Oxford, Fin 17 July 2014Posted by Emily in Blog, Love, Oxford.
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On the third of June, I submitted my master’s thesis. Six weeks or so later, a grade came back from the mysterious black box that is the examination system. I attended a leavers’ dinner. I said some goodbyes. I sang my last chapel evensong. I walked along the Thames from a meadow near Cirencester to the other side of the M25. This weekend I am visiting friends in Cambridge, and when I come back I will go to evensong in the Cathedral. I will take all my belongings out of the cupboards and bookshelves and put them on the floor. I will have my thesis hardbound and send it to be deposited in the Bodleian. I will put the belongings into boxes and suitcases and give them to the UPS man. I will say goodbye to Boar’s Hill, Iffley Church, the Natural History Museum, the Ashmolean, Trinity, Corpus. I will graduate, and my degree will go in the suitcases that aren’t going to the UPS man, along with the print of nineteenth-century Corpus I bought in an antiques shop, an extra copy of the hardbound thesis, my academic gown, a soft toy hedgehog called Harold, and maybe one or two of the books by John Addington Symonds I can’t bear to let out of my sight. I will sit in the front of the bus to Heathrow, as I did the first time I left, three years ago, and find the right song to put on my iPod, calculated to make me cry as my last glimpse of Magdalen tower fades out of view. But unlike last time, this time I am really leaving, because this time, I think, has ended in a parting of the ways between me and my beloved Oxford. I am a historian, but I think unlike many people who have a strong emotional investment in the past, I wouldn’t want to live myself in any era other than now—and Oxford is not a place, an institution, a culture, a way of life, that will allow me to move forward into a twenty-first-century adulthood.
Today a friend posted on Facebook a kind of bizarre, adoring profile of Oxford philosophy couple Derek Parfit and Janet Radcliffe-Richards. A magazine writer so enamoured of his subjects that he refers to them by their first names throughout would grate in any circumstance, but as I look ahead to my last week in an entity which has had one of the greatest emotional impacts of anything upon my life, this is the pullquote that jumped out at me:
Derek had lived almost his entire life in institutions—he was a scholarship boy at Eton, then went to Oxford as an undergraduate, to study history, and after winning a Prize Fellowship at All Souls aged 25 he never left. All Souls is a unique Oxford institution in having no undergraduates, only academic researchers.
“Derek has no idea what it is for a building to exist without a manciple and domestic bursar,” says Janet.
This alone speaks volumes about what, to any adult who wishes to lead an adult life, but particularly perhaps to women and to foreigners, is elusive and impenetrable and sometimes downright wrong about how Oxford works. But I also got that sense from the rest of the piece, which fetishizes obsessive, all-consuming academic work and a lack of social and emotional intelligence, and implies that both are indicative of someone being a better thinker and perhaps a better or more interesting person than others.
When I was writing my undergraduate thesis, a year beset by intense emotions of various kinds, I had on my carrel desk all year the New Yorker containing Larissa MacFarquhar’s piece about Parfit and his book On What Matters. I was moved by its account of Parfit and Radcliffe-Richards’ relationship, because it offered me hope that adults who are not especially beautiful or emotionally intelligent might still be able to find other people with whom to share their lives, and that our age offers not only different visions of family structure, marriage, etc. but different possibilities for the emotional content of an intimate partnership.
However, after two years in Oxford I see the institutional and structural side to this story rather than the personal. I see a set of values that I don’t think encourages people to be their best selves. And I find it difficult to understand how serious and huge ideas about how we should live and what the future of our planet is can be given shape within the confines of a microcosm which must first posit the existence of a manciple and a domestic bursar.
After I say goodbye, setting off for Canada and then, semi-permanently, New York City, I will be undertaking a serious literary essay about my Oxford, this long relationship. I hope that the essay will offer some way to move forward from the impasse at which I now find myself, of wholesale rejection of Oxford’s idiom as incompatible with the wider practical, and moral, trappings of modern life. I want to think seriously about what is extraordinary—and redeemable—about this unique institution, as well as what about it is reprehensible and out of keeping with the twenty-first century. In the course of this I hope to offer at least some aspect of my own beliefs about the meaning, value, and future of liberal-arts education: grounded in nineteenth-century British history; in the cultural superstructure since built up around reformed Oxford, the greatest educational institution of 19th-century Britain; and in one graduate student’s take on learning, love, and late-adolescence.
Labor improbus; or, D-Day minus two months 25 March 2014Posted by Emily in Blog, Love, Oxford, Thesis.
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It has been two years since the final downhill sprint to my last thesis. When I handed that one in, I knew it was too long and not ready, but I did know that it was good, at least for a college senior. I was keenly aware how much of my self and my lived experience had gone into it; moreover, my advisor had checked the history and had me convinced that somewhere in those too-many pages there were at least one or two things worth saying.
But I was so young then, and so filled with the flush of youth and of my first real piece of history. When I went through the year’s worth of revisions that it took to turn that thesis into an article I began to realize that in academic history there is more to a subject being interesting than simply stating that it is interesting, a fact which haunts me now as I try to turn around the second thesis. I started this one a little later on—when I hand it in it will have been just under two years of work, whereas the first one took two and a half—and knowing what I know now about how to do history has made this one harder rather than easier. I only see how difficult it is to do a credible job in two years with little training (and much less advising: the kind of guidance my excellent undergraduate advisor gave me, considered exemplary by Princeton standards, is here at Oxford dismissed as “hand-holding” tantamount to academic dishonesty). The knowledge of how far the bound product will fall from perfect, and how unlikely it is to live up to particularly English ideals of fine academic work, are more likely to be tear-inducing than anything else. The culture here is punishing: no one tells you that you are doing well for fear of causing excessive self-love; while at Princeton someone might have complained that she was too busy and too tired because she was over-committed to extracurricular activities, here the complaint tends to mean (as someone on my course claimed to be true) that you are working on your thesis sixteen hours a day. For someone like myself already predisposed to low self-esteem this is not a happy place to be, and day after day I go to the library under a black cloud of premonitions of failure—except on the really bad days, when I don’t go to the library at all, and I sit in my room all day crying.
