Category Archives: Academia

Back to School

I am sitting in a cubicle (my computer is broken and I had to come into work to use one there) and I am meant to be creating tidy little summaries of monographs about the eighteenth century Church of England (corrupt or vibrant? you decide!). But weighing on me is the script of The History Boys, which I pulled off the shelf on my second day back in New York for the new academic year. I have seen the film so many times I have most of the dialogue memorized, but I had only read the script once, five years ago now, when I bought it at Blackwell’s on my first tour in Oxford. At the time I noted that the play seemed more morally ambiguous about “handling the boys’ balls” than the movie is (was able to be?), but now on the other side of the teacher/student divide, I noticed much else besides about how the play handles the problem of pedagogic eros. There are three things I think it’s worth pointing out about the play, particularly if you’re familiar with the film.

1. It seems like one of, if not the most, central driving force of the play is Irwin’s fear that he will turn into Hector. In the play it is much clearer that Irwin is gay, and knows himself to be gay, and that his conversation with Posner when the latter comes out to him as well as Dakin’s proposition are real moments of crisis to him about what that means for his future as a teacher. So is the scene with the three teachers outside the headmaster’s door when it is being explained to Irwin and Mrs Lintott that Hector is being let go. It seems like Irwin makes this sharp tack into telly-don life as a way of escaping the fate of Hector—and more what the fate of Hector means about being in tantalizingly close proximity to teenage boys than it does about having failed to become a scholar or having only gone to Oxford for your PGCE and not for your undergrad degree. None of this really comes out in the film, though now that I am more familiar with the play script I can see that the actors (almost all of whom were also in the West End production) are putting this into their portrayal of the characters.

2. I don’t know Alan Bennett’s corpus well, but I believe that people say that in the plays there is typically a character based on Bennett himself. The film would lead you to believe that character is Posner, whose struggles with his homosexuality get a sweet, sympathetic hearing, and who ends the closing scene by saying that he lived up to his teachers’ example by becoming a teacher himself. In the play, by contrast, it’s very clear that the Bennett character is Scripps, the devout Christian, who becomes a writer and actually narrates the play, stepping out of the scene to provide a retrospective view on events. In an introduction to the published script, Bennett cements the connection, discussing how religious he was as a teenager and explaining that he puts his own experience of going up to Oxford for interview directly into the mouth of Scripps. Posner, by contrast, grows up a really hapless eccentric, essentially broken by all the events, who fails to find a profession and becomes a crank: in the middle of the play, we see him as an adult, confusedly, almost crazily, trying to wrest some kind of apology from Irwin for what happened when he was a sixth-former. This adds to the sense that the play offers a rather different account of homosexuality as a sexual orientation and the significances of that than is offered by the film. The play and the film were produced fairly close in time to each other, though, and fairly recently. I can see why the film might have wanted to do less to valorize sexual abuse of minors given that it achieved a much wider audience than the play, but otherwise I’m not sure why the treatment of homosexuality seems so different.

3. Twice in the play, characters ask with some urgency, “Why does Hector lock the door?” This is not a line in the film, and it gives an added frisson of weirdness to what it is Hector does in his classroom. Of course, both the play and the film make clear that Hector only touches the boys on the motorbike—but the locked door both introduces the problem of suspicion (as in history, stories about pedagogic eros are as much about what people fear might be happening as about what is happening), and helps our minds to make a connection between Housman and Brief Encounter on the one hand and genital fondling on the other. It raises huge questions about educational structures that transcend the fantasy environment of the play, sharpening this moral question Bennett wants us to come away with about whether the boys have been “scarred for life” or whether they’ve had a really special educational experience that resounds throughout their later lives.

