Category Archives: Love

Ninth Week; or, Six Days to Orals

Many rather good things happened today, and after a gruelling week I am feeling rather more cheerful. But I think my favorite was the brief moment when I was walking back from the water fountain in the break between my two sections (the kids took very seriously the charge to think carefully and historically about whether to draw contemporary parallels with Mussolini’s fascism) and paused for a moment just out of sight in the doorway of the classroom next to mine. An undergraduate was sight-translating Greek, and he was pretty good.

I thought of the comedy of the Greek class scene in If, but also of a past in which I was in classes like that, and how far that person five years ago seems from who I’ve become since I came to Columbia; of how glad I am that the corridor of an educational institution allows such in medias res glimpses into instruction happening (would that someone would pause as longingly on the threshold of my classroom as I did on that instructor’s, and see the same beauty in my increasingly eccentric attempts to coax a discussion out of my students as I did in his quiet listening while his student effortlessly construed), but also how naïve now seems the certainty I once had that the western humanities were the natural center of a liberal education and that there is some kind of meaningful through-line tying together that instructor’s work and mine.

I also think now (home alone on Friday night, trying to make some meaning and some identity as an educator out of a scattered mess of my teaching, midcentury British film, and some half-remembered factoids involving the Municipal Corporations Act that I should probably learn by Thursday) how unselfconsciously I used to write to you in a confessional mode, and how embarrassed I feel doing so now; how evident it is that, at 27, I am not the person I was when I first began to write to you at 19 because I felt that my liberal education was falling into place.

An undergrad whom I sometimes buy coffee (holding in sacred trust the many cups of coffee my elders have bought for me over the years) told me that he is turning in his senior thesis a few days after I take my orals, and it turns out that it will be five years to the day from when I turned in my senior thesis, which is enough to make anyone get all verklempt in mourning for their lost youth. On April 3, 2012 at 1 p.m. I walked from the Rocky dining hall to my room on Holder quad to collect a heavy parcel wrapped in brown paper, and I cradled it gently as I crossed campus to Dickinson and was given a cookie in exchange for my cargo. Then I had to go to class—I think we were probably reading Swift, or Pope—and there was no one to celebrate with, and by the time I fetched up at co-op dinner I had managed somehow to get myself very drunk and very sad.

I am sure my friend can manage better to celebrate his thesis—and I know that I will manage better to celebrate my orals. For quite astoundingly—as far as it seemed that I had come in 2012 from the lost and lonely and angry child in San Diego who did not know that there were others like me—life has since then got better still. I suppose all this tells us is that (rather like the notion that those who have grants on their CVs win more grants) of those to whom much is given, still more will be given, and that one ought not to gloat. But of those to whom much is given much will be required, too, and why shouldn’t there be a place for lost souls to whom the sound of a student translating Greek is a siren call? There was resistance in just such a sense of a life outside of getting and spending before our times, and there will be again.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Third Week

It’s so rare, in my life as an American PhD student, that: a) I get to have the experience of going to the pub after a seminar; b) that going to the pub after a seminar makes me want to go home and Have Ideas and Do Academic Work. Usually I am aggressively procrastinating on doing any real work whatsoever, and generating largely pointless admin to avoid coping with the reality of whether I am intelligent enough to take on the weightier tasks of orals and prospectus.

At the pub a faculty member was pontificating about the differences between grad school in the US and the UK. One difference is surely the prevalence of beer as a lubricant, and that as something that smooths relations between grad students and faculty, rendering those categories something other than a capitalist managerial hierarchy. Another is the view, deeply embedded in American culture, that alcohol is Not Helpful, followed by the realization that I was the only woman of the relatively gender-divided seminar who wanted to go on to the pub after. It has actually–I thought, listening to the men in the pub pontificate about politics–been rather a long time since I pointedly noticed that I was, by choice, the only woman in the room. I related to the group the story of the conversation I once had with a female colleague in an adjacent field, with whom I shared the unease of knowing that we felt comfortable in those kinds of masculine intellectual environments–especially when our gender could be erased when the conversation took a particular route–and yet that many other women might feel profoundly alienated by the same environments, and that we were letting the side down. I thought about how unimpressed I was by the male student with the posh English accent who came up to me after my class last night and tried to convince me that drama rehearsal was a good reason to miss whole weeks of my course. “I know what you are,” I didn’t say, “and for that reason I enjoyed your contributions to our class discussion–but that doesn’t mean I’m taken in.”