I think it is important to talk about these things because no one in Oxford does, especially at the graduate level; the presumption (and I have been told this) is that if you find any of it difficult, that must be your fault, and a sign you’re not suited to it. It is considered impolite, I believe, to reply that you were admitted to various US PhD programs, have a publication, and so on, and still find it unbelievably difficult. And so—though I hate to say it after all this time since the last thesis, living in and loving England and Oxford—I am counting the days until I go back to America and start over with a US PhD. This relationship with Oxford of over three years’ standing, my longest and truest one, has started to turn abusive, and it’s best to get out now while I’m still relatively unharmed.
But with what time I have I am determined to fight back against this punishing culture: to see people, to carve out domestic space cooking and mending clothes and watching television, to eat lunch in restaurants by myself, to run down to Iffley and visit my friends the three Shetland ponies who live in the field opposite the church. I took up running as another way to punish myself, for my fatness and my ugliness, but I have come to value it as a way to take time away from the computer and take myself out of the city centre without feeling guilty. And (here we come to the point) it was while running this morning—and not while putting in sixteen hours at a desk!—that I came up with a central analytic conceit for the section I’m currently trying to write about Arthur Sidgwick’s marriage. Here is a paragraph I just wrote, which concludes the section:
Most of the evidence we have for the intimate details of Arthur and Charlotte Sidgwick’s marriage is written from Arthur’s perspective, and so it is not always easy to know how seriously he took her as an equal, how she felt about her marriage, and—most elusive of all—how willing a participant she was in the ever-present ἀσπασμοί ['embraces', a euphemism for sex]. But their marriage, falling somewhere between the twin archetypes offered by the much-mythologised stories of Arthur’s siblings [Minnie Sidgwick and E.W. Benson; Henry Sidgwick and Eleanor Balfour], offers a picture of daily liberal life as a pattern of compromises with the strict ideals recorded in published form by Mill, Henry Sidgwick, and others. While people like Arthur and Charlotte Sidgwick may have tried to live their lives along with the pages of philosophy, real life—differing access to educational opportunity; differing ideals of fulfilment, both altruistic and personal; the birth of children; the presence or lack of physical desire for each other—may have, and did, intervene.
I realized as I was writing this paragraph that it serves as a really illustrative example of the kind of history I love to do, the kind of history that keeps me caring about history: finding the sites at which ideas and lived experience meet, where the universally human and the historically contingent stare each other in the face, and where compromise—the idea that came to me halfway back from Iffley, but that could probably be said to underlie most of the history I try to write—is the lynchpin that holds together all my claims for interest. John Addington Symonds, Arthur Sidgwick, and all my other elite B-list Victorian men whose elitism and maleness makes me feel guilty do something that we all do: no matter our ideals, we compromise between them and our own self-interest, and more importantly our own happiness. The theses we hand in, the relationships we pursue, and the balance we strike between the two are all compromises, and while they may torture us (they certainly did Symonds, less so Sidgwick), life isn’t worth living if it’s spent in ceaseless mental anguish.
Months ago I said to an American classmate that I wished I had his capacity to let go: to accept that differences between the conventions of British and American history may affect how our theses are evaluated, and to write the thesis I want to write anyway even if it isn’t going to be, numerically, the best—or even as good as my undergraduate thesis was. I’m not there yet, and it saddens me to think that the first rush of passion for Oxford that helped to make that first thesis possible is now just dying embers. But maybe, like accepting a breakup, that’s what letting go means. And maybe that’s what I’m doing—just not in the way that I expected.
QOTD (2014-02-05); or, Everyday Homosociality 5 February 2014Posted by Emily in Blog, Nerdiness, Oxford, QOTD.
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Much has been made (often, ahem, by literary critics) of the steamy nature of Victorian homosociality; according to some, all you need to do is get half a dozen Harrow sixth-formers or pre-Raphaelite artists in a room together and they will all be sodomizing each other before you can say “eros.” But I rather suspect that this passage, from G.B. Grundy’s (kind of boring and badly-written) Fifty-Five Years at Oxford: An Unconventional Autobiography is more illustrative of the many elite contexts in which male homosociality flourished in the late-Victorian period:
A surprising incident of a kindred nature took place one night in Corpus Common Room. Cuthbert Shields, who was a great and not infrequent critic of the looks of women, said in that way of his… that he considered that Mrs. Vinogradoff [the wife of the Corpus Professor of Jurisprudence] was a very good-looking woman. Women’s looks were not a very favourite topic in Corpus Common Room, so no one took up the challenge, and there was an appreciable interval of silence. [Professor of Latin Robinson] Ellis, who had apparently been asleep in the chair on my left, woke up at this and said across me to Lightfoot [no idea who he is], who was sitting on my right, ‘I sometimes think, Lightfoot, that your wife is quite a good-looking woman.’ He was right, for Mrs. Lightfoot was at the time a very beautiful girl.
Apparently (says Chris Stray in one of his many books about the history of classical scholarship in this period) a classicist called Gilbert Norwood commented in 1923 that “many dons are simply sixth-form boys who have kept on,” and I think that’s true in a variety of ways: I have learned more about Victorian male homosociality as a widespread social institution by talking to modern-day young English men who attended single-sex secondary schools (still, I would argue, neo-Victorian institutions, hence their usefulness as historical comparators) than I ever could by reading the literature about homosexuality. This is what makes writing about Sidgwick so different to writing about Symonds, even though the two were good friends and moved in the same circles: women were simply not interesting enough to Symonds for interacting with them to be a significant factor in his life, but Sidgwick was interested in them as people and as sex objects and as an “other” his single-sex upbringing had not always prepared him to relate to as real, fully-fledged human beings. When I look at Victorian homosociality and heterosexuality, I see a series of fascinating tensions within the lives and thoughts of men who are attracted sexually and personally to women and often are theoretically in favor of women’s intellectual and social equality, but have grown up avoiding them, fearing them, seeing them as a constraint on propriety, and generally being reduced to paroxysms of awkwardness whenever they enter the room or come up in conversation. The parallels to conversations in today’s university common rooms and department lounges are, perhaps, worth noting, but I leave such matters to the reader.
On Atheist Churchgoing; or, Why I Will Miss This Country 2 February 2014Posted by Emily in Blog, Oxford, Personal Life.
