Category Archives: Personal Life

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.

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.

On Atheist Churchgoing; or, Why I Will Miss This Country

Almost three years ago today, give or take two or three weeks, I went to church for the second time in my life (the first was my grandmother’s funeral), to hear Philip Pullman preach. It was my first term in Oxford, and as the days got slightly longer I was just starting to love this place, and I went to hear Philip Pullman give the University Sermon at the University Church because I wanted to see what an atheist would say when given a literal pulpit. Because it was my first Sunday morning service, I hung on to every word of the liturgy with an intensity I can’t always muster anymore, and when Pullman talked about the common ground that atheists have with Anglicans, quoting Ruskin and Hopkins, I found my way in to the Church. I’ve been there ever since, nearly every week, in Princeton and in Oxford. I keep finding new ways of articulating that same common ground Pullman did: the history, the music, the prayers for peace and justice. One of the reasons I joined the choir at my college on my current posting to Oxford is so that I would have an excuse to go to chapel every week; and while when I first started attending college evensongs I used to visit New College and think that Symonds had praised the singing there, too, these days I think more broadly, all the time, about the generations of anonymous undergraduates who have sat in Corpus’s wooden choir stalls, and who likely have taken every possible theological position it is possible to take with respect to the Trinity and the established church—after all, mandatory daily chapel wasn’t abolished, I think, until after the War.

As I’ve sat in pews and choir stalls over these last few years, I’ve found that the liturgy has a very powerful effect: namely, that the more you repeat words week after week, year after year, the more you start to believe them. Not the extraterrestrial bits—for how does someone who was raised secularly conjure a Heaven and a Hell out of nothing?—but the attitude of prayer, of penitence and concentration and hopefulness; the practically-minded bits about loving one another; the sense of wonder at creation; and most importantly for me the cycle of the week, of the liturgical year, of the festivals and the story of Jesus’s life that is told every year from Advent to Pentecost (-ish), roughly following the academic calendar as well. This repetition keeps me rooted to a sense of a longue durée, and it’s the cyclical nature of it that always—every service—reminds me that people have been saying these same words since 1662, regardless of whether (unlike most of the congregations who make a great point of saying the same words that were said in 1662, or longer ago) they were high-born or had beautifully embroidered vestments or could say the words in Latin or knew what, exactly, the words signified. Because I imagine that for a great many people who attended services of the established church when doing so was prescribed by law, the words didn’t so much signify a particular theological position on the Trinity or transubstantiation (which if you listen closely to the C of E communion prayer, even in modern language, it definitely does!) as the right time to plant the crops and the times of year when the days would grow shorter or longer.

My mind wanders to such thoughts most weeks in Corpus chapel, but today our preacher particularly drew our attention to the modern Church’s origins in a long-ago time when different ways of life were practised. Today is Candlemas, a very Anglo-Saxon name for the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and an occasion which (or so I was reliably informed by an observant evangelical member of the congregation) is most definitely not observed by the more modern, forward-looking, urban evangelical congregations these days. Our preacher (who was excellent) focused her attention very closely upon the varied significances of this festival: the really religious bit, in which the lines from the Gospel of Luke embedded in the Anglican choral tradition as the Nunc Dimittis give an early indication of what a marvel the infant Christ will become; but also the ye-olde-Englande traditional bit, when Candlemas marked the time when farmers began to plant their crops; and the takeaway message for our lives, the bit with the common ground for the cynical unbelievers, the miraculous sense of wonder experienced by anyone who (as the old man Simeon does in the Gospel reading) holds an infant in his arms and marvels at the sheer extent of the possibility contained within that one tiny body.

