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On Decolonisation 19 June 2015

Posted by Emily in Academia, Blog, Nerdiness, Oxford, Politics/Current Affairs.
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some thoughts written in response to a Guardian article entitled “Oxford Uni must decolonise its campus and curriculum, say students”:

I am sure a lot of people won’t like what I have to say here, but I think it is a good opportunity for “history matters” so I’ll roll that line out even though I have some misgivings about whether it is the right take/argument here and am perfectly willing to be proven wrong.

I. Okay so I don’t know how you would go about “decolonising” Oxford—Codrington aside, the modern institutional structure of the university was created through a series of government commissions from the 1860s on—just like all of us whose lives are bound up in some way with the UK and the Commonwealth and the other parts of the globe the British Empire touched, there’s some part of our lives that is complicit in empire. Some of us have ancestors who profited from the slave trade; some of us have ancestors who were slaves; some of us might think, “My ancestors never left their farm in Cumbria; what did they know about any of that?” and we have to remember where their tea and sugar came from.

II. You could burn the whole institution down and start completely over—with what? It wouldn’t be Oxford, whatever it was; I’m sure that would be great for many people; it isn’t enough for me because history matters and erasing its physical presence doesn’t ever help.

III. I think we can disaggregate fights against racism, fights to modernise and widen frankly shitty Oxford curricula, fights to improve the climate for students of ‘nontraditional’ backgrounds (all of which are clear and laudable goals) from whether Rhodes and Codrington oppress by their dead, sculpted presence. (It always makes me especially happy when Rhodes Scholars do things that would make Rhodes turn in his grave—like, you know, being not white, or female.) I think a country where the past is so very, very physically present offers us opportunities to assess how far our visions of civic inclusion have come—and how much the political ideologies of the era of the Reform Bills continue to shape the former Empire, something that isn’t changed by disavowing benefactors and statues.

IV. I remember William Whyte giving a sermon for the Commemoration of Benefactors at CCC Chapel that at the time I was a bit peeved about because he took some cheap shots at EP Warren whom I don’t think really deserved them. But on reflection I think Whyte had something more important to say about the need to grapple with benefactors we don’t like. EP Warren endowed a fellowship whose conditions forbade the postholder from teaching—or even encountering—women. Corpus had to go to court to challenge the terms and today the postholder is a brilliant woman. It is justice that Warren has been made, all these years after his death, to pay her salary.

V. This week I am reading about men who, like Warren, often preferred their college enclaves to nasty businesses like the First World War and the rough and tumble of politics. They dabbled, of course, and were delighted to count politicians and social reformers among their correspondents and dinner-guests, but like anyone who’s anyone in Oxford they’d take a dinner over a serious meeting any day. Most of the men I’ve been reading about this week opposed women’s suffrage. Most of them wouldn’t have seen themselves as homosexual, but they saw themselves like so many fifth-century Athenians who found in the dull prattle of teenage schoolboys and the minutiae of school and college life something richer than what they thought their wives and daughters could offer.

VI. On the face of it these men are frankly despicable. I was spending all day today reading their letters—and thinking about all that goes unsaid in letters—and realizing that even if I had the historian’s longed-for time machine I would never in a million years have been allowed into the spaces where they said to each other what they could not say in letters. It is not simply the passage of time that denies me the knowledge of why Oscar Browning took such an, err, active interest in the totally mundane life of a particular fifth-form pupil at Norwich Grammar School in the 1880s; it is that I am a woman, and when women encroach upon male homosocial worlds the men clam up and won’t say to you what they might say to each other behind closed doors or in languages to the knowledge of which you are not granted access.