I came home and I felt I had no choice but to turn to a Word document that contains my latest thoughts on the subject as it arises in the late nineteenth century. Which is not to say that there is an easy story to tell here about class and gender and elitism, or that I have a political program to advance, or that there is not something about me that is complicit in perpetuating a kind of elite masculine intellectual culture that holds others back. But rather just to say that I’ve come a long way, baby, in the last decade-plus, an astounding journey back and forth across the Atlantic and the centuries, something that has left me increasingly convinced that there is something to say about the pub and the academics in it, not so different to what there is to say about Guitar Hero in Scripps Ranch in 2005, or Cameron’s late Cabinet, and thus why it was that I watched Lindsay Anderson’s if… over and over in high school, a leftist public-school romance with an ironic Kipling reference truer to what it is like to have your character formed by a southern Californian suburban comprehensive high school than any thing I know.

In the summer, just a few days before 23 June, I reunited with some old friends in East Oxford (a cartwheel of streets that feel more viscerally like home than any place I’ve ever known), and their sharp, informed political analysis was exactly what I needed to give me purchase on what was going on in the run-up to the referendum. In large part because of those pints drunk and those views exchanged, I was neither surprised by the referendum result a few days later, nor overwhelmed by it as a grand tragedy. When I posted on Facebook that I’d had a lovely time that evening, however, I was chastised for my self-absorption—a criticism that still haunts me these months later, as we face another, even more momentous, electoral contest between reactionary populism and “liberal elites,” of whom of course I am one. I said tonight in the pub that I am a liberal elite, and my politics are those of a liberal elite, but of course I am glad the world is not made up of liberal elites and I wouldn’t wish my politics on anyone else. I like that formulation, happy that it provides me with some measure of peace, proud that I’m getting better at accepting my differences of political opinion with my colleagues and that I can move past being paralysingly tortured by them. But I also like that the pub provides—across, I would hazard, classes and cultures—a space in which to pontificate, to test out ideas, to say outrageous things and see how people react, to attain some measure of control in our own social universes from events and power politics that seem so vastly removed from us as to be outside our agency. Some would hope, presumably, that the pub is the beginning, a first conversation that leads to a regenerative kind of democratic politics, a sort of Chartism for our time. I, on the other hand, am skeptical of Chartisms, particularly when a feminist critique is applied to them; and also because of the particular life experiences that I’ve had (institutionalized as I have been since the age of majority, and indeed rather longer), which have led me to view physical locations where food and drink are shared as ends in themselves, their physical location within communities (colleges, neighborhoods) constitutive of a kind of public sphere that seems very thin on the ground in our virtual age. As I was walking to work today, I found myself recalling the crazy things anonymous readers of the student newspaper used to say about me in the online comments, recalling what it was like to be a figure of outré radicalism, where now I find myself so often on the right. I remember by contrast the challenging but civil conversations I had in my last semester at Princeton, when people walked up to me—in the dining hall, the chapel, the library, my cooking co-op, outdoor spaces—and respectfully disagreed with the point of view I expressed in an op-ed that was skeptical of Annual Giving. Shout all you like after a few drinks in the pub, but you still have to see the members of your community when you’re cold sober the next day.

