Big dogs are a big mistake

One of Oxford’s unique selling points – I’m sure you’ve heard it all before – is “you’ll be taught by the people who write your textbooks”. But often that’s not a good thing.

The big-hitters often don’t care enough. Anyone who tutors you will be brilliant in their particular field; that much is a given here. Yet those who are so brilliant as to have earned fame from doing so often simply won’t have enough time or care for you.

They are busy, busy. You’ll find tutorials rearranged to fit in their academic conferences – a minor annoyance, perhaps, but somewhat disruptive to your plans when it starts happening every week. You’ll find essays either not marked from over a term ago, or marked but “mislaid” – it all amounts to the same thing. You’ll reach 6th week with your collections still unmarked. And your tutor will take a 10-minute break mid-tute to have an ‘important’ phone conversation. You wait, staring mindlessly at the array of edited volumed by the big dog himself that line the office bookcase.

It’s anything but ideal. Your essays will be the last of their priorities, even if they are the first of yours. Ultimately, through getting a high-flyer with ‘X-factor’ you might impress a few people, but will ultimately lose out. They will never get sacked, or even reprimanded, because they are big names that add to Oxford’s academic reputation.

When I heard I would be taught by a graduate student who looked about 23, I wasn’t best pleased. This was not what I pay my tuition fees for. But, contrary to my expectations, he’s been far more useful than the big names. Those who aren’t writing books have more time to worry about their students – which is ultimately what they’re paid to do. We shouldn’t tolerate lax teaching from tutors just because they are famous.