By Way of News 5 November 2014Posted by Emily in Blog.
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I should be writing to you all about how I catch my breath nearly every day when I realize I live in New York, about how going away and coming back has given me a new perspective on the Ivy League and the phenomenon that is elite American higher education, on the weirdness that is doing the history of the country where I used to live in one of the countries whose passport I hold—just in case I thought my problems of nationality and “home” couldn’t get any more challenging.
But it is the fifth of November, and I started writing what follows as a Facebook status, and I think it says more than any of that where I am now, as the days grow shorter and the Christian liturgical year draws to a close and, as is my habit, I spend the winter months assessing who I have been in the last year.
A year ago this week, I went to a conference about the LSJ and to the Bonfire Night fireworks in South Parks in Oxford; I lost my mobile and my white poppy got trampled in the Bonfire Night mud; I sobbed on Remembrance Sunday for reasons entirely unrelated to war and peace; and after that everything that happened, happened.
This evening I enjoyed the familiar feeling of going to the pub with a British history seminar, and I’m grateful to have that continuity even here, where no one knows or cares from bonfires and poppies.
Now that I’m a Real Adult it does start to feel as if one semester after another zooms by in the blink of an eye, yet it continues to astound me how enormously my life can turn upside-down in a year’s time, and how far I can go.
It was so cold on Bonfire Night last year. Taking out winter coats and lighting fires against the cold, praying for peace and for love, yearning to come home to my own Howards End—in early November and always.
That’s what I copy-pasted from Facebook. But what is extraordinary is how, now that I am not in England, the orexis that characterized my state of being from the time that I first started to work on Symonds (who is now an article!) has very much returned. Orexis and I, we have come so far together. Every time I get on a plane and go to the other side of North America, or across the Atlantic, my soul feels winded by the distance I have travelled in such a short time. And we have done that many times over, orexis and I, just like the books and the postcards and the childhood mementoes and, weirdly, the glassware that I bought at the Oxfam shop in Broad Street four years ago and have carried back and forth in Virgin Atlantic’s meagre cabin bag allowance since.
Here in New York, I live on the eighth floor; my view is of buildings and the LaGuardia flight path; I almost want to cry to think of how I used to be able to see Boar’s Hill from my desk. So much for breaking up with Oxford!
Here in New York, we talk a lot very self-consciously about what it is we do, we first- and second-years who have never done it, when we do history. In our seminars, my colleagues speak very confidently about the virtues of the international, and I know that it is very good for me to have to struggle to find the words to say that British history is Boar’s Hill and Bonfire Night and orexis, and to be a British historian is to be more than an apologist for empire. (Not that Symonds or Sidgwick or any of the other people with whom I spend my days thought or spoke much about empire, but that is a story for another day.) I forget so quickly what it was like to be displaced there, what it was like to feel as if I had failed, monumentally failed, to “do Britain.” I wanted so much to be able to do a national culture right in a way that I have never been able to in America.
Thanks to my two passports—and thanks to the Empire, which still gives voting rights to we from the Dominions—I have voted in both countries. Yesterday I voted here in New York, in a district so blue there weren’t Republican candidates for any of the local races, and then I got on the subway packed full of all kinds of people to commute to my British history class at NYU (where, it seems, we don’t talk much about Britain), and then I got on the subway packed full of all kinds of people to come back to my bedroom, with the same books and postcards as always, to spend my evenings as I always have, with a cup of tea and iPlayer and you, the internet. (My friends write and they ask me for my news, and they wonder why I have none!)
Symonds, Forster, Auden, they all read Whitman. Auden even came to New York:
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
America and the Ivy League, Rediti; Incipit Columbia 22 August 2014Posted by Emily in Academia, Blog, Columbia.