As anyone who reads the New York Times knows, I came back to New York just at the time that the NLRB ruled that graduate students at private universities can be considered employees and as such are entitled to form unions. My university and the union my colleagues are trying to form was the test case. The senior administration at my university, by contrast, argue that unionization would damage relations between graduate students and faculty/the university and disrupt the things that make the university special as a place of work, study, and community. My orals reading in eighteenth-century English social history suggests to me that graduate students and post-PhD academics have much more in common with pre-industrial guild artisans, the clergy, or possibly other traditional professions than they do with industrial workforces, and I have little patience for the small but vocal minority who support unionization at the expense of other models of relation, or who use unionization rhetoric as a way to co-opt all academics into a proletarian struggle as much as, if not more, romanticized as my craft-and-calling vision. But even so, there is no evidence to suggest that the senior administration’s claims hold water. And The History Boys dramatizes how that is so. Learning is a matter of personal relations, structured in deep emotional investments of all kinds: desire, power, adoration, longing. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by those emotions, especially if you are someone who temperamentally is intoxicated by teaching, and troubling things can happen behind locked doors. Individuals who struggle to get along outside educational contexts can look to the institutional structure to provide them things they can’t find elsewhere: affection. appreciation. a lover. a family. And genuine desires to connect, which can be deeply sympathetic and endearing, can easily be turned to highly inappropriate ends. The History Boys is unquestionably a sexist play, but it shows us that these things happen not necessarily because of the patriarchy, but because well-intentioned people get a little too far up their asses in imbuing transference with some kind of positive value. As the headmaster says in both the play and the film in response to Hector’s high-minded invocation of a western tradition of pedagogic eros—eliciting an unexpected moment of sympathy for a character the play seems to want us to hate—”Fuck the Renaissance…. This is a school.” Present-day structures of human resources and health and safety and harassment policies and so on bring us down to earth, keep us from getting carried away or thinking we’re special, and remind us that duty of care is about the students, not about us and our feelings, which we need to find healthier and less grandiose ways of working out. In this case, bureaucracy isn’t a bad thing, and reforming and making more efficient the bureaucracy currently in place, or trying to introduce a new kind of bureaucracy through a framework such as unionization, are worthwhile goals.

The problem we’re left with, though, is that you can’t hate Hector, even though he has committed the grossest violation of professional ethics, and even though a well-played Mrs Lintott would make clear just how small and self-absorbed are all these men by whom she’s surrounded. The problem is that, like Irwin, some of us might have more of a Hector fantasy than we’d like to admit. And while we might agree with the headmaster, Mrs Lintott and the boys that “there’s not room for his kind anymore,” and probably view that on balance as a good thing, we might well still feel a sense of loss at Hector’s passing, and a sense that that yearning has a role to play in determining who we are as teachers and as students.

All this is jumbled up in my head as I deal with the more mundane aspects of back-to-school, like booking classrooms and buying notebooks (and getting back to orals), making it difficult to think straight. I’ve spent an hour writing this. I suppose the moral of the story is a caution against assuming that there is a straightforward black-and-white answer to the future of the university, of education as a vocation, and of the Youth of Today. These issues are huge ones, unequal to any particular political program. I suppose, then, that they wind up making a case for the humanities, since they deal with the deepest questions of the emotions and intellectual responses that make us human, and how we live among other humans in a community and a polity. From the fairly basic type of textual analysis I attempted to do for The History Boys here, to the more large-scale questions about the structure and culture of educational institutions which I intend to approach historically in my dissertation, there are clear avenues for how to approach what seem to be intractable and extremely complicated problems, and clear social and affective roles for my colleagues and I to play, regardless of how we approach questions of reform and revolution.

Orals Diary, 5; or, History and Politics

I had made plans to meet a colleague for lunch yesterday, and when he walked into the café I jettisoned all greetings and immediately blurted out “Did you see that Leadsom has dropped out of the Tory leadership race?!” Fifteen minutes of animated conversation about the implications of this latest development in the insanity that has been the British news cycle of the last month followed. “It’s a great time to be a modern British historian,” he concluded—though admittedly, I think, with a touch of irony.

Well, I don’t know about “great”—I think a lot of my colleagues and I have had the sense that we are howling about parliamentary sovereignty into a void and no one is listening to us—but it’s not a bad time to read for orals. My deep immersion in British political and constitutional history is exactly what I’ve needed to make sense of this crisis, and it’s also been a great source of motivation, making my orals feel like something that will improve my general knowledge and capacity to engage with the world as a thinking person in addition to a hurdle that has to be cleared in the long and idiosyncratic course of training that is meant to credential me in my chosen profession (fellow graduate students should take heart that would-be clergymen in the early eighteenth century, as I learned yesterday from Geoffrey Holmes’ Augustan England, often spent seven or eight years at university, and that this guaranteed them nothing better than “perpetual curacy,” the adjuncting of the day). Many of my teachers and colleagues have published insightful&ndbsp;pieces on the EU referendum and the ensuing domestic political crisis (for make no mistake, what we are experiencing now in Britain is a crisis within the parliamentary system, and one that has been simmering for some time, and not an extra-parliamentary revolution (though that may yet be to come, in part depending on how the parliamentary crisis is resolved) or much to do with how Britain’s relations with Europe may be affected by the outcome of the referendum). Introducing myself and my research interests at an event last week, I found myself for the first time grouping “political history” among my interests. It is something I am slowly coming to understand, and something that I see is at the center of my work on educational institutions and the plans their founders, reformers, and funders had for them—not unlike the plans that many others have had for states and their constitutions, and just as organic and messy and filled with unintended consequences in the result.