There are a lot of things that make me an early-twentieth-century liberal, some more objectionable than others. Tonight, what stands out to me is the pub, or (as I’ve often said) the college hall: a space many find repulsive and intimidating, but with which I (for whatever reason) feel that I know where I am; a space on which, even if fascism does come to America, I’ll continue to place my bets. There really is something about the connections you can make across political lines when you’ve properly got to know your interlocutors, and when you’re in a space (a dining hall at an elite college with endless supplies of free guacamole, a particular kind of drinking establishment with precise social rules about who buys whom drinks, a welfare state) in which certain structures are in place to smooth (if cosmetically) over social divides. I still think these are the spaces in which important things happen, even if they are things which reinforce power structures and which depend on encoding the system of references that inheres in a reference to the men who walk up and down every afternoon from 2 to 4 on King’s Parade. If not by any means the only things which demand the historian’s attention, they certainly do demand it.

I am a pessimist about politics at present, and whether I can find a socially and politically relevant role for this work if things in my country do become very, very bleak remains to be seen. One thing I do want to become better at is to live out the implications of my work; to participate more wholly and less judgmentally in the public sphere and systems of local politics, the cultivation of one’s own garden, in which I claim to have some faith; and to find a way of using the perspective that I can bring to American and British elite male intellectual and political culture for good.

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, 3; or, Reading and Writing Through Current Events

“It’s always open season on gay kids.” So begins Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s essay “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay,” published as an article in 1991 and then, three years later, collected in her book of essays Tendencies, which I read yesterday and today in the Upper Reading Room, compulsively toggling back to social media every few pages in order to take in the tragedy that happened early Sunday morning in Orlando. Of those of the over 50 victims who have been identified, over half were under 30. For those of us who teach college—the late and lamented EKS, me, maybe you—many of them were the age of our students. The youngest was 19. Sedgwick writes in the introduction to Tendencies that she had young people, her students, in mind when she was writing. At the time she was writing some of these essays, surely some of her students were dying—certainly, she writes in Tendencies of a very close friend who did—and she was one of many people who put their queer shoulders to the wheel, putting pressure on the US government and the public to do something about a cruel fate that so many young people needn’t have met with.

At the time she was writing the essays in Tendencies, Sedgwick was also living through and with breast cancer, and so the book is very much about death and mortality and suffering, but it is about slow deaths, enervating ones, a drawn-out work of mourning (she writes a eulogy for a dying friend while he is still alive). Not so the young people shot down in cold blood on Sunday morning, whose families (and their chosen families, who, as Claire Potter has pointed out, are still being denied visitation rights, as they were 25 years ago) in some cases are still waiting to learn their fates. But the metaphor of “open season” that Sedgwick invokes (she’s talking about the pathologization of effeminate men) is not inappropriate for our age in which queer people out dancing, or college students, or seven-year-olds, can be shot like so many sitting ducks in places that should have been safe by weapons that those who have shot them in war zones believe should never be allowed in civilian contexts.

I didn’t expect that setting out to chronicle my orals reading would have any relevance to the outside world. Instead, I thought it would keep me going despite the frustration of having to spend so long doing something that doesn’t seem that useful. Evidently, I can be a better historian if I set aside these seven months to absorb lots of information, but in the moment it’s easy to look round at all the other people doing good and become angry at yourself for spending hours in a 400-year-old library reading yet another attempt to explain why X canonical work of 18th- or 19th-century literature is sexually transgressive. I was taught Sedgwick in college, in graduate school, have read her on my own, and have admired her work and, through the testimony of others, who she was as a person for many years—and yet, truth be told, going through her catalogue for orals can make it seem a little formulaic. Some other literary critic produced a reading of a canonical work of 18th- or 19th-century literature—or perhaps another cultural artifact—that was pathologizing, or too crudely-drawn and obvious, and Sedgwick sets out to put them right, with all the tricks available to a talented critic showing the text to have meanings both more and less transgressive, more and less complex, than the first reader could have seen. Several of the essays in Tendencies are like this: the one about Diderot, the one about Wilde, the one about Cather, the one about Austen, even the one about John Waters’ films. They do all relate elegantly back to her central, vital theme: an extension of her argument in Epistemology, which explored the connections and contradictions between homosexuality as a minority identity and as a more public and diffuse signifier; and between homosexuality as a transgression of gender norms and as an institution of gender separatism, but also moving further beyond “gay and lesbian” into this new world of the word “queer.” And so the characters in texts don’t just turn out to be gender-transgressive, or sexually unstable, in Sedgwick’s readings: they disrupt what “family” means (as in The Importance of Being Earnest, where uncles and aunts matter more than mothers and fathers); they refuse to be categorized into the homo/hetero binary (as in Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, for whom Sedgwick makes a case that I do not entirely follow but am happy to respect as having a sexual identity as an “onanist”). The historian, who is perfectly content with the finding that the Jane Austen heroines of this world did not understand sexuality, gender, and love the way we do today and does not seek to upset any further apple carts, sometimes gets a little lost around here. But Sedgwick has more to say when she lays the literature aside, as she does with many of the essays in Tendencies, and puts her critical acumen to work in other fields. She writes critically about her own identity, with wonderfully moving things to say about her identity as a fat woman, her identification with gay men, the love-relationships of her life. Adding the chapters together, it’s possible to see how the literary reading might have helped her to read the text of her own life.