VII. All of this is the case and perhaps it goes doubly for race, in the name of which hierarchies it is arguable far grosser evils have been committed than in the name of a gender hierarchy. And then I spent all day in the reading room looking out the window across the court at King’s Chapel and chills went down my spine. When I came home along the river after dinner in golden evening light (and hit one after another the cliché trifecta of swans, church bells, and Morris dancers) a sense of something longer and deeper than any past I can access caught in my stomach—and also a sense of what power nineteenth-century historians have in understanding how that construct of an English past was first crafted. And empire, of course, is there too. It’s everywhere. You can’t get rid of it—you can only apologise, if you like me or rather my great-grandparents are a settler colonial and had to come to England to know how that is so—and you can study history, and you can teach history to anyone who will listen and then some. And perhaps go home and have a quiet reckoning with yourself about where the money comes from that stewards institutions, and that protects those institutions that are safest from the ravages of trendy government diktats. It is not a happy story, any more than is your sugar or your tea. It is a story to be told.

VIII. What we can do—what does, I might even hazard, more good than questioning the Codrington—is tell the dysfunctional, solipsistic Oxford bloody History Faculty to update its syllabi to reflect historiographical developments that have occurred since I was born, to take responsibility for its own institutional story. American history professors have done great things in recent years by taking undergraduates into the university archives and helping them to piece together the university’s implication in slavery and enduring racism. I guarantee you that there are documents that could tell similar stories in every Oxford college founded before the twentieth century—and students should be asking to see them.


Postscript: the main thing that I learned intellectually this year is the extent to which the lives and stories of most people in the world are implicated in empire. I first learned it not from postcolonial theory but when David Cannadine’s Ornamentalism led me to think about how my own life was shaped by British empire. Since then, I’ve been realising over and again the extent to which that is such a fundamental world-historical paradigm that needs to be understood on a concrete, personal, individualised, persisting level.


Sermon for Trinity Sunday 31 May 2015

Posted by Emily in LGBT, Love.
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Because I am at heart nothing more than a boring liturgically conservative Anglican, I wandered round the corner to evensong today with the expectation of hearing a sermon attempting to describe the nature of the Trinity and hopefully getting to sing “St Patrick’s Breastplate.” Instead, this being St John the Divine, today had been designated “queer evensong,” all male pronouns referring to God had been replaced with female ones, and no reference to the liturgical calendar was made.

During the Magnificat a storm broke out, and the music was almost drowned out by loud thunder. So many idiots over the decades have tried to link extreme weather with their belief in their religious tradition’s condemnation of homosexuality. But I was reuniting with old friends in Princeton yesterday, who some years ago helped me to see love and fellowship in the defiant, catty, camp mockery of that kind of appeal to a higher power.

When I watched Russell Davies’ new TV series Cucumber last week, I remembered that what is so enduringly right about a certain camp gay tradition is the way so much of it is about putting up a bold front against self-hatred, fear, and shame, fiercely asserting one’s right to love and to be loved. Camp is not transhistorical, but the need to love and to be loved is, and it makes a certain amount of sense that the Christian and the gay traditions might have something to say to each other about that.


Acknowledgements: You know who you are.

On Mattering; or, A Thanksgiving Apology 27 November 2014

Posted by Emily in Blog.

It is Thanksgiving, today: I suppose we agree now that, like Columbus Day, this holiday rests on a racist American founding mythology, and yet I am thankful that my parents and sister have used the days off work to travel to New York and cook a festive meal in my apartment. I am grateful that their arrival on Tuesday evening also obliged me to pull myself out of a spiral of self-loathing occasioned by the explosion on social media that followed the announcement of a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri that police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for shooting an unarmed African-American teenager. The outrage was palpable and entirely appreciable, and—perhaps after spending the last couple years abroad—I was blindsided by the intensity with which it took over my news feeds. Everyone, it seems, is angry: angry in a way they never are about Palestine, about Afghanistan, about Syria, about Liberia, about Somalia, about Ukraine, about China, about sexual assault on our university campuses or far away in Mumbai or Tehran or the warzones of the world. Here in New York, helicopters circled overhead on Tuesday night, and today there is talk of protestors obstructing the Macy’s parade.