But it is time to make an important distinction. This is something that is far different, to me, to saying that my work will have any particular bearing on how we understand contemporary political (or social or cultural or intellectual) issues, that this is my research’s primary purpose, that I have an ideological stake in the kind of society I would like modern Britain to be that is reflected in my historical research. I have certain ethical commitments that structure my work: I believe in the importance of the individual and her or his emotions and personal lives, in looking for stories that haven’t yet had the opportunity to be told (though not particularly the stories of those who have historically been structurally disadvantaged—you could not say that the history of universities is history from below, and I wouldn’t want to claim it as such, or to say that it is therefore less important or worth doing). I believe I have a certain responsibility to my subjects to render their stories faithfully, to understand the perspectives from which they saw the world in their own time and translate them into terms that modern readers and interlocutors might understand. I look for complexity, ambiguity, ambivalence. I also see a close relation between my research and my teaching, and try to listen to students as I might listen to sources, meet them where they are as I would sources. I see my research not primarily as something that will change how we—and by “we” I particularly mean people outside my specific subfields—think about any particular topic (though I can certainly, if pressed, make claims to significance within the fields in which I am in conversation), but rather as something that gives me personal pleasure, which I strive for my own sake to do to as high a professional standard as possible, and which will credential me to teach history, hopefully British history, to young adults in Britain or North America. Only at the level of in general thinking that we should all be kind and love one another (even if “one another” = dead people of historical significance who left behind personal papers) does my practice as a historian have anything to do with how I vote, the kinds of policies I would like to see the governments of Britain, the US, or Canada (my three countries, not divided by common language but united by shared, messy and distasteful, imperial history) enact, or even really the kind of conversation my colleague and I had at lunch yesterday about what it will mean for Theresa May to be Prime Minister.

Which is, then, why I bristled when I read a blog post announcing the next Birmingham Modern British Studies conference next year, and then picked a fight on Twitter about it:

In remaining within the confines of our particular fields, we also evade the most difficult questions about what our discipline is — and should be — at this particular historical conjuncture. As we enter a moment of genuine crisis, are some kinds of history more important than others? As the political, social, cultural, and economic effects of Brexit become increasingly manifest, should historians pay more attention to questions of inequality, power, and the global economy — all comparatively neglected at #MBS2015? When the role of the ‘expert’ in public life has been so spectacularly undermined, do we have to think again about who we are and what we do?

I worry about where people like me are left when historians try so hard to pin their work to present political circumstances. As I said in the ensuing Twitter conversation—which Will Pooley summarized and responded to on his blog yesterday—not only do we risk casting aside work that might turn out to be “relevant” later, when the political circumstances move on, we risk giving preference to work that endorses particular political perspectives (in the sense of partisan or parliamentary politics) at the cost of others. At the last Birmingham MBS conference last summer, I and a colleague who both considered ourselves very left-wing were shocked to find ourselves at the conservative end of the spectrum of conference attendees, and we were disturbed by the kinds of ideological purity being enforced, particularly in the conference’s plenary sessions. One plenary speaker asserted that someone who voted Conservative could not be a good modern British historian, an assertion that no one in the room of hundreds sought to challenge. Others made large-scale presumptions about the party-political preferences of the conference, and pegged their claims to significance on the ability to speak to or bolster such a political perspective. Colleagues who, like me, felt discomfort with these assumptions—even if we might have voted for the same party as the most strident speakers—whispered awkwardly to each other in the corridor. When I asked a question in the final plenary session, challenging the speaker’s assertion that political history whose role is to challenge “neoliberalism” from a leftist perspective is more important than the kind of intellectual and cultural history I do, the room felt cold, frightening, and hostile. I’m no stranger to sticking my neck out in public historical settings (I’d also note that in that final session, another historian made a great critique of the conference’s assumptions from the left, challenging its lack of racial diversity among participants and lack of attention to imperial topics), but I’m not sure that’s the kind of climate that a conference which purports to speak to all modern British historians (as well as those working on modern Britain in other disciplines) should foster. The MBS blog post, however, suggested to me that the conference organizers had a different view: that it was important to them that history should make political interventions. But if that’s the case, then you’re working with the kind of political categories, such as parties, that exist today, trying to achieve goals that are possible within those structures. Maybe that doesn’t create so much cognitive dissonance for historians who work on the recent past. But I work on the nineteenth century, I don’t do marxist social history (which I also believe is like, a morally defensible life choice), and so it’s not clear where that leaves me as a participant in a modern British history organized around different concerns.