I can’t imagine this was easy. Because it’s a special, emotional, tragic occasion, I’ll tell you why. I had a friend in college who was sometimes very reserved, but put that reservation to good use watching and understanding the lives of the people around her. Once at night when some of us were drinking tea in her room, she suddenly turned to me and said, “Emily, why do you want so much to be a gay man?” I stumbled over an answer, not sure how to provide one while also denying the presence of the question. I recall others in the room remarking that it was a weird, and maybe a rude, thing to say. But it has weighed on me for years, because obviously it spoke something of the truth. As I have gotten to know Sedgwick through her writing, it is a great relief to know that—like countless queer people who found community through literature where they couldn’t among the living—I am not the only woman who has questioned her commitments to her feminist politics because of her deep emotional investment in communities of men, nor the only one who has sought to live out queerness despite what would seem very much to be unavoidable cross-gender erotic and affective commitments. I am grateful to Sedgwick for having such an unconventional critical style, with so much of herself in it, because if it weren’t for her writing I might not have known that it is okay and honest and ethical to have the inclinations that I do, couldn’t have seen someone else state them so matter-of-factly, and then work to create a larger space in which any kind of affective position that doesn’t fit into the categories available to us might be articulated.

What is the point of reading books in a 400-year-old library while the world burns around us? Some, after all, believe that those of us who find ourselves reading books at times like this are unredeemable, and advocate the violent destruction of the institutions in which it is possible for us to read them. They can rest in the comfort of their unbesmirched leftist politics, pure as the driven snow, while it is left for those of us who still read in buildings named after slaveholders to wrestle with our consciences. Wrestle we must, I think: it is dangerous to assume we are right that we are not doing harm to our students by making them confront new ideas they might find troubling; dangerous for us to assume that the world will be all right without us, or with only the odd modest donation to a cause or vote for a Democratic candidate; dangerous if we pass up the opportunity to bend the talents with which advantages and good fortune have bestowed us to some more urgent, and more life-saving, purpose. Yes, teachers do good, but that rings hollow on days when we have to remember that there are not a few teachers in recent years who have done the most good not by words and knowledge but simply by shielding their students from an unstable man wielding an assault rifle.

I think that we can take some comfort from the fact that all through the AIDS crisis, through which tens of thousands of queer and other vulnerable people in my country perished in part due to the government’s slowness to come to the assistance of some of the most marginalized and persecuted members of society, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick kept writing. She kept writing through her own illness, celebrating even when she herself was very ill the lives of her ill gay male friends. And she wasn’t just writing work with an obviously political or emotional purpose: Tendencies allows us to see that even MLA papers with provocative titles about the inner workings of classic novels, or about the minutiae of the methodology of the field of queer studies that she helped to found, add up to a larger picture of a corpus (a body, a body of work) devoted to changing the way people think.