This is all perfectly understandable, justifiable, and in large part good, especially if this kind of outpouring of anger and grief can be translated into a call to reckoning on race, on gun policy and the inviolability of the police, and other vectors of power in the US national context. And yet. There is something about the all-encompassing nature of the discourse that seems to be emerging that troubles me deeply, because it seems to foreclose a variety of possibilities for how to live and how to manage anger and productive activism, and it seems to impose a hierarchy of political urgencies and ethical ways of being that shuts down the wider variety of ways in which individuals can find ways of being and doing good and not harm in the world.

All this began first thing Tuesday morning when, half-asleep and instinctively, I checked the internet and reposted a couple articles about academic news, and commented on a conversation about managing time-to-degree in US PhD programs. I had my first cup of coffee and my second, and I wrote some careful paragraphs on a new project, about seven British academics who toured a wide swathe of US universities in 1918 in the name of peace and international relations. As I wrote about the need to recover the intensity with which the women in this British delegation engaged with the problems of international education and with which they pursued interpersonal relationships in the course of this project, against a backdrop of Twitter positively exploding with fury, it seemed to me that I was making my own idiosyncratic contribution to telling stories that need to be told, that I was pursuing my training in trying to be the kind of historian who helps. I posted as much on Facebook.

It turned out that I was wrong. A friend wrote on Facebook of her anger at her white friends who were not posting about Ferguson, and in the thread that ensued it became clear to me that by writing about the British Educational Mission of 1918 instead of Race in America, I was part of the problem. It became clear that I had everything, as a white American, to be sorry for, and that leaving my work, going to the internet, and reposting a large number of articles about Ferguson and race was one acceptable way of atoning. I didn’t return to my historical work that day, and I spent it mired in deep remorse that my life as a privileged, white grad student with fancy degrees from an upper-middle-class background at a university that has so aggressively displaced the historically black population in its neighborhood creates such active harm in the world. If only flagellating oneself were the same thing as consciousness-raising, because I can assure you, dear reader, that the self-loathing with which I have struggled for the past several years resurfaced on Tuesday in earnest. As I wrote on Facebook, it seemed that anything in my life that leads to pleasure and personal fulfillment—studying history, learning to teach it, having a calling to universities and university work, having a life with some material comforts, friendships, hobbies—was directly at odds with anything that might do good in the kind of absolutist way that social media that day seemed to be ranking good. That the only moral way to live would involving dedicating my life to social justice, giving away all my income above a basic subsistence level, and definitely leaving graduate school. That, dear reader, was how it seemed, and the “likes” came pouring in: many agreed, and it was noticeable and only added to the shame that the only friends who wrote to say that they thought I was doing enough good were white. In the UK, where the discourse is all class, all the time, I had forgotten how to think as so many do in America that race says everything about how you engage with the world, what your opportunities are, and what your opportunities aren’t. Being white and wanting to spend my day writing history not directly connected to race and social justice made me rethink basic decisions I had made that I had tricked myself into thinking were not actively harmful, such as being in grad school, living in Manhattan, and even finally making the decision to spend some of my savings on an iPhone next month. All of these acts suddenly seemed emblematic of why my life was repulsive and disgusting and criminal. It seemed that when I go to work, when I ride the subway, when I teach, when I write, I am the reason that the status quo is what it is, that I am the society that killed Michael Brown. That nothing else about me—my pacifism and opposition to guns, my educational vocation, the donation I gave to a Thanksgiving food drive, all those small things I try to do to make myself and others better—alters the basic fact that my life is harmful to society.