Almost three years ago today, give or take two or three weeks, I went to church for the second time in my life (the first was my grandmother’s funeral), to hear Philip Pullman preach. It was my first term in Oxford, and as the days got slightly longer I was just starting to love this place, and I went to hear Philip Pullman give the University Sermon at the University Church because I wanted to see what an atheist would say when given a literal pulpit. Because it was my first Sunday morning service, I hung on to every word of the liturgy with an intensity I can’t always muster anymore, and when Pullman talked about the common ground that atheists have with Anglicans, quoting Ruskin and Hopkins, I found my way in to the Church. I’ve been there ever since, nearly every week, in Princeton and in Oxford. I keep finding new ways of articulating that same common ground Pullman did: the history, the music, the prayers for peace and justice. One of the reasons I joined the choir at my college on my current posting to Oxford is so that I would have an excuse to go to chapel every week; and while when I first started attending college evensongs I used to visit New College and think that Symonds had praised the singing there, too, these days I think more broadly, all the time, about the generations of anonymous undergraduates who have sat in Corpus’s wooden choir stalls, and who likely have taken every possible theological position it is possible to take with respect to the Trinity and the established church—after all, mandatory daily chapel wasn’t abolished, I think, until after the War.
As I’ve sat in pews and choir stalls over these last few years, I’ve found that the liturgy has a very powerful effect: namely, that the more you repeat words week after week, year after year, the more you start to believe them. Not the extraterrestrial bits—for how does someone who was raised secularly conjure a Heaven and a Hell out of nothing?—but the attitude of prayer, of penitence and concentration and hopefulness; the practically-minded bits about loving one another; the sense of wonder at creation; and most importantly for me the cycle of the week, of the liturgical year, of the festivals and the story of Jesus’s life that is told every year from Advent to Pentecost (-ish), roughly following the academic calendar as well. This repetition keeps me rooted to a sense of a longue durée, and it’s the cyclical nature of it that always—every service—reminds me that people have been saying these same words since 1662, regardless of whether (unlike most of the congregations who make a great point of saying the same words that were said in 1662, or longer ago) they were high-born or had beautifully embroidered vestments or could say the words in Latin or knew what, exactly, the words signified. Because I imagine that for a great many people who attended services of the established church when doing so was prescribed by law, the words didn’t so much signify a particular theological position on the Trinity or transubstantiation (which if you listen closely to the C of E communion prayer, even in modern language, it definitely does!) as the right time to plant the crops and the times of year when the days would grow shorter or longer.
My mind wanders to such thoughts most weeks in Corpus chapel, but today our preacher particularly drew our attention to the modern Church’s origins in a long-ago time when different ways of life were practised. Today is Candlemas, a very Anglo-Saxon name for the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and an occasion which (or so I was reliably informed by an observant evangelical member of the congregation) is most definitely not observed by the more modern, forward-looking, urban evangelical congregations these days. Our preacher (who was excellent) focused her attention very closely upon the varied significances of this festival: the really religious bit, in which the lines from the Gospel of Luke embedded in the Anglican choral tradition as the Nunc Dimittis give an early indication of what a marvel the infant Christ will become; but also the ye-olde-Englande traditional bit, when Candlemas marked the time when farmers began to plant their crops; and the takeaway message for our lives, the bit with the common ground for the cynical unbelievers, the miraculous sense of wonder experienced by anyone who (as the old man Simeon does in the Gospel reading) holds an infant in his arms and marvels at the sheer extent of the possibility contained within that one tiny body.
As I have sat in chapels and churches week after week, I have often, I think reasonably, had cause to interrogate myself about what I’m doing there. How far have I come away from being the atheist whose main draw to church was Philip Pullman, and what do I mean when I recite with the congregation the words printed on my service leaflet? I have often stopped just short of wondering whether I should learn more about how to become a Christian, whether I should look for the dotted line on which to sign, so that I might feel like a bit less of a charlatan when I twist myself into layers upon layers of metaphor so that I can say the Apostles’ Creed without lying. What was wonderful about today’s sermon, though, and about the old feasts like Candlemas (similarly Ascension Day, or the last Sunday of Advent, or any other liturgical day connected to a folk tradition), is that they demonstrate how belief can lie less in metaphysics and more in a sense of connection to the past, to the earth, and to fellowship with other people in the present. The Church of England doesn’t bother much about heaven and hell, but it has always made me feel welcome, has never asked what I am doing there or why I haven’t gone and gotten baptised already, and always reminds me to marvel at creation, from the connections I pursue with other people to the Shetland ponies in the field opposite Iffley village church and the first daffodil shoots that today I saw poking up on the lawn outside my house. “Glory be to God for dappled things,” Pullman quoted Hopkins as saying, three years ago, and I still think atheists might listen to Christians if in nothing else at least in guidance for how to marvel at and cherish the natural world around us, where time is not linear and progressive but cyclical.
I am starting to hear from Ph.D. programs, and it is starting to dawn on me that this will be my last spring in Oxford probably for some time. I will be moving to a city next year, and while this spring will bring with it news of a new life, greater opportunities, new connections to form and hopefully new routes to happiness, I don’t think that spring is quite the same in concrete jungles, where you have to look much harder to find a daffodil or a newborn lamb, and where the Christianity (or at least this has been my sense) shares a little less common ground with the secular experience.
QOTD (2014-02-02) 2 February 2014Posted by Emily in Blog, Oxford, QOTD.
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Last term, a Christ Church undergraduate made student-paper headlines for bringing a homemade flamethrower to a college “bop” (party for all the undergrads in college). But we junior deans and equivalent officers who lie awake at night worrying that such things will happen on our watch should be relieved that matters are no longer as they were in the late-Victorian period, as described by M.C. Curthoys in the History of the University of Oxford, vol. 7:
One outward sign of the new seriousness was the exclusion of dogs, whose nocturnal howlings had occasionally disturbed the peace of the unreformed colleges; Warden Sewell carefully enforced the rules against them at New College in the early 1860s, while George Bradley made their removal an issue at University College. Supper parties, a long-standing target for moral reformers, were suppressed at Trinity during 1857 and 1858 by the dean, Frederick Meyrick, who detested their ‘noisy and ill-conducted’ proceedings, ‘gross language’, and ‘filthy songs’. Gatings and rustications were imposed on attenders at rowdy wine parties in the following decade….