One great thing Will Pooley brought up in his engagement with me on Twitter and later on his blog is that we are probably working with different definitions of “politics”: some would call the ethical commitments I outlined above a kind of politics, and would understand that word more expansively than the sense of present-day party or parliamentary or electoral politics in which I’ve been using it here. Pooley put it this way: “politics in the sense of: who (or what) gets to have a history, what factors do we consider when writing history, what do we owe to the people we write about, and similar questions.” I think this is a totally fair position, and I really respect historians who view the commitments that drive their work in this way. But I don’t think every historian has to see what they’re doing like this. It reminds me of an experience I had my first semester at Columbia. My department there has an explicitly political cast that my previous departments at Princeton and Oxford definitely didn’t. Many of my colleagues see—perhaps like some participants in MBS—a close relationship between their historical work and present-day political goals, invariably from a very left-wing perspective. I experienced and continue to experience a lot of culture shock, a lot of guilt and cognitive dissonance, when I interact with colleagues in that environment. I have tried very hard to engage with important parts of my colleagues’ lives as graduate students, such as many people’s commitment to union organizing, but however much I’ve wanted to I haven’t been able to change my views to agree with the particular kinds of leftist politics they have and that drives their work in and out of the archive. After one union town hall meeting I burst into tears from my guilt that I couldn’t see things from what was obviously the more morally blameless point of view, that my work didn’t have obvious leftist political investments like theirs and that I didn’t come to grad school to advance the cause of the oppressed. My colleagues tried to comfort me by reassuring me that all work has a politics; my work could advance leftist causes too even though it was less obvious. This, however, was not comforting. What I was really looking for was a world in which I could have the freedom to seek other frameworks for living a good and ethically committed life, and in which my historical scholarship could be practiced to different ends.

I want to clear one thing up: contrary to what some people on Twitter asserted, there is not a binary between politically-committed history and Rankean objectivity. It is possible to be something between a leftist and an arch-conservative, and it is also possible to take no position on such a spectrum while still being self-conscious about one’s methods and how one reads sources. I study the 19th century, but I do not live in it. Bodies of work such as gender and queer theory that have been fundamentally shaped by the leftist political concerns of a slightly earlier era have been essential to how I have conceived of what I do when I read documents. I do think that it is a historian’s responsibility to be honest, faithful, and committed to a truth, and that some histories are better than others in the sense that work can be more or less precise, more or less rigorous, more or less sophisticated. But there are many truths and many ways of representing truths, and rigor is not code for some nineteenth-century fantasy of objectivity. For some—such as, perhaps, for Pooley—understanding this responsibility may be inextricable from politics. And sometimes—not always, but sometimes—I find that the best way to make sense of a story about the past that I am telling is to give it a political edge, such as in the case of a draft paper I am working on, which is partly (though not exclusively) engaged in reviving an older strand of women’s history committed to feminism. This is probably the thing that I have written that would find most favor with the leftists. But it isn’t all of what I do, and it isn’t why I became a historian.

I became a historian because John Addington Symonds wrote letter after letter to Walt Whitman, trying to get the famous poet to admit that his “Calamus” poems really described a type of person, the male homosexual, whose existence Symonds, for personal-is-political reasons, desperately wanted his hero Whitman to acknowledge—and because Whitman refused to buy into Symonds’ worldview. I became a historian because the two men’s letters showed how their different levels of education, differing cultural contexts, and differing understandings of politics revealed them to be completely talking past each other. I became a historian because I was able to show that Symonds wasn’t, as so much literature has represented him, a gay liberationist avant la lettre: he was a rather conventional upper-middle-class Victorian who had this one part of his being that just didn’t fit with everything else—but he used rather conventional upper-middle-class Victorian tools to make sense of it. I became a historian because Symonds showed me how rich and rewarding, how alien and confusing, how different from our own nineteenth-century British ways of understanding the world were. I became a historian in order to capture that difference—and also because I felt a calling to give my life to the university, and this seemed like a way to do it.

