The Oxford System, continued.

Just to highlight Aveek’s comments beneath my earlier post. I had planned on making a point similar to his final one, viz. there’s a real, startling disconnect between the way philosophy is taught in Oxford – basically as a Socratic dialogue. Tutorials are oral Q&As – and the way it is assessed: by timed writing alone. Aveek nails that point perfectly:

To begin with, there’s the supposed link between exams and the gender finals gap – though I don’t know if the evidence supports that theory. At least one of the ways in which exams are supposed to advantage boys is that they suit those who are good at superficial confident bullshit. Whether the gender claim holds or not, I think it’s true that this sort of character is likely to be better at exams, and frankly I think that PPE disproportionately rewards superficial confident bullshit. Moreover, I always find it amazing to read the despair in examiners’ reports at the caution and unoriginality of most answers – trotting out typical tutorial essays. What do they expect? If you put people in a high pressure situation, and give them little time to think, of course most people will play it safe. Frankly, it’s something of an achievement to take such bright Oxford minds and put them in a position where they can’t help but write drivel.

One obvious solution would be to make a thesis compulsory (if not a number of extended essay courseworks). It would do students good to study something in real depth (given PPE’s inevitable jack-of-all trades approach), and it would provide those with original minds the space to properly work out their ideas.

Given how integral the tutorial system is both to the culture of Oxford, and to the development of its students, I think its a bit weird that the skills produced there aren’t tested. One way would be to get a tutorial grade from your tutors on how well you presented ideas, responded to challenges, thought on your feet, engaged with others. I’d be worried about the lack anonymity, and so perhaps objectivity, but I still think its odd that these crucial skills are ignored in assessment.

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