As proctors during 1882-3, Scott Holland and A.L. Smith of Balliol conducted a purge against prostitution in the town, declaring their priority to be ‘protecting the Undergraduates from needless temptation by vigilantly attending to the public decency of the streets’. Their actions… were reinforced by the University branch of the Church of England Purity Association, founded in 1883, whose 800 members in 1887 included about 30 per cent of all undergraduates in residence…. Membership at Keble, where the association seems to have originated, was almost universal; Oriel and Worcester also provided substantial support. Sexual vice was thereafter a diminishing concern among disciplinary officers; entering a college after hours, though still an offence, ceased to be automatically associated with gross moral turpitude, and ‘climbing in’ over the college walls could become a relatively good-natured test of ingenuity. In other matters it proved more difficult for college deans to take concerted action. L.R. Farnell, Sub-Rector of Exeter from 1882, complained of their failure to agree a common policy towards college bonfires, undergraduate celebrations usually of sporting victories, which threatened to get out of hand in the mid-1880s. Some colleges treated them as occasions for licensed uproar, like bump suppers (previously disreputable occasions but which became sanctioned as official college events). These provided essential outlets for the violent energies of the young men confined within college walls. During the restoration of the Bodleian, when the Schools tower was covered in wooden scaffolding, rockets, bombs, and sparks from a vast bonfire blazing in the nearby front quadrangle of Hertford, in celebration of the college going head of the river in 1881, presented an alarming prospect. The conflagration, ‘fed with tables and chairs by a mad set of undergraduates who were chiefly occupied in dancing insanely about it’, had the permission of the Senior Proctor. A Harvard graduate visiting Queen’s witnessed Provost Magrath looking on benignly at a bonfire circled by undergraduates variously hanging from trees or bashing tin baths.
Spectacular breakdowns of control, widely reported in the press, showed that the establishment of a new order in the colleges was not uniformly smooth. Rapid expansion in student numbers during the 1860s placed additional strains on the colleges’ disciplinary resources. An early sign of trouble was the gating of the whole of Merton College following a bonfire in the college on 5 November 1865. All the undergraduates at Trinity were threatened with rustication in Hilary term 1867 after a succession of incidents, including the blocking up of a passageway with snow to prevent access to morning chapel and the cutting of the chapel bell-rope. The same sentence was threatened at University College in March 1868 after a fellow had been ‘screwed up’ (i.e. shut in his rooms by the insertion of screw into his outer oak door), and the rooms of an undergraduate vandalized, apparently in the wake of an unpopular decision of the governing body. At the end of November 1868, the governing body at New College actually carried out the sanction of mass rustication when the undergraduates reused to give up the names of those responsible for smashing an unpopular student’s windows. The culmination of this turbulent period was the Christ Church library riot…. Further outbreaks occurred at the end of the 1870s. Discipline broke down in Wadham after eights week in 1879 when the authorities prohibited the holding of a college concert. In the following summer Bradley rusticated the whole of University College after the undergraduates refused to incriminate those responsible for screwing up the oak of a tutor, who was also Senior Proctor; they were subsequently taken back when the culprit owned up.
Year’s End 30 December 2013Posted by Emily in Academia, Blog, Personal Life.
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The other day, a family member asked me if I was planning to do a “year in review” post for 2013, a tradition I’ve kept up in the past few years. But you know?—I said—I don’t have a lot to say. What words I have in me, fewer these days, need to go to my thesis, my coursework, and my extracurricular contracted writing obligations; furthermore, I feel I know myself less well than I did a year ago. My ability to characterize what is interesting about my research has increased through a series of MPhil dissertation proposals and PhD applications, but my ability and my desire to tell the story of my own life has lessened. Lately, I’ve only been doing it in metaphors: how the homosocial environments in which the Victorian and Edwardian men I study grew up affected the forms of heterosocial interaction they pursued through marriage and an increasingly hetero professional and social world; how my love for the hills southwest of Oxford has grown upon me slowly and quietly and gently, not like the less mature rush of passion I first felt for the city centre’s dreaming spires three years ago. Those two statements, read closely, may tell you something about the tempest of emotions that has been the last twelve months, but suffice to say that this year I feel myself to have entered a new stage of life: one that has opened to me the capacity to understand books truly written for “grown-ups,” like Middlemarch; that has caused me to realize adulthood isn’t just budgeting and cooking but negotiating new ways of relating to people, a new level of responsibility for one’s thoughts, words and actions, new webs of personal and professional associations. When I was 18, I had friends who were grad students in their mid-twenties, and I do now the things I marvelled at them doing then: complaining about the worst hangovers of their lives, watching friends get married and have babies, having social interactions (carefully mediated, with clear boundaries and hierarchies in place, but social interactions nevertheless) with faculty in their department. Before, when I was invited to an older person’s house for a holiday meal or got to tag along for drinks after a seminar, I felt like the kid sister. Now, I’m a member of a college and a department. It makes for a certain degree of uncertainty about how to treat people—compounded by the many translation errors I’ve committed as an American abroad—and this year has not been without its deep anxieties and low moods at the difficulties inherent in finding a place at the seminar table. But things are different now, and by and large it feels good.
But academia is the easy part. There are boxes to tick, there are projects for which to lay plans, and at least for the next ten years the steps that I need to take to advance my career are relatively clear. The guidance I have from mentors could not be better. But I have realized that outside the classroom and the archive and the application form, no one can guide you, and that’s the trickier bit. Many times this year I have written emails that say, thank you for this advice, it makes a lot of sense, but I know I won’t be able to really feel the confidence in me that you express until I am middle-aged and can look back and see that my life has amounted to something. These days, it becomes harder to look back and take solace from making a shape out of my life up to this point, when what seems more pressing is how little sense I have of where my life is going to go. I spend a lot of time walking the side streets of Oxford trying to peek through the curtains in the front bay windows of terraced houses and imagining myself established, with a job and a partner and a cat, living in a two- or three-bedroom house with a little garden just like those ones. But there’s no reason to believe that will happen, and all the middle-aged people who kindly say that their lives haven’t turned out the way they thought when they were 23 but that this is perfectly all right, actually, can’t quell the forward-thinking existential angst that makes it hard to really tell the story of 2013, the year when living started to seem a great deal more difficult and more complicated, and when I became less certain that I could tell anyone who I am and what I believe.
