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Found a couple of day-pictures from waaay back before I was blogging: sometimes I would take a picture of everything I read or collected during a day in town. Featured here are two beautiful days in autumn 2018 with Lyra’s Oxford by Philip Pullman, Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, Oxford music magazines and various local knick-knacks

Pictures and autumn mood by @bluebellraven

- Oxford, UK

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Of all the things that I thought might bring about reformation to the university system, a global pandemic wasn’t one of them. Relegated to working at home, with piss poor imitations of lectures, seminars and exams, I myself am angry at the way university students are being treated currently, and how we have been treated in the past years.

To begin with, university is no longer a system of gaining knowledge, it is not a system of self-betterment. You pay a fee to gain a qualification to get a job, I’m not the first to state this and I know that. What’s worse is that students have been held at metaphorical gun point, either take the overpriced and ridiculous hurdles it takes to get into university, or don’t gain a degree, which leaves a blaring hole in your CV. Universities in essence can do whatever they want, what are you going to do? Leave? With no degree? Have to start over at a different place with the little money you have left. It makes me furious that students are paying so much for so little. I am a case study in this, because during these times without lectures or seminars, what really am I paying for?

I do a degree in undergraduate English Literature at a good university, one which falls in that middle tier of most universities in the UK. I chose it for the reason that I reasoned that it fulfilled my needs to live in a city which had culture and a vibrant student life, while also being fairly impressive in terms of academics. I purposely chose to not attend a university which would feel like school, such as Oxbridge, or its imitation sector (Durham, Exeter, St. Andrews, York) My university falls into the average of many within the UK, which leads me to believe that many are handling the pandemic the way mine is, namely, poorly. I like working, I enjoy my degree, I enjoy reading and analysing and writing essays. I like the academic and social aspect to lectures and seminars and meetings, and I hoped that these things would be somehow replicated while under lockdown. To my surprise, thinking that with the 9,250 pounds I spend on my degree a year they could afford to invest some money in this process, what I have received in actuality can barely be called teaching.

In a normal week at my university I would have a couple of lectures a day, a few seminars, all of which culminate with end of year exams, a chance to exemplify and show off all the skills and knowledge I’ve developed that year.  In its place, I have online lectures and ‘discussion boards’. It’s not the lectures I hold an issue with, I find them easy to do and not that different to a normal lecture, it’s recorded and played alongside the slides and I take notes as normal, no complaints there. It is the seminars that I loathe, that make me maddeningly angry, or rather it’s the lack of seminars which makes me furious. My degree is subjective largely, its built on discussion and the swapping of ideas, bouncing off other pupils and discussions.

But how could this be replicated under lockdown? Be reasonable now.

Well, we could do zoom calls with our seminar leaders as a group maybe? Or have meetings with our module leaders on zoom personally to discuss the material one on one so they can check our understanding and knowledge more in depth. There are options, but my university has rejected all of these options in favour of ‘discussion boards’. The title is misleading, they aren’t discussion boards, because you can’t discuss things on them. We are encouraged to ‘start threads’ to discuss the material with our fellow students, which fails because no one wants to be the person to start a thread, and if you do no one responds to it, in preference of just answering the questions posed by the seminar leader at the top of the page and leaving it at that. This isn’t a complaint against my fellow students, the whole process is clunky and awkward and terribly designed, and I find it ridiculous that as students we are expected to just interact with each other and somehow arrive at the ideas and themes by ourselves.

But university is about independent learning you snowflake millennial! You’re just upset because people aren’t holding your hand through the process!

Yes you are completely right my boomer friend, university is about independent learning, trust me I know about independent learning when I dragged myself tooth and nail from a D average at Sixth Form to an A/A* average in my A2 exams, I know how to think and function and develop thoughts by myself. What makes me angry is that I am paying for a service, University is a service I am paying for, and right now I am not receiving that service in full and that makes me mad because if you spent money on a service you were no longer receiving you too would be mad. If you paid a Netflix subscription in full, but then found you could only watch half of every TV show and movie on there, you would ask for your money back as well! This is not my generation being angry that we are not being coddled or having our hands held throughout this, we are angry because older generations have transformed university into a commodity, and now we are paying for a commodity that we are no longer receiving. I am not paying to teach my classmates and start discussions with them, I am paying for a seminar leader to guide and lead the discussion so that the conversation is productive and allows us to arrive at ideas in a way that helps us develop our critical thinking skills and ultimately help me get a better degree, and use these transferable skills in future jobs and my career.

Well this is a difficult time! You don’t know what the people who teach you are going through at home or their ability to work, you’re being selfish by asking that they keep doing their jobs!

 I understand that this is a difficult time for everyone, including both students and staff. However, I don’t think I am being unreasonable in asking for the minimum, when they are asking the minimum from us. I’m not saying that they have to be perfect, just that they be reasonable. 