Last week I had the immense pleasure to be an instructor on a three-day workshop for some of the students in my department who are writing undergraduate theses. Many of our students see important present-day implications to their work: they are driven to their topics because of how they allow them to engage with issues of massive present-day consequence: the global financial system, colonialism and colonial identities, Marxist thought, women and politics, the machine of diplomacy. They are driven by an enthusiasm and energy that I remember from when I was in their shoes, the thrill of their first trips into the archive. I love their eagerness to make sense of the world through the methods of historical research. But somehow in our workshop we didn’t talk about the crisis of capitalism. We did talk a bit about topics like how to read against the archive, to figure out why it was compiled and what voices are missing, which I suppose is generally understood to be a political question. But we also talked about how history-writing is a creative act, how making sense of those archival silences can involve many different approaches and affective relations with one’s sources, how there is also an extremely important technical aspect to history work, involving how one organizes one’s research and how one processes data on a large scale, particularly if one is working on a topic that involves quantitative analysis. There is so much to history, and to how it is not objective, that we can talk about without needing to agree ideologically.

Looking around me at Britain and at the whole world today, I can completely see why people would believe that conditions are so urgent that we all need to mobilize whatever skills we have to respond to crisis. This is also the response that many academics, completely reasonably, have had to crises such as racial injustice in the United States, to intolerance of political dissidence in India, to Donald Trump, to climate change (the invention of the analytic category “anthropocene”), and so on. What would I then say in particular about the Birmingham MBS conference? Of course, this post isn’t really about the Birmingham MBS conference, it’s about the culture shock that I have experienced over the last couple years as I have gone from being one of the most left-wing people I know to one of the most conservative without feeling as if I have changed any of my views or electoral habits, and growing sick and tired of always having to beat myself up for not being right-on enough. I guess maybe what I would say to Birmingham MBS is that if the conference has an explicitly political orientation it should say as much, that it should be clear that some views about politics, and not only some kinds of history, might be more welcome than others. This strikes me as a perfectly defensible viewpoint given all the rhetoric of “crisis,” even if it’s one which would mean I might be less likely to attend the conference myself. Though perhaps this happened already in 2015, and I just didn’t know how to read the signalling closely enough or was otherwise a bit clueless. Will Pooley asks “why some voices so clearly feel policed by the left-wing.” I guess what I would say in response is that I thought I was part of the left wing (I mean, you would, if you grew up in Republican country and the other children would come up to you in primary school and tell you that you were going to hell, and parents would tell you to stay away from their children, and you were sent to the principal’s office because you wouldn’t intone the Pledge of Allegiance with everyone else), until I found myself losing friends and colleagues because I didn’t participate in particular ritual acts of ideological positioning within academia. I am of course very elite, and have much to apologize for, but I sometimes think that other people who are as privileged as I do escape the need to apologize by committing themselves to certain kinds of leftist rhetoric or by positioning themselves as part of a proletariat that is oppressed by greater forces such as capitalism. I am not sure I find this stance convincing, and I find it frustrating, tiring, and depressing to live among it, as much as I understand that the crisis of our times demands some kind of response from everyone, but particularly those who have a lot of privilege. I am sure that many who will read this post will see it as entitled and self-absorbed, and perhaps that’s entirely appropriate. I welcome that feedback if it’s how you read it, and I’d urge you to get in touch and tell me so.

I keep trying to go to union meetings at Columbia and understand what I’m getting wrong, and so I look forward to attending MBS2017 (if it will have me) and trying to engage with this way of doing modern British history that seems very different to what I’m doing. I think I’d also say that our students always benefit from getting a variety of viewpoints, and that each student clicks better with some teachers than with others. I think of a particular person who taught me during my master’s with whom I never established a connection because they had a particular leftist political cast to their work and I suspect interpreted me as conservative and thus hostile, but who was an incredible resource to many students who shared that political cast and who felt isolated within the conservative atmosphere of the Oxford History Faculty. I’m so glad that person is there for students who desperately need to talk to and be supported by someone like them, even if I regret that politics seemed to create a barrier between this person and me, against my will. I also think attending MBS2015 helped me to clarify what I actually was seeing and experiencing after the culture shock of my first year at Columbia, and it’s been helpful to try to learn more about the real reasons that historians bring an explicitly leftist cast to their work, to understand where they’re coming from. Furthermore, it is entirely possible that I am wrong to persist in the belief that it is morally conscionable for me to do what I see as a kind of history that doesn’t fit easily within present-day political frameworks or speak to the present-day condition of Britain and other nations whose histories were shaped in relation to Britain’s, or a kind of history that doesn’t engage deeply and primarily with questions of identity and difference or with marxist economics. But I guess I’ll just say that my mind hasn’t been changed yet, and thus I think that leftist historians and I may need to do a bit more meeting in the middle (I promise, leftist historians, that you wouldn’t really have all that far to go—for despite everyone who has sought to label me to the contrary in the last few years, I am not a conservative or a Conservative and I hope I never will be).