For these reasons I have been following with great attention a fracas of a discussion that has erupted over the holidays in the pages of my favorite academic blogs, Tenured Radical and Historiann. In brief, it seems that a number of pseudonymous discussants projected upon a search committee’s late notification of its interview candidates for a tenure-track position in a literature department all their many anxieties about the present state of the academic job market as well as the social and economic position of young adults more generally. Even calls for civility and what I think people used to call “netiquette” have been interpreted as part and parcel of the grievances the young have against the complacent old. Nothing new, of course—isn’t this what student protesters were saying in the 1960s?—but the new medium does change matters, and it makes me wonder about age and adulthood and maturity. I hesitate to interrupt these social media conversations among senior academics just as much as I would hesitate to insinuate myself into a senior academic’s social circle in real life: what could I possibly have to offer, and why would they want to talk to me? The last time an established professional genuinely asked my opinion about something in a social setting (though in this case it was not an academic but a freelance writer with close ties to the academy), it was to ask how I, as a young person, thought she should have The Sex Talk with her teenage daughter. That I can do—but my thoughts on the job market are pretty irrelevant.
That’s what I think, anyway, when it comes to personalities like TR and Historiann who are respectful to others generally and would seem to be good mentors to their own graduate students. I was less certain of elder wisdom at a committee meeting earlier this year when a suggestion another master’s student and I presented for alteration of our course’s curriculum was literally laughed out of the meeting by a senior faculty member. While most of my interactions in academia since entering the profession as an apprentice have served to increase my faith in the system, if my first forays had only been met with the few instances I have encountered of disdain and belittling—and if advantage compounded upon advantage didn’t serve to ease my entrée into elite institutions—I would no doubt be filled with as much rage and desire to cut the pompous tenured down to size as some of the young people whose stories I’ve heard whose experience in academia was not kind to them. My good fortune may have insulated me from being eaten away by poisonous feelings of betrayal by the system, but I can kind of see where these people are coming from, because I am also young.
I have six months left in the master’s, and soon I will hear where my next, much longer and more momentous, posting will be, in one of three major US cities. At the moment, I am eager to start the next chapter of my academic life: while I have realized that the UK postgraduate education system doesn’t suit my immediate needs, I have become more confirmed in my vocation, and look forward to stepping up my training as a historian, meeting new mentors, having a cohort, having fresh ideas about a wider variety of subjects. And in fact, my academic progress this year has been a delight, and I have had some small successes that have made me proud.
But I struggle daily with the world outside the academic sphere: with being a good and generous person and a good friend and colleague, which is so hard; with being happy day-to-day, which is harder; with how to become the kind of person I want to be able to say I am in twenty or thirty years’ time. What’s more, all this tends towards solipsism, which is something I am also trying to avoid. Hence why I have been writing less here, and why explaining what has happened this year assumes less importance than does putting what energy I find that I have in these short, dark days to being the kind of adult who has the capacity to understand Middlemarch, who remembers what it was to be young and tempestuous and uncertain as much as she finds contentment in the more generous and worldly spirit brought on by maturity, and who prays that loving the world as hard as she can really is what it takes to find love in return.
Happy new year and all my very best for 2014.
The History of the University of Oxford 20 October 2013Posted by Emily in Academia, Blog, Oxford, Politics/Current Affairs.
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I was much struck, this rainy afternoon of Sunday of second week, by the text of the Vice-Chancellor’s annual Oration, published as a supplement to last week’s University Gazette. The Vice-Chancellor’s intimation that Oxford ought to be allowed to charge higher tuition has caused a lot of disconcerted muttering in common rooms in the last week, but he’s right that there is a large gap between the already outrageous-seeming £9,000 per student per year and the real cost of educating each student with the low teacher-student ratios, excellent library system, and other distinctively Oxonian features on which the University prides itself. He’s also right that tripling tuition does no one any good when that rise in income is more than undone by the loss of government funding for undergraduate education. I have been suspecting for years now that if Oxford and Cambridge hope to compete with the best American research universities, they need to become more like them in their approach to funding as well, both in terms of private donation (already well underway) and in terms of a massive rise in tuition and–I hope–a commensurate rise in financial aid for those who need it. I don’t know whether I trust the V-C’s politics (I mean, instead of throwing up his hands and saying “Well, so much for government funding; better look elsewhere”, he could be agitating for the renewal of that funding), but I do think he sees the present situation accurately. And hurrah for him pointing out that online courses are best suited for certain initiatives in the Department for Continuing Education, but perhaps not for everything the University does!
I love my university, and I love to study its history, in part because it serves as such an excellent case study in the workings of continuity and change. An institution that has for centuries sustained its own bizarre internal culture but also been inextricably and fundamentally linked to major world-historical events can tell us much about national and international politics, class and gender, and of course the history of ideas and of education. Present-day Oxford is telling in a way few institutions are in quite such a clear way about the ways in which the twenty-first century is rather like the nineteenth: I thought as much yesterday when, taking the minutes at an MCR meeting, I found myself adopting the phrases Sidgwick used when he took the minutes as Secretary for a number of University and college organizations; but it’s there too in the Vice-Chancellor’s reminder that the Department for Continuing Education is the modern-day descendant of the wonderful University Extension movement of the nineteenth century, which sought to make the university’s resources more accessible to members of the public who might not have the time, ability, money, level of preparation, or desire to complete a full degree course, and which first changed the idea of Oxford as the preserve of the moneyed elite so well-known to us from literary representations like Jude the Obscure. This institution tells us untold stories about an entire departed world and the kinds of relations between people and ideas that existed within it, which I see echoed all around me every day in the routines I follow and ceremonies I observe as a member of it.
