Sociability, Cognitive Dissonance, A Sense of Purpose, and My First Dress in Three Years; or, Here We Are At Week 3

My exchange partner was having a cup of tea in my room yesterday afternoon, and we were talking about cultural differences between Princeton and Oxford. In Trinity College, single rooms come with two chairs, one of which my exchange partner was occupying; I, from my position in the other, noted how Princeton doesn’t provide you with a second chair—it’s almost as if the university doesn’t expect you to have people over. We got to talking, the two of us, about the kinds of social interchanges different kinds of furniture setups engender. At Princeton, where, in the absence of second chairs, many students bring their own couches, they might find themselves setting up their rooms so that the couch is angled towards a television, for DVDs or video games, or so that it provides enough seating for lots of people to cradle red plastic cups at a party. That’s usually in quads, though. Most single rooms in Princeton aren’t even large enough for a second chair. In Trinity (and, I can only assume, elsewhere in Oxford—I get the impression this is something larger than my college), meanwhile, where it is considered highly bizarre that American college students usually share bedrooms, my exchange partner and I were leaning towards each other on the edge of our chairs, drinking tea and engaged in conversation. Tea and sociability are standard hallmarks of the behavior in Oxford, I have found, to an extent that they are not in Princeton. People here are constantly wandering into each other’s rooms, are constantly putting the kettle on. People here take seriously the practice of socializing and of sociability. I don’t think that in Oxford you would be likely to hear the Princeton student’s common complaint that in order to see your friends, you need to schedule socializing into your calendar. Partly this is a function of the college system, and how small communities of people who live and eat in close proximity to each other are much more central to an Oxford life than disparate ties flung across a university campus. But I can’t help thinking it is also a function of the fact that Trinity puts two chairs in our rooms, and that when I arrived here, there was a teakettle sitting on the side table.

The performance of sociability, with all its rules and its rituals, appears organically in tea-time, but it is rigidly—and weirdly—enshrined in the institution of the formal dining-hall meal, which at Trinity occurs six days a week (the last of the six being an exceptionally formal meal known as “Guest Night,” to which I’ll come presently). The process of formal hall (as well as its frequency) varies from college to college, but my understanding is that at every college it is highly ritualized. At Trinity, you wear your academic gown over your regular clothes, the gown itself playing its own part to socially demarcate according (literally) to degree. You sit down to table, where the places are laid one next to the other so that you can’t sit in a corner by yourself; you have to join the crowd and talk to your neighbors. You can’t be late: at the time the meal is scheduled to start (or maybe a few minutes late, if high table—fellows (that is, faculty) and guests—is tardy to accumulate), a gavel is banged and the entire hall, amidst a scraping of chair legs, rises to its feet. The President of the college comes to the edge of the high-table dais; a Scholar (that is, a student who’s done well in her Preliminary exams) comes to the edge of the high-table dais from the other side, recites a Latin grace, bows to the President, the President says “amen,” the rest of us mumble an echo, and then we all sit down. We’re served a meal in a brisk and itself ritualized order: first the bread roll, then the soup or salad, then the meat or fish with its accompanying vegetables in an aluminum tray at the center of the table, then the pudding (dessert), which is usually drenched in an unbelievably sweet sauce. We drink water (once in a while a kid will bring a pint up from the college bar), and eat off utilitarian tableware. After an hour, we filter out in twos and threes—some to the bar or to a pub outside college, others back to their rooms to do work and consume yet more tea. It’s a bizarre thing, which has not yet ceased to fascinate me, so utterly different is it to what the college dining-hall meal is understood to be in Princeton. Pompous traditions of the gowns and the Latin grace aside, hall dinner demonstrates some interesting things about what social values Oxford feels is important: members of the college all dine together, all stand for grace together and all are served together. And yet members of the college are still served (I rather imagine the young women about our age who bring our plates and take them away must loathe we entitled brats), and members of the college are still insistently differentiated by degree, by the length of our gowns and the height of high table. One evening two weeks ago, I completely shocked my neighbors at the long, wooden table by mentioning that at Princeton, my college master waltzes into the dining hall at any old hour in gym clothes. Really: they didn’t know what to say in reply.

So far, all this is assimilable. Though elite universities as a genre may be more alike than they are different, there are nevertheless subtle differences—perhaps attributable to what happens when the elite-university model is filtered through the British and the American cultures respectively, perhaps down to the two institutions’ comparative age, perhaps down to the two different Christian traditions (and two different understandings of the role of religion in public life, see Latin grace, above) out of which the institutions respectively evolved. So far, all this can be subject to my amateur anthropologist’s eye—as tonight, when I met and made small talk with a couple new acquaintances next to whom I found myself sitting, and kept sneaking glances at the party at high table.