As I have sat in chapels and churches week after week, I have often, I think reasonably, had cause to interrogate myself about what I’m doing there. How far have I come away from being the atheist whose main draw to church was Philip Pullman, and what do I mean when I recite with the congregation the words printed on my service leaflet? I have often stopped just short of wondering whether I should learn more about how to become a Christian, whether I should look for the dotted line on which to sign, so that I might feel like a bit less of a charlatan when I twist myself into layers upon layers of metaphor so that I can say the Apostles’ Creed without lying. What was wonderful about today’s sermon, though, and about the old feasts like Candlemas (similarly Ascension Day, or the last Sunday of Advent, or any other liturgical day connected to a folk tradition), is that they demonstrate how belief can lie less in metaphysics and more in a sense of connection to the past, to the earth, and to fellowship with other people in the present. The Church of England doesn’t bother much about heaven and hell, but it has always made me feel welcome, has never asked what I am doing there or why I haven’t gone and gotten baptised already, and always reminds me to marvel at creation, from the connections I pursue with other people to the Shetland ponies in the field opposite Iffley village church and the first daffodil shoots that today I saw poking up on the lawn outside my house. “Glory be to God for dappled things,” Pullman quoted Hopkins as saying, three years ago, and I still think atheists might listen to Christians if in nothing else at least in guidance for how to marvel at and cherish the natural world around us, where time is not linear and progressive but cyclical.

I am starting to hear from Ph.D. programs, and it is starting to dawn on me that this will be my last spring in Oxford probably for some time. I will be moving to a city next year, and while this spring will bring with it news of a new life, greater opportunities, new connections to form and hopefully new routes to happiness, I don’t think that spring is quite the same in concrete jungles, where you have to look much harder to find a daffodil or a newborn lamb, and where the Christianity (or at least this has been my sense) shares a little less common ground with the secular experience.

Year’s End

The other day, a family member asked me if I was planning to do a “year in review” post for 2013, a tradition I’ve kept up in the past few years. But you know?—I said—I don’t have a lot to say. What words I have in me, fewer these days, need to go to my thesis, my coursework, and my extracurricular contracted writing obligations; furthermore, I feel I know myself less well than I did a year ago. My ability to characterize what is interesting about my research has increased through a series of MPhil dissertation proposals and PhD applications, but my ability and my desire to tell the story of my own life has lessened. Lately, I’ve only been doing it in metaphors: how the homosocial environments in which the Victorian and Edwardian men I study grew up affected the forms of heterosocial interaction they pursued through marriage and an increasingly hetero professional and social world; how my love for the hills southwest of Oxford has grown upon me slowly and quietly and gently, not like the less mature rush of passion I first felt for the city centre’s dreaming spires three years ago. Those two statements, read closely, may tell you something about the tempest of emotions that has been the last twelve months, but suffice to say that this year I feel myself to have entered a new stage of life: one that has opened to me the capacity to understand books truly written for “grown-ups,” like Middlemarch; that has caused me to realize adulthood isn’t just budgeting and cooking but negotiating new ways of relating to people, a new level of responsibility for one’s thoughts, words and actions, new webs of personal and professional associations. When I was 18, I had friends who were grad students in their mid-twenties, and I do now the things I marvelled at them doing then: complaining about the worst hangovers of their lives, watching friends get married and have babies, having social interactions (carefully mediated, with clear boundaries and hierarchies in place, but social interactions nevertheless) with faculty in their department. Before, when I was invited to an older person’s house for a holiday meal or got to tag along for drinks after a seminar, I felt like the kid sister. Now, I’m a member of a college and a department. It makes for a certain degree of uncertainty about how to treat people—compounded by the many translation errors I’ve committed as an American abroad—and this year has not been without its deep anxieties and low moods at the difficulties inherent in finding a place at the seminar table. But things are different now, and by and large it feels good.

But academia is the easy part. There are boxes to tick, there are projects for which to lay plans, and at least for the next ten years the steps that I need to take to advance my career are relatively clear. The guidance I have from mentors could not be better. But I have realized that outside the classroom and the archive and the application form, no one can guide you, and that’s the trickier bit. Many times this year I have written emails that say, thank you for this advice, it makes a lot of sense, but I know I won’t be able to really feel the confidence in me that you express until I am middle-aged and can look back and see that my life has amounted to something. These days, it becomes harder to look back and take solace from making a shape out of my life up to this point, when what seems more pressing is how little sense I have of where my life is going to go. I spend a lot of time walking the side streets of Oxford trying to peek through the curtains in the front bay windows of terraced houses and imagining myself established, with a job and a partner and a cat, living in a two- or three-bedroom house with a little garden just like those ones. But there’s no reason to believe that will happen, and all the middle-aged people who kindly say that their lives haven’t turned out the way they thought when they were 23 but that this is perfectly all right, actually, can’t quell the forward-thinking existential angst that makes it hard to really tell the story of 2013, the year when living started to seem a great deal more difficult and more complicated, and when I became less certain that I could tell anyone who I am and what I believe.