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I would apologize for my terrible Latin, except that it is rather a relief to walk down the streets in my new city and feel that my lack of Spanish, not my rudimentary Latin, is what most belies my ignorance. Amidst the culture shock of my first five days in Manhattan—the apartment building and the elevator; the oppressively constant noise; NPR instead of Radio 4; dollar bills; loud Americans who actually belong here; different products on the supermarket shelves; and much more—there is little to explain why Latin is the language that came to my mind when I decided to begin this post. Unless it was stepping onto the Columbia campus for the first time today, seeing the classical authors engraved on the facade of Butler Library and the Core Curriculum books for sale in the university bookstore, Latin and Greek everywhere on the logos of Morningside Heights’ various educational institutions, and a melange of Gothic and neoclassical architecture which evinces a very specific nineteenth-century American vision of the meaning and purpose of the university. Columbia in many ways is nothing like Princeton, but in their common historical investment in the liberal arts and in research, in their erection of temples of learning, they have more serious and meaningful connections than their common participation in a sports conference and an interlibrary loan system (though believe me when I say that being back in the Borrow Direct network was a significant factor in my decision to come here).
As all Ivy League graduates who read the internet are probably aware by now, one person who believes that Princeton and Columbia have a rather different set of commonalities is writer and former English professor William Deresiewicz, whose new book Excellent Sheep (teased at length in The New Republic) holds up what he calls the Ivy League (by which he really seems to mean Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Stanford, with perhaps a couple extras like Columbia) as evidence of what ails a generation of overambitious, careerist, narrow-minded, and above all anxious young adults. Instead of blaming the economy, or paradigms such as shifting trends in college-going and the differing priorities of students of different socioeconomic backgrounds or countries of origin, Deresiewicz thinks that these ills are directly perpetrated by the culture of a few select colleges, their admissions offices, and their teachers. (Mind you, he left full-time teaching himself over twenty years ago, giving his excoriation of Ivy League professors a hollow and bitter ring.) Let the youth of today go anywhere else, he pleads, even if it means that with less financial aid they would have to work their way through school. That would be a better education than anything Harvard or Yale could give you.
When Deresiewicz’s TNR piece first came out, I posted a long and emotionally involved essay on Facebook about it, but I don’t intend to rehash that here. It’s not a little embarrassing how myself and my fellow Ivy League graduates have gravitated towards the essay and projected all our own status anxieties onto it, and it’s important to remember that in the large landscape of higher education in the US, what anyone has to say about the Ivy League is pretty irrelevant. And it’s true that some of Deresiewicz’s diagnoses are accurate—though he is so ungenerous to students and teachers that not I nor a single one of the peers to whom I’ve spoken recognizes the universities we attended in his characterization.
I’ve taken a certain pleasure in reading a range of critical reviews of Excellent Sheep, but I’d like to quote at length from a review written by one of my own teachers, whose long dedication to teaching undergraduates is, in my biased opinion, unparalleled, and who is rather more optimistic about the youth of today:
Above all, many students suffer from the relentless anxiety, the sense of exhaustion and anomie, that their hyperactivity generates and that Deresiewicz powerfully evokes. No wonder, then, that when he sketched this indictment in an essay in The American Scholar, his text went viral. Many students have contacted him to confirm his diagnosis. Some of my students tell me that they still remember exactly where they were when they read his sharp words. Anyone who cares about American higher education should ponder this book.
But anyone who cares should also know that the coin has another side, one that Deresiewicz rarely inspects. He describes the structures of the university as if they were machines, arranged in assembly lines: “The system churns out an endless procession of more or less uniform human specimens.” Yet universities aren’t total institutions. Professors and students have agency. They use the structures they inhabit in creative ways that are not dreamt of in Deresiewicz’s philosophy, and that are more common and more meaningful than the “exceptions” he allows.
Many students at elite universities amble like sheep through four years of parties and extracurriculars, and then head down the ramp to the hedge funds without stopping to think. But plenty of others find their people, as one of my own former students says: the teachers who still offer open doors and open ears, the friends who stay up all night arguing with them about expressionism or feminism or both, the partners with whom they sail the deep waters of love (which, like sex, survives on campus). They come in as raw freshmen and they leave as young adults, thoughtful and articulate and highly individual. Deresiewicz observes their identical T-shirts but misses their differences of class and resources — just as he elides the differences between universities.
Even the academic side of the university offers richer and deeper experiences than Deresiewicz thinks. Recreating a life or building an argument, analyzing a text or chasing a virus, in the company of an adult who cares about both the subject and the student, need not be a routine exercise. It can be a way to build a soul — the soul of a scholar or scientist, who ignores our smelly little ideologies and fact-free platitudes, and cherishes precision and evidence and honorable admission of error. One reason some graduates of elite universities look unworldly is that those universities still try — admittedly with mixed results — to uphold a distinctive code of values.
