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.
Thoughts on Transatlantic Academia 1 August 2013Posted by Emily in Academia, Blog, Personal Life.
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It’s now been a scant two weeks since I sat down with my undergraduate mentor and started to draw up a list of all the Ph.D. programs I’m interested in applying to this coming autumn, and just a week since I met with my current supervisor and decided not to apply to any UK programs at all. When I realized earlier this year that, if one works on British and/or European topics in a well-funded US program (as any US program that a student hopes to attend should be), one will realistically have opportunities to come back all the time, for summers and possibly even a year of the dissertation, and maybe even for a postdoc, it made it easier to know that I’ll have to say goodbye at this time next year to my favorite country and city. I’m not making a decision now about the country in which I’ll spend the rest of my life.
But as I correspond with faculty and grad students at the institutions where I’m considering applying, it is being strongly impressed upon me what serious decisions I am making, and the high stakes even of writing a simple email of introduction to faculty, months before the application process really begins. One of the reasons I decided not to apply in the UK is that I am intellectually exhausted: after the BA and master’s theses, both of which I’m still working on, I don’t yet have in me a third project for a UK doctoral proposal, much less the energy to turn round and start researching and writing a significant piece of original work immediately after turning in my master’s thesis. I want to feel as if I can take next summer off, and then spend a couple years writing research papers and just trying out ideas before I commit to the one that’s going to stay with me at least through the dissertation and first book, if not forever.
Those, too, are considerations that American programs take seriously, and another reason I’ve decided to go back is that I’d like to be in a program that cares about what you’ll become after the doctorate, regardless of whether you wind up in a traditional academic position. As someone who thinks teaching is the most important part of academia, I’m looking more favorably upon programs that provide for a significant amount of teaching experience (one program I’m interested in has you teaching one class/section a semester for three years, starting in your second year, which sounds like the perfect balance of significant experience without preventing you from finishing the degree)—not to mention that this will be the best training for my Plan B career, teaching school. That said, even though I know we’re not supposed to think of non-academic careers as “Plan B” these days, it is for me: I recognize that not everyone who wants an academic job can have one, but I’ve wanted an academic job nearly all my sentient life, and I’d like to be in a program that will prepare me to go on the job market, and that will teach me intellectual independence without just throwing me in the deep end and seeing if I will sink or swim.
There’s a certain amateur quality to the British Ph.D., at least in its Oxbridge form (I strongly suspect it may be different elsewhere, and am surprised by how isolated Oxford grad students and faculty seem to continue to be from the rest of the top British research universities where people are doing excellent work). You notice this among the many doctoral students who don’t have any particular desire to be professional academics, as well as among the many doctoral students who do, but who are clueless about how to prepare for the job market, don’t have the institutional support to do so, and simply haven’t been given the talks that my advisors gave me all throughout undergrad about how few jobs there are and how statistically unlikely it is that you’ll be the one who bags one. There’s a sort of gentlemanly attitude here of pretending that you’re just in it for the life of the mind, which would all be very well if we really were all gentle(wo)men of leisure who didn’t have to put food on the table at the end of the day. As infuriating as this is, it’s also just interesting to note how it’s manifested itself in an application process that differs greatly from the US. My British friends on master’s courses here who applied to continue to the doctorate had to write a doctoral research proposal, sure, but they don’t seem to have worried too much or thought too deeply otherwise about the different strengths and weaknesses of all the available programs in the country (or world!), applied to a wide swathe of programs to ensure they would have a couple options to choose from, or taken into consideration the placement statistics of their selected programs. Most just assumed they would carry on at Oxford (many of them had also done their undergrad here), and maybe a few also applied to Cambridge or to another Russell Group university in case they didn’t get a funded place at Oxford. Some didn’t get funding, and carried on at Oxford anyway, the major no-no of American grad-school-application advice. For them, it seems, it’s all been a matter of routine.
Compare, then, the emails I’ve been getting from American faculty and grad students, and from my own mentors, all impressing upon me the seriousness of this decision. While most of the faculty I’ve approached have been kind and helpful, some have given me the sense that I’m auditioning for them and have to prove myself, reminding me of the at times cutthroat nature of American grad school, particularly in the most elite programs. (Indeed, what prompted me to write this post was an offhand remark in Historiann’s latest post about the “paranoid fantasies” grad students tell each other to freak each other out.) I may not be deciding which country to live in forever, but the American system makes it clear to me that I am making decisions that will determine my future career prospects, or at least my happiness and intellectual fulfillment for the next six or so years, and the city where I’m going to spend the rest of my twenties. At least there’s also an expectation in the American system that this is a decision older and wiser people will help you to make, and I’ve welcomed the vast quantity of advice I’ve received from sage and well-informed elders, even as difficult as it is to sift through it all.
