Settling In; or, In Which We Discover the Constancy of Academia

It’s just a few hours short of a week since I left America, and already my last glimpse of suburban New Jersey as friends waved me goodbye from the train platform seems years away. I took my last Princeton exam this morning, had my first Oxford class yesterday, and now I sit in a chair in my bedroom, procrastinating on reading Marxist theory and making yet another cup of tea (the fourth since lunchtime) in order to fight off impending exhaustion—my last Princeton exam, after all, was at 9am, a fact which I remembered when I went home at 4:30 because I was dozing off in the Upper Reading Room of the Radcliffe Camera while struggling through Gramsci.

The instant I got over the jetlag, everything here began to seem so absurdly normal that all the little superficial differences very quickly faded into insignificance. Yes, we wear academic gowns to dinner and stand for a Latin grace before we get served three courses at table. Yes, all the buildings are old, and many of them are quite beautiful. Yes, I have to write an essay or two a week, and read them to my tutors. Yes, I now live in one of the strangest cities in the world, in which dreaming spires abut supermarkets and overpriced coffeeshops and ordinary people’s houses. Yes, everyone drinks a lot, and (as my Princeton advisor said in his parting advisory speech to me) drinking to excess is not correlated with anti-intellectualism the way it is in America. Yes, English dessert is very weird. Yes, I’ve met people who went to Eton and Harrow and Winchester. Yes, I still keep forgetting to look right then left when crossing the road.

But for all this, I look back on a day like today (after I finished my exam) and think fondly on the lazy scholarship that has characterized every one of the past six first weeks of term, and to which this first term away from America is no exception. At lunch, I talked historical theory and academic gossip with a graduate student; at dinner, I adjudicated the high-spirited and frivolous arguments of a gaggle of freshers (18-year-olds seem younger and younger every time I interact with them). Between, I watched the sun break out from behind the clouds and stream in glistening stripes through the enormous windows of the Radcliffe Camera, and I bumbled my way through Gramsci and Lukacs and kept running back to college for tea breaks. People keep asking me about America, expecting me to tell them how different my life there is. But what has this blog been for the past two years but a record of books read and dining-hall meals had?

Of course, many of the reasons the two worlds mirror each other so closely have to do only with elite education systems and with nothing else. Princeton is to America as Oxford is to England; in some sense, elite education has nothing whatever to do with the rest of the world, and the cast of characters and ways of life are much the same. There are the dryly humorous grad students, there are the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed freshers, and there are the boatloads of students from privileged backgrounds with little self-awareness who spend a lot of time partying, very little time studying, and plan to go into investment banking the instant they can tick the boxes of the rigamarole that is this silly little liberal arts education. Though I shouldn’t in the least be surprised by it, I have to confess I hadn’t expected to find this last category to quite such a degree in Oxford. I had forgotten how sealed-off my circle in Princeton is from most of the rest of that university, and I hadn’t realized just how constant the cast of characters is that makes up the whole of a university, not just the most alabaster stones in the ivory tower (if you know what I mean). I am quite sure I have spent more effort in the past week brainstorming just how to sift through these sets to find the students with whom I want to be friends than I have on my schoolwork. It took me almost a year to do the same in Princeton, and I don’t have that much time here. I’ve been fighting with all my willpower against my natural shyness, employing all the social skills I’ve learned in the past two and a half years to seek out like-minded people—from gentle small-talk questions to my best attempts at humor to the tried-and-true strategy of gravitating to LGBT social events. I’m working hard at this—friending people on Facebook to make sure I learn their names, plopping myself down next to new people in hall—and I find it starting to bear fruit.

But these efforts to make friends have also begun to teach me a larger lesson, which also returns us to the point of the nature of the academic world. You see, if I have discovered anything in the semester that ended this morning when I sat my last exam, it is that I am a teacher in my own right, one with real academic identity and ability, who is going to live a life of teaching and research forever. This sense of identity and of vocation seems, recently, to have done something I would never have thought possible a few months ago: it has eradicated the gnawing torture of self-doubt which once characterized my inner life. Suddenly every moment I spend in my room is not wasted; suddenly every moment I spend frustrated with an ignorant, sexist, and homophobic Oxford-version-of-a-bro becomes a teaching moment; suddenly I am always loving what I do, because I need not constantly have everything be perfect to know that I am still a good person who is doing the right thing for me and for the bits of the world which I have the power to affect.

I spent my last couple weeks in Princeton desperately trying to discern where I would find the culture shock in Oxford. In a sense, I have found it in the sameness—and in a paradox: for Oxford both is and is not an academic paradise, and like at Princeton, I will have to work very hard to ensure that I can make it be one for me. The wonderful thing is that now I know how to do this. The last time I landed in a new university, I was 18 years old, had never lived away from home, and had no inkling of how I would relate to the world as a grown-up. A very great deal has changed since then, and now I land in Oxford able to appreciate the air of desultory scholarship and the tea and sociability; to negotiate just the right amount of amused detachment from the pomp and circumstance of gowns and grace; and to transform alienating social situations into ones I can control.

It is far too early yet to say what the outcome of all this will be. But I am certain that even in the same old routine of bedroom, library, and hall there is a great deal of potential waiting to be realized, and that I am certain to be learning now the skills of academic self-sufficiency I will need for the rest of my life.

Besides, getting to spend so much time in old buildings is wicked cool.

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