Inviting a kindred spirit into a room of one's own 1

February 11, 2005

When a Derby lecturer and an Oxford don shadowed each other for the day, the chief revelation was how much common ground they shared

Mary McNally, lecturer in culture and environment at Derby, makes a pilgrimage to the 'sacred lawns' of Oxford to meet with Ros Ballaster and get a taste of life (and the sausages) at Mansfield College

I start off from Derby with thoughts of "dreaming spires". All those imaginings are fulfilled - and then some.

I arrive in Oxford in the gathering gloom of a November afternoon and get completely lost in the Dante-esque swirl of streets.

After nearly breaking down and having to call out the AA, I eventually find Mansfield College. Incidentally, imagine my squeamish embarrassment; the brash yellowness of the cheekily cheerful AA van and their man, Bernie (who confides in me that his wife is at Oxford Brookes University and is getting a very good education), gatecrashing the hallowed grounds.

The whole situation is stagemanaged by Mike, the porter, a wonderfully kind reincarnation of the ancient "beadle". Later, Ros Ballaster, my temporary "other half", agrees that there is very much a family feel to the college, and students become tremendously loyal to their alma mater.

Not long after my initial incursion into the college grounds, I spy the "sacred lawns". In some senses, in coming to Oxford, I feel I am partly on a pilgrimage to avenge Virginia Woolf's imagined Mary who, in A Room of One's Own , is scolded by an Oxford beadle for walking on the grass.

Impishly, I put my foot on the edge of the lawn, but feel slightly odd for doing so. My rebuke comes a few minutes later when, on being shown to my college rooms, Mike tells me in great good humour that the grass is still sacred and not to be trodden on. I later see an official notice to this effect. Still, I feel I have done my bit for Mary and for my third-years, who finished studying A Room of One's Own last semester.

While not being quite the set of linen-fold panelled rooms one expects in Oxford, the comfortable Mansfield suite yields a priceless visitors' book. International worlds collide on its pages and, as one wit had pointed out, with a nod to John Donne, "All here in one bed lay."

Having had more than enough adventures for one day, I finally get down to business: meeting up with Ros, fellow of Mansfield and English tutor. We hit it off immediately and sit jawing in her office. Hers is a perfect Oxford don's study, complete with large, comfortable chairs, a throw-adorned sofa long enough to seat four students, walls lined with books, and a beautiful bouquet of flowers (mental note to self: must throw out the old spider plant in my office). While I am there, Ros indicates the back door to the office, which her students pointedly call "the back passage".

During this initial chat, we talk about everything and anything to do with our very different jobs. In a fascinating coincidence, Ros shows me a recent set of pay scales, which demonstrate that academics at Derby and Oxford universities are remunerated similarly - we're both in the bottom third of the university pay scales. We giggle conspiratorially and I point out what I have always suspected - that Derby and Oxford are, in fact, spiritual twins.

Mansfield has its roots in the 19th-century United Reformed Church and is one of Oxford's less well-off colleges. It takes a large proportion of its students from state schools. That evening, over a good dinner and a couple of large glasses of Chardonnay, Ros and I set the world to rights and find out about one another's lives. We compare notes on "challenging" students and how we sigh with relief once it is known that a particular student isn't taking a specific class. But we also agree how something a student says can really challenge one's own views about an author, text or genre. We talk about issues surrounding student retention and acknowledge that, although we work under very different circumstances, some of the issues are similar.

The next morning I see Oxford at work. After a hearty breakfast, we start at 9am prompt. The first two-hour tutorial group is a set of four third-year female students preparing Lady Mary Wortley Montague for their special author paper. It is a joy to behold and reminds me of my own postgraduate days at the Shakespeare Institute in Birmingham, when one had time and space to just read and think (sigh).

These young women are extremely intelligent and lively scholars. They have prepared their work in detail and have all sorts of background knowledge to bring to bear on the author and texts they are interrogating. Ros steers them expertly, yet sensitively, through the choppy waters of the 18th-century salon world. I am immediately struck by how the students constantly question each other, but not in an adversarial way, and also how they suggest extra readings, supporting one another's study. A sense of real "ownership" of the texts they are studying is obvious. A female learning space; what would Woolf have said?

I am interested to find out if Ros thinks these students might in any way term themselves "feminists" and she concurs that they probably would. She also points out that the classroom dynamic might have been very different had male students been present. Inevitably, I can't help but wonder what my own students might have made of this opportunity to talk texts for two hours with three other people and their tutor.

The students' relationship with Ros is interesting to observe, too. They treat her as an intellectual equal and were neither overawed to be in the presence of an Oxford fellow, nor arrogant. Ros points out that part of the reason they are so confident is that they have been engaged in this type of close work in small groups from their first day at the university. The textual interrogation continues until 11am, when a single student comes to speak for an hour about her special author study on Swift.

Lunchtime is a great treat at high table, especially the pork and leek sausages. Once again I am reminded of a chapter in A Room of One's Own where the all-female colleges provide much poorer sustenance than the men's. I wonder how things have progressed at St Hilda's.

In the afternoon, a group of eight first-years pile into Ros's study for their tutorial on postmodernism. One of the students is engaged as the "scribe" and each in turn is able to feed back their initial understanding of the theory. They then use primary texts, such as Grace Nichols's The Fat Black Woman's Poems and Jeanette Winterson's Oranges are Not the Only Fruit , to spot some hallmarks of postmodernism. Their understanding is excellent. It is apparent that they have a certain confidence that allows them to make bold, imaginative statements about text and theory. This group also asks one another questions and are not cowed by answers that might not match their own.

Throughout my day, I note the paradox of the appearance of a cosy chat in a book-lined room, which in fact produces work of the highest standard.

Ros informs me that many of her students go into the diplomatic service, social work and some into postgraduate work. Certainly, from what I have seen, most are well on their way to the last of these. Over our tea break, we talk about the merits and problems of e-learning. I tell Ros about the Derby online learning platform, UDo, which I have found very useful, especially for teaching large groups. Ros shows me Oxford's equivalent, WebLearn.

At the end of the day, Ros and I emerge from her office to grab a coffee in the pristine new University Club. The club, just opposite Mansfield College, is a swish state-of-the-art eating, drinking and sauna facility. I am amused to see that even Oxford has not been spared plasma screens replete with football, and that the front door to the club is temporarily out of order, reminding me of an out-of-action lift at Derby the previous week. Ah yes, even in Paradise, there are hiccups.

Making my way home is like leaving a different planet. As I worm my way down the Banbury Road and onto the M40, many questions fight for precedence in my mind. I guess the truth of the matter is that most students would flourish if they were in a class of one, four or even, God forbid, eight.

But the current craze in the Government for encouraging up to 50 per cent of school-leavers into higher education, and insane funding mechanisms mean that only the few will ever be able to take advantage of the Oxford experience. The three factors that seem to sum up the experience for me are having the time to teach highly motivated, intelligent young people in small groups. As my mother would say: "The world is ill-divided."

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