The question that lingers in the back of my mind, though, is whether I can take the heat. In some respects I’ve felt under-stimulated by the amateur, and entirely self-directed, quality of Oxford academic life. But can I handle the pressure-cooker that is American academia? Will I learn to develop a thicker skin and more intellectual self-confidence, and withstand the atmosphere of direct competition with the most brilliant young historians in America? Will I, indeed, be on the face of it clever enough to compete with them at all? After all, I feel as if I have so much catching-up to do in terms of knowledge of the past and of the historiography. And, most importantly, am I willing to spend the rest of the decade halfway up a greasy pole (there’s a nice Victorian metaphor for you!), knocking off others in order to shin my way up to the top? If it gets too ugly, will I be able to let my dreams of status and intellectual fame go, and take an unhistoric teaching job anywhere that will have me?
Never mind the historical questions I have to wrestle with as I revise my writing sample and begin to think about how to structure my personal statement. I feel like I’m in a reality television show, and shit just got real.
QOTD (2013-07-10); or, Adventures in the Archives 10 July 2013Posted by Emily in Blog, QOTD, Thesis.
Arthur Sidgwick to Catharine Symonds, 15 July 1893 (almost 120 years ago!):
My dear Catharine,
I have just emerged—not yet fully emerged,—from the hardest and fullest and most unbroken years’ work I have ever had. All through last term I have been waiting & hoping for a quiet time to write to you—and in vain. I must seize the first moment of leisure, lest it pass and leave me again in bonds.
I saw Mrs Green on that day in April when she had just got the telegram, and was about to start for Italy. The exact place remains in my mind where I heard that I was never to hear or see again the voice or face of that friend who stands apart from others in my memory and in that of all of us who knew him. Mrs Green was very quiet, and all she said was that it had always been his wish when death came that it should not come as slow decay painful to all: and that she was glad it had been for his sake. That is so: but it does not make it less bitter that it shd come when he was away from home and from all but one of you. And though the strangers were no doubt very good, still they could do little, and they were strangers. And it is no use dwelling on what the sudden news was to us, to think we should see him no more nor hear again his wonderful talk, in which when he was at his worst physically there was more than in any other man’s whom I have ever known. For myself I have always regretted the sadly broken intercourse I have had with him of late years, since increasing business & manifold difficulties intervened, and never more painfully than now when all chance of better using opportunities, and struggling more successfully against circumstance, is over for me in this world as far as he is concerned. We can’t do this, and we can’t do the other: but it remains true that if we were better and stronger, and tried more, we could: and these things come painfully home when the chapter is closed. But on his side there was never a one of my friends who was always more absolutely the same in spite of absence & distance & silence: none with whom one began so easily & certainly & richly where one had left off. And in my heart, as in that of all his many friends—alike those who kept up intercourse and those (of whom I was one as I sadly realise) who fell very short of what they wished & ought to have done—in all of our hearts alike he had a place that was his own, which now is empty and will remain so, except for manifold memories.
The weeks go on, but I find no difference as to the strangeness and the sadness of the news on that April day that he was dead. I have been thinking often in the last two months of the earlier days of our acquaintance beginning in that hot summer in the pension at Dresden: it is hard to believe it is 29 years ago. I remember still some of the afternoon walks & talks—with a sort of shame and gratitude mixed. He was younger, and yet so much older & wiser in everything that mattered: and I had never seen anybody so able to deal effectually with the peculiar sort of confident ignorance which must have been my principal characteristic in those days. He was so easy to talk to: so naturally adapting himself to all moods and frames of mind: so full and bountiful of thought & talk: so gentle & wise & yet so instructive without ever dogmatising or setting himself to instruct. And in my two visits to Davos, and in the few times I have seen him in England, it has been just the same. Old intercourse & affection taken up just as before, with the edges fresh: even the changes in each of us making no difference except a new interest.
All this was only one side of him, & there were many others, of which, most notably, the long and heroic struggle to do his work & deliver what he had to say, in spite of weakness and absence & all obstacles. This is what all the world has felt, and it has been good for all of us to see it. But for myself the most potent thing was the influence he had on me in early days, and the long affection it led to, tho’ interrupted as I have said.
I don’t want you to answer this at all. I shall hear of your plans and welfare from Mrs Green. I hope we may meet before long. This is only written as a sign that my many weeks’ silence—though there is much on my side for years’ past that needs forgiveness—does not mean that I have forgotten or am unthankful for the past,—and for the kindness & affection and many other good things I have received from him.
