual tomes) which had housed it since it was submitted.

On entry, each applicant was faced with an initial choice, opposite the tutor: comfy sofa or rigid hardwood chair? Rumours in the JCR were that this choice was part of the tutor's assessment!

Amusing don stories aside, it's important to remember that the whole Oxford application procedure is designed to get the best out of its applicants. Even if your interviewer's room looks like it fell from the floor above, he/she is interested in what you do know rather than what you don't. The advice which is most often given is to be yourself - simple but true.

Anonymous said...

This blog is an ace development Mike. Well done!

I remember a point made by one college admissions tutor, one that really stuck with me; and one whose truth I eventually got a handle on once I got there.

He stressed that many tutors would much rather candidates stumble and falter, coming out with something quite unpolished, than receive slick, glib, well-prepared answers that fail to reflect the complexity of the issue before them.

I took that as saying, "Don't worry about going to pieces." It really seemed to help.

To all the runners, keep up the good work!

avocadoinparadise said...

I agree that the authentic-feeling atmosphere of each space is one of the distinguishing features of a good university like oxford.

There is a tendency, especially in the US, to homogenize and sterilize public spaces. This persists to the point where every university building feels equally bland, and I think it hurts learning. It's great that places like the ones you are describing exist.

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akurats said...

"I agree that the authentic-feeling atmosphere of each space is one of the distinguishing features of a good university like oxford."- Totally agree :)

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