When Deresiewicz looks at the universities, he sees Heartbreak House: a crumbling Gothic mansion, inhabited by polite young shadows, limp and exhausted. When I look at them, I see the Grand Budapest Hotel: stately, if fragile, structures, where youth and energy can find love and knowledge and guidance — places that welcome students who make creative fun of their teachers and other authorities, and help them go on having creative fun in later life.
The Columbia undergraduates have just started to arrive, and today campus was swarming with wide-eyed freshmen in shorts and t-shirts and nametags—they looked so young!—taking campus tours. Facilities teams were erecting the traditional big white tents (what the British call marquees) on lawns in preparation for start-of-term ceremonies and barbecues. There was a long line in the campus bookstore and returning students are all of a sudden pounding the pavements of Broadway. (A particularly surreal sight were the frat bros in brightly-colored tank tops, Atlanta Braves hats, and southern accents buying snacks in Rite-Aid.) It’s great being a grad student, and someone who will next year, and for the years to come, teach a small subset of these students: I know that if I were a freshman I wouldn’t necessarily have fit in with most of the kids I saw today, and I would have forlornly wandered the halls of the great temples to learning looking for grad students and professors to take me under their wings. But now I can smile warmly at the sight of these eager kids and think about how important the next four years are going to be for them and how much they’re going to learn. (At Columbia, I can also contemplate the rather bewildering thought that in a couple weeks all of them will be reading Homer and Plato.)
Maybe my time in the Ivy League has been unusually blessed. But although I do see a lot of anxiety and competition and careerism in the Ivy League, and I do see a lot of students in it solely for the grade and the job, I also see a seriously meaningful number of students and teachers working together to get tremendous personal and social value out of their liberal-arts education—and that value doesn’t disappear if the students do go into finance or if they don’t realize what they got until decades down the line. The start of the academic year is a special, romantic time—it has always been heart-soaring for me—and I’m starting to see what university teachers mean when they say that living in universities keeps them young. I can’t help but think that it is Deresiewicz’s loss that when he looks at Princeton or Columbia he doesn’t see this alongside (and perhaps underneath) the status-treadmilling.
Energy, enthusiasm, and luck to all those who are starting a new academic year in the coming weeks!
Prayers for Peace 3 August 2014Posted by Emily in Blog, Ethics.
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I have been much affected by reading the world news of late, especially that coming out of Israel and Palestine. As Laurie Penny wrote in the New Statesman last week, “the abused sometimes go on to abuse others”—and I, whose Sephardic Jewish ancestors have literally traversed the globe over the last half-millennium while fleeing persecution, am complicit in the cycle of abuse which the Israeli government is continuing to perpetrate on the Palestinians it in turn expelled from their homeland two generations ago. (On the New York Review of Books‘ blog, Hebrew University professor David Shulman offers frightening, vivid detail as to just how eerily right-wing extremists in Israel echo the rhetoric and the actions of their own ancestors’ abusers.) Meanwhile there are the right-wing parties who gained a moment of credibility in May’s European Parliament elections; and there is the violence in Ukraine and the escalating tensions between the US and Russia, and the pervading sense that none of us in any country is governed by politicians who could be trusted to resist the temptation to send young men and women to die in the name of misplaced ideologies. Maybe I’ve been reading too many World War I retrospectives. But things right now seem an awful lot like a powder keg, and I am moving to New York and getting on with adult life, and I feel obliged to ask what it means to be a Jew who feels morally obligated to speak out about what the UN leadership has begun to allege are Israel’s war crimes, and what it means to be a young adult growing up now in an ever-violent world into which inheritance, it seems, I am slowly entering. Sure, donating to UNRWA, the only agency currently able to offer water, food and shelter to displaced and persecuted Gazans is one thing, and we should all be giving what we can afford. But we may need to start asking ourselves whether the urgency of the situation, and our own moral convictions, demand that we do more.
