Exiled from Oxford but learning from the city

Mundie Lawrance reflects on a year of living in Oxford as a suspended student.

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Photo: Neutrum.photo / Aleksandra Cywinska

In Tove Jansson’s Moomin comic strip one moomin calls to a fox “I only want to live in peace and plant potatoes and dream”.

It’s around 8:30 pm on a bright, sharp July evening to end my first week as a worker in a tiny outpost of Jämtland, Western Sweden. As I look up at the homestead, away from the thistly stretch and huge pearl-like daisies which lead away from the lake, it strikes me that this is the most countryside I’ve touched in my whole year as a member of the exclusive club for rusticated students.

Of course, to ‘rusticate’ is quite literally to “stay or live in the countryside”, and indeed an Oxford English Dictionary search will reveal that the term was used in that sense for a few hundred years before making its way in around the 18th century to the academic departments of certain upstanding universities, to be used regarding experiences of a slightly less picturesque tone. The two definitions clearly overlapped during that time.

The erstwhile compiler of the Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson, mused on its benefits in 1783 after a short sojourn in Kent, writing: “Whether this short rustication has done me any good I cannot tell”. I should like to definitively report my feelings as being more positive on the topic of whether my rustication has “done me any good”.

The term has since branched out, but it has never shaken off the meaning of being dismissed from the University of either Oxford, Durham or Cambridge, to sit at home and reflect on your self-worth, right of existence, and crushing sense of failure.

When I was introduced to this concept last Michaelmas, after being hauled in on a November morning to “discuss my future”, I couldn’t escape the image of an apparition, proclaiming my doom with the wag of a finger as it “sent me back to the country”.

As a person who lives and breathes poetry, I was intrigued to find that many notable people who rusticated in the past do seem to be poets – I’m not entirely sure whether that should be concerning, or comforting.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites ‘rustication’ as “temporary dismissal from a university suspension”, but these are not entirely the same thing. My suspension – the official term under which I agreed to leave Oxford for a year – was not a punishment, and nor was it much of a choice.

This difference in terminology seems to be one that non-Oxford alumni are more aware of than we are – on mentioning my rustication once to a Tinder match, I was asked, in some mixture of consternation and admiration, what I’d done to merit it. Here in Oxford the word ‘rustication’ serves for every circumstance: we need psychologically to separate the miscreants of latter days from people for whom a break is the only option.

Water Enough

CORYDON: You mean you’d let the sheep / Go thirsty? THYRSIS: Well, they’re not my sheep. My sheep have water enough. Edna St Vincent Millay, Aria da Capo

With this in mind, I had a look at the measures with which the University endeavours to offer support to students at risk of ‘suspending’. If I was looking for something to warm the cockles, I was disappointed. Rifling through the few resources available, I found a podcast which, if John Milton had heard it as he was preparing to suspend, may just have induced him to leave the University and not come back.

It seems unfair to imply that everyone who is thinking about rusticating could continue if they really tried (we’re English, don’t you know?). The examples given didn’t help, with the podcast citing “can’t bear to see your ex around” as one potential catalyst for rustication. Of course, there are extreme instances of everything, but in general I found the podcast sadly patronising – trying, but missing the mark.

Milton was rusticated by force because he fell out so severely with his tutor. There are more modern (and more publicised) horror stories of people who are not desirous of rustication and are unhappy with their treatment. I don’t deny that some people are treated unfairly, but many complaints seem to me to be either undervaluing the support of the college, or expecting too much. I recognise that it would be excellent if colleges gave continued support on some level, but wasn’t personally shocked at having certain privileges withdrawn. I would not expect an extra year’s full support on top of my degree.

Whatever students feel about how their college handled their suspension, it is nothing short of a miracle that the structure here is such that a student will be missed if they fail to materialise to their classes. The tutors and medical staff at other colleges may not be as supportive as mine were, but it’s significantly better than in other institutions where the option of rustication simply doesn’t exist.

Many question why the University doesn’t address the amount of people rusticating (1183 in 2013/14 alone, out of around 22,300 undergraduates) – if we’re all falling apart at the hands of the system, shouldn’t it stop bearing down on its errant children with a leather strap and try working out what it might be doing wrong? This would be an easy stance to take, but this environment is both infamous and celebrated for its pressured nature. Most Oxford students I know are incredibly driven, and thrive off making the most out of their studies. Therefore, although it is concerning that we take the number of people dropping out and rusticating as almost a given, the University could begin with recognising that right now this is a reality, and that they can help.

To my mind the University of Oxford should bring in more support resources at the university wide tier, above and beyond other institutions. I am lucky that I don’t need much continued support, but there are many students who would benefit from a more open source of help.

