The City of Spires

by Thomas O. Robbins ’04


(Thom Robbins in front of Tom Tower at Christ Church, Oxford)

For almost a millennium, the University of Oxford has offered an unsurpassed education to students from around the world. For six weeks, eight Hampden-Sydney students (Will Albright, Mack Crockett, Dave McDonald, Preston Pittman, Thom Robbins, Mike Roberts, Teelo Rutledge, and Larry Wilkes) made their home in “The City of Spires” as part of the Virginia Program at Oxford. The Virginia Program at Oxford (VPO) is an intercollegiate summer program comprised of students from Hampden-Sydney and five other Virginia colleges and is the oldest of its kind at the University. While students are selected from different American universities, they lived at St. Anne’s College and studied Tudor-Stuart History and Literature on the British tutorial system.

Students began their academic endeavor with a visit to the Bodleian Library to become readers. The Bodleian Library is one of the most photographed architectural structures of the University, and its majestic interior is quite conducive for reading. Thus, the process to become a reader is extensive and requires one to swear an oath that he will not remove books from the library or light a fire in the library. Visitors are not allowed to venture beyond the front door without a reader’s card, so it is a privilege to be admitted. With the amount of weekly reading assigned, daily reading and studying were obligatory. Lectures were held each morning for an hour and followed by coffee and tea with biscuits (cookies to us Americans!). Tea time allowed students to talk with lecturers and ask questions. Questions and discourse were important because, in many cases, the lecturers had written the assigned books and articles. Lecturers included such prominent researchers and historians such as Dr. Christopher Haigh, fellow of Christ Church; Professor Peter Lake, Princeton University; and Professor Conrad Russell who is a hereditary peer and active member of the House of Lords. As well, lecturers did not shy away from critiquing another lecturer’s ideas, but the diversity in perspectives was helpful in forming a solid background on a particular topic.

(H-SC Students in Front of Hampton Court Palace. (left to right) Thom Robbins ’04, Teelo Rutledge ’04, Preston Pittman ’05, Larry Wilkes ’05, Dave McDonald ’05, Will Albright ’05, Mike Roberts ’05, and Mack Crockett ’04.)

After a week of lectures and mass amounts of reading, tutorials culminated the week’s events. Tutorials, composed of three students and the tutor, were held separately for English and history. Like our lecturers, our tutors were Oxford dons and experts in Tudor-Stuart History and English; therefore, careful and thorough preparation was critical to performing well in these sessions. Although most tutorials were conducted on premises at St. Anne’s, others were held at nearby St. John’s College, which dates back to the 1500s. Unlike typical American classes, tutorials are a very personal and in-depth analysis of the ideas regarding a particular topic. Students read their papers aloud, and they are questioned on their ideas or the particular analysis of the thoughts presented. At times, the tutorials can feel overwhelming, but good criticism in the free exchange of ideas makes us better thinkers and writers.

While each week was laden with studying and reading, there was considerable academic freedom to plan one’s own schedule. Students held to the Hampden-Sydney dictum: Work Hard, Play Hard. The vibrant social life of Oxford revolves around the pubs and clubs, which is typical in England. Moreover, there are a variety of pubs to visit ranging from new pubs to more historic pubs like the Turf Tavern. For over a century, the Turf has provided good English Ale and a locale for social gathering with its motto, “An Education in Intoxication.” Similarly, The Eagle and Child was the famous hangout of J.R.R. Tolkein. Pubs are a necessary part of a true Oxford experience.

In addition, group activities were organized to immerse students in the Oxford and England experience. At the nearby University Park, some students tried their hand at Cricket or participated in the group sponsored Pimm’s and Croquet party. Pimm’s is a traditional summer drink served with fruit and cucumber – quite interesting! With an unusually warm summer, passing the evening away punting and sipping champagne was also a common escape. Academic excursions were planned to the Globe Theater in London and Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-on-Avon to see Cymbeline, Richard III, and The Tamer Tamed. As one might imagine, theater productions were the perfect complement to the academic curriculum. Other excursions included a visit to Hampton Court Palace and the home of William Shakespeare. Many students took advantage of their time in England to make day trips to historic sites like Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, Buckingham Palace, and Blenheim Palace. As many students found, weekends were an ideal time for more extensive travel throughout the British Isles and Europe. While Scotland, Wales, and Paris seem to be the most popular destinations, some students found time to make trips to Venice, Normandy, and even Barcelona.

Throughout their time at Oxford, students read immensely, questioned profusely, experienced the social appeal of pubs, traveled, and found new friends.  They left “The City of Spires”  with fond memories. Students interested in the Virginia Program at Oxford should contact Professor Shirley Kagan in the Department of Fine Arts.

(Tutors Pose with their Students at the Final Party. (left to right) Alexis Thompson of Roanoke College, Mike McLauglin of VMI, Glyn Redworth, History Tutor, Tom Robbins, and Frank Romany, English Tutor and Lecturer at St. John’s College, Oxford)

Spain Anyone?

by Thomas O. Robbins ’04In his famous work La España Invisible, Azorín writes about the richness of Spain in all aspects of its composition from history to geography to culture. He emphasizes that there is a spiritual atmosphere. The students participating in the 2002 May Term Spanish Immersion Program can corroborate Azorín’s argument. The program was, to say the least, an intense immersion program.


