This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 29 January 2015.
The tutorial is a cornerstone of the Oxford student experience (by which I mean the experience of being a student at Oxford, rather than the experience of reading the Oxford Student, though both are equally vital to one’s intellectual well-being). Cleverly designed to resemble intellectually stimulating discussions among equals when presented to outsiders and prospective students, the tutorial experience is, in reality, something more along the lines of a combined intellectual assault course and academic interrogation, not helped by the fact that most of the participants are usually in a state of supine lethargy, having been up until the small hours writing the essays which are currently under unforgiving scrutiny, and thus not in the ideal state of mind for a nuanced and lively discourse on The Economic Impacts of Refinements in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1750-85. I have seen students drop from exhaustion as soon as their tutors’ rooms are out of sight, still clutching their battered copies of The Language, Society and Power Reader (which unfortunately does not describe a combined politics, fitness and lifestyle self-help course), or else simply collapse in a pool of tears and torn notepaper after a few searching trick questions too many. The results of a bad tutorial are not a pleasant sight to behold.
The most important piece of advice when dealing with stressful tutorials is that it is important to keep the long-term health of one’s friendships in mind. Deflecting a difficult question about Quantitative Easing onto the person next to you may be an excellent short-term solution to the problem of your brain being currently unable to do much more than spasmodically flail at the concept of independent thought, but doing so tends to lead to all sorts of tensions when the tutorial is over. If this has never happened to you, try and imagine being in a tense combat situation, and a comrade producing a hand grenade, throwing away the pin, and tossing it to you with a cry of “Let’s play pass the parcel!” Imagine it, and never do it again.
Beyond that, just stick together, keep a stiff upper lip and soldier on. Who knows, you might even enjoy it.