REFLECTIONS BY ERNEST HOFER ABOUT THE FOUNDING AND GROWTH OF THE OXFORD SUMMER SEMINAR, ON ITS 40TH ANNIVERSARY, TRINITY COLLEGE 1966-2007
Prof Brogan, Head of the English Department, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, asked me to find a college at Oxford where for six weeks students might be tutored in their subjects and use Bodleian Library. He felt that the research facilities at “Umass” then did not offer adequate research material to justify a serious PhD in medieval or 18th century studies. Alastair Fowler, then at Brasenose, agreed to help me get started and indeed brought me in contact with Oxford faculty willing and able to learn American methods of marking a term’s worth—with A < B < C < D and a little essay to accompany these grades. Hence UMASS and indeed other colleges and universities in the USA/Canada could transfer their credit to their own institutions. (I had taken a summer school myself at St. Hilda’s College and received only a single sheet mentioning I had been there: no grades.) So for the first time at Oxford, in 1966, grades were generated at the end of the first six-week period, the credit toward American or Canadian degrees established. (Since my innovation, about 30 other summer schools have copied us, though many have not, as we have, insisted on ONLY British tutors be engaged, preferably from Oxbridge, or from Oxbridge backgrounds.)
We proposed at $850 total (including transport) because in 1966 the $ was a happy currency and indeed the pound was precisely the reverse of what it is today relative to the dollar. And we paid our faculty in dollars, a fine bonus then, and without exception these tutors and fellows have today become national and international scholar/teachers. As Prof Christopher Ricks once announced, The Oxford Summer Seminar was the only summer school in Oxford where the student could be safe with both teacher and subject. The genuine article, he added. As Poetry Professor the past two years, Ricks had to be chosen by Oxford MA graduates from around the world for his prestigious recent post. He taught for over 30 years for the program, Milton, English Poetry, T.S. Eliot, to name a few of his subjects.
We added other subjects soon in order to attract a diverse student body: art history, international law, even business for a short period, and now politics as well. With 120 students accommodated each summer, we also invited other colleges and universities to join us, though the largest number always came from UMASS. One summer we listed 51 colleges from the Univ of Texas to Stanford to Harvard to the Univ of Virginia.
I say 120 students because we moved from St. Hilda’s College, which accommodated 200 of us, to Trinity. Why?
Bursars from the 36 colleges meet monthly to discuss mutual problems. Marion Taylor, the very able domestic bursar at St. Hilda’s, announced in the summer of 1968, after having us two years, that new kitchens had to be added the following summer, 1969, and we could not join them. The day after the announcement Robin Fletcher, the Bursar of Trinity, asked me to Trinity for a sherry in his rooms. (Robin, whom I still correspond with, played hockey in the Olympics, and taught modern Greek. He moved from Trinity to become Head of Rhodes House and then retired in the Orkneys.)
In the 27 years to follow that I remained Director, living in college in staircase 15, now the development office, many changes of course took place. English as a subject became less popular as a major concentration in the USA and so what began as chiefly a listing of tutorials from Chaucer to contemporary English fiction broadened considerably so that the advantages of English itself, its museums and libraries and architecture, came more into play. Our students numbers, however, remained steady except for the last year of the Vietnam conflict, when we slipped to just 100 students.
I wish I could recount the many crazy things that happened—Anglo-American things—during my long tenure, incidents which were not on anyone’s agenda. Trinity’s Dennis Burden helped me over many of the rough spots and contacted “notables” for our Wednesday High-Table lecture-dinners. Our historic event amused me a great deal as Derek Granger is a neighbor of mine in Brighton. He produced “Brideshead Revisited” for Granada TV but forgot that Oxford was down when he intended to film the sections involving Oxford. He phoned me in a panic and asked me to produce 6 handsome students from our program: “We’ll put them in Windsor jackets and change their hairdo and pay them 25 pounds a day for 5 days and not interfere with their tutorials.” It worked well! Next year, at a lecture discussing the problems of converting the novel to the screen, given in hall, Derek brought clips of the scenes where the Oxford Summer Seminar (not Oxford undergraduates) were photographed as extras.
Then there was the incident of the prized bantam hens prized by Lord Quinton—or was it his wife? To the horror of the gardener, the private garden of the President was used as pecking ground for the many bantams. They also made a great noise about 3 in the morning. No one in the area managed to sleep through the strident peeping. Two students, finally, climbed over the wall and managed to open the ancient door of the garden. Perhaps knowing that the good Lord, long-cloaked and looking like Iago would swoop down about 7 AM and strangle inferior new arrivals, the whole group set up a scream and flew out the now open door, chirped at the porters, and paraded down the Broad. I never did find out who turned that lock! So we were all put to shame—and I feared for the future of the program…
But all was forgiven and many happier events occurred. When I retired, we had had 81 of our students accepted for degrees at Oxford owing to the recommendations of their tutors. An my associate director for 6 years, Dana Roszkiewicz, met his wife Peggy (then at a college outside Pittsburgh) one summer on the program and we arranged the marriage in the Trinity chapel, complete with the organ scholar and beloved chaplain members of that year cheering the couple. They return in 2008 for their 25th wedding anniversary.
So the Seminar has had some important effects. I used to warn everyone at our first dinner that “these six weeks will change your life.” Often I would get a laugh; more often, at the end, I would have a handshake, and the simple three words “You were right.”