A somewhat fainter, but really quite present, political backdrop to Sedgwick’s writing in this period is the canon wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s. As LD Burnett has noted, in this respect as well we are living through a remarkable echo of 25 years ago (weirdly, I was born a little more than 25 years ago), as older and more conservative college teachers and members of the public greet with mystery and hostility the wishes of the young to pursue a course of study whose rationale they can comprehend. In the early pages of Tendencies, Sedgwick has the best possible reaction to such views:

In the very first of the big “political correctness” scare pieces in the mainstream press, Newsweek pontificated that under the reign of multiculturalism in colleges, “it would not be enough for a student to refrain from insulting homosexuals…. He or she would be expected to… study their literature and culture alongside that of Plato, Shakespeare, and Locke.” Alongside? Read any Sonnets lately? You dip into the Phaedrus often? (Tendencies, 20)

What we do with canonical texts, we weirdos who work with them to ends other than to appreciate them (or at least, not only to appreciate them), is to show our students how to look at them from perspective after perspective until the student finds just the lens that will give her strength. For one student the Phaedrus is the epitome of classical Greek prose; for another, it is a key to the philosophy of writing and poetics; for another, it proves that another civilization long ago gave public sanction to his desires; for another, it is evidence of a rigidly hierarchical, sexist and class-bound society which modern democracies should have more sense than to revere. Or, I think Sedgwick helps us to understand, all these things can be true at once. And for that reason, turning one’s mind away from Twitter and towards such study is a moral path, perhaps even (not to get too grandiose, but) a salvific one, one that can help us know what to do when we are confronted with pain.

Don’t be stupid or self-absorbed. If you are American, contact your elected representatives and urge them to support universal background checks and an assault rifle ban. If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for me and for all the other teachers who lose sleep at night wondering if it will be our classrooms next. Do it for the queer Americans who have spent the twentieth and twenty-first centuries dealing with enough shit. And then take up your Plato or your Auden, kneel in prayer or go out dancing, and teach your children (for they’re your children even if you only have them fifty minutes a week in a discussion section) well.

Orals Diary, 2

Another two days staving off jetlag and mild boredom in the Upper Reading Room, another two orals books despatched. I move on tomorrow to Sedgwick’s Between Men, and as I trudged down and then up the circling seventeenth-century staircase on yet another unnecessary bathroom break, I remembered that five and a bit years ago I took a selfie (before we called them selfies) in the Easter vac—my first Easter vac (and my first Easter)—reading Between Men for the first time outside the Rad Cam on a sunny day (it was March, and too cold to sit outside the Rad Cam, but I was trying to look picturesque), because I thought it might help me with Symonds. I am still of an age when five years seems like a very long time, long enough for me to have been a different person then. I saw someone today in the street whom I first met when he was a first-year undergrad: now he’s a fourth-year, and he and his comrades finished their finals this week. My youngest grad-student friends here are submitting their doctoral theses over the next few months. I have yet to submit my exams—and I am still here, still in love; though oddly alone, while others are moving on.

It’s a strange and overdetermined segue, but in Diana Fuss’s introduction to the volume Inside/Out, which she edited in 1991, she writes of the instability and uncertainty of language used to describe gay and lesbian identities and desires, the collapse of language in the face of concepts which seemed at such radical disjuncture, it appears, with the society in which many American theorists of the ’80s and early ’90s lived. This is evident also in the second half of the Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, which I covered yesterday and today, in which the past looms large in how to think about lesbian and gay identities but in which almost none of those writing about it were trained as historians. I googled one after another, found them to be emeritus in a great English department somewhere—but only John D’Emilio, in his essay “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” made what seemed to me to be the kind of argument a historian would make. I didn’t agree with the heavy causal weight he puts on a marxist narrative of economic development in the essay, but his desire to relate the emergence of new ways of thinking about sex, the family, and society to other social and economic transformations is simply and recognizably what historians do. It was very different—puzzlingly—from David Halperin’s contribution, a set of facts Symonds could have told you about paiderastia in classical Athens (which is made to stand, as Symonds made it, for all of antiquity); or from Martha Vicinus’s and Gloria Hull’s essays, which are focused on recovering a lesbian past that I am not so sure really existed, even a hundred or two hundred years ago. I know all too well the historical context that might have given Halperin a recourse to such tropes, and I look forward to engaging further with them when I reread his One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, also on my list. But I lack the context to make sense of Vicinus’s or Sue-Ellen Case’s sense that it is a radical and essential move to emphasize the presence of butch/femme dynamics in lesbian communities. Perhaps a reader might be able to explain to me why this seemed so politically progressive in the days of the Reader, why it seems important to Vicinus to conflate historical women assuming masculine-gendered dress and behavior and historical women having romantic friendships with other women. Of course, now that we have the category “transgender,” and it is so culturally widespread, we don’t need or want to do this. But maybe the present and its politics are not the place from which to write of who people in the past wanted to be and whom they wanted to love, and maybe Vicinus’s “mannish lesbians” (in the 19th century! really!) or Ulrichs’ anima muliebris virili corpore inclusa (for he was a queer theorist too, in a sense) are no more transgender than they are gay; they are simply themselves, no matter how earnestly the academics-who-are-most-decidedly-not-historians, writing around the year that I was born, try to throw all the forces of Lacan and Derrida at them.

