Astrid Van den Bossche


DPhil Programme in Management Studies






Started in 2013

By Astrid Van den Bossche

Michaelmas – that delightful time between summer and winter

Michaelmas is a term in both senses of the word. A period of time and a loaded concept, it stands for: ‘When leaves turn red—freshers abound—must get back into reading/writing/thinking (never mind the order)—I’m soaked through again—can’t wait for mulled wine—why is it dark already—and, finally—where did the year go?’ At Saïd Business School, term is already in full roar; last year’s MBAs have barely graduated, the new batch has already taken over the building. DPhils and faculty slowly return from their summer haunts, hesitantly shaking off the last of fieldwork highs and family comforts. Goodbye oceans of sunlit summer peace and empty corridors, hello new term twitterpation.

Don’t take my word for it. It’s a secret pastime of mine to experience Oxford through the eyes of our learned literary friends, who express their impressions with much greater eloquence than I could ever muster. The familiarity of their tableaux is boggling, and only reinforces the sense that albeit dynamic, Oxford’s soul is essentially immutable. So is the Oxonian termly cycle. Mary Russell (Sherlock Holmes’ partner-in-solving-crime in Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice,) puts it this way:

“The year begins with Michaelmas term and the autumn closing in, when minds and bodies that have ranged free during the summer are bent again to the life of academe. Days grow short, the sky disappears, the stones and bricks of the city become black in the rain, and the mind turns inward to discipline.”

Oppressive, if you’re prone to mourn the delights of summer. The truth is that the weather does conspire with the demands of the new academic year. Perhaps Oxford is ruled by a microclimate with a thirst for knowledge. Yet there is so much beauty to behold if one is willing to forgive the horizontal rain, the pesky winds, and the mercurial temperatures. The university city is at its dreamiest in autumn, carpets of leaves paving the way to grand centenary trees that turn a deep rusty red before going bald. Soaked limestone libraries beckon with their warm glow and the comfort of books. Baristas spare a wink and a smile, and don’t seem to mind your dripping coat, your muddy boots. In their sporadicity, every day of sunshine is a day of revelation.

To beginning students—those who have no idea what ‘Michaelmas’ means—this may all go unseen in the flurry of activity spread across departments, colleges, and ‘other’. That’s all right, there’s always next year. Leafing through a packed syllabus, week 8 is far on the horizon… But welcome speeches, induction dinners, and fresher shenanigans having barely subsided, the suddenly shortened days of third week begin to hint at an imminent life of scholarly hermitage.

To second-year DPhils, Transfer of Status looms over our heads like the very first decisive axe it is. (Can you tell I’m in the middle of writing it up? My amazingly supportive post-Transfer colleagues tell me, “It will be fine,” but I think that’s an elaborate plot to lower your guard. Paranoid? Me? Never!) Plugging away at our desks, we doctoral students seem united in a renewed working vigor, juggling bushy-tailed tutees, unforgiving conference deadlines, and indigestible pontifications. Business as usual.

So one of the welcome speakers really wasn’t too far from the mark when he assured us that “Oxford is a place of scholarship, the sublime, and the ridiculous. Not necessarily in that order.” Luckily, there will be plenty of time to experience all three, and every term gives the mix a secret twist. At the heart of it, this term is one long preparation for winter traditions. I can already sense the mulled wine and mince pies, the fireplaces and armchair tête-à-têtes, the end-of-term revelries and teary holiday goodbyes. Michaelmas is quietly brilliant, but it hides its charms well.

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