Yet there is change too, and that change is in some respects farcical and in some worrying. The Gazette and the Oxford Magazine were once institutions, and I suspect I’m one of a very few these days who takes any great delight in sitting down in a common room or study and reading them; more troublingly, the editorial in the 0th week edition of the Oxford Magazine pointed out that, with the burgeoning of career administration and bureaucracy, Congregation (the so-called “parliament of dons”) is little more than ceremonial, its meetings ill-attended, existing only to wave through legislation already determined by a set of bureaucrats with no experience or even real stake in teaching or research. In this respect the “ancient universities” are very different now from how they were in the days long before their doors were opened to the Judes of this world, before government funding for undergraduate education—or, indeed, the very existence of research—was ever on the table. I’m certain that there must be a way for we university folk to have our cake and eat it too, that retaining some hold on government funding and the commitment to democratic access and an educated citizenry that comes with it does not necessarily entail red tape, efficiency experts, and the watering-down of all that is valuable here. I don’t know how to achieve that outcome any better than anyone else, but I suspect that the first step is to care: whether by supporting the lecturers’ strike on 31st October or by showing up or pressuring your nearest don to show up to a meeting of Congregation, or perhaps by taking a learned interest in the history of institutions such as this one—not from some quaint local-history, chronicling perspective, but from one that takes seriously the importance universities hold for the nation.
Research Notes 2 October 2013Posted by Emily in Blog, Nerdiness, Thesis.
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After much dithering, I’ve finally started to get back into the swing of archives, and to start to process the fairly large pile of material on Arthur Sidgwick and his times that I’ve already gathered: converting the Word documents in which I take notes linearly as I proceed through the archives, fascicle by fascicle, into individual database entries in EndNote for each letter, poem, set of lecture notes, scrap of paper on which is scrawled a bet Sidgwick made with his youngest daughter as to whether women would get the suffrage or the Oxford degree first (no, really!). Impelled both by practical urgency—this thesis is due in only nine months—and by a hope that getting down and dirty with the documents will rekindle my passion for the scholarly craft, I’ve been sifting through the raw material in the hopes that out of it some kind of narrative will magically emerge before my eyes. The scope of this project means that it doesn’t lend itself quite to a chronological telling of Sidgwick’s life in a manner analogous to the Symonds thesis; instead, I have to figure out how to get from Sidgwick’s life to a coherent and more thematically-organized argument about the nature of politics, universities, and the people who lived within them in the Victorian-Edwardian period—a rather more complicated proposition.
One reason it’s complicated is by a fairly obvious point about the nature of how real historical life is reflected through the sources, which only just hit me yesterday and today; it’s for this reason that I’m writing this post. You see, I’ve been irritated all along by the paucity of Sidgwick’s material leavings when compared to Symonds’: in Symonds’ case there is just piles and piles of paper, most of it well-documented (though some of it, excitingly, I was able to discover!) and much of it preserved in about 2,000 pages of edited, published letters. In addition to all these letters to far-flung friends, there are lecture notes, books with marginalia, manuscript poetry, and other such documents on which I’ve relied heavily in constructing a picture of Symonds’ mental furniture and the routes by which he arrived at his theory of homosexuality. This winds up actually being fairly straightforward, because it will turn out that he’s written a letter to Henry Sidgwick, Graham Dakyns, Edward Carpenter, or Havelock Ellis saying exactly what he thinks about some aspect of Greek literature, sexual science, or what have you and how it relates to his vision of what the homosexual man is to the rest of society.
Due to this incredible stroke of luck, I went into the Sidgwick project expecting that this is just what you find for literate, intellectual Victorians who were scrupulous in documenting their evolving ideas about the world. But while the disparate, candid, lively nature of Sidgwick’s day-books was what made me commit to a thesis on him, I’ve found that the archives contain very little actual working-through of the intellectual themes important to his life: pedagogy, women’s education, and professionalized teacher-training, Liberal politics, and the bonds of friendship in educational/intellectual communities. There is plenty of institutional record of the basic fact that he was involved, for instance, in such-and-such a reform committee or student society, but almost nothing self-reflective about what impelled him to get involved in such an organization or why such work was socially important—which makes writing the kind of thesis I’d hoped to write about how such day-to-day activities can help us to understand Victorian values and the “intellectual aristocracy” vastly more difficult, if not altogether inconceivable.
Yesterday I cycled up the Woodstock Road to St Anne’s College, formerly the Oxford Society of Home Students. Back in the 1870s when there were only two women’s colleges, Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall, which were not formally incorporated into the University and could only offer certificates that attested that their students had completed an equivalent level of work and exams to that of the men students who would be given degrees for it, there was also something variously known as the Association for the Education of Women, the Home Students Association, and the Society of Home Students, which was an administrative body that would organize teaching for and advocate on behalf of women students—often the wives, sisters, or daughters of dons—who lived at home in the city instead of joining Somerville or LMH. T.H. Green was the AEW’s first secretary, in 1877; two years later, his wife, Charlotte—Symonds’ sister—took over the position. Members of the committee over the years, before it became a more formal organization with a Governing Body, included the venerable Annie M.A.H. Rogers, the first woman to formally register for a University degree (because she registered at Balliol under her initials, and they didn’t realize she was a woman until she showed up), Walter Pater’s sister Clara, renowned heads of house and professors like Mark Pattison and Henry Nettleship, and—you see where this is going—Arthur Sidgwick, whose daughters Rose and Margaret sat Pass Mods and Modern History Finals as Home Students in the 1890s and 1900s. (Rose went on to be one of the UK’s first women lecturers, first at Somerville and then at Birmingham University, before dying tragically in the 1918 flu pandemic while on a tour of America with other British academics.)