For these reasons I have been following with great attention a fracas of a discussion that has erupted over the holidays in the pages of my favorite academic blogs, Tenured Radical and Historiann. In brief, it seems that a number of pseudonymous discussants projected upon a search committee’s late notification of its interview candidates for a tenure-track position in a literature department all their many anxieties about the present state of the academic job market as well as the social and economic position of young adults more generally. Even calls for civility and what I think people used to call “netiquette” have been interpreted as part and parcel of the grievances the young have against the complacent old. Nothing new, of course—isn’t this what student protesters were saying in the 1960s?—but the new medium does change matters, and it makes me wonder about age and adulthood and maturity. I hesitate to interrupt these social media conversations among senior academics just as much as I would hesitate to insinuate myself into a senior academic’s social circle in real life: what could I possibly have to offer, and why would they want to talk to me? The last time an established professional genuinely asked my opinion about something in a social setting (though in this case it was not an academic but a freelance writer with close ties to the academy), it was to ask how I, as a young person, thought she should have The Sex Talk with her teenage daughter. That I can do—but my thoughts on the job market are pretty irrelevant.

That’s what I think, anyway, when it comes to personalities like TR and Historiann who are respectful to others generally and would seem to be good mentors to their own graduate students. I was less certain of elder wisdom at a committee meeting earlier this year when a suggestion another master’s student and I presented for alteration of our course’s curriculum was literally laughed out of the meeting by a senior faculty member. While most of my interactions in academia since entering the profession as an apprentice have served to increase my faith in the system, if my first forays had only been met with the few instances I have encountered of disdain and belittling—and if advantage compounded upon advantage didn’t serve to ease my entrée into elite institutions—I would no doubt be filled with as much rage and desire to cut the pompous tenured down to size as some of the young people whose stories I’ve heard whose experience in academia was not kind to them. My good fortune may have insulated me from being eaten away by poisonous feelings of betrayal by the system, but I can kind of see where these people are coming from, because I am also young.

I have six months left in the master’s, and soon I will hear where my next, much longer and more momentous, posting will be, in one of three major US cities. At the moment, I am eager to start the next chapter of my academic life: while I have realized that the UK postgraduate education system doesn’t suit my immediate needs, I have become more confirmed in my vocation, and look forward to stepping up my training as a historian, meeting new mentors, having a cohort, having fresh ideas about a wider variety of subjects. And in fact, my academic progress this year has been a delight, and I have had some small successes that have made me proud.

But I struggle daily with the world outside the academic sphere: with being a good and generous person and a good friend and colleague, which is so hard; with being happy day-to-day, which is harder; with how to become the kind of person I want to be able to say I am in twenty or thirty years’ time. What’s more, all this tends towards solipsism, which is something I am also trying to avoid. Hence why I have been writing less here, and why explaining what has happened this year assumes less importance than does putting what energy I find that I have in these short, dark days to being the kind of adult who has the capacity to understand Middlemarch, who remembers what it was to be young and tempestuous and uncertain as much as she finds contentment in the more generous and worldly spirit brought on by maturity, and who prays that loving the world as hard as she can really is what it takes to find love in return.

Happy new year and all my very best for 2014.

Feeding the Masses: A Manifesto

No, this isn’t a post about eating locally or sustainably or freshly (though those things are important too); it isn’t a post about how food is a marker of class, and how eating well on a budget is something it’s difficult for people who don’t already have a lot of cultural capital to do; and it isn’t a post about cooking as an art form, about having five kinds of cider vinegar in your cupboard or making your own herb blends or replicating the dishes at Ottolenghi. Instead, it’s a post about some things I’ve been thinking about since, a few months ago, a close friend who often eats my cooking suggested that cooking was my hobby. Since then, I’ve been thinking about what it means to have a hobby, about the ways that the entirely extracurricular things that we do can help us to be better laborers and better people, and about an entirely unexpected dividend of finding a hobby that I didn’t expect when I first started to look for one two and a half years ago.

