Recently, whilst immersed in the ritualistic escapism from the woes of a reading list that is a Bridge Thursday, I found myself witnessing my college mum entangling herself in the arms of a good friend of mine – a fellow fresher. This in itself may seem an unspectacular occurrence, and yet it was nonetheless a peculiarly unsettling thing to see. But why? It was not as if it were an actual family member I was watching make dubious drunken decisions (thank God – to be honest, the less said about the last family wedding, the better).
That night in Bridge, as these nights have a tendency to do, provided some uninvited inspiration for retrospection; in particular, about the semi-institutionalised peculiarity that is ‘the college family’. So readily accepted by new students from the moment of receiving that first welcome email by college parents, the entire family system itself is strikingly, but brilliantly bizarre when we stop to think about it – much like many of the wonderful quirks of being at Oxford.
Visits from family and friends are perhaps the occasions when we become most aware of how unusual college families are from an outside perspective. I defy anyone to have explained the concept of having other, unofficial (and slightly more youthful) parents to those not indoctrinated into Oxford life, without having faced a reaction of some incredulity. Even more surreal is the experience of introducing friends and family to your college spouse. I don’t blame my non-Oxford mates at all for looking as confused as an unsuccessful Union hack when the words ‘oh, this is my wife’ cross my lips without a hint of humour.
Because of the normality of college families in Oxford, it is easy to forget that people at other universities don’t regularly find themselves opposite their ‘grandmother’, ‘second cousin’, or ‘nephew’ on a night out, and so tales of family bar crawls and nights out tend to be met with perplexity and hilarity during the vac.
However, like families in general, college families can be extremely varied. At one end of the scale are those with parents who have seen an introduction to the myriad joys of Oxford’s nightlife as an essential part of their ‘pastoral’ role. While bonding over several rounds of shots may be a fast way to establish strong family ties, it’s hard to believe that raucous nights out were the intended function of the college family system when it was first introduced back in 1458 (trust me; I’m a historian). But on the other end of the spectrum are the ‘parents’ who encourage their ‘children’ to attend their lectures, give advice on reading lists and generally guide their little ones through the trials of Oxford academic life. I’m not saying either type is better than the other. In fact, they both have their perks.
It is perhaps true that the more active college families are a fantastic representation of the system working. It’s generally accepted that the whole phenomenon of ‘college family incest’ is possibly a step too far in establishing a close relationship between college parents and children. Is it strange that ‘close interactions’ between members of a college – who are actually not remotely related and only linked through the superficial family system – are quite often criticised, if just in good humour? Very possibly. Does that make it any less disconcerting when horror stories about cross-generational one-night stands come to light? Speaking from first-hand experience, I’d say not at all.
Of course there are those college families who have very little interaction with each other. That family formal is right around the corner…just as soon as you’re all free at the same time. With all jokes aside, it can be surprisingly difficult for those in a more inactive college family when friends receive fifth-week-blues gifts from their parents, or help in the form of old notes and general advice. It may be easy to make jokes about ‘dysfunctional’ college families, but it is true that having decent parents, or otherwise, can have a huge impact on a fresher’s experience, particularly in their first Michaelmas term.
By all means, the college family system, when it functions properly, is excellent. It is a way of ensuring new freshers have an approachable point of contact upon their arrival, that they have someone to answer any questions (that tutors would suggest rustication for the moment they dared ask them), and it’s a way of guiding them through the baptism of fire that is Michaelmas of first year. All in all, college parents can be truly invaluable.
But the question must be asked whether it is fair to place such responsibility on second years? Whether or not a fresher feels ‘loved’ by their parents is hardly the determining factor in how successfully they integrate into the world of Oxford, yet having a consistent and reliable aid can certainly help.
Is this something that should be considered when hasty proposals are being made left right and centre during fresher’s week? (God forbid you’re the one still single in Hilary). The rush to desperately get down on one knee to the first person who seems fairly normal may be entertaining, but can undermine the long-term purpose of a college marriage. Come next Michaelmas, there will be new arrivals who will look to you, a battle-hardened second year, for guidance and advice, but you and your spouse will hardly have spoken since freshers’ week.
By no means should college families become an overly-institutionalised element of life at Oxford – part of the joy of them is their inherently tongue-in-cheek nature. But it’s nevertheless important to remember how much a college family can change the Oxford experience, whether simply as a friendly face around college or as a support network for notes and advice.
Coming to Oxford is for many a terrifying experience – at least at first – and college families can serve as a highly effective means of reducing the difficulties faced upon arrival, whatever place on the aforementioned ‘spectrum’ they may take.