Category Archives: Oxford

On a certain troll in The Spectator; or, did I mention that I am also defending my dissertation prospectus in four days?

I was struck, today, by Mary Beard’s response to that awful troll in the Spectator. (Edith Hall’s response is also great, as are the comments of Olivia Thompson and many other classicists on Twitter.)

Historians are often in the rather irritating position of having to pop up every so often when it’s relevant to offer a fun historical fact, which has the unfortunate consequence of leading other humanities scholars to suppose that all we do is learn facts and that we’re duller and more pedantic than others, who of course work with texts and read theory and are original and clever (spoiler alert: we do those things too!). But in my God-given role as purveyor of historical fun facts I will note that, whatever trolls in the Spectator may feel about the matter, the history of increasing access to classics at Beard’s university and others dates back to the massive expansion in grammar schools and in women’s education of the second half of the nineteenth century; and that there have long been dons who resisted Oxford and Cambridge entering the nineteenth century (to say nothing of the twentieth and the twenty-first), but that a great many good and dedicated people who were masters of university politics have slowly, in bits and pieces, manipulated institutional structures to make these universities far more open than they once were. There is still, of course, much to be done, and many difficult and unanswered questions about the way these two universities loom large in the national culture and whether that is a foundation on which good can be built at all. The teaching and study of classics has particularly played a disproportionate role in a debate about such questions that has been very much in the public eye over the course of the last two hundred years. But change has evidently occurred, and is going to keep occurring, because the question of what universities are for, like most questions, is a historically contingent one. I will explain why.

According to Wikipedia (yes, historians use Wikipedia, it’s awfully useful), said Spectator troll is the son of a factory owner, and the single-sex independent school he attended, founded in 1865, was part of a sort of access movement of its day, the public schools run on an Arnoldian model that were founded in the early-to-mid-nineteenth century precisely because progressives thought that the sons of factory owners, and not only the sons of landowners, deserved a good education. Said Spectator troll then went on to read English Language and Literature at Christ Church, Oxford, something made possible by Arthur Sidgwick and other dons, many of them classicists, who designed the English course as an equivalent to the language-and-literature education of classics suitable for women and other students who had not been to a public school—the great curricular revolution of the early twentieth century which also saw the development of Modern History, PPE/Moral and Political Sciences, and other such courses that sought to face the reality that translation into and out of Latin and Greek was not exactly the only suitable preparation for living in the modern age. Classicists have always—I think probably since Roman schoolmasters struggled to teach recalcitrant pupils Greek—been aware of the burdens and barriers that the study of two difficult foreign languages imposes even on the most willing pupils, and sought to find ways of circumventing that obstacle. And classicists, like all teachers, would always rather teach a willing pupil than one who already knows stuff but is bored and boring.

I always struggle to find ways of justifying and explaining my historical research on institutions and a surrounding culture that shaped the experiences of only a tiny minority of people in Britain and the empire in the period I study. I can never give an elevator pitch in a way that makes my work sound sexy. People ask me all the time why I only study elites. But the thing is, weirdly, for all that we live in a completely different universe from the one in which someone like Sidgwick lived (as my correspondence with his 104-year-old granddaughter vividly reminds me), these debates about the significance of elite education to British culture at large just won’t go away. They are rehearsed over and again as part of the drama of class (as culture, not, or not only, as dialectical materialism) in Britain—and as we are now all too aware, class as culture is the stuff of the 52 versus the 48 and of the uncertain future of unions of all kinds. This is a country in which how education makes class has a remarkably large role to play in who is in and who is out: the very first bill proposed by May’s government was about grammar schools. Many of the 47 Labour MPs who voted in Parliament against Article 50 represent university constituencies, not least Cambridge’s Daniel Zeichner. (And until 1950, of course, universities had their own seats in Parliament; in looking up that date, which I should probably already have committed to memory for Thursday, I learned that India and Rwanda still have university seats in their legislatures. The legacies of empire are more wide-ranging, and sometimes more bizarre, than we imagine.)

Some will probably say I oughtn’t to write several hundred words feeding a troll. But I’m not just feeding him, I’m congratulating him for being just the latest in a long queue of members of the British chattering classes who frequently remind me that my research—and the study of history more widely—matters, and bears a critical relation to understanding the mess that Britain is in today.

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.