When I first came to Oxford as an undergraduate on an exchange, I found myself adjusting, effectively, to grad-school-lite: I had maybe two seminars or tutorials a week, and none of the extracurricular activities I had pursued at Princeton. My time was far less scheduled than it was with four or five classes and a host of other commitments, and I struggled to establish a routine that allowed me to get all my work done at my own pace. It didn’t seem as hard then as it does now, and I managed full days in the Bodleian with Symonds and my tutorial essays, but I’d come back to my room after six hours or so and find myself at loose ends. I watched a lot of TV, and sometimes I hung out with friends, but it didn’t seem like enough to fill all those hours. I struggled to find some other facet of my life, something that wasn’t work but that still could feel like I was really using that time for good… and so I started to learn ancient Greek, spending hours tracing the letters over and over, using Edwardian textbooks I’d picked up in the Oxfam bookshop in Turl Street to try to learn to read some simple stories. A couple classes, a trip to Greece, and many friendships with classicists later, and Greek is a huge part of both my scholarly life—in which I study intellectuals for whom the Greek language gave shape to everything they thought and did—and the conversations I have after lunch in the MCR. But even back in the spring of 2011, it didn’t feel like a hobby. It always felt like something I needed to do to learn more, to be a better scholar, to get inside the heads of my Victorians the way that Oxford taught me to do in so many respects. I felt the same way about most other leisure pursuits: reading novels also needed to have some educative purpose, as did watching YouTube or spending time on Facebook or anything else frivolous I might have imagined. Feeling acutely my ignorance, I struggled—and still struggle—to do things to relax that don’t make it seem like I’m wasting valuable time.

It turns out, however, that demands of graduate school or no, everyone needs to eat. Back in Princeton for my final year, my commitment to a cooking co-op meant that I was obliged to spend two hours helping to prepare dinner once a week; I developed there skills of creativity, to make something edible out of whatever was in the fridge, and I developed confidence, speed, and agility in the kitchen. More importantly, I developed a sense of pleasure gained from feeding large groups of people, of community and grounded sense of self through food. The following summer in Paris and Greece, I often cooked for others by myself; this past academic year in Oxford and actually in grad school, I rejoiced in having a kitchen of my own in which to ground myself. I attained new levels of independence I didn’t have in the co-op: able to decide where I would buy my food and how much I would spend, what I would make and how I would make it, whether I would cook just for me, able to indulge in private my guilty desire to eat too much cheese, or whether I would host dinner parties of eight or ten—learning to make the Middle-Eastern dishes I inherited from the Syrian Jewish side of my family, and striving to come even close to the Syrian Jewish rule of having fifteen dishes on the table.

And what I’ve learnt this year is that having my own kitchen (or, well, a kitchen I shared with three flatmates who were very patient when I was monopolizing the hobs) illustrated a sense of independence and control not only in contrast to life in the co-op, but also, and vitally, in contrast to the rest of my life. As a first-year and now second-year grad student, it often seems as if I can’t control most aspects of my life. I can’t control what I need to do each day, the standards by which my work is assessed, or what subject matter I need to learn. I can’t control where I live—which city, or which university accommodation complex—who my colleagues are, or anything about my future. I can’t control the city I will be moving to in a year for my Ph.D., whether I will get a job, what kind of job, or where, or even seemingly my work-life balance.

