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Hand in Hand With History

Students in UA’s Alabama at Oxford program revel in rich academic traditions and immerse themselves in the intrigue of centuries past.

By Lisa Frederick

For Laura Dover, one memory perfectly captures the enchantment of her summer 2008 semester at England’s Oxford University. Having studied Matthew Arnold’s famed 1853 poem “The Scholar-Gipsy” in class, she and a group of other students ventured out to explore the nearby Cumnor Hills amid which the poem is set.

“We literally sat in the place we had read about, overlooking the entirety of Oxford,” says Dover, a senior philosophy major at UA. “And to know that almost nothing had changed since Arnold’s time … it was magical.”

That word—magical—invariably bubbles up when students describe their experience with UA’s longstanding Alabama at Oxford program. Both the town and its namesake university are steeped in nearly a thousand years of history, and it touches visitors in a visceral, personal way. Cavalcades of famous alumni, from athletes and actors to poets and politicians, have walked the grounds. The university’s library and museum collections include gems such as the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, a Gutenberg Bible and a blackboard that bears calculations scribbled in Albert Einstein’s hand. Local pubs still look much as they did when they hosted literary giants such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

“One of the main joys of the trip is watching the ‘wow’ of it all,” says Ms. Allen Jones, an instructor in UA’s Honors College. “The students are awestruck. There’s an excitement and a sense of how many adventures they can have.”

Those adventures spring, in large part, from the confluence of classroom learning and tangible relics of the area’s past—“place as text,” as Jones puts it. Students fall under the spell of her signature “Alice Walk,” an eight-mile odyssey through sites that appear in Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice in Wonderland. They canvass Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s domain; follow the trail of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; and tour Jane Austen’s childhood home in the countryside, each excursion designed by faculty to bring course work to life. They are deeply moved when they visit the spot where the Oxford Martyrs—a trio of 16th-century Anglican clergymen—were burned at the stake for heresy during the reign of Roman Catholic Queen Mary I.

“Classes are all designed to take advantage of cultural opportunities,” says Dr. Tricia McElroy, assistant professor of English at UA and director of the 2009 Alabama at Oxford program. “We try to create a collaborative, interactive learning environment—we want the students to be active and involved in the construction of their own knowledge.” The curricula for different courses often complement one another, presenting a holistic picture of the common borders between literature, history, art and other disciplines.

In keeping with Oxford tradition, intellectual discussions carry far beyond class time. Classes are kept as small as possible to encourage in-depth debate, and guest speakers at special “High Table” dinners spark lively mealtime chats. Because faculty and students are housed side-by-side within one of Oxford’s residential colleges, classroom topics trickle into mealtimes, weekends and leisurely pursuits. “I absolutely loved the critical thinking,” says Dover. “The discussions never stop. The academic world really merges with the free time—there’s a complete overlap.”

Thanks to the ease of travel within Europe, many students devote weekends to exploring the British Isles and beyond: journeying to England’s Lake District to see the pastoral beauty that inspired William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter; visiting the grand castles of Scotland; plumbing the vast depths of London. It’s a valuable opportunity, McElroy says. But she also urges students to spend much of their free time in Oxford, getting to know the city and absorbing its singular sense of place and past.

“There’s a hustle and bustle that can take over when you’re abroad,” McElroy says. “But there’s so much to see and do around Oxford. I want our students to notice the changing light on Oxford's Cotswold stone, to appreciate texture and color in the gardens of Worcester College, and at the same time to use this as a place of great intellectual fervor in which they can participate. And I hope our students can translate such observations into important connections within themselves, between their personal and academic lives.”