Thursday, June 28, 2012

Field Trip to Magdalen College

For our final class meeting in Oxford, Dr. Snyder decided to take us on an afternoon tour of Magdalen College (pronounced "Maudlin" after the spelling in the college's original charter: "Maudelayne").  Founded in 1458, the College of St. Mary Magdalen is one of the oldest and largest of the colleges of the University of Oxford.  Of particular importance to our J.R.R. Tolkien seminar, Tolkien's friend and colleague C.S. Lewis taught English as a Fellow of Magdalen College from 1925 to 1954.

Map of Magdalen College with tour route

Magdalen College's beautiful grounds are a popular tourist attraction, making it one of the most-visited colleges in the city, and today was no exception. In fact,  following the end of term last week, the University has been flinging open its doors to the hordes of summer tourists and prospective students.  The customary visitor's fees for each college have even been temporarily suspended to accommodate this Open House week.  It is a rare chance for visitors to see the interiors on these hallowed institutions, but it is also a bittersweet moment for us students.  The arrival of the tourist season and the relaxing of the colleges' entrance policies are reminders to us that we are also visitors.  We have been granted the privilege of studying here for a short while, but now our time in Oxford is coming to an end.

We were greeted at the Porter's Lodge by some bright-faced Magdalen students eager to give us a tour as part of the open house festivities.  We thanked them and said that we were actually meeting for our own private tour.  They seemed mildly surprised to see students after Week Eight.  I'd had a similar experience at Christ Church yesterday and was disheartened by being indistinguishable from the average tourist despite my Associate Member status.

Hannah and Melissa in St. John's Quad, Magdalen College
These days Magdalen College is home to approximately 600 students (400 undergrads and 200 graduate students) as well as 70 Fellows who tutor the college's students in a wide variety of subjects. The college boasts five libraries and an impressive chapel.  The college is famous for its May Morning ceremony during which its choir sings from the top of the chapel's Great Tower at 6am.

Stained-glass window, Magdalen College Chapel

Interior, Magdalen College Chapel
Choir stalls and altar, Magdalen College Chapel

After a stop in the chapel, we continued around the east side of the college and  paused for a group photo near the New Building, built in 1733.  C.S. Lewis kept rooms in this building and roses are still grow in the first-floor window boxes in his memory. Historian Edward Gibbon (The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) also had rooms here.

Bailey and Melissa in Magdalen Cloisters
Maddy stops and smells the roses.

Garden path
New Building with roses in C.S. Lewis' window
MSU Shackouls Honors College Oxford Summer Study 2012

As beautiful as the buildings were, Dr. Snyder had saved the best for last.  He led us on a walk over the River Cherwell and north through the Water Meadows along Addison's Walk, a footpath leading to the Fellows' Garden.  Just behind the New Building lies The Grove or Deer Park,  where the college's herd of deer has resided since around 1705.   We meandered along the tree-lined paths, and Spencer Hall claimed his rightful place as "King of the Woodland Realm."

View across the Cherwell to Magdalen College
Swans on the Cherwell
King of the Woodland Realm

We explored the paths and ponds of the Fellows' Garden for several minutes before returning to the New Building Lawn.

Goodbye, Magdalen (and good weather)!!

Afterwards, several of us retired to the Turf Tavern on New College Lane for a late afternoon pint in celebration of the end of our Tolkien program.  A few of the Lady Bulldogs opted for a cup of tea in a nearby cafe.  We shared a few jokes and wished each other well as we prepared to go our separate ways, some back to the United States and others to various parts of Europe.

However, we all have an essay due this week which will keep us busy for the next two days as well as a longer final research paper due in two weeks.  But those can wait.


Around 4:30 I left the tavern and walked down the lane for my last tutorial on Weimar-Era Cinema with Dr. Kiss. My assignment for this week had been to watch several films dealing with Sex and Sexuality in the Weimar Republic. From my viewing list, I'd selected Der blaue Engel, or The Blue Angel (1930) and Die 3-Groschen-Oper, or The Threepenny Opera (1931).

Der blaue Engel (1930) tells the story of a morally-upstanding professor (Emil Jannings) who is tempted by the beautiful cabaret dancer Lola (Marlene Dietrich) and is driven mad by his lust and jealousy. The film was a breakout role for Marlene Dietrich as a vixen archetype. 

Die 3-Groschen-Oper (1931) is director G.W. Pabst's film adaptation of the Bertolt Brecht stage play which is itself an adaptation of the 18th-century The Beggars' Opera by Englishman John Gay. It is a darkly-comic tale of London crimelord Mackie Messer, his marriage to the daughter of a rival criminal, and their plan to control the London criminal underworld. Die 3-Groschen-Oper is loaded with populist rhetoric and Marxist critiques of capitalism. While the film leaves out several of the play's best moments, it boasts a wealth of good music (Mack the Knife, anyone?)  Brecht is one of my favorite playwrights and I highly recommend this film as an introduction to his work.

I'd chosen to write my essay on the role of women in Weimar society for the opportunity to research the history of feminism.  As a business student I never had the time or opportunity to take any critical theory coursework, and one of the great strengths of this Oxford program is that I am surrounded by fellow students from a variety of disciplines who can expose me to new concepts.  

Just the other day, Hannah, an English and Journalism student, suggested some essays on feminist theory and the concept of the "Gaze." (Homophones are great. Every time I mention this topic to my friends, I get weird stares and am forced to spell it out.) After reading Laura Mulvey's 1975 essay on the subject, I opted to write about the camerawork in these two films and the objectification of the female characters.  Granted, there is only so much one can learn about a subject in a couple of days and with limited academic resources (our library cards expired last week, restricting us to online sources).  Dr. Kiss tore my essay apart as I expected she would, but between writing the essay and hearing her criticism, I gained a new appreciation for feminist theory.  We also had a good discussion about Brecht's ideas on Marxism and capitalism, a subject with which I have more experience and was therefore better able to defend my positions.

Overall, I have had a really great experience with this tutorial.  I've gained a new cinematic vocabulary and have a new appreciation and understanding of film and storytelling.  I feel that I have also improved my writing skills, having cranked out 4 ten-page essays for this tutorial and another 3 papers for the Tolkien course in the space of a month.  I've had to research, develop an argument, and defend my work orally.  I rarely did any of these things on a regular basis in my undergraduate work, and now feel better prepared for the rigors of graduate school.   

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