What I found more difficulty coping with, however, was Guest Night, to which I found myself going on the Friday of the first week of term. One of my new friends happened to have an extra spot for a guest (though you are encouraged to bring guests to Guest Night, you’re not required, and indeed you can bring or not bring a guest or two on any night), and invited me to join him; I, because I am studying abroad and therefore always open to new experiences, accepted. It was one of the most enjoyable meals I’ve ever had, and yet I have perhaps never felt so uncomfortable at a dinner’s conclusion. At Guest Night (which costs about four times as much as regular hall), there are four courses—the same as the rich, luxurious ones served at high table—and most people will bring some wine up from the college bar. There are candles on the tables, and everyone dresses formally under their gowns: the boys in suits and long ties, I—for the first time since I played my last orchestra concert in June 2008—in a dress. After two hours at table (and not one, but two, graces!) our party repaired, like most people, to the college bar, where we drank port. It was there, sitting amidst at least fifty people in suits and ties and dresses and all of us in our gowns, sipping a glass of port, that I began to feel profoundly ill-at-ease. Earlier that day, after all, I’d been reading Marxist theory—and now here I was, doing my part to enshrine social inequality, having been waited on at table for an expensive meal and now drinking port in an institutional setting where it is completely acceptable, and indeed normal, to do all these things. I had, and am still having, a hard time processing this Friday night, and a hard time knowing whether keeping my American-academic-brat-turned-study-abroad-amateur-anthropologist’s ironic distance from it absolves me sufficiently from complicity in a really problematic system. This, it seems, is the dark side to sociability—and although I have now overcome the culture shock of that night, I am still trying to fit it into my understanding of Oxford, what Oxford means, and what it means for me to be at Oxford.

Though I was profoundly worried about this problem for a couple days, I snapped out of it the Sunday after Guest Night. I was sitting in the second chair in my room (though by myself), reading John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua and trying to cram my brain with enough knowledge to write an essay about the theological debates of nineteenth-century Oxford. As I sat there reading, the clock turned 6pm—and then I started to hear the bells of the Trinity clock ringing, and then more bells out southwards and eastwards across the city, as college chapels, after tradition, called their members to Sunday Evensong. Far fewer students today, of course, come to chapel on Sunday evenings before hall than they did when Newman was an undergraduate here at Trinity, but through reading Newman and hearing the bells I felt a powerful jolt of connection to the past, and a powerful jolt of recollection of why I’m in Oxford at all. I’m studying abroad for the sake of exposure to a different culture and new experiences, yes, but I have come to Oxford because I study nineteenth-century British intellectual history, and intend to make a life out of learning and making and teaching that history. I have come to Oxford for the reasons that Spanish majors go to Spain and Russian majors go to Russia and Japanese majors go to Japan: I am in Oxford because the people I study were almost all connected to this university in some way, because the intellectual debates which raged across the nineteenth century took place within its walls, and because when I sit reading Newman I hear the same sounds of the city that he could hear while he was writing. I remembered that I’m an academic—and that when at a new university, you do as your colleagues do, and at the same time make sure your students know not to take their class privilege for granted.

Since then, my schoolwork has been accompanied by flashes of the characters who populated this same place a hundred and fifty years ago. Last week, as I finished my essay a few hours before my first tutorial, I thought of Symonds doing the same, 140 years ago and just over the next wall, in advance of his tute on Plato with Benjamin Jowett. Today, while reading John Stuart Mill in the Radcliffe Camera, I thought about Wilde’s commonplace book, which is filled with notes on Greek literature and German philosophy, and how he might have sat at a desk in the Upper Camera and read for Greats some of the same things (like Hegel) I have to be familiar with now. On my bookshelf sit late-19th-century editions of Symonds, both Arnolds, and Carlyle, borrowed from the Trinity library—undergraduates must have borrowed them a hundred and fifty years ago, too, when they were new and their binding wasn’t falling to bits from a century and a half of use.

There is nothing like knowing a place by being in it, nothing like seeing the walls that demarcate the closed circle of the Oxford intellectual scene in any century, nothing like watching gowns flap behind students as they cross a dusky quad to hall, nothing like sensing that Wilde and Symonds and Pater and Arnold and Jowett and Newman and so many others must have learned to talk and to write over cups of tea in tutorials and in hall and when their friends came over and sat in their second chairs. And there is nothing like hoping, as you struggle to adapt your American-honed historian’s skills to the problem of the Oxford essay, that Symonds would have had to work just as hard for his degree, but would have got just as much eager pleasure from looking out the window of his college onto Broad Street and listening to the chapel bells sound.

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