Preventive measures are a different affair, but it is vital that Oxford learns how to help those, who do choose to rusticate, more effectively.

City of Aquatint

Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint. In her spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman’s day; her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days. Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

I’m glad rustication was a complete surprise to me, otherwise I might well have joined the sad subjects of the podcast, so torn with the idea of rusticating that they’re put in a sort of academic paralysis.

When I agreed to rusticate, I had no concept of what the next year would entail – one of my least perfect qualities probably being an inability (or unwillingness) to look very far ahead.

As it transpired, before I caught the overnight train to Östersund and discovered the therapeutic power of summer strawberries and the not-so-therapeutic power of nastily overpriced Swedish beer, I took a mysteriously cheap room in Jericho and worked in Oxford for several months. I am a creature of habit, despite – or perhaps because of – my slightly unhabitual background, and I enjoyed immensely being based in one place for an entire half year, as well as seeing another side of Oxford life.

I may not have backpacked around Southeast Asia (although my ability to sniff out all good sources of organic tofu within a five mile radius might have you fooled), but I have been on a type of journey. When I left, I spent a long time attempting to dissect exactly why I was so unmotivated about my degree. Why did I no longer care about my subject?

Every subject offered at Oxford had some desirable quality which English, my subject, was lacking, and which I suddenly desperately needed in my life – from PPE to Geography to Chemistry, to packing it in and fleeing to a hermitage on the Arctic Circle (although I did at least do that).

During the PPE phase, my dad rather bluntly suggested that I “stick to what I do best”. At the time I was annoyed, but he had a point: you don’t prove things by wanting to prove them, and there is no shame in beginning with what you know. This year I’ve not only started to prove things, but to realise for myself what it is I want to achieve.

Moreover, I needed my year to really love and make my peace with doing English. You don’t have to be a chemist or historian – or even an undergraduate – to see the many variables and factors that go into making a person who they are.

We are all complicated mixtures of influences, motivations, and emotions and it’s a bonus when you realise you can find them all in your own subject, if you only know where to look. Taking some time away from the subject made me fall in love again with English.

The phrase “rus in urbe” sounds similar to rustication, but has been in existence for the best part of two millennia, generally describing a patch of city land that evokes the feeling of the country.

I found my own rus in urbe in Oxford: among the complex layers of experiences I had and witnessed, the people I met, and the history rooted in the stonework of the city, I found not only the sleepiness of my own Yorkshire town, but the vivacity of London, where I spent a large part of my childhood – and when I went back to them, I appreciated the beauty of both all the more.

What You Leave Behind

What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others. Pericles

Growing up, I was barely aware of what ‘Oxford’ meant, and my whole impression was based on Brideshead Revisited (although let’s be honest, I will never stop modelling myself on Sebastian Flyte). I was truly privileged by then having the extra space to live there – with time to think about who I am in a place where every part of me is accepted, and to realise that the University of Oxford is where I want to be, something I did not feel when I started in October 2016.

Working full time and studying for the coming year (not to mention standing at the outskirts, looking on at my friends being progressively fed into the fire of Academic Life), was hard, but it prepared me much better than anything had heretofore for the grilling that is to come.

I was initially asked to write on my unique perspective of rustication, having experienced Oxford life from both ‘the outside’ and ‘the inside’. An example topic was suggested: “Was rustication worth it?” It might have been the beer and the late hour, but trying to make sense of my own answer to this led me to the following conclusion.

To be worthy is to have intrinsic value: if it was worth it, what did I exchange for that worth? In financial terms, where was the return on my investment?

Suspending my studies was a decision on paper, but my tutor and I agreed that it was not a choice, if I didn’t want to jeopardise my studies. Therefore the question is futile: what happened, happened.

A better way of measuring my year’s worth is through gratitude, because (aside from finally learning how to boil an egg) that is the greatest skill I’ve gained.

I’m not endorsing the wringing of hands and proclaiming that everything is wonderful. Gratitude to me is complaining about your morning tute on the way to Bridge, but still turning up at 9am sharp. It’s savouring the taste of your food, or going for a quick coffee with someone you haven’t seen in a while.

It’s remembering that your life is precious enough to live it in ways that fulfil you the most, regardless of how easy it would be to waste it. Many people, including myself, have doubts about their own capabilities – how could you not, when you’ve just spent £4,500 of great potential on the privilege of lying in somebody else’s bed, staring at somebody else’s wall?

Now, though, I know that I am capable. My nine months out were worth it, because I grew, and I learnt to be grateful – for what the world and the people in it can give, and for what I can give in return.

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