I’ll use an example from a fairly recent interaction I had with my head of department. It was a Tuesday morning, 10:50am and I was logging onto my discussion board in order to complete my ‘seminar’ this week. At my university, if you don’t respond to these things during the allotted time during that day, its marked as an unauthorised absence which is obviously not a good thing. So I log on, and sit there waiting for the link to the discussion board to be posted, thinking it’ll ‘go live’ at 11 and then I can get going with the process. It’s important to note that prior to this I have heard little to nothing off of my seminar leader, aside from a confusing email at the beginning of lock down in which he rambles a fair bit and doesn’t clearly explain how its all going to work. So I wait, 11 am comes and goes and I keep refreshing the page but nothing comes up, I’m panicked at this point, I don’t ‘miss’ seminars and I try and maintain a good record with my professors and lecturers. So I email the head of the English department, clearly stating that I am on the web page that I need to be on, in my seminar tutors folder, but I can’t find the link to the discussion board. I get a response back fairly quickly, a fairly snippy email asking whether or not I’ve checked my seminar leaders folder.

I am understandably quite mad, as I have already stated clearly that I have. She asks me to provide ‘proof’ in the form of a screenshot, and so I do. Some time passes, and she informs me that it was an issue with the settings on the web page, but she feels she can’t change them because its my seminar leaders job. Now I’m even more angry, because surely as the head of a department she should be able to change settings if it means I would be able to ‘attend’ my seminar. By the time the seminar is over, and the ‘discussions’ have taken place, I finally get the link and am able to post some stuff. It was stressful and infuriating. 

My point through all of this is to not shame my professors, they are people with real lives and difficulties, and are obviously going through the same issue that we all are, what I need from them is transparency. If they aren’t going to be able to respond to emails, then tell us that, if there’s been an emergency or issue, tell us that you might not be able to what you normally do. The issue I take is not with the difficulties and growing pains of the system that clearly had to be thrown together in a rush due to these highly unprecedented circumstances, its with the lack of communication in talking about these difficulties. The inability to effectively communicate with the student body to me comes across as laziness and disregard for the needs and wants of the students is what maddens me.

I understand that could be frustrating, but surely everything will be back to normal next year though?  

Here’s the thing, I don’t want things to return to normal next year, this pandemic has just exposed the underlying truths of the university system that already were there. Things such as the complete apparent disregard that universities hold for the welfare and education of their students. My university, while I love being there and overall have has a very positive experience with, has fucked up numerous times and in ways that have deeply hurt me, all of which happened in pre-lockdown. I’ll run through some examples. 

Pre-lockdown I was deeply struggling with my mental health, chronic insomnia and an inability to sleep had driven my mental state to the edge and I felt myself tipping over. In a terrible habit I had gotten into, in which ‘too reset my sleep schedule’ I would stay up all night and the next day, I would do this several times a month and I was suffering really badly. I wasn’t eating well, oscillating between eating too much, and then barely eating for days, I hated every aspect of myself and felt uncomfortable in my mind and body. This culminated in the day that I should have been revising for upcoming exams, I hadn’t slept but was going to walk down to the library and get some work done. While walking down I fell down a mental spiral of intense self-hatred and loathing, everything from my personality to how my clothes felt on my body made me feel awful, and in the 15 minute walk to the library I was close to tears. I was outside the Student Union when I began having a fully-fledged panic attack, something I hadn’t experienced in years. Panicked and hyper-ventilating I rang my closest friend who talked me down and told me to go find someone to talk, luckily I was right next to student support services. Still trembling and obviously shaken I walked into the student support services, which was completely empty aside from the one woman working behind the counter. I was still so shaken I could barely talk, and while she was kind, there was no effort to help my condition. She told me that I would need to fill out a form and they would arrange an appointment in which I could be given a diagnosis. 

Well what’s wrong with that? Surely that’s what you wanted?

Oh my poorly educated friend, no that’s not what I wanted. I wanted someone to talk me off the ledge I was on and calm me down, not have a form shoved in my face when I was clearly in no position to organize an appointment, given that I was dizzy from hyperventilating and obviously pale and shaken. I also know from personal experience that receiving therapy or a meeting takes MONTHS of scheduling, scheduling a meeting for 2 months wouldn’t make me feel safer in that moment, and all the talk of diagnosis and treatment that was being thrown at me felt overwhelming and scary. So I left, with a pamphlet on the health services complicated website and went and sat down for a while.

But that’s a one off? 

Well no actually. You know personal tutors? The people that are meant to help and guide you through academic and personal difficulties, well my first year tutor just… didn’t. In fact I don’t feel he cared one jot about me or the struggles I went through. For some context, my parents live abroad in Egypt, and I have a very small support system in the UK, meaning that a lot of the time during holidays and time off Uni, I’m alone when my friends go back to stay with their families, and living alone at Uni in first year, I found this challenging and difficult. In a scheduled personal meeting, which only take 15 minutes, we talked about how I was doing academically and that was fine. He then asked if there was anything else I wanted to talk about, and I told him that I was concerned about my Christmas plans, explaining that due to my father working for a Muslim business he didn’t get a lot of time off for Christmas, and that I was worried about spending a month alone in my house in Sheffield. His response? 