Orals Diary, 1

Yesterday I arrived in Oxford, on a glorious warm and sunny day in seventh week of Trinity. It is beautiful to be here in term: it’s light till 9.30pm, and last night I walked for an hour along the Thames despite my jetlag and having spent the previous night on an airplane, and milling about in the city centre today I was surrounded by young people (too many of them white, too many of them posh-accented) ruthlessly dissecting their exams, doing the same for parties, or (in one case) vigorously advertising a start-up. I met a friend for lunch in a college garden, and finalists floated by, covered in glitter and silly string. They look younger every day, undergrads: but I was one of them, here, only five years ago.

I came here despite intending not to, and I can’t fully explain why I came. Yes, it’s my home—I felt that for certain as I set eyes upon the river last night, cast a familiar eye over the familiar terraced houses of East Oxford—but like most people I have a conflicted and ambivalent relationship to my home, mine perhaps more so because it’s an adopted home, located in a country of which I am not a citizen, where I have lived for a total of about three out of 26 years, a place so strongly allied with class privilege and imperialism in so many people’s eyes that to have chosen it as one’s home is mildly reprehensible. And yet it is, and here we are.

I didn’t even have to come here for work, though I have let a great many people believe I am here for the archives. But no, I am here for the copyright deposit library, for I am spending the summer ramping my frantic reading for my departmental comprehensive exams up to fever pitch. At Columbia, we take our exams (“orals,” for they are) at some point in our third year, and I am slated to do mine in December or January, at some point before the start of the spring semester. I have four fields, for each of which I must read about 50-80 books, on which I will be examined viva voce. The fields are Britain 1688-1832, Britain 1832-present, European social and political thought in the long nineteenth century, and queer theory/history of sexuality. Particularly in the latter two fields, a lot of the books are new to me, and I thought I might do a bit of light writing as I go along about the experience of encountering these new texts—for I think I will be doing a lot of reading, and very little socializing, in the next six or seven months, and I thought it might ease the burden somewhat if I could talk to you. I thought it might ease the burden also of being in Oxford, a painful place where I am not at all sure I want to encounter the people who filled my past lives here, about which I am still not sure how I feel. I may not keep this up, but I will carry on every once in a while as energy and enthusiasm permit.

Today, then, the first day I cracked an orals book open, I started with my queer theory list, and I started slow, with the Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, a weighty tome edited in 1993 to bring together what then was the current state of scholarship in what then was called lesbian and gay (rather than LGBT or queer) studies. I read Part I today—not much, 137 pages, but I was jetlagged—and focused particularly on the first two essays, Gayle Rubin’s “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” and an excerpt from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s book-length The Epistemology of the Closet. I hadn’t encountered Rubin’s essay before, and I was shocked by some of the assumptions it could hold in 1984 that we could not countenance today. Rubin writes about the need to develop a radical politics of sexuality that combats “moral panics,” denying (or so it seems to me) that any moral valence should be placed upon sex. Fair enough when she’s talking about the AIDS crisis, which many groups and individuals in her day were leveraging to stigmatize gay men; but this 26-year-old has to wonder whether feminists who worried about sadomasochistic pornography, or people concerned about how children’s sexuality might be exploited by older people, might actually have had a point. In our current atmosphere of renewed concern about child sex abuse (many of which newly-discovered instances occurred in this earlier period of support for children’s sexual freedom that, as we now know, covered up instances of exploitation), it is hard to see how someone could (as Rubin does in this essay) regard NAMBLA as right-thinking or inveigh against the law’s exclusion of minors from sexual expression.

More interesting for my purposes, though, is the way in which Rubin and Sedgwick both make historical arguments. Neither is a historian, but both take seriously the view, shaped by Foucault among others, that sexuality is historically constructed—and that, moreover, our modern paradigms of sexuality were fundamentally shaped in the last decades of the nineteenth century. I think of myself as someone who knows the last decades of the nineteenth century (as far as they pertain to sexuality in Britain, the US, and Germany) very well, and I don’t necessarily think of Foucault as a historian or this moment as the most critical one in which our present-day notions of sexual identity coalesced, although it was certainly a very important time for expert (legal, psychological, scientific) understandings of sexuality, particularly homosexuality. Recourse to this narrative lends itself to a stereotype about “repressed Victorians” that I believe fundamentally to be untrue and unhelpful, as unhelpful as describing premodern people as “gay.” It also makes me wonder about how to relate this past to the authors’ present: that is, the AIDS crisis, a time of great urgency in thinking about sexuality and its relation to society, a time in which everyone’s individual right to sexual self-expression must surely have been cast into doubt (this is testified to by the many primary sources which discuss the divides in the gay community in the very early years of AIDS about whether to adopt safer sex practices). AIDS permeates deeply the entire first part of the Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, which is about politics, and I am sure it will make its way into the other sections as well. Recently, I reviewed a theory book for EHR which started its narrative earlier than Rubin and Sedgwick do, but which also took AIDS as its present, even though it was published last year. What are the consequences for theorizing about sexuality when it assumes a periodization that begins with the Contagious Diseases Acts, with Oscar Wilde’s trials, or with Havelock Ellis and Magnus Hirschfeld, and that ends with AIDS? What is left out of this narrative, and what paradigmatic assumptions (Foucault’s?) does it make?