And so Oxford, which is sui generis: its conservatism (which I have begun to liken to that of the Catholic Church) resisting calls, however well-intentioned and urgent, to become otherwise; the kind of mystical force it exerts on its captive audience (me) defying easy explanation. In Howards End the most ill-fitting of all the Schlegel siblings, the brother Tibby, describes Oxford, not any man (or woman, but really the alternative is a man), as the object of his love. It’s been a while since I read the novel, but as I recall Tibby’s location in the plot is uneasy; he’s not swept up in the plot-driving “muddles” that his sisters are and that are the larger point to what Forster does as an author. It’s as if Oxford is a kind of unstable sexual orientation: if we were to put it in Fuss’s densely theoretical Inside/Out framework, we would surely say that it’s the slight puff of air that causes the deconstructionist house of cards (or should we say house of binaries) to come falling down.

I kept forgetting it was Saturday today, and wondering why the library was empty and the city centre clogged with tourists (if living in New York has done anything for me, it has made me exceedingly impatient with large groups standing and gawping on narrow pavements). But on Saturdays the Bodleian closes at 3, as it has at least since I have known it (Sunday opening hours, however, an innovation that occurred in my time, much like the Gladstone Link, the old tearoom and its successor, the reopening of the New Bodleian, and other such things that make it seem as if I have been here for an age). And so, now that I no longer have borrowing privileges, I set out to walk back to my accommodation along the scenic route—in both senses, that is; a detour and the Thames, on whose banks lie some of the most beautiful places I have ever beheld. It turned out to be Eights, wouldn’t you know it, and you couldn’t have picked a better case to illustrate how Oxford has not changed in 150 years, despite what should have been the grand upheaval of the admission of women: the boats half female (the marshals, though, mostly not), yet the women’s-college boats mostly men, and the towpath was clogged by people and the air thick with the echoes of coxes’ commands. I don’t care much for sport, but there it is, at once terrible (I read a couple books for my last term paper that in part blame Oxbridge rowing for World War I) and banal. So the front bedroom of the sturdy brick terraced house which I am currently inhabiting, about a hundred years old, on a side street in East Oxford next to a pub and a playing field. A hundred years ago, a family of six whose pater familias worked in the auto factory? Today, an alternative medicine clinic on the ground floor, and a spinster temporarily lodged in the flat above: with its retro wallpaper and its unconvincingly boarded-up fireplace, the stair-railing giving her déjà vu every time she walks out onto the landing and thinks of every other identical terraced house in England she’s ever entered, and the people a hundred years ago who did so before her. Said spinster heard a spooky creak a couple hours ago, and comforted herself in realizing that a century-old brick house is as sturdy as anything.

