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British Studies Celebrates 40 Years

By Dev Varma ’11

British Studies At Oxford, one of the most respected summer programs held at Oxford University, enters its fifth decade this summer. At Rhodes and several U.S. sister colleges and universities, the summer session in Oxford has become a vital part of hundreds of students’ undergraduate experience.

St. John Baptist College, home of British Studies At Oxford Professor Yerger Hunt Clifton, who taught at Rhodes from 1965-93, created the program, which was inaugurated in summer 1970 with the hope that students could study at a British university and absorb that country’s culture through intense academic engagement. In the 1960s he approached University College (founded in 1249) about a revolutionary idea—hosting Rhodes students for a six-week period of immersion in British culture and learning. As the story goes, University College was not particularly interested in American students, but was stimulated by the idea of gaining revenues over the summer months.

At the end of the 1970s British Studies parted ways with University College. Rhodes had been joined in the enterprise by seven colleges in the Southern Colleges and Universities Union. A new home was found in Oxford’s College of St. John Baptist (founded in 1555), where British Studies has been since summer 1980.

History professor John Henry Davis, who taught at Rhodes from 1926-69 and himself studied at Exeter College, Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar, was the first president of the program. He described the mood of that inaugural program in the September 1970 edition of the Southwestern News, the forerunner of Rhodes magazine:
“We were free to explore the wonders of Oxford, for in spite of the hordes of tourists and the never ending streams of traffic one feels when stepping into a beautiful college quadrangle or garden that one is accompanied by a ghostly company of saints, scholars, sinners, and statesmen who have resided and wandered here for the past eight hundred years.”
British Studies students go on a six-week journey through a formative period in the historical progress of British thought and culture. The program rotates its concentrations among four different historical periods:

Early and Medieval Britain, Britain in the Renaissance, Britain in the Enlightenment and Romantic Era, and Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Britain. No seminars are repeated in consecutive years, meaning that students can attend throughout their four years of college without repeating the material.

Each weekday, students hear lectures from eminent British scholars, dine on local college fare and attend seminars relating to their chosen track within the period. In addition to the seminars, students participate in interdisciplinary activities that range from lectures and workshops with renowned scholars to visits to theaters and concerts and field excursions to carefully chosen sites of particular relevance to their studies. Professor Davis wrote of the students’ daily schedule back in 1970:
“Our days tend to follow a certain fixed routine. We are awakened by our ‘scout’ (a member of the household staff) about 7:45, and must be ready for the tolling of the breakfast bell by 8:15. Our regular weekdays are usually thoroughly packed with academic activity.”
Following the death of Clifton in 1993, Professor Michael Leslie took the reins and served as acting dean of the program for summer 1993. He then became a member of the faculty at Rhodes in 1994. Leslie, who studied at the Universities of Leicester and Edinburgh, has published extensively on British Renaissance literature along with histories of English landscapes, making him right for the part. Immediately after taking the position at Rhodes, Leslie realized what his new job would entail. He is quoted in the fall 1998 edition of Rhodes magazine:

Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, home of the dukes of Rutland, is one of England’s most rewarding places to study: medieval wall paintings in its chapel, a perfectly preserved medieval hall, and this 16th-century gallery.
“Past students had told me that British Studies revealed for them, as nothing else had done, what they could aspire to, both academically and in terms of a life of humane culture. It was my job to ensure that the opportunity Yerger had created remained available and was continuously improved for future generations of students and faculty.”
Dr. Allan Chapman, renowned historian of science and lecturer and tutor for British Studies over several decades, demonstrates the principles of the steam engine by firing up his miniature version. All who witnessed joined him in a celebratory slice of cake decorated with a diagram of Watt’s engine. Leslie sees the program’s power as its ability to conjure up the extraordinary feeling of being one with a history that dates back hundreds of years. The physical experience of living in Oxford, in rooms often older than the European discovery of America, takes past cultures off the page and makes them live. Students get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to join a cultural and intellectual community that stretches through centuries. Walking Hadrian’s Wall at the remote edge of the Roman empire blows away any cobwebs from questions of the creation of Europe. Visiting the gaunt ruins of Glastonbury Abbey makes the violent trauma of the Reformation no longer something distant, only read about; instead it becomes something with which one has a physical connection.

