RA in Oxford: City of Inspiring Spires

Only a short while ago (though it already seems so frightfully distant now), we, Kristy Evers and Ilse Ras attended a symposium on Science & Literature at the St. John’s College in Oxford. It was organized by RA’s Dr Michael Burke and St. John’s Dr Emily Troscianko, who both presented some of their own research as well.

Oxford itself is already magical, with its numerous colleges and scholars, but St. John’s College, the richest college in the city, is also gorgeous in its own right, with old quads and new buildings all forming the puzzle pieces of this institution.

St. John's College, Oxford

We stayed at the college for two nights, in a room with rather distinct 1960s features and our very own bathroom and kitchen – actually quite like a Roggeveenhof room but then bigger. Also rather like Roggeveenhof was the fire alarm, which went off for no seemingly particular reason on Friday morning. However, unlike at Roosevelt Academy, we had breakfast in the Great Hall, making you feel very important with its polished wooden tables and chairs and the painted academics looking down on you eating your scrambled eggs and toast.

The symposium itself was, like the city and the college, very inspiring. When we arrived at registration we had the surprise of finding out that Dr Burke had already paid for our symposium fees, on the condition that we would get involved in the discussions and debates. This incentive proved a good way to get over our nerves of asking a question in a room crammed with expert academics. Aside from that, we had the opportunity of walking up to the speakers and other attending scholars to have a chat with them during tea breaks. They were very open to answering the questions we had and telling us about academic life. We could share our ideas with them and they wanted to know about our plans for the future, so they could inform us about their master programmes. Also, being referred to as “Michael’s students” throughout the day, we were continuously told how lucky we were to have Dr Burke take us to this event.

We learned so much that you wouldn’t ordinarily learn in a classroom, because we could speak to them so freely. The information we heard in the talks and during the formal and informal discussions afterwards proved very enlightening, as turned out the next day when we had a chat over tea and came up with an interesting scientific-literary idea to work on.

What also proved very informative were the dinner and drinks after the symposium. We continued our conversation with many interesting academics like Alan Palmer, an independent scholar, and Catherine Emmott, Senior Lecturer at the University of Glasgow, which made for some very interesting topics on everything ranging from art to statistics. Afterwards, we were invited for drinks in The Eagle and Child across the street. Literature people take Shakespeare very seriously, as we discovered the ‘Twelfth Night’ quotation “Thou art a scholar; let us therefore eat and drink” was clearly interpreted literally.

An interesting fact is that earlier last century a group called ‘the Inklings’, consisting of, among others, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, had weekly meetings in The Eagle and Child to discuss their writings. The pub still has photos in what is called the Rabbit Room, a cosy corner close to the bar, but aside from that it is just a regular pub with locals.

After the symposium we had one day to look around Oxford. We had already scoped out Blackwell’s on our first afternoon and we, therefore, started our free day looking at Egyptian artefacts, Greek finds and Dutch masters in the Ashmolean museum. Then, we went to the Bodleian library, one part of which was used as the Hogwarts infirmary in the Harry Potter films, another part as the Hogwarts library. More importantly, we saw the room Charles I used as his court during the English Civil War and the room where Oscar Wilde was put on trial after failing to pay his bills. Afterwards, we strolled to Christ Church College while taking in as much as possible of Oxford itself.

Next, we went to a very small shop called ‘Alice’s Shop’, which is allegedly the sheep’s shop in ‘Through the Looking-Glass’ and was the shop where Alice Liddell (for whom Charles Dodgson wrote the Alice stories) bought her sweets. They currently sell all sorts of Alice souvenirs, ranging from Cheshire Cat tea cosies to bound copies of the stories. Finally, we finished our trip with some tea at The Eagle and Child while we waited for our midnight bus to take us back to the airport, growing ever sadder that we were to leave this magical, inspiring city of dreaming spires behind. One thing, however, is certain; we will return.

– By Ilse Ras and Kristy Evers


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