Pooley and others who engaged with me on Twitter yesterday were really warm and generous, and I derive a lot of optimism from how respectful everyone was in that conversation. It suggests that even if my views are in the minority or not part of how the conference is explicitly oriented at MBS2017, I and the kind of history I do might still be given a fair hearing. Pooley invited me to respond to the blog post that he wrote yesterday. Will, I’m not sure if any of this very long reflection helps to clarify where we disagree, but it does seem clear that we are working with different categories, and it looks to me as if these categories are shaped by certain political (in the more expansive sense) assumptions we had going into thinking about history and what made us historians, as well perhaps as who we are as people, what our childhoods and our higher education and graduate training were like. I think as participants in a discipline we all might need to develop clearer statements, and revisit older debates, about what we think the purpose of history is, how it relates to politics (particularly of a specific left-wing, electorally- or social-movement-oriented kind), and be really explicit about these commitments if we have them. And if we create or enter echo chambers, we should do so self-consciously, and be wary about how our ways of thinking may be out of step of those in the countries we live in at large, as both the 2015 general election and this latest referendum demonstrated to many British academics. This isn’t at all a criticism of your position, Will: I really appreciated how you expressed it in your blog post and how you clarified where you were coming from.

I can’t believe I wrote so much about this. I’m going to step away now and return to orals: today, I think, I am going to read some work in which historians grappled with how to define friendships and romantic relationships between women in the past, invoking particular kinds of feminist and queer commitments as they did so. Queer theory is a great way to think about the relationship between history and politics—it is astonishing how many queer theorists who were not trained in history still make use of historicist arguments—so hopefully this will be the basis for further reflection.

A Short Essay Upon Submitting Grades

I submitted my grades yesterday, and so I am back to doing something I have not done in years, now, since the beginning of the Sidgwick project (and Christ, how different life looked then): writing up archival findings from scratch, making a first attempt to put them in a kind of order and add interpretation, trying to link that interpretation rigorously to the work of other scholars (that’s the part I’m worst at). I’ve written a little about some of the evidence already, but this is the first time I’m trying to do it on a large, PhD-scale canvas. And it feels great. It makes me happy to be alive. I’m all the more excited that this is the first piece of serious historical work I’ve done that has an explicitly feminist cast, and that seeks to make an intervention into the field of women’s history. Aside from the Sidgwick article MS this is the first thing I have written in a couple years that is not a historiographical essay. It’s like blood is flowing in my veins again.

The first year of teaching went well, all things considered. I have known all my life that a life of service to higher education is defined in terms of one’s teaching of undergraduates, and I began this academic year in terror that I would fail at this most central and morally freighted task. Happily, I found I have some modest natural aptitude for the work, and many things on which I hope to improve as I continue to TA and then begin to teach classes of my own. It is easy to teach at a place like Columbia: my students are universally intelligent, kind, motivated, respectful, and curious. Teaching is an intellectually and emotionally engaging kind of work. It is obvious that it is meaningful.

But I also admitted to myself a couple months ago that I am not sure that I would be as fulfilled in a job that did not afford me the opportunity to write and to work with words. Many of my mentors have told me that the thrill of the classroom gives them the strength to keep writing. I don’t want to say that for me it’s the other way round–aside from anything else, it’s too early to say. And I know that lecturing is a kind of writing, and I know that service to the university matters more than seeing one’s name on the cover of a book. But. When I think about what job I would do if I have to leave the academy, which usually involves having to make a choice between teaching and writing, I think I might choose writing (and editing) over adjuncting or teaching in a school. For one thing, teaching is hard, grindingly hard: hard enough this year with 22 students at a time (I know, fancy Ivy League); seemingly impossible with hundreds. For another, I am good at writing: good enough at it that when I do it I manage not to hate myself quite so very much.