Yrs ever most truly
For the benefit of those just tuning in, my current research subject has written this lovely letter to the widow of my former research subject. And once you have burrowed so deeply inside a long-dead person’s head—read all his extant correspondence, his poetry hidden from all but his closest friends, learned to recognize his handwriting instantly and spent many, many hours sitting in the rooms he sat in and walking the paths he walked, trying to guess at how he might have thought through a given subject—you can’t help a warm rush of recognition when you unexpectedly find a document in which someone else says that dead person meant a lot to him, too.
A Long-Overdue Update 6 July 2013Posted by Emily in Blog, Love, Personal Life.
I just put down The Mill on the Floss mid-sentence and leapt across the room to the computer, because after many months of mostly chugging unremarkably forward, I feel my soul being stirred enough for it to be worth writing again. This week a good friend from undergrad came to visit, and I had cause to remember and to reminisce about the years in which I transitioned from child to adult, as well as to revisit all the most beautiful parts of the city that enabled that transition, as we saw the sights. It’s real high summer now, a nice round 25 degrees celsius with not a cloud in the sky, and after I saw my friend off this afternoon I came home with a smoothie, and I did my laundry and cleaned my room and made dinner, and now at 10pm it is only just dark, I have rewatched the first episode of the Granada adaptation of Brideshead Revisited and made some small progress in The Mill on the Floss (my first Serious George Eliot Novel; Scenes of Clerical Life doesn’t count), and I am reflecting on how many evenings I have spent like this over what I presume to call the years, wandering through sun-drenched Oxford by day and flitting from trapping of culture to trapping of culture by night, building up a fortress of ideas and feelings that served both to teach me how to live and to insulate me from the dangerous business of doing so.
If I do this now, though, I think that I do it for old times’ sake more than anything else. Last week, the Corpus Christi College Chapel Choir were on tour in Bordeaux, we sang sacred music, went to the seaside and tasted wine, and as my fellow grad student and I felt acutely our distance from the undergrads and their cares, the snatches from our repertoire that had lodged themselves in my head came to mingle with another refrain: “I can’t believe how much has changed.” On another international tour, seven years ago in Helsinki, a first violinist who was very nice but to whom I was not particularly attracted made advances towards me, I said yes because I felt that I should, and because in those days the world—even in Helsinki—seemed very small, unlikely to be full of people willing to make advances towards a shy and self-hating sixteen-year-old with baggy trousers and a bowl cut. On this tour I wore linen skirts and a big straw hat and started thinking about whether I might grow my hair long after so many years, and after so many years of reading novels and wishing, I beamed and beamed when we took the train to St.-Émilion and I had the chance to spend the day among grape vines in the golden sunlight.
Last night my friend and I laughed as we looked up old Daily Princetonian articles and remembered all those old conversations about the Anscombe Society in which I, at least, first started to learn how to think. Today I can’t bring myself at all to worry about how much archival research is still undone, because it is with such joy in my heart that I thank whatever it is that I pray to at evensong that a happy and fulfilled life seems possible now in a way it definitely didn’t before I first started to know this city of aquatint, before I lived with Symonds and impossible love, before I read Forster or saw the Mediterranean. I rejoice that my life is so full of possibility that I no longer need say yes solely out of obligation.
Some time ago, at about this time of year, I would have been eager to express pride in membership of a community whose desires had long left them outcast and criminal. I can’t say that I have ever been personally ostracized on account of my desires by anyone other than my own sadistic superego, and I no longer need that community to help to explain my visceral sense of disconnect with everything surrounding me. Whatever the complexities and problems with such ways of establishing identity, though—and the more that I have learned, the more they have increased—they have long demonstrated so well how deserving of pride it is when you come not to hate yourself quite so very much. I am proud beyond measure to say that, this spring and summer, it seems that I am finally learning to do just that.
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From Corpus Christi College’s Pelican Record, 9:1 (Dec 1907), p. 4:
It is probably generally known that Princeton University some time ago applied to the College for leave to have a copy made of the Corpus Pelican, to be erected in their own University buildings. The leave was given, the copy made and transported; the function has now been held, and the Pelican has been duly inaugurated in its new home. Our readers will be glad to know that on the day of the ceremony the President sent to Princeton the following telegram, the exact words of which he has kindly communicated to us. It ran as follows:–
‘Corpus Christi College, Oxford, sends greeting, and rejoices that Princeton University has erected a reproduction of Turnbull’s dial in its original form.’