It seemed not out of character with St Anne’s informal beginnings—which I was there to research in their college archive—that it was also the most informal archive visit I’ve ever done. There were no rules about bags or pens; I was simply shown to a desk in the college library’s main reading room and invited to call up anything I fancied, which the archivist then had to go and hunt for, piling masses of disarrayed papers on my desk. Looking for evidence of Sidgwick’s involvement in the AEW, I did. I noticed that he was President of the AEW during years that the organization made a major push to lobby the University to admit women to the degree, 1907-10, and so looked for him particularly in a scrapbook Annie Rogers had compiled documenting that fight. There were a few letters he had written on behalf of the AEW to the then-Chancellor, Lord Curzon, but no private correspondence between him and Rogers, in contrast to the many letters Rogers had received from prominent dons and teachers to whom she had written asking for their support for the degree campaign. It finally struck me that, even today, the leaders of social and political organizations don’t make important decisions by letter (or email): they do it in meetings, face-to-face. And even if they take minutes, those usually don’t reflect the same kind of frank, candid opinions that a letter might. Annie Rogers and Arthur Sidgwick lived in the same city, and they were good friends: if they had a matter about women’s education to discuss, they could go round to each other’s houses and chat about it face-to-face, leaving no permanent record of the conversation.
Circling round back to Symonds, while going through the other archival material today I re-encountered a letter I found in Henry Sidgwick’s papers at Trinity College, Cambridge. Shortly before Christmas, 1875, he wrote to his mother, “If you have to be in London after the 10th, you will find us all there—by all I mean Nora, Self, A.S, Charlotte, H.G. Dakyns, J.A. Symonds – “the whole company” as I told them this morning when I wished good bye at Clifton….” Nora is Henry’s wife, A.S. is of course Arthur Sidgwick and Charlotte is his wife, and the Sidgwick brothers were very close to Graham Dakyns (whom they knew from Cambridge) and his good friend Symonds (Dakyns’ neighbor in Bristol) until Symonds took off for Davos in 1877. The four went on holiday together to Europe when they were just out of university; Henry, Dakyns, and Symonds staged an intervention when Arthur was thinking about initiating an erotic relationship with a pupil at Rugby in 1867; and it sounds as if after the Sidgwick brothers married, their wives joined the gang too. (It’s interesting to note that Symonds’ wife Catherine, who wasn’t as intellectual or as outgoing as either Nora or Charlotte Sidgwick, doesn’t seem to have been part of this particular gathering.) I devoted some minutes to wishing I could have been a fly on the wall at assemblies of “the whole company,” before the contrast between this time and the period after Symonds moved to Davos really illuminated itself. Of course, after the move, Symonds only had letters with which to keep in touch with his friends, let them know what he was thinking about, and share personal feelings about which, because of their homoerotic nature, he couldn’t confide in his wife. In England, on their Christmas holidays, they could just hang out in London—as Henry, Arthur, and their other friends continued to do even after Symonds left the country and basically lost a normal social life in the process, having to replace it with those now-familiar, oh-so-confessional letters.
It turns out that you can really do a certain amount of historical work by thinking about the relation of the present and the past. The intellectual problems with which these men and women grappled—the ones which I’m most interested in unravelling—can seem very foreign to us today. We think we’ve solved quandaries by which they were sincerely troubled, or aren’t affected with the same passionate intensity by emotions that could overcome them. But if I think about how many Deep Conversations I’ve had in university and since with close friends that no one wrote down, I realize how much the prospect of reconstructing my own intellectual world would stymie a scholar a century and a half hence. There is continuity as well as change, and being sensitive to the ways in which this circle of friends are like so many other young people with ideas can make us still more alive to the ways in which they are very alien indeed.
Milestones and Mattering 21 September 2013Posted by Emily in Blog, Ethics, Love, QOTD.
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Finished Middlemarch. Cried. After all, I’ve spent at least the last five years growing up enough to be able to read it.
I don’t know how to write about it yet–though I do think that in the parade of meaningful authors it’s interesting, and telling, to have gone from Forster to Eliot.
But one thing that struck me rather unexpectedly was the backdrop of the Reform Bill. It brought me up short from the privileging of political and constitutional history that Oxford has been leading me unconsciously to do. How can you read Middlemarch and still think that the movement of the Reform Bill through the Lords carries anywhere near as much moment as the struggles and disappointments and loves that seems to touch us more directly?
People often pin cases for why history, and the humanities, matter on Reform Bills: on what history and knowledge of it do to help us to become citizens, on how we as thinking people engage with the body politic. But that primes them to envision a smooth sine curve, or worse yet, the graph of a plain old exponential function: history as a series of Reform Acts, as the story of a citizenry instead of a people. But I am more moved by a history that looks more like what happens as you turn a radio dial: loud bursts of static and brief moments of Debussy or electric guitar or the news, voices fading in and out of each other and sometimes amounting to nothing at all. Middlemarch is a historical novel, and I am moved by a history where the narrative of Reform Bills is elusive and forgettable, but small human voices trying their best echo out of the static. I can see why Middlemarch might appear to some readers as saccharine and self-righteous, but as for me it’s a way of telling the past that gives me hope that we are not doomed to our future—that it gets better and that we can better ourselves. Which also, as it happens, is the thought that keeps me and my soul alive.
Sir James never ceased to regard Dorothea’s second marriage as a mistake; and indeed this remained the tradition concerning it in Middlemarch, where she was spoken of to a younger generation as a fine girl who married a sickly clergyman, old enough to be her father, and in little more than a year after his death gave up her estate to marry his cousin—young enough to have been his son, with no property, and not well-born. THose who had not seen anything of Dorothea usually observed that she could not have been ‘a nice woman,’ else she would not have married either the one or the other.
Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it. A new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life, any more than a new Antigone will spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of her brother’s burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is for ever gone. But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know.
Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Feeding the Masses: A Manifesto 24 August 2013Posted by Emily in Blog, Personal Life.
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No, this isn’t a post about eating locally or sustainably or freshly (though those things are important too); it isn’t a post about how food is a marker of class, and how eating well on a budget is something it’s difficult for people who don’t already have a lot of cultural capital to do; and it isn’t a post about cooking as an art form, about having five kinds of cider vinegar in your cupboard or making your own herb blends or replicating the dishes at Ottolenghi. Instead, it’s a post about some things I’ve been thinking about since, a few months ago, a close friend who often eats my cooking suggested that cooking was my hobby. Since then, I’ve been thinking about what it means to have a hobby, about the ways that the entirely extracurricular things that we do can help us to be better laborers and better people, and about an entirely unexpected dividend of finding a hobby that I didn’t expect when I first started to look for one two and a half years ago.