But I do have to eat at least two meals a day, and I can control everything about those meals. Even when I’ve had a demoralizing day making backward progress on my research, I can make sure there’s food I like on my table. I can take time away from my work to prepare it, without feeling as if it makes me a lesser or less dedicated person. Despite my constant anxieties about whether pursuing a life in academia is an ethically justifiable path, I can take some concrete steps that I believe to be clearly more ethical than their alternatives by giving up meat, shopping at local traders (within reason: there are tradeoffs, and it’s okay to admit that the East Oxford Farmers’ Market is not designed for a grad-student budget), and buying things that are fresh, in season, and didn’t have to take a plane to get to me. As I’ve learned better how to budget my stipend, I’ve identified products that are worth paying more for (fairtrade coffee, vegetable bouillon that isn’t full of chemicals) and ones that aren’t (local cheese) and I know this isn’t much, but it helps me to get through the days. I struggle, still, not to binge secretly on junk food, particularly on the really shitty days, but I’ve learned how the monotony of going to the library every day and doing the same thing can be relieved by trying a new recipe. And in a world that seems often so distanced from reality, I value the opportunity to do something with my hands, even if it’s just kneading dough: at least it leaves me with the accomplishment of fresh bread, something I made myself, and not the constant shame and demoralization that for me tend to accompany most other physical things. It’s also a way of forming connections with other people, which can be so difficult in this solitary life. Just as it was in the co-op, dinner is an excellent excuse to invite people over, gather them round a table, and get them to talk to each other.

Towards the end of last term, I had a few people over for homemade pizza. You have to wait for the dough to rise, but otherwise it’s the easiest company meal ever, and I was somewhat taken aback by the praise they (very generously) lavished upon me. This isn’t so hard! I hastened to say. I followed a cookbook slavishly! I got most of the ingredients at Tesco! I have nothing like the creativity and omnicompetence that my mother displays in the kitchen, and what’s more it turns out to be easier than it looks—and certainly no burden on a grad-student schedule—to learn how to make a few different things from scratch.

So, I guess that after all that searching, I have happened upon a hobby. But I don’t really see it that way, as something external or ancillary to the other things I do. Instead, I see it as the primary thing that keeps me sane, something that forces me to step away from the computer for a couple hours, something that helps me to create a social life, something at which I have no particular skill, but at least—unlike my academic work, it often seems—I can be competent. It feels in a life already so advantaged and spoiled and disconnected from the problems of real life that it would be absurdly self-indulgent to pursue recreation. But at least everyone deserves to eat, and to eat well, I think, and it turns out it’s not difficult to do that on a small stipend if you only have one mouth to feed, with occasional guests.

I’ve been struggling this summer with the lack of structure in my working life, and feeling weighed down by the length of the apprenticeship before I will be able to do the things that I think make this vocation a socially and culturally valuable one. It will be years before I’ll be able to benefit anyone with the profession for which I’m spending almost all my waking hours training. But at least, in the interim, I can put food on the table, and a little liveliness and color into my friends’ lives—and my own.
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Thoughts on Transatlantic Academia

It’s now been a scant two weeks since I sat down with my undergraduate mentor and started to draw up a list of all the Ph.D. programs I’m interested in applying to this coming autumn, and just a week since I met with my current supervisor and decided not to apply to any UK programs at all. When I realized earlier this year that, if one works on British and/or European topics in a well-funded US program (as any US program that a student hopes to attend should be), one will realistically have opportunities to come back all the time, for summers and possibly even a year of the dissertation, and maybe even for a postdoc, it made it easier to know that I’ll have to say goodbye at this time next year to my favorite country and city. I’m not making a decision now about the country in which I’ll spend the rest of my life.

But as I correspond with faculty and grad students at the institutions where I’m considering applying, it is being strongly impressed upon me what serious decisions I am making, and the high stakes even of writing a simple email of introduction to faculty, months before the application process really begins. One of the reasons I decided not to apply in the UK is that I am intellectually exhausted: after the BA and master’s theses, both of which I’m still working on, I don’t yet have in me a third project for a UK doctoral proposal, much less the energy to turn round and start researching and writing a significant piece of original work immediately after turning in my master’s thesis. I want to feel as if I can take next summer off, and then spend a couple years writing research papers and just trying out ideas before I commit to the one that’s going to stay with me at least through the dissertation and first book, if not forever.