The last words refer to the fact that the American dial stands, not on a square pedestal like ours, but on an octagonal base, such as is shown in the C.C.C. MS. by Hegge, who died in 1629. This earlier base was recently discovered beneath the square pedestal of the Corpus dial, the insertion having been made at a considerably later date.
The President has received the following letter from the President of Princeton University:–
Princeton University, Princeton, N.J.
November 1, 1907.
My Dear Sir–
We had yesterday the pleasure of unveiling the beautiful reproduction of the Turnbull sun-dial which stands in the quadrangle of Corpus Christi College, presented to us by Sir William Mather. The Right Honourable James Bryce, the British Ambassador to the United States, made the address of presentation; the weather was brilliant and perfect; and all who were present wished me to convey to you the warm thanks of Princeton University for the courtesy shown by yourself and the Fellows of Corpus Christi in permitting this copy of the dial to be made and presented to us. It will always be for us a visible symbol of the connexion we already sensibly felt between our traditions and the traditions of Oxford. I hope that you may yourself some day visit Princeton and judge whether we have suitably placed the interesting column on our own grounds.
With much respect,
QOTD (2013-05-01) 1 May 2013Posted by Emily in Blog, QOTD.
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Forster, The Longest Journey:
“The cow is there,” said Ansell, lighting a match and holding it out over the carpet. No one spoke. He waited till the end of the match fell off. Then he said again, “She is there, the cow. There, now.”
“You have not proved it,” said a voice.
“I have proved it to myself.”
“I have proved to myself that she isn’t,” said the voice. “The cow is not there.” Ansell frowned and lit another match.
“She’s there for me,” he declared. “I don’t care whether she’s there for you or not. Whether I’m in Cambridge or Iceland or dead, the cow will be there.”
It was philosophy. They were discussing the existence of objects. Do they exist only when there is some one to look at them? Or have they a real existence of their own? It is all very interesting, but at the same time it is difficult. Hence the cow. She seemed to make things easier. She was so familiar, so solid, that surely the truths that she illustrated would in time become familiar and solid also. Is the cow there or not? This was better than deciding between objectivity and subjectivity. So at Oxford, just at the same time, one was asking, “What do our rooms look like in the vac.?”
“Look here, Ansell. I’m there—in the meadow—the cow’s there. You’re there—the cow’s there. Do you agree so far?” “Well?”
“Well, if you go, the cow stops; but if I go, the cow goes. Then what will happen if you stop and I go?”
Several voices cried out that this was quibbling.
“I know it is,” said the speaker brightly, and silence descended again, while they tried honestly to think the matter out.
Rickie, on whose carpet the matches were being dropped, did not like to join in the discussion. It was too difficult for him. He could not even quibble. If he spoke, he should simply make himself a fool. He preferred to listen, and to watch the tobacco-smoke stealing out past the window-seat into the tranquil October air. He could see the court too, and the college cat teasing the college tortoise, and the kitchen-men with supper-trays upon their heads. Hot food for one—that must be for the geographical don, who never came in for Hall; cold food for three, apparently at half-a-crown a head, for some one he did not know; hot food, a la carte—obviously for the ladies haunting the next staircase; cold food for two, at two shillings—going to Ansell’s rooms for himself and Ansell, and as it passed under the lamp he saw that it was meringues again. Then the bedmakers began to arrive, chatting to each other pleasantly, and he could hear Ansell’s bedmaker say, “Oh dang!” when she found she had to lay Ansell’s tablecloth; for there was not a breath stirring. The great elms were motionless, and seemed still in the glory of midsummer, for the darkness hid the yellow blotches on their leaves, and their outlines were still rounded against the tender sky. Those elms were Dryads—so Rickie believed or pretended, and the line between the two is subtler than we admit. At all events they were lady trees, and had for generations fooled the college statutes by their residence in the haunts of youth.
But what about the cow? He returned to her with a start, for this would never do. He also would try to think the matter out. Was she there or not? The cow. There or not. He strained his eyes into the night.
Either way it was attractive. If she was there, other cows were there too. The darkness of Europe was dotted with them, and in the far East their flanks were shining in the rising sun. Great herds of them stood browsing in pastures where no man came nor need ever come, or plashed knee-deep by the brink of impassable rivers. And this, moreover, was the view of Ansell. Yet Tilliard’s view had a good deal in it. One might do worse than follow Tilliard, and suppose the cow not to be there unless oneself was there to see her. A cowless world, then, stretched round him on every side. Yet he had only to peep into a field, and, click! it would at once become radiant with bovine life.
Suddenly he realized that this, again, would never do. As usual, he had missed the whole point, and was overlaying philosophy with gross and senseless details. For if the cow was not there, the world and the fields were not there either. And what would Ansell care about sunlit flanks or impassable streams? Rickie rebuked his own groveling soul, and turned his eyes away from the night, which had led him to such absurd conclusions.
