Several times in the past couple of weeks I have poised my hand over the mouse, ready to reflect on the events of the new term, only to be distracted or called away by the press of new business. Committees begin meeting before 0th Week, and the events of the Alumni Weekend and attendant Somerville reunion (not to mention our opening celebrations for the new ROQ buildings)take up the time in evenings and weekends that in a previous life I might have used for reflecting or writing.
Most Heads of House at Oxford find the same at this time of year, I know, and most would share my sense that the daily round of a busy college is actually too rewarding (and also fun) to let us repine. Our First-Year dinner ranks as one of the most inspiriting high points of the year. Alongside the Leavers’ dinner it marks a new beginning for hundreds of people at one of the great turning points of their lives. (With that in mind, I tried to come up with some new reflections of my own for the traditional welcome speech. It’s one of the challenges of this job, to find a way to say the things that matter, without bringing out too many time-encrusted stories or thoughts that have passed their shelf life.) This year Somerville’s dining hall almost burst at the seams. We have fifty new graduate students as well as all the first-year undergraduates; and joining in the welcome to them, a good crop of new Junior and Senior Research Fellows and new Fellows in Philosophy and Economics. Taking in additional postgraduates is good for the College’s intellectual and academic life, and I am determined that we should give them the best possible experience at Oxford.
The milestones of a new academic year zoom past: our fund-raising Telethon, in which fifteen gallant volunteers raised the record sum of £200,000 this year; the Matriculation ceremony; several degree days; getting to know a new JCR committee; and interviews with second-year students many of whom are now nearly at the half-way point of their time at Oxford. If I find it difficult to fit in all that clamours for my time, how much tougher it is for them. I’d guess there are few Oxford graduates who leave without some sense of regret for opportunities missed, never mind how many sports teams, clubs and societies they have joined. Fashions in such things come and go, of course: at present Somerville has a healthy representation in the Oxford Union, and student drama and journalism. The College boat club boasts more than one aspiring Blue, and women’s football seems to be on track for more successes. Dancesport was not an activity I’d come across before arriving here, but it flourishes at Somerville. There is as always an impressive amount of voluntary activity, and before long a number of our students will be volunteering to help the candidates for next year’s places through their Admissions interviews. As our new Senior Tutor and new Access and Communications Officer find their feet, I’m hoping that an increasing number of applicants from non-traditional backgrounds, in Britain and abroad, will discover Somerville’s special welcoming qualities.
…and looking out for the Humanities
It is a feature of the current academic climate in British universities that Humanities subjects everywhere are feeling the pinch. The Conference of Colleges and the Humanities Division at Oxford are in continuing discussion about how to preserve (and if possible enhance) existing provision for teaching and how to support research in a cold climate. Each individual college, Somerville included, has contributed to the debate. Like others, our Fellows point to the vital links between teaching and research, where the tutorial system is not only important to the excellence of Oxford teaching, but also supports tutors by honing their skills of explanatory discussion and bringing new questions to the fore. Bright students challenge their tutors, as well as vice versa. A further point to emphasise is the crucial role played by our postgraduate community in the vitality of Oxford research and the continuing high reputation of the university internationally. It is a debate for this academic year, neither the first nor by any means the last on this subject, but important in this time and place because it will help determine so much that forms part of the academic experience at Oxford.