This is a whirlwind summary of the first week here. I do this mostly for posterity, not for literary value. Z and I learned that the Merton crowd is a little younger, a little ‘posher’ and a little less welcoming than the Trinity Hall MCR. Now, there are plenty of exceptions but it is a different mix and I am feeling particularly old and out of place in this crowd. The staff in the College are all very good and that’s nice.
Z and I also learned that while the Oxford University Disabled Students Service is run by very good people they are hobbled by a backward approach to mental health and learning disabilities. I was told, by the College Doctors in no uncertain terms, that I would not be able to get my prescription renewed in the UK because the NHS ‘does not do’ those medications. They are not given to adults here. This led to an awkward moment with my very keen and professional disabilities adviser who had to admit that they have no way to help people with ADHD or my type of working memory issues other than counselling and ‘assistance technologies.’ That means that while there may be students here with Dyslexia and other related disorders I doubt there are any with my type of issue because they wouldn’t have made it this far. That was upsetting and I’m not sure how angry I am allowed to get over this. I didn’t come here to reform the mental health and education system. I have some time to make a work-around from Canada but this may come back to bite me in the ass and if it does, I will gladly bite the University as hard as I can. And I have very strong teeth.
The only other point of interest for readers of PBS was the first meeting with my supervisor. I don’t know what the experience is for other doctoral students but this was, without question, the most casual discussion of a fantastically formal concept I have ever been part of. We talked for an hour and a half about the basic framework of the project, the likely places in the various libraries where I would find primary source guides, we spoke about various unanswered questions surrounding the project and that was about it. There was no rigid schedule of progress, no dreary departmental requirements for trade-craft or inductions. There are some opportunities for that sort of thing: Latin, paleography, and academic training courses run by the Humanities department for new academics and students who have never written for publication or presented conference papers or who may need to apply for grants and funding assistance. But that’s all optional. Apparently, I am left to my own devices to crank out a thesis over the next three years.
My first thought was something along the lines of ‘you must be kidding? If this is all I’m expected to do with my time, do I really need three years for it?’ I know that’s probably not common opinion amongst new students but really, I sort of feel like I’m being treated like a newly progressed undergrad, without a lick of experience, training, or direction. You would think, considering how hard it was to get in here, and how unsuccessful I was in getting any funding, that all the other keen young DPhils would be massive overachievers with heaps of energy and experience but you would be wrong. Oxford expects very little of new doctorates, at least in the first year. We are not expected to have any training in primary source research, in shaping major research project, in presenting work to others in conferences or papers. Since you can progress from an Honours BA right into the DPhil (depending on the topic) this makes some sense but it means I feel a little out of place.
It also means I don’t get to teach until my second year. It means that most people here don’t expect me to know much at all about my project, my goals, or my sources. Low expectations can be good, but it also removes many opportunities for those who are capable of leap-frogging ahead because they look, to others, like they are over-reaching when they are actually working at an appropriate level.
The irony of me complaining about this is painfully obvious.