Another thing that surprised me about the Reader so far is that all the writers I read today assumed a constructivist position, i.e. they imagined sexual identity to vary according to time, place, and the cultural factors present therein, and not to be constant across time and place. They all believed, after Foucault, that homosexuality arose in the context of the late nineteenth century West, and did not seek to apply that paradigm to, say, antiquity, or to discuss cultural products from before Proust and Wilde. They extended the constructivist position to apply to other concepts, such as one author, Monique Wittig, who argued that the concept of “woman” is as constructed as the concept of “lesbian.” This shows some of the ideological thrust of the Reader and its editors, perhaps: for it seems evident to me that there were in 1993, in the ’80s, and still today scholars who believe strongly and centrally in transhistorical notions of gender and homosexuality.

Obviously I’m just starting out in the massive knowledge dump that is orals, and my thinking about these questions may well change. But today they made me think about the real intellectual gains of being a historian having designed a theory field that largely asks what use queer theory is to historians (my list is evenly split between classic works of theory and more recent historical monographs which engage with the theoretical paradigms). When I first encountered queer theory it was in college, before I became a historian, and I knew many grad students from other humanities departments who were very au fait with theory and often a bit dismissive about historians, who they saw as rather dull and interested only in facts, not in greater hermeneutic possibilities. Well, that was sometimes true in the history department talks I’d go to in college. But now I have my own frustrations with scholars of sexuality and other subjects who from a literary background pronounce upon the past: for instance, making statements about the invention of sexual identity in my historical period drawn entirely from literary sources or the biographies of canonical writers, or quoting academic historians as the purveyors of facts, upon which the theorist intends to put the interpretive gloss, as if the historian hadn’t already done that herself. When I reviewed that theory book a couple months ago, though, I had serious frustrations with it as a historian, but I came to realize as I read that although the author was writing about historical cultural products (mostly visual art), and sometimes situating them in historical context, he wasn’t trying to make a historical argument. Instead, in this case, it seemed to me that he was being profoundly ahistorical (part of his project was to reinvent the gay cultural canon, and canons are nothing if not in problematic relation to attempts to historicize them) and that was okay. There’s room for many different approaches, many different political and ideological perspectives—though it would be helpful if people who hold different perspectives were able to listen to and discuss them with each other.

Trinity Sunday

It is my fifth Trinity Sunday today, and so I was reading some of the things I wrote around the time that I learned what Trinity Sunday was, when I lived in Trinity College. I don’t know that they gave me much insight into the triune God, but they did make me feel tired, as if all the trips back and forth across the Atlantic had caught up with me. I’d completely forgotten how preoccupied I’d been with class guilt then. I thought that had only come later, when the romance of being in the same places as Symonds and reading Newman and Thomas Arnold and Jowett for the first time wore off, and I met more British historians who weren’t at Oxford. But it was there then, too, the culture shock mingling with a sense that I was becoming complicit in an exploitative system, not sure how to grapple with the fact that things which perpetuate class inequality can also sometimes be very fun.

