Student Experience

Oxford University English Literature Summer School 2015

Amanda Spoto, MALS ‘16

This summer, on the day America celebrates its independence from Britain, I flew to the UK—at least the flight attendants on British Airways saw the humor in the irony. I was accepted to participate in Oxford University’s English Literature Summer School in July which counted as my elective course in the MALS program at Dartmouth. In addition to our concentration courses, interdisciplinary courses, thesis research and independent study, we have some freedom in our MALS plan of study for an elective course. A unique option the MALS program offers is the opportunity to attend one of Oxford University’s Summer Programs in either the English Literature Summer School, the History and Politics School, or the Creative Writing School during the summer term. The MALS Program (along with Oxford University) chooses about 8 candidates from our program every year, and I was honored to represent MALS in the English Literature Summer School in order to enhance my research in Cultural Studies.  

Since traveling to Oxford was my first time abroad, I—of course—made some rookie mistakes. Despite a clumsy start (I blew the outlets with my American hairdryer and I wondered who Lou was when they referred to the restroom as “loo”), I enjoyed a delicious tumble down the rabbit hole that is Oxford University, learning and engaging with talented, prodigious individuals on Oxford’s magnificent and historical campus. 

Upon applying to Oxford in February 2015, I had the option of choosing two courses out of the seven offered on their online application (Anglo-Saxon Literature and Culture, Shakespeare and Politics: Then and Now, Jane Austen, Victorian Fiction, and The English Romantic Poets). I selected the classes that matched my particular interests in Cultural Studies, Popular Culture, and Memory Studies: Modernist Fiction and Contemporary Fiction. Each class was taught twice a week for 2 hours, along with various hour and a half long lectures each morning from professors who are experts in their fields.

Another strategic reason why I chose these classes was due to the enticing reading list on both syllabi. The Modernist Fiction class focused on James Joyce’s collection of short stories in Dubliners, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and various short stories by Catherine Mansfield. In Contemporary Fiction, we had lively discussions amongst the class and extremely informative lectures from the Chief Fiction Reviewer for The Sunday Times, Peter Kemp, on recently published works of British fiction.

Apart from my intensive academic itinerary at the University, I also did quite a bit of exploring around certain areas of the marvelous region replete with so much history. On the first weekend, I traveled to Stratford-Upon-Avon, the iconic town where Shakespeare lived and thrived as a writer. As I walked around the town—wide-eyed and mouth agape—I witnessed extraordinary, majestic, and the most peculiar spectacles. While awaiting “something wicked this way comes”, I visited the Holy Trinity Church where Shakespeare’s grave is stored, the famous Kingfisher which serves “the best” fish and chips in town, the Royal Shakespeare Theater to view a modernized performance of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and I even witnessed Moorish dancers in the middle of the town alongside the River Avon where men dressed as nuns were canoeing.

Despite so many hot spots pulling me towards different parts of the country, there was a great deal of activity and history within my own residential college. The English Literature program took place at Exeter College on Oxford’s campus—the same college grounds upon which J.R.R. Tolkien began to imagine the size and scope of Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings. While on campus, I listened to stories about ghosts that haunted our dormitories, and I did the majority of my research in the Bodleian Library: the main research library on campus and second largest library in Britain where some Harry Potter movie scenes were filmed. I also visited the delightfully enormous Blackwell’s bookstore (founded in 1879), the Oxford University Press, the Church of Christ (where Lewis Carroll met the real Alice who became the titular Alice in Wonderland), the Eagle and Child bar where Tolkien and C.S. Lewis used to brainstorm, and several other pubs along the cobbled streets of the campus’s town. 

Not only was my academic and cultural experience unforgettable, but I had the pleasure of meeting several quirky, ingenious individuals who were always willing to nerd out over literature with me at any time of the day or night. My Oxford experience would not be possible without the support of the Oxford University staff, interns, professors, and administration who always went out of their way to make sure our meals, drinks, stay, schedules, and well-being were beyond perfect and outstanding every single minute of every day. I am thankful for the part my new friends played in this adventurous journey of mine. As our good friend C.S. Lewis once said, “Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself…’” I am forever indebted to the faculty and staff of the MALS Program and to my parents for allowing me to have this marvelous and memorable experience.

By Amanda (Spo!) Spoto