Did I think that orals would (thus far, anyway) turn out to be about being lonely, haunting a city I should have left long ago, not knowing how to explain why I’m still here, learning from what queer theorists have taught us about the limits of language? Of course not—but also yes, of course, how could I not? This is what the deconstructionists teach us, I think: the cutesy-clever wordplay that looks much less impressive than it did five or six or seven years ago, that sets me nodding off in the Upper Reading Room, isn’t really about that house of cards crumbling into nothing. Collapse the binaries and I don’t actually think you have neither. You have both. So Anne Lister can be a lesbian to a woman in 1990 who needs to know she’s not alone; and she can be a woman completely of her time whose terms are impossible to translate to another woman, not so different, yet for whom faithfulness to the past’s distance and incomprehensibility carries more personal meaning. And Oxford, odi et amo: the same place it was a hundred and fifty years ago, and yet entirely modern; I, the same person I was five and a bit years ago outside the Rad Cam, and yet changed utterly.

Aged 21, still new to Oxford.

Aged 21, still new to Oxford.

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.

Some Things I Wish I Could Have Said in a Meeting Today; or, An Agnostic’s Sermon for Good Friday

It is Friday of 9th week (there are 16 weeks in our term), and I am exceedingly tired.

There are lots of ways that I could feel inadequate as a teacher, student, and colleague right now, and lots of things I have to do. But I cannot be strong and organized and involved every day, and right now I am going to do things for myself: make a pie, listen to Bach, start playing cut and paste on the bedroom floor while beginning a new manuscript (a dissertation chapter, even?).

My values—the things that make me feel whole and purposeful—may not be your values. In some ways it is unfortunate that the things that keep me going were forged in a childhood of suburban middle-class academic-brat privilege and a higher education at two of the more conservative and traditional elite universities in the Anglo world. It makes me sad, often, that this is the person that I am: that I am enough of a lily-livered liberal to identify as much with university faculty and administrators (the people who made me) than with the proletariat with which, as a graduate student, I am meant to identify.

In the past few weeks my teaching in American intellectual history has introduced my students to a range of topics—old topics, from Europe, rooted in the things I see when I look at the nineteenth century as a scholar. We’ve covered notions of democratic culture and education; we’ve covered Marx and marxisms; through quotation and paraphrase in twentieth-century American texts, some students heard about the Sermon on the Mount for the first time. I’ve done more talking in section than I would like the past few weeks, and I’ve not always been as flexible as I ought in indulging students’ desires to relate these texts to their present of racial, class, and regional conflict instead of to the past which I arguably too readily inhabit. But I left the present long ago, when I decided not to do another Washington internship or organize another LGBT protest; when I took the political buttons off my jacket and my bag.

It is so hard to put into words to those who weren’t there where I’ve come from: so hard to explain that the political resolve and personal self-confidence I needed to survive suburban San Diego in the years after 9/11 have transmuted into something quite different after eight years of higher education, a couple continents’ worth of passport stamps, hundreds of new friends, colleagues and acquaintances with radically different life experiences to my own. The farther I go, the less who or what I would vote for in an election has to do with what makes life worth living. It takes all my strength to do my duty to my vocation, my profession, and my university and then with what I have left to seek out some connection to loved ones, to the earth, to something spiritually greater than myself, against all the stresses and hurts of this city. Those who weren’t there can’t know, I think, what it meant then, those three times I did it, to live in a community that observed the rhythms of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter. You don’t have to believe anything about what might or might not have happened to Jesus to be less satisfied, when you come to the metropolis, by something that is lost when life does not stop to take account of the slow unfolding bounty of spring—to feel unmoored, to feel as if you have lost some assurances of what would constitute a good or moral life and how you might go about deciding it. As I said when I left Oxford (knowing I had made the right decision), there is something gravely perverted about philosophy that needs to posit the cocoon of high table and evensong and eight-week terms in order to evaluate ethical questions. But now there is something fantastically seductive in the knowledge that, 3,500 miles away, there is a paradise that for almost eight hundred years has existed with the stated purpose of learning with the intention of glorifying God. What I have found—as shameful as this may be—is that it is difficult to remain a committed American leftist when you know that such a place exists.