Twenty-four students traveled to Alcadá de Henares with Professor Dieudonne Afatsawo and Professor Jana DeJong.

Students were placed with families who introduced them to various aspects of Spanish culture. The use of host families is not a new concept to the city of Alcalá de Henares. The custom of host families is closely tied to the Universidad de Alcalá and has been going on since the 14th Century. In general, these families did not speak any English, so students learned very quickly how to communicate. Families taught students essential terminology about household items. For example, meals were an excellent opportunity to teach students various types of food. In addition, host families were available for help with any matter like directions, recommendations of tours, etc.

The family offered a look at cultural differences in family life, but our classes offered a view of academic and educational standards in Spain. Participants could choose Intermediate Language Skills or Culture and Contemporary Issues in Spanish Society. However, one should not be misled. Each set of classes was very challenging. Each weekday, classes met for four hours of instruction followed by homework. The classes are normally taught over the course of a year, so the same amount of information was condensed into four weeks of instruction. Moreover, active participation in the classroom discussion was  required. Debates and discussion topics were supplemented with trips to local historical sites. While the Culture Class (303) was discussing Spanish architecture, the class would take field trips to nearby cathedrals or other structures to determine the style and influence the structure might have had. The local cathedral was a mixture of Roman columns with Visigoth detail. In the Contemporary Issues class, we regularly traveled to Madrid for press conferences, roundtable discussions, and scholarly presentations. Similarly, the entire group would go on excursions during the week and weekends. These trips would be to a destination relatively far from Madrid. Excursions included cities such as Avila, Segovia, and Toledo. These adventures augmented classroom activities from the past week. Excursions had a formal tour followed by leisure time for independent exploration.

On the other hand, the group truly adhered to the Hampden-Sydney adage of “work hard, play hard.” The social life offerings in a city like Alcalá were quite different from those of Farmville. One popular hangout was the Plaza de Cervantes, the town’s center, named for the famous author of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes. The Plaza featured open-air bars and restaurants, cafes, and shopping venues. The bars are an integral part of the social life of Spain. Weekend nights were reserved for time at bars and at midnight a migration to a discotheque of your choice. Personally, I found the Coliseum Disco to be quite lively. My host family found it odd that I returned home at 2 A.M. They told me that the average college student stayed out at the clubs until 5 A.M.!

While bars might, arguably, be the most popular forum for discourse, I found my host family’s patio to be a common place of communication. My family was very close. Every meal forwarded the opportunity for questions to be answered. Siesta was also a convenient time to talk or relax from a hard day’s work. Siesta is a period to time, usually an hour or two after lunch, used to relax; however, this is not the end of the day. Work and school commenced again after the siesta.

The Program illuminated another particularly important facet: group dynamics. There was a clearly noticeable change in the group between the times we departed from Dulles Airport (DC) until our return voyage from Spain. Leisure time was sparse, but the group seemed to find something enjoyable to do. While bars and the Plaza were popular hangouts, many students opted to spend free time exploring the various Spains. My first trip was hiking in a nearby city called Cercedilla. Cercedilla is well-known in Spain for its hiking trails and rich natural environment. The train ride offered a glimpse of the diverse biogeography that quickly changed from a desert-like plain to green agricultural fields to a lush mountain valley.

(left to right) Hunter Burnette ’05, Thom Robbins ’04, Joshua Thurston ’03, Meade Stone ’04 in Valencia

 Yet, the most memorable trip would have to be Valencia. A group of four Hampden-Sydney guys embarked on a trip to see the Mediterranean Sea. However, our trip began with a series of problems. First, we missed our train, so we had to regroup and develop another plan. Every door seemed to shut in our faces. We did not despair. Finally, we, with much frustration, decided to spend only one day at the beach and depart very early the following morning. That day we learned a lot about the varying strengths of each person in the group. Traveling with friends in a foreign country really has a profound effect on individuals to work together. Other students took trips to places like Mundaka and Cordoba.

Although traveling presented a perfect opportunity to bond with new friends, camaraderie was also seen through every aspect of the trip. Students were always helping one another study for a coming examination or explaining the difference between future and conditional conjugations. Perhaps the single thing that I will remember most will be the time spent with friends, be it through studying, discussing a multitude of issues ranging from religion to Spanish societal issues, or sharing stories about pastimes with host families.

Azorín would be delighted with the merits of the program. It truly captured the essence of the various Spains. Students left with only two desires: sleep and additional time in Spain.

At Casa de la Americas, Madrid
(kneeling in front)
Matthew Anderson ’05, Zack Hunt ’03

(standing left to right)
Wesley Lawson ’04, Joshua Thurston ’03, Jesse Joyce ’03,  Matthew Friedman ’03,  Michael Roberts ’05,  Derek Barker ’03,  Thom Robbins ’04, Adrian Allen ’04, and Seth Jenkins ’02