Smoke and Mirrors: Oxford Outside the Ivy Towers
This editorial was written for a feature assignment in my Essential Journalism class at Oxford Brookes University (Oxford, England) during my time there for a master's degree in multimedia journalism.
See the Substack posting of this perspective piece here.
In the digital age, we are constantly bombarded with social media posts showing how others are living their best lives, news reports painting a partial image of, let’s say, a political party and all-immersive video games that feel more authentic than real life itself. So removed from what’s concrete and corporeal, society in the 21st century is a hyperreality.
Coined by the postmodern thinker Jean Baudrillard, hyperreality is the representation of a representation of the genuine. To put that another way, it’s a construct of reality that is so far removed from said reality that it becomes its own entity and is perceived to be authentic.
Take for example an influencer’s day in the life of posts. These posts showcase picturesque meals and flattering photos in breathtaking locations. Marketed as being behind the scenes and genuine, everything about their pictures and videos looks too good to be true, and that’s because it is. It’s hyper-real and not authentic. More likely than not their picture-perfect life isn’t without its hardships. Still, we take these altered snapshots and abridged stories as genuine, believing that they’re living their best lives and reinforcing what we’re been sold to think an ideal life should look like. Online isn’t the only place we take fabrication as fact. We also do this in the physical, brick-and-mortar world. Not a penthouse in the tropics, the college town of Oxford with its persona of prosperity and couth is an example of a physical location being perceived through prescribed rose-colored glasses.
Usually seen as one and the same without any distinction being made between the university and city, Oxford is described as being both a scholastic mecca as well as a cultural melting pot. Oxford, the city, has been called a top-tier cycling city and the second most eco-friendly municipality in the UK by the local press. Oxford, the university, is held in high regard internationally for its history and status as an educational institution. To add to Oxford’s gleaming reputation, the university has been awarded the title of Best University in the World for the past seven years by the Times Higher Education. These titles don’t illustrate the reality that is Oxford.
Oxford is a hyperreality. This isn’t my ingenious observation but one of my professors at Oxford Brookes University, who raised it during a pitch session for our online periodical. Citing poverty, crime and the disconnect between the image of Oxford and the city’s genuine situation, she proposed for someone to write a piece on Oxford’s hyper-realness. No one volunteered to take her up on this and write a feature shining a light on Oxford and its eminence. But ever since that pitch session, I keep stumbling across instances that reinforce her theory and clash with this college town’s age-old narrative of affluence and academic utopianism.
Growing up on a university campus I involuntary attended lectures on everything from cultural archaeology to astronomy. I was dragged along to so many faculty parties that when I finally went to college it was difficult to view my professors as figures of authority. During my childhood of running around college halls and playing hide and seek in STEM labs, I would overhear Oxford always being referred to as an academic haven for science and liberal arts alike. A place where thoughtful, critical discussion is commonplace in both the grand halls of the university and out on the streets. And although the buildings are relics of the past, the theories and discourse coming out of Oxford are pioneering and forward-thinking. Going to study in Oxford means you’re brilliant and innovative; you are the cream of the crop.
So, when I received an acceptance letter from Oxford Brookes University, my first reaction was to pinch myself. This could not be happening. I had to be dreaming. “Yes, conditional just means you need to figure out student loans. Congrats,” a close friend who immigrated to the United Kingdom years ago replied to my message for clarification that I was not dreaming. “Oxford is a nice town,” she continued, “very posh and old feeling. It’s like walking around Hogwarts.”
Strolling through the heart of Oxford, I understood the comparison to feeling like you’ve stepped off The Hogwarts Express. With sandy spires and lofty archways that evoke images of fables and fantasy novels, Oxford city center does give the impression that you’ve been teleported back in time or to a fantasy realm far far away. I couldn’t help but compare Oxford’s citadels and grand lecture halls to what I imagine the university in UK fantasy author Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series would resemble. With a father who was a devoted collector and reader of Terry Pratchett’s bestsellers of zany witticisms and philosophical parables, I grew up to enjoy the absurdity and literary elegance of Terry Pratchett’s work. Described as a campus of stone cathedrals through the many volumes, it was easy to make parallels between Unseen University and Oxford University. The easiest was with the libraries.
Maintained by a cantankerous human-turned-orangutan, the library in the disc-shaped fantasy realm in many ways mirrors the Bodleian, Oxford University’s library system. Both possess high ceilings, dark wooden rafters and an aesthetic that is reminiscent of a Victorian-era gentleman's club. The similarities between the two academic institutions go beyond book repositories. College paraphernalia is also glaringly similar. For instance, with a leather-bound book, wizard hat and owl on a dark blue background, Unseen University’s emblem imitates Oxford’s blue and gold coat of arms. What’s more the wizard school’s crest’s motto of “Nunc Id Vides, Nunc Ne Vides” is displayed on the open pages of the leather-bound manuscript, doubling down on the uncanny resemblance it has to Oxford University’s insignia which also has the university motto inscribed on open pages of a book. When translated, the wizard’s saying is “now you see it, now you don’t.”