The fire was dancing, and the shadow of Ansell, who stood close up to it, seemed to dominate the little room. He was still talking, or rather jerking, and he was still lighting matches and dropping their ends upon the carpet. Now and then he would make a motion with his feet as if he were running quickly backward upstairs, and would tread on the edge of the fender, so that the fire-irons went flying and the buttered-bun dishes crashed against each other in the hearth. The other philosophers were crouched in odd shapes on the sofa and table and chairs, and one, who was a little bored, had crawled to the piano and was timidly trying the Prelude to Rhinegold with his knee upon the soft pedal. The air was heavy with good tobacco-smoke and the pleasant warmth of tea, and as Rickie became more sleepy the events of the day seemed to float one by one before his acquiescent eyes. In the morning he had read Theocritus, whom he believed to be the greatest of Greek poets; he had lunched with a merry don and had tasted Zwieback biscuits; then he had walked with people he liked, and had walked just long enough; and now his room was full of other people whom he liked, and when they left he would go and have supper with Ansell, whom he liked as well as any one. A year ago he had known none of these joys. He had crept cold and friendless and ignorant out of a great public school, preparing for a silent and solitary journey, and praying as a highest favour that he might be left alone. Cambridge had not answered his prayer. She had taken and soothed him, and warmed him, and had laughed at him a little, saying that he must not be so tragic yet awhile, for his boyhood had been but a dusty corridor that led to the spacious halls of youth. In one year he had made many friends and learnt much, and he might learn even more if he could but concentrate his attention on that cow.
QOTD (2013-04-15); or, Oxoniana 15 April 2013Posted by Emily in Blog, Nerdiness, Oxford, QOTD.
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Arthur Sidgwick, writing in Corpus Christi College’s newsletter, the Pelican Record, vol. ii no. 4 (June 1894):
THE JUMPING FROG.
It has been mentioned above that a curious question has arisen about this famous tale; and as I have been unwillingly mixed up in it, I have been asked to put down a plain statement of the matter as far as it has gone.
It appears that in 1865 Mark Twain heard this story from a Californian gold-miner who had witnessed the incident in 1849. How the tale was given by Mark to a paper—how the paper perished immediately afterwards—how fatal the Frog was to all who undertook to tell of it—Mark Twain sorrowfully informs us in the North American Review for last April. The story finally was translated into French; and that the Revue de Deux Mondes (in which it appeared) still continues to drag on a precarious existence, can only be accounted for (says M.T.) by the badness of the translation.
Anyhow, the story was included in Mark Twain’s works about twenty-five years ago; and when I was collecting simple tales for Greek prose exercises in the year 1876, I borrowed this tale, aong others, for the purpose. A Greek version of the same was printed in the ‘Teacher’s Key’ to the work.
Last year, however, a certain Professor Van Dyke, of Princeton, told M.T. that his story was not new, but was related by a Greek writer at least two thousand years ago: that he, Van Dyke, had seen both the original and a translation thereof, and offered to send him either. M.T. preferred the translation, because ‘Greek makes him tired.’ Accordingly he received from the Professor—a copy of the exercise in my Greek Prose Composition!
Hereupon M.T. writes his article for the North American Review, musing sadly on the hollowness of all earthly things, and especially on the impossibility of getting hold of a story which has not been told before. He sorrowfully compares the stories point by point, and gloomily admits that they are the same.
The English newspapers—it is the slack season at the end of the Easter Vac. [yes, it is—ER.]—follow suit, and most of them accept M.T.’s view, commenting (in the tone of weary anthropologists) on the oldness of everything. But the Daily Chronicle, in an amusing leader, suggests that the professor has been playing it very low down on his friend; and indicates the true character of the Greek original.
At that point it became my duty to intervene. I wrote to the D.C., confirming their divination about the Greek original, confessing my gross plagiarism, and protesting against the high antiquity attributed to me. When one is getting on in years, one grows testy about the question of age, and objects to being thought older than one is, even if it be only a trifling difference of 1946 years.
The points still to be cleared up may be put briefly in the form of questions, as follows:—
(a) Is the Professor a real person, or did M.T. invent him?
(b) If he is real,
1. Did he take M.T. in?
2. Was he himself deluded?
3. Did he and M.T. make up the jest together?
If (b 1) or (b 2) is the truth, the next move is M.T.’s.
Update: A Facebook correspondent has pointed out that there is a certain consonance between this and a riveting academic detective story in this week’s TLS, to which I commend my readers’ attention.