When I first came to Oxford as an undergraduate on an exchange, I found myself adjusting, effectively, to grad-school-lite: I had maybe two seminars or tutorials a week, and none of the extracurricular activities I had pursued at Princeton. My time was far less scheduled than it was with four or five classes and a host of other commitments, and I struggled to establish a routine that allowed me to get all my work done at my own pace. It didn’t seem as hard then as it does now, and I managed full days in the Bodleian with Symonds and my tutorial essays, but I’d come back to my room after six hours or so and find myself at loose ends. I watched a lot of TV, and sometimes I hung out with friends, but it didn’t seem like enough to fill all those hours. I struggled to find some other facet of my life, something that wasn’t work but that still could feel like I was really using that time for good… and so I started to learn ancient Greek, spending hours tracing the letters over and over, using Edwardian textbooks I’d picked up in the Oxfam bookshop in Turl Street to try to learn to read some simple stories. A couple classes, a trip to Greece, and many friendships with classicists later, and Greek is a huge part of both my scholarly life—in which I study intellectuals for whom the Greek language gave shape to everything they thought and did—and the conversations I have after lunch in the MCR. But even back in the spring of 2011, it didn’t feel like a hobby. It always felt like something I needed to do to learn more, to be a better scholar, to get inside the heads of my Victorians the way that Oxford taught me to do in so many respects. I felt the same way about most other leisure pursuits: reading novels also needed to have some educative purpose, as did watching YouTube or spending time on Facebook or anything else frivolous I might have imagined. Feeling acutely my ignorance, I struggled—and still struggle—to do things to relax that don’t make it seem like I’m wasting valuable time.
It turns out, however, that demands of graduate school or no, everyone needs to eat. Back in Princeton for my final year, my commitment to a cooking co-op meant that I was obliged to spend two hours helping to prepare dinner once a week; I developed there skills of creativity, to make something edible out of whatever was in the fridge, and I developed confidence, speed, and agility in the kitchen. More importantly, I developed a sense of pleasure gained from feeding large groups of people, of community and grounded sense of self through food. The following summer in Paris and Greece, I often cooked for others by myself; this past academic year in Oxford and actually in grad school, I rejoiced in having a kitchen of my own in which to ground myself. I attained new levels of independence I didn’t have in the co-op: able to decide where I would buy my food and how much I would spend, what I would make and how I would make it, whether I would cook just for me, able to indulge in private my guilty desire to eat too much cheese, or whether I would host dinner parties of eight or ten—learning to make the Middle-Eastern dishes I inherited from the Syrian Jewish side of my family, and striving to come even close to the Syrian Jewish rule of having fifteen dishes on the table.
And what I’ve learnt this year is that having my own kitchen (or, well, a kitchen I shared with three flatmates who were very patient when I was monopolizing the hobs) illustrated a sense of independence and control not only in contrast to life in the co-op, but also, and vitally, in contrast to the rest of my life. As a first-year and now second-year grad student, it often seems as if I can’t control most aspects of my life. I can’t control what I need to do each day, the standards by which my work is assessed, or what subject matter I need to learn. I can’t control where I live—which city, or which university accommodation complex—who my colleagues are, or anything about my future. I can’t control the city I will be moving to in a year for my Ph.D., whether I will get a job, what kind of job, or where, or even seemingly my work-life balance.
But I do have to eat at least two meals a day, and I can control everything about those meals. Even when I’ve had a demoralizing day making backward progress on my research, I can make sure there’s food I like on my table. I can take time away from my work to prepare it, without feeling as if it makes me a lesser or less dedicated person. Despite my constant anxieties about whether pursuing a life in academia is an ethically justifiable path, I can take some concrete steps that I believe to be clearly more ethical than their alternatives by giving up meat, shopping at local traders (within reason: there are tradeoffs, and it’s okay to admit that the East Oxford Farmers’ Market is not designed for a grad-student budget), and buying things that are fresh, in season, and didn’t have to take a plane to get to me. As I’ve learned better how to budget my stipend, I’ve identified products that are worth paying more for (fairtrade coffee, vegetable bouillon that isn’t full of chemicals) and ones that aren’t (local cheese) and I know this isn’t much, but it helps me to get through the days. I struggle, still, not to binge secretly on junk food, particularly on the really shitty days, but I’ve learned how the monotony of going to the library every day and doing the same thing can be relieved by trying a new recipe. And in a world that seems often so distanced from reality, I value the opportunity to do something with my hands, even if it’s just kneading dough: at least it leaves me with the accomplishment of fresh bread, something I made myself, and not the constant shame and demoralization that for me tend to accompany most other physical things. It’s also a way of forming connections with other people, which can be so difficult in this solitary life. Just as it was in the co-op, dinner is an excellent excuse to invite people over, gather them round a table, and get them to talk to each other.
Towards the end of last term, I had a few people over for homemade pizza. You have to wait for the dough to rise, but otherwise it’s the easiest company meal ever, and I was somewhat taken aback by the praise they (very generously) lavished upon me. This isn’t so hard! I hastened to say. I followed a cookbook slavishly! I got most of the ingredients at Tesco! I have nothing like the creativity and omnicompetence that my mother displays in the kitchen, and what’s more it turns out to be easier than it looks—and certainly no burden on a grad-student schedule—to learn how to make a few different things from scratch.
So, I guess that after all that searching, I have happened upon a hobby. But I don’t really see it that way, as something external or ancillary to the other things I do. Instead, I see it as the primary thing that keeps me sane, something that forces me to step away from the computer for a couple hours, something that helps me to create a social life, something at which I have no particular skill, but at least—unlike my academic work, it often seems—I can be competent. It feels in a life already so advantaged and spoiled and disconnected from the problems of real life that it would be absurdly self-indulgent to pursue recreation. But at least everyone deserves to eat, and to eat well, I think, and it turns out it’s not difficult to do that on a small stipend if you only have one mouth to feed, with occasional guests.
I’ve been struggling this summer with the lack of structure in my working life, and feeling weighed down by the length of the apprenticeship before I will be able to do the things that I think make this vocation a socially and culturally valuable one. It will be years before I’ll be able to benefit anyone with the profession for which I’m spending almost all my waking hours training. But at least, in the interim, I can put food on the table, and a little liveliness and color into my friends’ lives—and my own.