Since I came to Columbia it has been necessary, in a way that it was not in the political climates of other institutions, to reckon with my privilege. The word is an unhelpful one—to some it says too much, to others too little—but for me it has meant two things: learning for the first time (I know) about whiteness and blackness in the United States, and that I am white and therefore my hands are stained with blood; and learning on a more mundane level that coming from an academic family gives me access to knowledge and points of view that many of my colleagues lack, and that have made my passage through graduate school markedly smoother thus far. There are predictable advantages: I have known that there is such a thing called a graduate student all my life; I am rarely intimidated to talk to faculty in a professional or a social context; I know what a provost is, and a hiring line, and how the tenure system works; if I am not sure how to handle an interaction with a colleague or a student crisis, there are two people whom I can call up at any time to ask for advice. And then there are less predictable ones: I know that this life is not easy, I know that everyone does not win the lottery, I know what it is like to work at a less elite institution than Columbia (or Princeton or Oxford), I know what it is like to have a high-status job and not very much money, I know that a life in universities is a life of service to a greater good without immediate personal reward, I know how lucky I am. I know what it looks like when someone has a vocation. It is hard, then, to admit, when one looks at who one is and what one wants, that one might imagine a career for oneself that doesn’t look exactly like that of one’s parents and one’s other teachers. One might have implausibly high aspirations in some areas, and more modest ones in others. And one might have to confess to oneself—this is truly difficult to write—that, knowing that the career only gets more difficult after the cushy Ivy League PhD, one craves a life of greater comfort, of greater space to think and to breathe and to love, than most academic jobs can provide. If teaching, and trying to make one’s institution run a bit better for everyone, is the tradeoff for summers of quiet, of ideas, of getting to know oneself and days spent in libraries or walking across southeast England not speaking to anyone, well—that’s probably the best tradeoff there is, at least as far as I’m concerned. But could I lose the summers? I suppose at some point I’ll have to, because probability suggests that one can’t sustain such a life of extraordinary good fortune as I have had for long. But at least I can admit to myself that I am fallen enough to need the summers—more, perhaps, than I need the classroom or my colleagues—in order to feel that life is worth living and that I am capable of doing good. For in the summers I am able to access a world in which I do not have to struggle—against intellectual history bros, against bureaucracy, against dogmatic leftists, against insecurity, against self-hatred, against dirty and crass Manhattan—and I am able to be at peace. How to do good and help others while maintaining that peace is, of course, the question yet to come. But today I am grateful not to have to set foot in the department for three months, and to have the gift of writing.

A sermon and a pep talk for the morning of Wednesday of 13th week

With tomorrow’s lesson on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time in my head, Will Pooley’s evocative blog post as my text, and two more weeks of this crazy semester to go.

There is far to much anxiety and negativity among the apprentices in my trade, and it has an extraordinary capacity to feed off itself and grow.

People who know me well know that I am so anxious, that I am too quick to let my academic work define my self-worth, that I can so easily come up with excuses to hate myself for not working hard enough. I have been lying awake at night the last few weeks worrying because in mid-May I know I am going to hand in a term paper—my last term paper—that will fall short of the highest intellectual standard of which I am capable. But the reason I know I am going to do that is because the term paper actually isn’t important and I actually don’t care.

Instead it is important that the sun is shining and the weather is warmer; that I have wonderful students whom I am teaching an interesting book this week; that I have a roof over my head and a salary that allows me to live comfortably, to eat well, to give to charity, to travel; that I am going to the UK in just six weeks; that my house will be filled with old friends this weekend; that, no matter what happens on the job market in four or five years, I have so many structural advantages that I will have no difficulty landing on my feet in some sort of middle-class, professional employment that uses my skills.

There are things that one can do to make oneself a stronger candidate for an academic job: other competitions (for grants, for publications) that one can practice winning, hours that one can put in on one’s intellectual work as well as the other aspects of being a professional university teacher. There are also structural inequalities that make some people more likely to get academic jobs than others. I am sure I will carry to my grave the shame and sadness that by virtue of being born into an academic family (though not, it must be said, a particularly wealthy or elite one) and by virtue of the extraordinary post-secondary educational opportunities I have had, I have a greater chance at success than some. But I think there are ways to work constructively around that unavoidable problem: to do one’s duty, to be a responsible and hardworking holder of that place that one didn’t deserve, and to make at least modest efforts towards widening access for those who will come after.

I also think—and I know that I have said this to many of you—that there are countless ways in which all of us who are engaged in pursuing a fully-funded PhD at a top program are extraordinarily, jaw-droppingly lucky. I kind of cannot believe how extraordinary it is that I live in New York, that I make a decent living, that I get to teach bright, fun students, that I have access to such good library and information technology resources, that I live a life where going to Europe every summer is normal. I also, sometimes, get to think and to write, and despite how hard it is to be clever enough, I think I want to keep thinking and writing for a long time to come. I think I will be doing this even if I am not paid to do it, because I have been doing it all my life thus far, and in any case if I am fortunate enough to obtain an academic job what I will be paid to do is to instruct the young, anyway.