The Church and me: to tell the story properly involves as many awkward phrasings and convoluted metaphors as your classic Trinity Sunday sermon. (There was the one I remember that involved the weird anecdote about ducks that didn’t make any sense. And then there was this morning’s, in which the preacher resorted to pointing out some of the church’s stained-glass windows which depict the different parts of the Trinity.) But I suppose the Church and me is a lot like the story of Oxford and me, a conflictual and confusing relationship in which I keep feeling a lot of painful, glukúpikron love despite all evidence to the contrary. Trinity term is named for Trinity Sunday, and it is impossible not to attain some measure of happiness in Trinity term, despite the knowledge that you ought to reject the institution in which Trinity term can be passed, reject all it stands for, reject especially the characteristic decadent trappings of Trinity term–like the end-of-the-year parties at any university, except turned up a class notch or five. Trinity Sunday is a very Oxford feast: attempts to explain it start out highly, abstractly intellectual and wind up in paradox and nonsense, there’s good music, and it seems very old–though actually not too old, more closely linked to its Cranmer collect than to Anglo-Saxon folk tradition. “Almighty and everlasting God, who hast given unto us thy servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of the Divine Majesty to worship the Unity: We beseech thee, that thou wouldest keep us stedfast in this faith, and evermore defend us from all adversities, who livest and reignest, one God, world without end.” The American Episcopal Church doesn’t even use Trinity Sunday to count the weeks of long summer ordinary time: it sings to me thus of another place, another time in my life, another person that I am, another path my fortunes could have taken, if I had stayed there for my PhD. I am so glad for a thousand reasons that I didn’t, but having made that decision I wish I could leave Oxford behind, and not be yet another American thinking wistfully of her time in England, with no thought for the fact that class is real and that there is every reason to hate Oxford and what it represents.

Yet every day my mind is there, ranging across a landscape of past and present, conjuring up from my bedroom with its view of Butler Library another city, full of ghosts. I’m going back in two weeks, just for a short time, and my heart is full of longing and apprehension, pain and desire, faith and doubt.

26th Birthday

Five years ago, Facebook reminded me this morning, I was celebrating my first birthday outside North America. It was a Sunday. I had been in Oxford less than a month, and hadn’t yet made most of the friends who keep me coming back whenever I can. I took myself to the Ashmolean, ate lunch in the cafe, and in the evening went to the pub with the Lincoln College Choir, because they did that after they sang on Sundays and a friend who sang tenor very kindly gave me somewhere to be.

I think often of those two terms, though particularly of late: my therapist tells me that, at the age of 26, it is “developmentally appropriate” to have some nostalgia for one’s undergraduate years. But I also think of them because I learned rather more in them than how to hold my liquor. Many of my memories are of criss-crossing Oxford in search of books, writing essays in the Rad Cam and poring over Symonds’ letters in the Upper Reading Room; the time that my tutor told me to read Thomas Arnold’s preface to his edition of Thucydides and, when I found the book—a first edition, natch—in the Trinity college library, realizing in astonishment that the main text was in Greek. I had never seen a book in Greek before, and as it dawned on me that many a 16-year-old would have slogged through this edition I began slowly and laboriously to trace the letters of that foreign alphabet in a notebook and sound out the phrases I found in the archive: σωφροσύνη. ἔρως τῶν ἀδυνάτων.

There was so much I didn’t know then about what my life would be like now. I might have been starting to think about grad school, but I certainly couldn’t have told you that most days out of the week I wear a skirt and heels, that I sit at the head of a seminar table and answer endless emails about information that could have been gleaned from the syllabus. I didn’t know that I would go back to Oxford, and then that I would live in New York, as if that is a normal thing that people do. I didn’t know how successful my research on Symonds would be. I didn’t imagine that, just a couple years later, I would experience a romantic relationship, couldn’t guess how changed I would feel after it ended.

Yet there are a few things I could probably have guessed then. I could have imagined that my mental landscape is still largely composed of green fields, Cotswold stone, incessant church bells, and the nagging sense that one has completely bungled an invisible social cue, and that when I look out my window at the frat houses of 113th Street I see the views from other rooms: Broad Street and the Bod; the Magdalen College School cricket pitch and the hills beyond. I could have guessed how often I think of the friends I made those terms, perhaps even how many of their birthday, handing-in and viva drinks I have been fortunate enough to be there to partake in. And surely, surely I could have guessed that on my birthday five years later, I would still, as I did this morning, be writing essays with this paragraph in—and how much love stirs in my soul every time I have the great privilege to write it:

The 1890s and 1900s, when Warren’s collecting business and his community at Lewes House were at their height, were a pivotal moment in the development of ideas about what it meant to be a man who was sexually and romantically attracted to men. Men had always formed sexual and romantic attachments to each other, and male prostitutes always plied their trade. But at the turn of the twentieth century, men of all classes—as well as doctors, the law, and moral opprobrium—began to see same-sex desire not as an activity, but as who you were as a person: part of your identity even if you never acted on it. Highly-educated men in particular could draw on a range of information to contextualize this notion, from ancient and early modern history to the burgeoning new field of sexual science. Men who had studied at Oxford, where a wide-ranging course in the literature, history, and philosophy of Greece and Rome was the hallmark of the curriculum, made a particular contribution to the belief that what they called “inversion,” “Urningliebe,” or “eros ton adunaton [the love of impossible things]” was rooted in ancient Greece. In the Athens of Socrates, they believed, elite men like themselves enjoyed social respect for the erotic and educative relationships they formed with adolescents and young men. Oxford-educated intellectuals such as Walter Pater, John Addington Symonds, and Oscar Wilde often emphasized the “purity” of these relationships: because they involved much longing gazing at young men’s athletic physiques, but no sordid physical contact, they could be assimilated to norms of Victorian propriety without too much difficulty.

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.

Some things I’ve posted on Facebook recently about history of universities and statues of dead racists

Edited to remove identifying information about interlocutors. I know I haven’t posted here in months—we can take this as my ‘2015 Year in Review’ post since 2015 was also the year that I became more qualified to have something worthwhile to say about British imperial history—and the RMF campaign is nothing if not the working-out of British imperial history.

4 November, in response to a discussion about whether it is morally wrong for a white person to take up a Rhodes Scholarship:

My instinct is to disagree. Of the Rhodes countries I think South Africa might be a special case that I don’t really know enough about to comment, but if we look at Canada and the US, for instance (and yes, the US is an ex-colony, but a bit different to what we think of as the 19th-/20th-century “white settler” colonies) you would be hard-pressed to find enough Indigenous people who would be qualified for or interested in taking up the scholarship–sadly, that’s just a very small percentage of the population in both countries, and an even smaller percentage of those who pursue higher education. In the US, the Rhodies basically represent the demographics of elite US higher education from which they come. And we can and should be critical of this, but IMHO it’s part of a more regionally specific system that has more to say about race and class in America than it does about the initial intention of Rhodes’ will, which is no longer followed to any great extent by the selection committees. I suppose that one could view all of these factors as part of a transnational racist system, but I’m inclined to disaggregate them because they seem so historically specific. You’d have to go SO far back before the Rhodes period to make the case that British empire was at the source of all of them that, while that’s in some sense historically true, I don’t think it’s the most helpful way to think about it.

As an American and Canadian citizen and final-year student at Princeton (and blah blah blah all my advantages) I made a decision not to apply for the Rhodes in part because of my discomfort with the origins of the scholarship. I now believe that decision was mistaken. I received a different scholarship, the Marshall, which was instituted by the UK government in the ’50s (a Conservative government if I’m not mistaken) to express thanks to the US for the postwar Marshall aid and also to express an ideal of symbolic connection between these English-speaking nations. So that’s a racial ideal–Churchill was one of those to proclaim it as such in his Iron Curtain speech–even if the scholarship is part of the public UK HE budget and doesn’t have its origins in someone as manifestly evil as Cecil Rhodes. When I got to Ox for my master’s, I found Rhodies and other white people from the US and the Empire doing all kinds of things with their Oxford postgrad degrees and the money they (some of them) had received to do them. There were plenty of Americans and others of all kinds who I thought were wasting their time and someone’s money. There were many Rhodies who were doing truly wonderful things with their time in Ox and who were going to go out and do something good with their lives in academia or another profession. I think there is a place for policies of affirmative action and for complete transparency in how admissions are done that can help us to right historic wrongs, rid ourselves of unconscious bias, and ensure that everyone is given a fair hearing, but I think it’s also a good educational thing to do to give people of all races a chance to do something good with opportunities that they’ve had the good fortune to receive, and to give white people a chance to make our lives as best we can into something that isn’t actively exploitative. I think making all Rhodies conscious of the extent to which the money they have taken is tainted is perhaps a better learning opportunity for white Rhodies than letting them stay in their home countries and never knowing that such imperial legacies exist at all. But it does sadden and frustrate me when many Rhodies seem not to be aware of that history.