‘well… that’s not really my area is it?’

I felt myself shrink down into myself, embarrassed and upset. I nodded and left, but the words stuck to me long after the meeting was over. 

These two different stories for me, paint a larger overarching picture. It’s the abandonment of the students that they proclaim to care about. Not only academically but also personally. Not all universities are like this, not all personal tutors are like (bless my personal tutor this year, she’s a sweetheart), but they all play into the idea that in the priorities of universities, students aren’t at the forefront of their ideas. This can be seen in the increase in grad-students leading modules, as opposed to qualified lecturers, in the lack of funding for mental health systems, the poor online infrastructure, the treatment of students by staff and university workers. 

Which brings me to my final point, that the Universities now have the AUDACITY to ask us to pay 9,250 pounds for next years probably online degree, with many universities confirming that next semester will be entirely online. It’s one thing to not refund already budgeted money, but another entirely different thing to expect students to continue to pay full price for a degree that their not entirely getting. It makes me furious to think that I’m going to have to do it, I’ve already signed my lease for next year, I can’t just take a year out and come back when things are normal. Which is why I’m supporting all the students who were meant to start university next year postponing for a year. 

Do it. 

Force the university to step up its game for what it provides student, make them prove to all of us where our money is going and how it benefits us. As a student you are paying to experience life as a student. You are paying for those face to face lectures and meetings, you are paying for the university lecture halls you will sit in, you’re paying to use their amenities, libraries, health services, club nights, socials, societies, you are paying and it is okay to not want to go when you won’t receive them. Don’t feel guilty for not going, for missing out for ‘frivolous’ reasons, because you want to have the full freshers experience. When paying for a full packet experience, you are allowed to expect the full package. Hopefully, you will have a better experience than me.

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This wonderful lime spatula is from 2nd century BC Java, Indonesia. Lime spatulas such as this one were used in the process of betel chewing, which is a common practice throughout Indonesia, as well as India and Oceania.⁠⁠

A betel nut ‘chew’ is made from three ingredients; crushed kernel of an areca palm nut, the fruit of the betel-pepper plant and powdered lime. The combination is wrapped in a small, bite-sized packet and is placed in the cheek to be chewed, in a similar fashion to chewing tobacco.⁠⁠

While betel chewing is a regular habit for many, it is also used in ritual or ceremonial contexts. Over time, the objects used to prepare a chew became more and more elaborately decorated, sometimes taking on anthropomorphic *ahem* characteristics.⁠

This object is a definite favourite amongst our visitors and staff. What is your favourite Ashmolean object? 

[Lime spatula, bronze, 2nd century BC. Lumajang, Indonesia]

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Today Literary Locations: Bookshops is going local - Blackwell’s!

Although Blackwell’s is a major UK book retailer, and at various stages had a publishing business and branches in various countries, it is considered local in Oxford, since the first Blackwell’s store to open in 1879 is here on Broad Street, right next to the central Bodleian and Weston libraries. (If it sounds like a bookworm’s paradise - it is.) Nearby are the music and art/poster branches, and the underground floor houses an academic section that I’m sure has some extra dimensions - this gigantic two-level cellar is really not what you expect to find under that smallish old building.

Broad Street Blackwell’s has a bit of a touristy flair with humongous sections on Oxford, Tolkien and the Inklings; however it is still a lovely place with a café that is always somehow one free spot away from full when I drop by. I miss it terribly and put most of my online book orders through them these days - which means that shopping local in Oxford looks something like this:

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(See? They changed the style? A very bold move in Oxford, where change is basically outlawed since the 17th century)

Pictures by @bluebellraven

- Oxford, UK

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My room is a STATE atm because most of my beautiful possessions I’ve left in Oxford… I’ve been making a bit of a collage on my wardrobe doors, though, because it’s opposite my desk and so is my background when I’m on Zoom, so maybe that’ll do? I’ll also add in an old photo of my current Oxford room, from before I killed my lovely miniature roses.

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I think I’m starting to get the hang of kneading! This is my second loaf of bread according to this recipe - although this one I had to substitute some flours because we were running out - and this time, the internal texture is very, well, bread-like. I also forgot to score the top of it, but it doesn’t seem to have been that damaging.

Otherwise I’m mostly in the same state I was in when I made that loaf last week, trying to correct all the things I got wrong doing a past paper within the time limit. This week it’s electromagnetism, and there are so many things I’ve forgotten since Michaelmas. That’s especially true in analogue electronics, where the lectures didn’t feel very relevant to the problem sheet content, so everything I learnt was from the amazing postgrad who ran that tutorial - and of course I left the notes from that tute in Oxford. But I think between various internet sources and somebody else’s tute notes I’ve managed to cobble together an understanding again, and luckily it’s a very small part of the exam.

25/05/2020

amerioxfordan
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