I think what I wind up concluding is that if we are to believe in self-care, in the dignity of work, in the place of universities and university teachers in modern Western intellectual and cultural life, that needs to encompass the possibility that university teachers will tell themselves a wide variety of stories in order to explain to themselves why they have taken on a job that has always been difficult, has always required some sacrifice of material comfort, less freedom than we might wish, and, of course, the constant presence of the young, which is both a delight and (particularly when they have midnight frat parties across the street from you) a burden. To survive Columbia, I tell myself a story that comes from Oxford and Princeton, from Arthur Sidgwick, Rose Sidgwick, Benjamin Jowett, T.H. Green, my teachers, my parents. My story is different to the ones my own teachers tell. It is very different to the ones my leftist colleagues tell. Maybe if I am fortunate enough to teach in a university for the next forty years, it will be rewritten over and over again.

I don’t wish to suggest that anyone else should adopt my story, my perspective. Sometimes I look someone in the eye and know that they understand what I mean when I say that it is my duty to serve the past, my students, my university, my professional community. More often than not, I realize that this perspective rests on having had what for me is the great fortune to have been raised with these values, and that what to me is the ultimate reason to carry on is to others simply a statement of their relative lack of advantages and opportunities. My perspective isn’t one about which it is possible to evangelize. But if I am to carry on in this line of work and way of life, I do think it is necessary to explain that it is as radical a statement against the neoliberalization of the university, or what have you, as any invocation of a class struggle.

This is a sermon for Good Friday because, this Easter weekend, many Christian faith leaders have said and will say something or other about the radicalism of Jesus’s message. I am sympathetic to the reading that (according to the story which may or may not have actually happened) Jesus died at the hands of an imperial authority and its collaborators because he spoke truth to power in a way that was seen as threatening to the stability of the regime. That that regime came ultimately to adopt some of the tenets of the faith his followers founded, that today in Manhattan people say together words that people in the Roman Empire were saying together almost a thousand years ago, is a jaw-dropping world-historical narrative, at which I think historians of all faiths and none ought to be astounded. But it’s also a story which is not completely assimilable to a narrative of anti-imperialism, struggles for social justice, organizing around political causes. Those who attended a Maundy Thursday service yesterday celebrated the night that Jesus, knowing that he was to be arrested for his sedition and immediately undergo an excruciating death, chose to observe the Passover seder with his closest friends (a group which, many scholars believe, included more women than the European Christian tradition has typically recognized) and to celebrate his love for and communion with them.

A couple weeks ago, I attended a spiritual retreat day in the Ignatian prayer tradition: looking for peace and space away from the city, and curious to learn more about a spiritual practice I had read about. In one exercise, we were asked to imagine ourselves as guests at the Last Supper. Reader, I don’t know what I think about Jesus or the Last Supper or his martyrdom or what he stands for, but I have been to many Passover seders. An image came into my head of Jesus saying the Hebrew blessing over the wine, and I burst into tears. That image left me emotionally raw for the rest of the weekend. At the time I was bewildered, but now, reflecting on it, I think I know why. The story is that Jesus was a brave, loving, charismatic figure who convinced many to follow him and who died for a cause of justice and equality—particularly for the poor—for which millions are still fighting. But it is also that, on the night before he was betrayed, Jesus not only sat at supper with his friends: he sat at supper in the observance of a holy ritual that, by then, his people had already been observing for centuries: a feast of thanksgiving for God’s deliverance, but also a set of customs rich in ritual meanings, conducted in a specific order, that are done simply because they must be done.

Even in the face of the greatest challenges for ourselves as workers, as Americans, as fellow humans, then, there is a place for the past, for tradition, for awareness of ourselves as belonging to a longer and grander human story. We might admire those who can both expel the money-changers from the Temple and preside over the ritual of a religious festival, but we can’t all be Jesus. But we can keep working as we are moved to work, keep loving as we are moved to love, and respect the most honest and heartfelt convictions of others as to what will build a better world as well as heal their own hurts and anxieties.