Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Opium of the Masses? Theology at Oxford

In 1193, Alexander Neckham from St Albans gave a series of biblical and moral lectures in Oxford. It only took until 1423 to begin construction of the Divinity School (planning permission being less of an issue back then than it is today), making it one of the oldest University buildings (and forever immortalised as part of Hogwarts in the film version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire).

Theology remains a significant subject discipline at Oxford with both Theology and Philosophy & Theology recording over one hundred applications each this year, resulting in about three applicants for every offer made.

The interviews that I attended were towards the end of the day. In the failing light I was struggling to identify the particular door that I had to go through, but my obvious confusion acted as a beacon to the passing student helper, who immediately stopped and directed me to the room of the tutor concerned.

The interviews were a mix of Theology and Philosophy & Theology joint scheme applicants, and the structure was designed to ensure that the candidates had a variety of opportunities to demonstrate their interest and potential. Ten minutes were spent looking at candidate motivation, including the deceptively simple question "Why are you interested in studying this course?", ten minutes were devoted to a discussion on a piece of text that the candidates were given to study in advance of the interview (with candidates receiving one from a number of possible texts), and then, if time allowed, candidates were provided with the opportunity to discuss an ethical or moral dilemma, on issues as diverse as euthenasia, religious freedoms, and animal experimentation.

So, what key lessons did I pick up? Firstly, if you are applying to do a degree, have a clear idea why. Don't assume that just because you may have answered the question on your personal statement it won't be asked again. If you get flummoxed in answering this, then you will feel on the back foot for the rest of the interview. The tutors were particularly keen to address the issue of motivation and interest for the applicants for the Philosophy & Theology course - Oxford doesn't offer Philosophy as a single honours degree so a student who is not fully committed to the joint course has a very limited range of options available to them if they find the Theology aspect is not for them.

Secondly, on the ethical issue, it was very clear that the tutors were not expecting the applicants to engage in abstruse theological debate on the number of angels that can stand on the head of a pin, but were drawing their examples from issues that would be familiar to anyone who had a basic awareness of current affairs. What separated out the candidates was their ability to look at the question posed to them from more than one perspective.

Finally, the piece of text proved to be a very effective method of assessing the candidates. The thirty minutes allowed for preparation gave enough time to read through the text and make some notes, but the problem was that rather than reading the text in detail, and making sure they understood the terminology and sense of the entire piece, the weaker candidates were focusing on half a dozen words or phrases that they felt were key to the understanding of the extract, and then building (overly) complicated views and theories that they struggled to sustain when asked to relate this to the entire passage. The pieces chosen were deliberately not that complicated (the tutors being well aware that with only ten minutes or so there is a limit to how much discussion and evaluation can be crammed in to the time available).

The tutors were not seeking to trap or trip the candidates, but unfortunately for some of those that were interviewed, they were looking for layers of complexity where they didn't exist. This view was confirmed by my colleague Helen , who observed Theology interviews at another college, and found that the stronger candidates demonstrated flexibility when answering the ethical questions they were posed, seeing that there were several perspectives on an issue, rather than dogmatically sticking to one point of view.

As a final aside, Helen noted that when she entered the tutor's room where the interviews were being conducted, one wall was entirely taken up with books on the New Testament - there were, in her view, probably more books on this topic in one room of one college tutor at Oxford than you would probably get in the entire library collection of most other universities.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

hello from hawaii! i am interested in applying for the theology programme at oxford university. at what point should i begin the process if i hope to attend in 2010?

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Jethro_Harrup said...

Thanks for this blog, i ahve my interview next monday and am fucking terrified, this did nothing to calm my nerves but is none the less helpful, unless you made it all up in which case it was worthless.

Australian College of Physical Education said...

why theology? The purpose for theological existence should now be clear – the church must critically reflect on its proclamation of the Gospel. But, let us take this question as referring to that particular endeavor undertaken by the professional theologian. In this case, the church identifies among its members those who are particularly gifted for the theological task, setting them apart for the task of intensive theological thinking.

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The thirty minutes allowed for preparation gave enough time to read through the text and make some notes, but the problem was that rather than reading the text in detail, and making sure they understood the terminology and sense of the entire piece, the weaker candidates were focusing on half a dozen words or phrases that they felt were key to the understanding of the extract, and then building (overly) complicated views and theories that they struggled to sustain when asked to relate this to the entire passage.

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