When I was five years old I, as family legend has it, “stopped the battle.” I know I’ve written about this before, or told the story to many of you: when my knights/chivalry/”medieval”-themed Montessori summer day camp tried to stage a “battle” with cardboard swords as an end-of-session party, and five-year-old me refused to participate, made a speech about how war was wrong, and shut the whole thing down. In some respects it is still the bravest thing I’ve ever done, and certainly the only piece of civil disobedience I’ve engaged in that has actually made a difference. I think back on it now as I think that my convictions impel me to do more than donate to UNRWA and post endlessly on Facebook about violence and persecution. I am searching for answers about what to do (and whether anything I could do would really help) and how to be brave enough to do it.
In searching the internet for morally absolute language from faith traditions about the strength and significance of pacifism, I came across a compelling document published by the primary organization of the Society of Friends in Britain. In a book which outlines the central tenets and practices of the Quaker faith, it describes through primary documents from the seventeenth century on the Quakers’ commitment to nonviolence and conscientious objection. The inspiring stories of Friends who laid their lives and liberties on the line in the service of peace transcend the particular professions of faith that impel and sustain them in doing so. And they record the contributions of pacifists to campaigns for nuclear disarmament, for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, and other modern causes that show that it is possible to do more than just to accept the status quo as an inescapable cycle of abuse and violence. The document about “our peace testimony” frequently invokes the name of Christ and the words and stories of the Gospels, but while I sometimes employ language and imagery drawn from Christianity and other religions to express the moral seriousness of causes like peace, I don’t see any reason why humans’ desire to keep other humans from needlessly dying should be limited to those who believe in a man in the sky (and my own approximation of God certainly isn’t that) or his son here on Earth. Yet we who doubt have something to learn from the religious, perhaps particularly the Society of Friends, and how they throughout history have found the courage to say and do extraordinary and righteous things.
This week Britain and other countries in Europe are commemorating the centenary of the start of World War I: an occasion, I fear, for much jingoism and glorification of war at the expense of its grim and bloody realities, some civilian knowledge of what we actually ask our young men and women to endure, and any serious consideration of the causes—or lack thereof—for which the wars of the past century have been and are today being fought. When I first came to Britain I was appalled by the extent to which Remembrance Day, even and especially in churches, is observed as a way to celebrate the ongoing practice of war and the empty flag-waving patriotism that so often accompanies it, while prayers for peace fade out of earshot. Thereafter I pledged to don the white poppy for Remembrance Day in mourning for soldiers and civilians who have died in war, remembrance of conscientious objectors and others who hold different points of view about war, and forward-thinking commitment to peace. When I started evangelizing about the white poppy as an alternative to the standard red lapel poppy, which has become Britain’s patriotism-litmus-test answer to the American flag pin, I was astonished all over again by the fear with which my friends who professed agreement with my reasons for wearing the white poppy hesitated to wear it themselves, lest they be publicly perceived to be committing that ultimate sin of being unpatriotic.
But the thing is, it starts with us. It starts with white poppies, with our voices and with the courage of our convictions. A Friend called Kenneth Barnes is quoted in the “peace testimony” document as saying that “Conscientious objection is not a total repudiation of force; it is a refusal to surrender moral responsibility for one’s action.” As Jews around the world complicit in Israel’s perpetration of persecution, or as citizens of countries who remember wars as their finest hours and pledge again and again in words and in hard currency to repeat them, we need to remain committed to peace, and to the hard work of mediation and reconciliation. Regardless of what our sacred texts may or may not tell us, we are morally obligated to answer for what our countries and our peoples do in our names. And we are morally obligated to meditate long and hard upon what it is that we in particular can do, in terms of money, time, words, and so on, to amplify the voice of peace in response to world conflict and to militaristic nationalist sentiments at home—before it’s too late.
I was ultimately left unsatisfied by the lack of immediacy of the Christian prayers for peace I found on the internet, and by their lack of applicability to non-believers as well. So, this Sunday evening, in my own words, I pray—which is to say I hope and I cry, and I strive to translate my hope and crying into action—for peace throughout the war-torn regions of the world, most especially Gaza; for our politicians to make decisions that stand for the safety and flourishing of civilians and not for warmongering and power-grabbing; for those who are commemorating Europe’s century-old declarations of war to do so in the spirit of sorrow and solemn remembrance, not in the spirit of jingoism and glory; and finally and most importantly that we may all have the courage of our convictions to speak out against violence in all times and places, even when it may involve great difficulty and personal cost. In all our names, amen.
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.