Says Leslie, “There is a magic to this—it can’t be explained very easily. We may be studying something as book-based as the political philosophy of Hobbes and Locke and the sources of the revolutionary ideas of the American Founding Fathers; yet the fact that we’re doing so a few yards from Locke’s old rooms in Christ Church, within yards of where the Oxford martyrs were burnt at the stake, somehow heightens and sharpens everything.”

For Leslie, British Studies is also an intense exercise in a true liberal arts education. Students and faculty alike are brought together in a small community to share in the engrossing exercise of study. In this atmosphere, there are few distractions; everyone is focused solely on learning, experiencing, discussing, disputing.

At the end of each summer, Dean Leslie (center) leads a walk (“ramble”) through the Cotswolds just north of Oxford. One year, in Lower Slaughter, the group turned a corner and saw a group of Morris (originally “moorish,” from Spain or North Africa) dancers performing their elaborate routines.

Since his tenure began, Leslie has made some changes, such as fine-tuning the weekly schedule and adding more field excursions. In most weeks the teaching is done on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, leaving Wednesday for study visits and the weekends free for independent travel.

Again, Leslie sees this as essential: “Through independent travel during the program, each student creates a unique set of cultural experiences. When they return to Oxford on a Sunday evening, the buzz is unmistakable, as they share and compare. The sum of everyone’s experience is greater. Students travel within Britain (Edinburgh is a favorite) and to the Continent (‘Anyone heading for the Chunnel to Paris?’).”

Another important addition is the British Studies Student Symposium. Now in its ninth year, the gathering gives students from colleges and universities that participate in British Studies another opportunity to invoke the spirit of a true liberal arts community. Unlike most academic symposia, there are no presentations by faculty members. Rather, faculty join the audience and students take the podium, engaging with topics of their own choice within the broad field of British Studies.

The symposium has only added to what Leslie sees as the true nature of the program. For 40 years, British Studies has energized and excited students who find themselves surrounded by the things they came to study, being taught by professors who live and breathe their academic interests as part of this community. For all students who attend, British Studies becomes a momentous event in their college careers. With the growth the program has enjoyed during the past 40 years, it should easily continue empowering students to immerse themselves in some of the core liberal arts disciplines and in British culture and history for a long time to come.

EDITOR’S NOTE: What are your memories of British Studies? Let us know by commenting below.

Mitchell Klink ’98 Mitchell Klink ′98

“The immersive environs, trips, lectures and study yield an experience greater than its parts, lasting longer than its days. I still feel kinship with classmates, professors, Oxford, England, and the unique engagement with the life of the mind itself. A shaping experience, inspiring and humbling—you can’t help but bring a bit of the Oxford life with you beyond.”

Kate Mara ′09 Kate Mara ′09

“Receiving the Ida LeBlanc ‘Lee’ Smith scholarship enabled me to participate in the British Studies At Oxford program in 2007. It was an experience—my first international experience—and I remember it fondly as a highlight of my undergraduate career. I knew in advance that we were going to study British literature, art and music, but I was delighted to discover that British Studies creates a bond between culture and academic study that can’t be achieved in the classroom alone. We gained enriching experiences everywhere, from visiting historic landmarks and museums to local markets and playhouses. I remain enormously grateful for the experience.”

Colleen Jones ’10 Colleen Hunter Jones ′10

“Attending British Studies At Oxford the past two summers, particularly as a student assistant, was a tremendous opportunity. British Studies is life-altering, providing students with a unique experience of living, studying and engaging with British culture and history. Every aspect of the program encouraged us to immerse ourselves and embrace a culture that may seem familiar but is actually quite foreign. Each moment of the program motivates students to perform to the best of their abilities. For me, British Studies and Oxford became a door opening onto a world of travel: Since my first weeks in that extraordinary setting—calm, frenetic, intense, beautiful, fascinating—I’ve lived in Spain and traveled throughout Europe; and I can’t wait to explore further.”