There’s been rather a lot of clickbait recently about gender and Oxbridge, on account of the fact that the newspapers love a good skewering of the intellectual elite. But the themes the newspapers have been taking up recently involve serious questions about what it means to teach at an elite university, about how to design a curriculum that best facilitates such teaching; about the history of how women were absorbed into these two particular universities and about the intellectual-historical circumstances under which they came to be credentialling institutions for an intellectual elite as well as finishing schools in which rich young men might spend a few years drunk. These include the news (misleadingly reported by the Telegraph, but ably defended by the wonderful Lucy Delap on the Today programme earlier this week) that Oxford is restructuring its undergraduate history curriculum to include more coursework in place of sat exams, in an attempt to reduce the large gender gap in exam success; and that Cambridge is trying to exchange feedback like “brilliant” or “genius,” which is highly gendered, for more specific descriptive language that makes substantive comments about the quality of the actual work. It will come as no surprise that I think these are entirely sensible measures that will improve the quality of teaching and feedback and help all students to succeed in the context of very rigorous curricula. But what to make of them—as a historian of British universities, as a university teacher, and as someone who in 36 hours will be boarding a plane to go back to live in British elite universities again, after three years? Here is some context.
Anyone with a passing acquaintance with the history of Oxford and Cambridge (e.g. me, age 20, the first time I washed up there) can see the legacies of these nineteenth- and twentieth-century historical processes in the present-day institutions. Two important characteristics that strike me as very unlike my experience in elite US universities are that the official institutional culture (of Oxford, at least, I’m not as familiar with Cambridge) has changed remarkably little in the last hundred-fifty years considering that the student and staff population has gone in that period from 100% to roughly 50% male (this of course due in part to the continual deliberate reinvention of tradition—but also I think to accident); and that there is a persistent myth that objective brilliance is a thing that students might exhibit, and that it can be measured through particular assessments at admissions, when awarding degrees, and when awarding particular scholarships and prizes. This is, of course, nonsense. In reality one’s ability to succeed at assessments is always structured in part by one’s intelligence, but in part by one’s class background, one’s access to decent education from early childhood, one’s access to a safe home and supportive family and other guardians and mentors. And a timed exam measures only one skill: a kind of quick-wittedness and ability to blather on about nothing convincingly. Those of us who are academically competitive, who have big mouths and lots of opinions, and who have been well-trained by our posh educations to bullshit, may get a thrill out of succeeding in these kinds of assessments. But they won’t capture the skill of a beautiful writer who takes her time to choose just the right word, of the cautious student who waits to make a pronouncement until he has assessed every piece of information and is certain of the answer, the self-doubting student who never got to hear that she’s just as good as the pretty and privately educated, or the student to whom the exams mean so much that to come anywhere other than top is a dire referendum on his value as a person, and who all too often simply collapses under the pressure. Competitive exams and the myth of genius disadvantage those whom we might expect to be structurally disadvantaged, but they do a disservice too to posh, academically talented men with unequalled access to excellent education. Okay, now maybe the Telegraph readers will sit up and take note—but it’s true.
I came to see this when I sat the All Souls exam in 2013. The holy grail of competitive exams, allegedly designed to identify the most objectively brilliant of all the candidates (who sit specialist papers in a wide range of fields, making them impossible actually to compare directly, but never mind), it was eyed as a prize by a certain kind of Oxford man who had come top in every exam he had ever sat since primary school, who had done his share of scholarship exams, who through both the National Curriculum and the way Oxford works had come to see his value determined by his ability to keep coming top in exams. 95 people sat this exam, some of whom told me over the course of the two days we spent sitting in a room writing together (perhaps they were just saying it, but the fact that they were saying it was itself telling) that they hadn’t bothered to revise anything because the exam was supposed to test intrinsic brilliance, not subject recall. I wouldn’t have thought that to be a sensible way to approach an exam of any kind—my All Souls specialist papers asked me questions about things like Ruskin and 17th-century North America, things it might help to remember something about in order to write on them, and even when we take the SAT or the LSAT or a similar “intelligence test,” we do some practice tests and revise how to do algebra first, and we know those tests reward people who can afford practice and tutoring and the like. But anyway, back to the All Souls exam: of these 95 candidates five were shortlisted, and one was elected as a fellow, and many of those men whose brittle exam stress I had sat in a room and watched for two days seemed crushed by it all. It’s no way to live, that—and how sad not to be able to see yourself for your personal qualities but only in terms of your marks. I’ve seen it too many times and I feel so sorry for them all—for the people whose brilliance those exams are supposed to find and reward, as well as those who feel left out by a system that is looking for something at which they feel they will never be able to succeed. As an instructive epilogue to this very interesting experience, some weeks after the exam, when I had already heard that I wasn’t shortlisted, I received a letter from All Souls in my college pigeonhole. The examiners had marked the scripts blind, and it turned out when the shortlisted candidates were revealed that they were all men. This was rather embarrassing for the examiners, who had made a special effort to encourage more women to sit the exam on the notion that all you needed to do was get more women in the door and then the exam would continue to find the most brilliant candidate, who might as well be a woman as a man. The shortlist seemed to give lie to that notion, so they sent me (and, I presume, some other women) this letter to say that I had done rather well, if not well enough to be shortlisted, and would I consider sitting the exam again next year. I rolled my eyes and resolved in that moment only to apply to PhDs in America.