Will Pooley’s advice is right: we have to stop behaving as if our advisors are monstrous parental figures of one’s worst psychoanalytic nightmare, sitting in judgment on us. We have to have the confidence to live into being the scholars and teachers that we want to be, even if our efforts don’t have immediate external reward. We have to do the work that we are willing and able to do, and not the work that we are not. And we have to accept that all this may not be enough, or the right sort of thing, to get us the Oxbridge JRF or its moral equivalent—but if not, we have accrued a breathtaking quantity of advantages that others in the US or in our home countries do not have. We will be. just. fine.

What we need to do is to ensure we are advocating for our colleagues around the world who are not making a middle-class salary, to dispense the one good piece of advice—that in this day and age it is not worthwhile to do a PhD unless you are fully funded—to give other such pep talks where they are needed, to ourselves as much as others; and also to remember that the poor are always with us—that there are many in this country and around the world who do need our material and spiritual help, that we need to think about how we as humanities academics can find our ways of being a voice for the voiceless, whether as activists or, for those who do not feel called that way, as teachers of the western humanities tradition or other traditions, or simply with our financial donations or volunteering time.

For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required.

More on the trouble with benefactors

Posted on FB last week in response to this Guardian piece.

It’s entirely appropriate that the RMF activists have had a strong response to Oriel’s decision, but I think the views expressed in this piece demonstrate the need for greater understanding of how institutions work, particularly how they are funded.

I remember when I expressed frustration to the convenor of my master’s course that the History Faculty did a disservice to students by accepting so many onto my course, with a very wide range of abilities (some not well-prepared for postgraduate study at all) and many of whom were up against greater odds because they were accepted without funding. The convenor told me a bit about the numbers, and showed me a spreadsheet: without the revenue from those unfunded students’ fees, the Faculty literally couldn’t afford to keep the lights on in the George Street building—much less funding other things students demanded as important components of a rigorous graduate program in history, like research travel grants.

There are involved historical reasons why the Faculties at Oxford are particularly poor, but this experience made me keenly aware of how many difficult (and ethically questionable) decisions faculty and administrators have to make to generate the revenue that allows their institutions to operate. For some elite institutions, even those far from Harvard and Princeton’s financial league, there are obvious places to reprioritize the budget, such as astronomical administrative salaries and, you know, “global” programs. For others, especially smaller ones, there is much more limited room for flexibility when student campaigns push for divestment from a particular industry or for the institution to take a particular decision that will alienate donors; institutions may reasonably conclude (as much as one might disagree with that decision) that prioritizing students’ needs is best done by taking money that allows them to continue offering student services, rather than taking a political stance that will lead to a loss of revenue. Still other institutions may make the troubling decision to admit students of less academic merit because their admittance might yield donations that will allow more students of great merit to receive financial aid that they need in order to study at that institution. It is possible to raise sound ethical objections to all these decisions, and I respect the opinions of those who in recent weeks have compellingly argued that the principle of the thing means that the money isn’t worth it. But I think it’s important to recognize that there is a real choice here, and that it isn’t so easy to turn down money that you can put to good educational use (or even money that you can put to shitty neocorporate use). Those of us who have ever been made to write a letter of thanks to someone who endowed a scholarship for us, as I have every year since beginning higher education, should be aware of this. Another time I learned this lesson is from the many good people who made thoughtful, reasoned objections to my principled decision not to donate to Princeton. They haven’t convinced me to change my mind, but they’ve got a point too.

It’s hard to say how I would vote if I were on Oriel’s governing body (and how extraordinary that Oxbridge colleges still retain a form of collective decision-making entirely lost at most institutions of HE today—there are some forms of small-c conservatism not wholly evil). Probably, sort of like my vote in the Democratic primary, it would have to do in part with a constellation of strategic and emotional reasons not necessarily based in a rational, philosophically-minded weighing of the pure ethical factors at play. I’m not a philosopher, and I don’t have a rigorous logical method for weighing what is Right in situations like these. I think the history of institutions demonstrates that what is Right can often get really muddled by other pragmatic considerations; my study in this respect has led me to prefer forms of politics, philosophy, and ordinary living that take this into account. As much as I deeply respect the convictions of those who live otherwise, I just can’t get on that page, as much as I may be sorry for it.

On Decolonisation

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.

#provingoxbridgehistoryrelevantoneguardianarticleatatime

America and the Ivy League, Rediti; Incipit Columbia

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!