So today, two days later, it is Thanksgiving, and no one’s anger has abated, nor has my remorse. Another friend posted on Facebook, “If you’re white, don’t forget to be thankful today that you don’t have to convince anyone that your life matters,” and it seemed a particularly cruel joke, because to keep myself alive for the last 25 years I have spent many tear-filled sleepless nights trying to work so hard to convince myself that my life does matter, that there is anything about the small good that I have the power to do and the ways that I can put the things that give me pleasure and fulfillment to use that means that I deserve to live. In order to survive I have turned to Protestantism for a discourse that confirms that everyone’s lives are equally precious and that founds the drive to be and do better on this first cause of grace: doing good, and doing the right kind of good, isn’t necessary to justify why we should be allowed to continue to live, but proceeds naturally from our joy at living and our love for others. And I have turned to nonbelievers over the course of a historical period in Britain more or less spanning George Eliot to E.M. Forster, who offer an account of ethics in which good is achieved through an infinite variety of unhistoric acts and individual personal connections. It is these foundations which have caused me to see the university as a site on which slow and careful institutional change can have huge ramifications, as the tenured faculty in a variety of disciplines who have recently put their efforts behind changing cultures of sexual assault at the University of Virginia and other institutions show. On Tuesday these ways that someone like me might lead a life worth living all seemed like a hollow lie. It was a black joke to assert that I should be thankful that society thinks my life matters: because it so, so doesn’t. And I know it, and everyone in the public sphere who decries ivory towers, and academics who teach undergrads instead of writing for the media or policymakers (or Tumblr and Twitter), knows it.

I am still sorry. I am sorry that I have so much power and wealth and you have so little—even though on some days it feels pretty funny to think that a 25-year-old female grad student who lives in central Manhattan on $28,000 a year (which divided by hours of work done comes out to less than minimum wage) has power and wealth. I am sorry that I have a choice about whether to act in accordance with my inclinations and you don’t. I am sorry that when I look at a cop with a gun on his hip and am afraid, it is not from any rational belief that I might be shot. I am sorry that when I walk through the city all I fear is that someone will yell insulting comments at me or grab my ass in a crowded subway car, not that they’ll shoot me—though I am also sorry that I often lie awake at night in the knowledge that a real risk of my vocation, and another result of America’s appalling intransigence on guns, is that I may someday have to put my body between my students and a shooter. I am sorry that I am not brave enough or strong enough to drop out of grad school, renounce all material comforts, and dedicate as much time to helping the neediest in the world as I currently do to learning, writing, and teaching history and working for universities and the young people in them. I am sorry that I am not Christ or any of the iconic Christ-like figures whose sacrifices and martyrdom we celebrate in modern times (a lot of people have been invoking Martin Luther King this week, though often to as radically different ends as people invoke Jesus).

This Thanksgiving I am grateful for what I have, and I am sorry that I have it. I am sorry that I am not better, though I am trying to be. And I am sorry to anyone whom I have ever judged for not being better, because it is a tall and terrifying order, being better, and I really ought to leave it to she who is without sin to cast the first stone.

Yes, to all who are wondering, my family and I are talking about race and racism and Ferguson this Thanksgiving, though probably not in the way that most of you would wish. Still, what gave me the most hope that I might be able to live a life that matters was not any of this but the grand reckoning universities and university people have been having about sexual assault. If lives matter—and all my sacred texts teach me that they do—then one thing that I know that I can do is to look down from my eighth-floor Manhattan windows through the swirling snowflakes at the four Columbia fraternity houses across the street and ask myself what I can do as a TA and perhaps one day as a faculty member to work against the disgusting, troubling, pervasive violence against women that fraternity culture perpetuates on countless university campuses. It is clear that we who teach have a responsibility to protect our students as well as to educate them, and that if we have any moral responsibility beyond our general duty to be kind, it is to them.

I have read widely and searched my heart, and I find that I still wind up where I began on Tuesday morning: while the world goes to hell in a handbasket around us, and no region is immune from violence, power struggles, and hate, we can do the most good by cultivating our own gardens, loving our neighbors, and being better however we can. This Thanksgiving I am not so much thankful as sorry, but I think the best thing that we can do is not to cast blame, but to look around us until our eyes land on someone whom we have the capacity to help.

By Way of News 5 November 2014

Posted 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 2014

Posted 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 2014

Posted 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 2014

Posted 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 2014

Posted 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 2014

Posted 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 2014

Posted 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.


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