Pretension Knows No Borders

Once a week, a unique column appears in the Oxford Student and voices a keen perspective on the goings-on at one of Britain’s most prestigious universities. In a recurring feature titled “Veritas,” the author passes judgement on some of the biggest issues bouncing around the Oxford campus—in an American accent. The columnist hails from another vaunted institution in the little town of Cambridge—Massachusetts, that is—and belongs to none other than Crimson Editorial Editor Robert J. Fenster ’03. “I don’t know that much about Oxford,” Fenster admits, “which is what makes it fun.”

Fenster was recruited as part of the Oxford Student’s endeavor to add a different perspective to their op-ed pages. What, after all, could be more alien than an American? The editors of Oxford’s campus weekly solicited The Crimson for a columnist and Fenster, who is a familiar face among the ranks of The Crimson op-ed team, volunteered. He soon found himself in an enviable situation—an ocean separates himself from the scrutiny of his editors and a weekly allotment of 400 words is his to use on whatever topic he pleases. The column is even published uncensored, so as to preserve all that is genuinely American. The objective was to get the Harvard spin on Oxford and eventually to set up an exchange—Natalie Toms, Fenster’s editor at the Oxford Student, wrote her first piece in last week’s Crimson.

Fenster’s freedom to write what he pleases isn’t so extraordinary in the view of nonchalant Oxfordians. If the Oxford Student is any indication, the British don’t seem to censor much of anything. The Oxford Student is “a little more tabloid-ish, a little more edgy,” says Fenster. With such telling headlines as “Shit Happens” (over student council elections) and “Surrey to Sell Out” (when Britain’s Surrey University took an initiative to break away from traditional government funding), Oxford’s weekly tiptoes along the line of objectivity. After all, straight-faced, no-nonsense reporting is so Puritan.

The Crimson, Fenster is quick to acknowledge, is “a very different paper. We would never run [those headlines] in the Crimson—ever, ever, ever.” Fenster’s familiarity with FM on this point is a bit suspect. The column is a welcome creative outlet for him, especially after the past few years of the high-strung Crimson culture. “It’s more like a fun project for me than a sort of serious column. I tended to get a little self-indulgent when I wrote my columns [at Harvard]. It’s better to get away from Harvard and write something a little funnier.” Fenster is committed to eight columns in total, in which he is free to mount his own stance on the swirling controversies in British higher education, such as student dissent over the recent “top-up,” the proposed university tuition hike which raises the nation-wide £1,000 fee to £3,000 (less than $5,000). “I don’t begrudge Oxford students their luxury,” Fenster wrote on January 23. “On the contrary, in your position, I would have hiked up my breeches, held my head high, and joined in the chanting.”

Fenster’s much sought-after stance on the question that matters most, whether Oxford or Harvard is more pretentious? “Oxford,” he says emphatically. “But our newspaper is way more pretentious.”

—L.X. Huang

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