Running late now, but last point: one thing I have learned in my time in higher ed is that so much money is dirty and there are often really frustrating legal restrictions on why this can’t be fixed. In some sense it would be ideal if all these different bequests from slave traders and diamond miners and so on could be stripped of their significance and their ties to these particular individuals and aggregated into a general fund that could be used to provide need-based financial aid to all students on an equal basis. But not only are there really tight legal restrictions on doing so (and we can debate the justice of this, but when you’re going up against UK and EU law about bequests things get really complicated), one thing you lose in the process is the ability to force students to be aware of where that money is come from. We have so much cultural amnesia in the UK today about how everything that the UK is in 2015 has an imperial legacy. The names of buildings and institutions and pots of money allow those of us who teach British history to give our students a way in to this challenging and troubling topic. If we erase those visible remnants of the history, we risk even greater amnesia. Maybe it’s worth it, and I’m willing to be persuaded that’s the case. But it is a factor.

Sorry, I know I don’t toe the party line on this, but I guess my study of British and imperial history has given me a different way in to understanding the same issues and I hope we can eventually wind up on more or less the same page by different means. Also, I’m someone who has benefitted immeasurably from elite education, which continues to perpetuate racial and class equality in the anglo world today, but that–as a Jewish lady–I have only recently been able to partake of on equal terms. Inequality fucking sucks. And who has access to elite education is sometimes random and sometimes systematically unjust. But as someone who has decided to take the money and try to be good with it, I think it would be really disingenuous for me to proclaim that another approach is the more morally correct one.

20 December, in response to Mary Beard and some comments critical of my endorsement of her POV:

Hi folks – sorry that I don’t have the time to give this a proper lengthy reply, but I am sorry that instead of giving a proper lengthy comment on this post last night I also posted just two words. I rarely agree with every word of the things I post on FB, and this is no exception; I have also posted many things that express other views so hopefully this doesn’t stand for everything I’ve ever said or thought about the RMF/Woodrow Wilson/etc. debates. I’ve explained at great length in other FB comments what I think about RMF and the problem of statues, names, and legacies, so hopefully I don’t need to rehash it all again. I do think there is a flippancy to M.B.’s comments here that is not in good taste and suggests she hasn’t had very many conversations with students of color and other underprivileged students at her own university. She might also do well to remember the ugly, violent history of women’s call to be included at Cambridge. I’m with — on this one: maybe he and I, as Jews and me as a woman, can use our experiences of trying to take ownership of institutions that were not made for us to empathize with this situation; maybe that’s completely inadequate. But on the basis of the historical research I have done my current belief is that it isn’t possible completely to transform an institution like Oxford or Princeton, that was founded explicitly on exclusion of many populations, so that it will feel welcoming to all. I can see as feasible introducing certain policy measures that will make incremental progress towards that end, but I think we’re still ultimately caught in a double bind between denying history (which I believe is wrong) and allowing that history to exist and to oppress by its existence. I completely see why someone would make an argument that that means these places should not be allowed to exist and should be destroyed. I can’t agree because, well, they’ve given me a sense of belonging, purpose and joy that my life outside them hasn’t, and my life would not be worth living without them. So my responsibility as someone in that situation is to do as Beard says and take the money and try to be better with it, and I think she’s right that that’s what we can do with histories like that–we can take the money they give us, now thankfully accessible to people like me, and we can become historians. I think it would be really disingenuous for someone who has made the life choices I have to suggest something else, so I can see why Beard makes the argument she does.

Also P.S. my expert opinion is contra M.B. that Rhodes was worse than many of his contemporaries (rather like Wilson but with none of Wilson’s redeeming features).

Also thanks for disagreeing – I worry when people don’t disagree on FB that I’ve shocked, offended, and upset them so much as to stun them into silence, so I appreciate you engaging and voicing another POV because I don’t want to be hammering people over the head with something that is hurtful to them without being stopped.

