At regular intervals - usually weekly - Oxford undergraduates and students in taught graduate programs are expected to prepare an essay on a specific topic to be discussed with their college tutor (for undergraduate students) or academic supervisor (for graduate students). Usually about 2500 to 3000 words, these papers constitute a significant portion of the Oxford workload and are usually seen as a means of preparing for the all-important examinations.

Overwhelmingly, the Oxford system privileges speed over perfection. This may be well suited to their self-styled role as gatekeepers to the British political and intellectual elite, but it produces a style of learning quite thoroughly at odds with the immortal image of the scholar surrounded in well-thumbed books and meticulous notes, composing the authoritative treatise on some question. The point is to gain the ability to spend a couple of days taking in key parts of key texts - the specific selection entirely up to you - and then write something cogent, but not fully formed, on the basis of that reading.

For anyone with an interest in journalism, this method is probably ideal in many ways. Both require a fairly broad base of general knowledge - at least wide enough that you will know where to look for more specific information and will not make obvious missteps in somewhat unfamiliar areas. Both are based on a multitude of overlapping deadlines and the need to produce something intelligent and defensible, though certainly not authoritative in the final account. Both involve the requirement to write about things that are not necessarily of direct interest or within your existing scope of expertise. Finally, both involve close contact and coordination with individuals in similar circumstances. The social and cooperative elements are critical to success.

In the end, it's a curiously roundabout way of teaching self-reliance: to arrange highly specific tasks in a string of frequent deadlines. It certainly forces you to come up with a system that works for you and, while it may not conform to one's ideals of creativity and extensive research, it must nonetheless stand the test of the storms that batter it.


This entry can also be found on my blog: http://www.sindark.com/2006/02/mid-essay-insight.html

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