Those, too, are considerations that American programs take seriously, and another reason I’ve decided to go back is that I’d like to be in a program that cares about what you’ll become after the doctorate, regardless of whether you wind up in a traditional academic position. As someone who thinks teaching is the most important part of academia, I’m looking more favorably upon programs that provide for a significant amount of teaching experience (one program I’m interested in has you teaching one class/section a semester for three years, starting in your second year, which sounds like the perfect balance of significant experience without preventing you from finishing the degree)—not to mention that this will be the best training for my Plan B career, teaching school. That said, even though I know we’re not supposed to think of non-academic careers as “Plan B” these days, it is for me: I recognize that not everyone who wants an academic job can have one, but I’ve wanted an academic job nearly all my sentient life, and I’d like to be in a program that will prepare me to go on the job market, and that will teach me intellectual independence without just throwing me in the deep end and seeing if I will sink or swim.

There’s a certain amateur quality to the British Ph.D., at least in its Oxbridge form (I strongly suspect it may be different elsewhere, and am surprised by how isolated Oxford grad students and faculty seem to continue to be from the rest of the top British research universities where people are doing excellent work). You notice this among the many doctoral students who don’t have any particular desire to be professional academics, as well as among the many doctoral students who do, but who are clueless about how to prepare for the job market, don’t have the institutional support to do so, and simply haven’t been given the talks that my advisors gave me all throughout undergrad about how few jobs there are and how statistically unlikely it is that you’ll be the one who bags one. There’s a sort of gentlemanly attitude here of pretending that you’re just in it for the life of the mind, which would all be very well if we really were all gentle(wo)men of leisure who didn’t have to put food on the table at the end of the day. As infuriating as this is, it’s also just interesting to note how it’s manifested itself in an application process that differs greatly from the US. My British friends on master’s courses here who applied to continue to the doctorate had to write a doctoral research proposal, sure, but they don’t seem to have worried too much or thought too deeply otherwise about the different strengths and weaknesses of all the available programs in the country (or world!), applied to a wide swathe of programs to ensure they would have a couple options to choose from, or taken into consideration the placement statistics of their selected programs. Most just assumed they would carry on at Oxford (many of them had also done their undergrad here), and maybe a few also applied to Cambridge or to another Russell Group university in case they didn’t get a funded place at Oxford. Some didn’t get funding, and carried on at Oxford anyway, the major no-no of American grad-school-application advice. For them, it seems, it’s all been a matter of routine.

Compare, then, the emails I’ve been getting from American faculty and grad students, and from my own mentors, all impressing upon me the seriousness of this decision. While most of the faculty I’ve approached have been kind and helpful, some have given me the sense that I’m auditioning for them and have to prove myself, reminding me of the at times cutthroat nature of American grad school, particularly in the most elite programs. (Indeed, what prompted me to write this post was an offhand remark in Historiann’s latest post about the “paranoid fantasies” grad students tell each other to freak each other out.) I may not be deciding which country to live in forever, but the American system makes it clear to me that I am making decisions that will determine my future career prospects, or at least my happiness and intellectual fulfillment for the next six or so years, and the city where I’m going to spend the rest of my twenties. At least there’s also an expectation in the American system that this is a decision older and wiser people will help you to make, and I’ve welcomed the vast quantity of advice I’ve received from sage and well-informed elders, even as difficult as it is to sift through it all.

The question that lingers in the back of my mind, though, is whether I can take the heat. In some respects I’ve felt under-stimulated by the amateur, and entirely self-directed, quality of Oxford academic life. But can I handle the pressure-cooker that is American academia? Will I learn to develop a thicker skin and more intellectual self-confidence, and withstand the atmosphere of direct competition with the most brilliant young historians in America? Will I, indeed, be on the face of it clever enough to compete with them at all? After all, I feel as if I have so much catching-up to do in terms of knowledge of the past and of the historiography. And, most importantly, am I willing to spend the rest of the decade halfway up a greasy pole (there’s a nice Victorian metaphor for you!), knocking off others in order to shin my way up to the top? If it gets too ugly, will I be able to let my dreams of status and intellectual fame go, and take an unhistoric teaching job anywhere that will have me?

Never mind the historical questions I have to wrestle with as I revise my writing sample and begin to think about how to structure my personal statement. I feel like I’m in a reality television show, and shit just got real.