29 December, in response to this, posted on a friend’s wall and roundly condemned by the ensuing FB conversation:

I don’t know. I’m not hugely sympathetic to the RMF claims or the style in which they frame them, but I also see that they are mostly coming from black students and that most of the people questioning them are white, which makes me second-guess my reaction. I can’t know what it’s like to be a black South African student come to Oxford, but I can imagine it’s a more difficult and troubling culture shock than the one I experienced when I came–and also why South African students might want instinctively to import a similar kind of cultural decolonization to the process they’ve gone through to remake their own country into something other than a settler colony. Even though there may well be some generic student activists who have jumped on to RMF as a vehicle for shouting at something or other, there’s also a serious story about what happens when the “empire strikes back”: what kinds of claims for inclusion are those whose ancestors were once British subjects entitled to make within Britain? (As a Canadian, I have the national franchise in Britain–South Africans don’t; EU citizens don’t.) So I actually see this as a story about history and about the kind of historical-mindedness that British (elite) culture has and maybe that former colonies’ self-determining national identity has been predicated on rejecting–and not primarily a story about coddled students even if there are elements of that. Personally I don’t think it’s possible to remake such a deeply, intrinsically historicist and conservative institution as Oxford in the image of another way of relating to the past and to present society, and so any gains that RMF make by way of statues are going to be decidedly illusory. To create more comfortable environments within Ox (which is to some extent worth doing, in terms of the fact that institutionalized racism is still a thing) probably entails working with the grain of the culture, and using history and historically-minded thinking in effective ways. But it remains the case that Ox last underwent major structural reforms in the mid-19th century and that most of those who now live and study in it now would not have been imagined as potential students then (as recently as the mid-20th century less than 10% of the UK population went to university at all). Culture shock is an inevitable part of the experience of coming to Ox for most students–and that may go double for Rhodes Scholars who (at least in the US) often apply for the scholarship because it is prestigious in their home country and not necessarily because doing a graduate degree at Ox is particularly enticing to them. They are often surprised to discover how little Ox resembles the university experiences of their home countries, which is probably for most students more like going to a redbrick. Cultural assimilation (of the kind that I tried to practice) is only going to seem like a worthy goal if you don’t view the culture of Ox as part of the heyday of empire (which in as much as it was constituted at around the same time of the heyday of empire and was part and parcel of the imperial project, it is); if you come to know what Ox is and then decide that it’s something in which you can’t ethically participate because you associate it with the white settlers who ruined your country, well, it’s going to be pretty hard to do anything other than find symbols to lash out at, like the Rhodes statue.

I haven’t read the Prof. of Divinity’s letter, and hadn’t heard about it before, but I’m in the process of qualifying as an expert in British & imperial history and my sense is that Rhodes is one of the real baddies: someone who was behind the curve on ideas about race even for his own time. I think Rhodies could probably be more honest with themselves about the fact that they are taking his money, but can see why that’s a difficult and confusing position for a young adult to be in, that only really becomes apparent once she or he leaves her own culture with its own standards of political correctness and goes somewhere else.

Sorry for the long comment!! I’m just on a bit of a crusade to bring historians’ voices to this conversation, since what is at issue really is history and how it’s interpreted. Even if I’m not sure that I buy RMF’s critique, I can see why they’re making it.

6 January, in response to this and an ensuing FB discussion:

Well… now we’re getting a bit into what I said I wouldn’t do (give an opinion on the controversy–I’m trying to do less of that) but my response to that would be to say that these things are very complicated. Almost everything Oxford is (now that there is next to no state funding for HE) is old, old money, tied up in the legacies of a lot of mess of British and imperial history: the dissolution of the monasteries, the Atlantic slave trade, the diamond mines of southern Africa. It would take a hell of a lot of work–a dedicated campaign that the entire university and its constituent colleges would have to get behind–to disentangle all that money. It would be illegal in some cases to discard or change the terms of certain bequests; in almost all cases I am sure that cash-strapped dons and administrators wouldn’t want to decline even what seem like regrettable bequests. And there aren’t easy solutions: the South African Rhodes Scholarships now also bear Nelson Mandela’s name, but I’m not sure anyone thinks that’s a comfortable or satisfactory response to the fact that they once explicitly excluded black students.

Oxford is a deeply conservative institution and British society more widely has deep and committed cultural amnesia about how empire has affected it and its history. I’m not at all surprised that a conversation about Cecil Rhodes’ relation to Oxford (which is considerable–his scholarships brought some of the very first foreign students in considerable numbers to the UK) on the terms of modern politics hasn’t been had before now. It’s obviously a good thing this conversation is being had. Things are being brought into the open that weren’t talked about before. Will it change anything substantive? I have to say I share some of the skepticism of the above op-ed author. But when you start digging into old institutions like this, evil often isn’t far from the surface. I sure hope there’s good there too, and I think one of the lessons we learn from institutional history is that it isn’t so easy to disentangle the two, that history and moral judgment can’t be made easily to go hand in hand.