Say what you like about American elite education—and my peers did, when I first came to Oxford seven years ago, and one of the first things the crowd around me in hall asked was, wasn’t Princeton one of those colleges where you get in because you’re an athlete or a legacy student but not for your academic ability?—the multiversity and the flexibility of its curriculum do allow for different forms of assessment and different measures of student success. A holistic admissions process (helped along, of course, with my class privilege to start with) is what gave me the opportunity to attend Princeton; my relative innumeracy meant that my test scores did not get me into the best state universities. That opportunity saved me: the chance to leave San Diego, to receive a world-class education, to meet lots of people who valued me for who I am, to be a smart, mouthy woman without being reviled (or, well, only being reviled a little bit—but supported in far greater measure), to participate in the exchange program that brought me to Oxford for the first time, early in the morning off a red eye and dragging two suitcases down Broad Street, unprepared for my first encounter with the English elite educational culture which I have spent the ensuing seven years trying to understand, through archives and through participant-observation.
Tomorrow evening I will drag two suitcases to JFK to board another redeye, and Friday afternoon another bus will spit me and my luggage out into “the heart of that grey city.” Oxford only for a week, for work, then to Cambridge, where I will be living for the next year as I research and begin to write my dissertation. A British friend who lived in the US for seven years before moving back to the UK said it feels like going back in time, and that rang true for me as well. The past three years in New York have changed me more than I had realized, and I am not sure what it will be like to face Britain now—not because of Brexit or the election or anything like that, but because I am older, and more tired, and more cynical, and ready to be the adult who teaches the young in these institutions instead of one of the young on a voyage of discovery myself. But it’s many years yet before I’ll be able to be that person—a long period of waiting, and shuttling back and forth between two continents, and writing a book about university coeducation—and I’m not sure who I am in the meantime. If there is a mode of social relations that lies between teacher and student, I don’t know how to inhabit it.
I was at my five-year college reunion a couple weeks ago, and while there I picked off the shelf in a mentor’s house a copy of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ collected works, which seemed like a sensible coping mechanism at the time. Here’s a piece of juvenilia Hopkins wrote when he was an undergrad himself, which stuck with me in terms of capturing something about nostalgia and youth and college and going back in time, even if the somewhat sickly-sweetness of it seems a world away from how I feel about things now:
New-dated from the terms that reappear,
More sweet-familiar grows my love to thee,
And still thou bind’st me to fresh fealty
With long-superfluous ties, for nothing here
Nor elsewhere can thy sweetness unendear.
This is my park, my pleasaunce; this to me
As public is my greater privacy,
All mine, yet common to my every peer.
Those charms accepted of my inmost thought,
The towers musical, quiet-walled grove,
The window-circles, these may all be sought
By other eyes, and other suitors move,
And all like me may boast, impeached not,
Their special-general title to thy love.
Thus, I come underneath this chapel-side,
So that the mason’s levels, courses, all
The vigorous horizontals, each way fall
In bows above my head, as falsified
By visual compulsion, till I hide
The steep-up roof at last behind the small
Eclipsing parapet; yet above the wall
The sumptuous ridge-crest leave to poise and ride.
None besides me this bye-ways beauty try.
Or if they try it, I am happier then:
The shapen flags and drillèd holes of sky,
Just seen, may be to many unknown men
The one peculiar of their pleasured eye,
And I have only set the same to pen.