I have wanted to write about this for months, and a recent email from Sarah M. is the spark I needed:
Are any of your creative writing classes at Oxford open to outsiders or are they only open to full-time enrolled Oxford English majors?
Yes, there is one creative writing program that is part-time. Students come three times each year for intensive periods of about three weeks each, then in between they are required to do substantial writing on their own.
My teaching is part of a diploma program, however, which takes two years. It is sort of like an associate’s degree, an AA, from a US college. You do not need to be part of the Oxford English department for either of these programs, though some students are.
This whole deal is both complex and surprisingly simple. Basically, Oxford is part of England’s university system, sort of like a state uni in the US. Only all universities over here are part of this, without exception. Which means that if the national government lays down a rule, all colleges have to do what they say, including Oxford.
Harvard’s entire faculty and administration would have one giant heart attack if Washington told them to do something. Yale would declare war on the United States. Here, Oxford just does it.
The national UK government ordered all universities to set up ‘community outreach programs’, which meant they had to offer classes to people in the area. Basically, it’s like night school. Only this is Oxford. Which means everything is a lot fancier.
Here, they set up this separate department, called Wolfson College, and attached to this is Rewley House. The names don’t mean anything unless you’re here, and then it’s this sort of mild put-down. As in, oh, you teach at Rewley. Hmmm. How…nice for you. Like that. It’s a place where lesser mortals work. Like me.
The only way Oxford’s English department—called a faculty—would ever permit a class in creative writing would be if it was kept at arm’s length. They despise us. They claim it’s like the premier architectural school in the whole world offering a course in bricklaying.
So I teach in the creative writing diploma program at Rewley House, and am attached to Wolfson College. And all of my students are admitted to an Oxford University Department of Continuing Education degree program, which in England is spelled, Programme. And the English faculty would rather cross the road than allow my shadow to fall upon their shoes.
Being Oxford, the level of my students is, well, kind of amazing. Let’s see. I have 22 students this term. One of them is a medical doctor from London, born in Lebanon. Another is a professor from London in bioscience, born in Iran. Another is the former President of Brasenose College, one of Oxford’s richest colleges—I’ll explain the college system another time. Two are professors at Oxford’s medical school. They both want to be the next Michael Crichton. Another is the head of Rewley’s administrative team. One is a CIA operative on loan to British Intelligence. And I have the resident playwright from the Shakespeare theater in Stratford-on-Avon, who wants to write novels on the side. And there is a mega-rich hotel magnate who thinks it would be relaxing to write fiction. Welcome to Oxford.
And now for a word about pay.
Because the UK government sets down the rules for continuing education, and because all unis around the nation are governed by these same rules, I am paid according to guidelines that are the same for Oxford as they are for the Utter Bumpkin Polytechnic in Hangman’s Bottom, Scotland. Which is to say, not much at all.
Last year, for teaching the first-year’s intro to prose, tutoring fourteen students, then serving as final tutor and Examiner for the five who chose prose as their main course (more on that next time), I was paid less than three thousand dollars.
My first paycheck was for two hundred and seventeen dollars. When I opened it up and stopped laughing, I decided it would be nice to mail it back with a little cover note saying, Obviously, you need this more than I do.
My dear sweet angelic wife had something else to say about the subject, namely, ‘Are you nuts? This is a paycheck from Oxford University! You will cash this thing, and you will thank them.’
So, thank you.
I really do love this gig. And I understand what Isabella was going on about. Namely, I could basically go anywhere and apply for a teaching job, and have this nice little past-history thing to slip in at some point. Just so long as I blur the line where it asks for my most recent salary history.