As soon as this new chapter in my life started, I felt like I had been blindsided. Not meeting what I had expected, all my impressions of Oxford were completely invalidated. The comparison to a magical realm only found in fiction was too accurate. Being in the city didn’t feel like I had been transported to an idealistic city of academic splendor where enriching deep conversation is abundant and cultural events and lectures are accessible. It didn’t feel like I was in a city that’s primary means of transport was cycling and motorists respected and shared the road amicably. It didn’t feel like a municipality with residents doing everything they could to help combat climate change and live sustainable lives. It didn’t feel like a town with a high standard of living and a high rating when it comes to quality of life. Instead, after settling down in a flat in East Oxford, it felt like I had left my grubby hometown of Youngstown, Ohio for a smaller version. Replacing abandoned factories and an apathetic population, it felt like I had been dropped into a miniature replica where the only stark difference was Saxon-style castles and people with an overblown sense of entitlement.
“Where did you get your undergraduate degree?” an Oxford University student asked me as we warmed up before my first dance class with a dance society. I told her I had gone to Youngstown State University. “Is that like Harvard?” she asked. After my explanation that Youngstown State is a state college and not Ivy League, she moved away from me, refusing to use the same dance equipment, and instead shared with someone who obviously did not want to share. She wasn’t the only one with a superiority complex, others in the class wouldn’t talk to me because of being a student at Oxford Brookes University, an independent educational institution from Oxford University’s college circuit.
Cyclists in the city also seemed to think that they always had the right of way. Not all of them, but most. Walking to and from campus, I would regularly be nearly taken out by a guy on his bike. Near-death experiences weren’t just delivered by college students. Cyclists of all ages would zip in and out of cars, bike through green pedestrian signals without any hesitation and fly past walkers on the sidewalk, completely disregarding any etiquette of the pavement. But they weren’t the only ones who were inconsiderate of others. With no separate lanes for bikes and cars, motorists weren’t any better. A common topic during breaks between lectures and seminars was how dangerous it was to be a cyclist in Oxford. If a car didn’t hit you, an ambulance that unexpectedly turned its sirens on would.
Nightly and until daybreak, I would hear the blaring sirens of police cars and ambulances rushing to and fro. During rush hour, I would smell through my closed windows the fumes of cars idling and hear the enraged outcries of drivers sick of the traffic and congestion. Every time I would take a stroll through the quaint cobbled roads of the city center or go grocery shopping, I would be badgered by strangers in threadbare clothes for money or if I had any food that could be spared.
Wanting to make some money to help support myself while I studied, I started looking for a job as soon as I got into Oxford. The first job I tried was as a member of bar staff at a music venue. Because there weren’t enough employees to work the night, I ended up doing two shifts back-to-back. Besides being constantly interrogated by concertgoers about where I was from, the first 6 hours were fine. The second shift of slinging beers is what made me turn the staff shirt in and continue my search for a job. After listening to some rock bands pump out their top forty hits from the early 90s, I was informed that the second shift would be fishies. After asking what an aquatic animal had to do with a music venue, I was informed that fishies are essentially UK’s equivalent to college-promoted discotheques. Thinking it would be retro music with too much bass and strobe lights, I figured it would be an interesting experience to see how undergraduate college students in the UK go clubbing. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Fishies turned out to be an excuse for college students to down excessive amounts of sugary-sweet alcoholic drinks like fish out of water. During the eye-opening experience, one girl who couldn’t have been much older than eighteen (the drinking age in the UK is eighteen), downed at least six cocktails within a twenty-minute period. My idea of Oxford as a place of intellectual highbrow culture was completely shattered by fishies.
While working on this piece, I kept doubting myself that my personal examples were credible evidence to claim Oxford as hyperreal. I doubted that I even fully understood what hyperreality means. Being an international student who hadn’t spent any time in Oxford before going there to study, I wavered on if I even had any credibility to write about Oxford. Was I just making false connections and taking mere coincidence as a genuine correlation? Was I just trying too hard to pinpoint Oxford’s hyper-realness? I started to dismay and even contemplated trashing this reflection on my experience. Maybe I should have written something about sports. But even then, how would I know what I was writing was even legitimate? If everything is just a fabrication of a fabrication of the real, then how can we concisely write about anything or even think that we know anything?
Regardless of my understanding of hyperreality or of Oxford, Oxford is no different than any other college town. After all, a college town is just a college town, regardless of the identity surrounding it. Oxford is no exception, but its ivory tower persona leads to an unrealistic depiction that the global populace takes as genuine. To be fair, this is just one city among a whole world engrossed in hyperreality. Every city in the world has a reputation that doesn’t tell its whole truth. My hometown of Youngstown is either seen as a cultural hub with a rich history or as one of the most dangerous places to live in the USA. In our media-saturated world where sensationalism is enticing, it’s easy to take information at face value and believe the fantasy.