Bettering in Glasgow

I write from Glasgow, where, after four days of stooping over a desk squinting at the scrawl of some nineteen-year-old doing the minutes of the Queen Margaret College Debating Society, following on from ten or so days of intensive work with colleagues at conferences and workshops in modern British history, I am pretty shattered. Glasgow has been fascinating, just ever so slightly different from England and full of history and also good food (did you know that there was a major wave of Italian immigration to Glasgow in the interwar period, leading to a profusion of espresso and ice cream shops? I learned that at the museum today). But as thrilled as I am to find out that I am able to work again, after so many weeks in a fog, I am still faced with the questions that have troubled me for the last few years, but particularly since orals: how does one make a life of which work is only one part? How does one develop other capacities, other parts of oneself? What does one do with the time in which one wants to step away from work, or simply can’t work any longer? How did I get to be in my late 20s already, and what the hell am I doing with my life? Absent any easy answers (or a decent segue), I’ll do what I do best and spout some facts. Here are my main takeaways from the archive (which will not be as good as the fish and chips I intend to have before leaving Glasgow tomorrow—see what I did there?):

When, ten days ago, I decided I wanted to focus my dissertation on opponents of or those uncertain about coeducation, I was acting on a hunch and the excited reactions I got when I told this to some people who had had a few glasses of wine. Happily, I found some usable stuff at Glasgow to add to this story: to the male Oxford benefactor I have who endowed a college to keep women out of it, I can add a woman benefactor who singlehandedly endowed a women’s college and fought as hard as she could for it to have exactly equal teaching to the main (men’s) University but just as hard for it to remain a separate institution rather than admitting women to the classes and lectures already happening at the university—over the objections of the university staff and administrators who, not unreasonably, pointed out that it was a bit unfair to expect the lecturers to teach everything twice to two groups of students when they could just as easily lecture to all the students at once. This benefactor and the other Glasgow ladies who started and continued to run the college (who tended to be married, and not necessarily educated) also actively barred women from applying for academic posts at the college. They said it was a conservative atmosphere at the University obliging them to discourage women from applying—but it was they who sent the cold and firm letters to hopeful applicants for lectureships in English and German. There was a generational gap, too: the students interacted more easily with their male counterparts than these ladies did, and the formality of having one annual joint debate between the women’s and men’s debating societies, or hesitation about whether the men’s and women’s student unions should merge, ultimately gave way to interpellation (the choral society was the first to blend). By 1935, when Queen Margaret College dissolved and women were admitted as full members to the University of Glasgow and all its constituent parts, people seem to have struggled to recall the mentality of the 1890s and 1900s when the struggles over the benefaction were happening.

Another thing I want to achieve with my dissertation is to take the story of British universities away from Oxbridge. The Scottish universities in particular are as old as Oxford and Cambridge but never have a place in the stories of university reform, student life, and gender that historians who prefer to take their cues from Dorothy Sayers and Vera Brittain tell about my period (not, of course, that there’s anything wrong with either! But you see what I mean). But as I learned this week, important things were going on constitutionally in Scotland—the Universities (Scotland) Act 1889 constituted a major reorganization of the higher education system, of which opening the door to women’s admission was just a part—and social and cultural changes followed suit. Yet just as we now know that national histories cannot be told in vacuums, as if borders are really barriers, you can’t tell a story about the Scottish universities that doesn’t also take Oxbridge into consideration. Knowing themselves to be behind the curve compared to their colleagues at Girton or King’s College London, the Glasgow women constantly compared themselves to their English counterparts. They wrote letters and made visits to Cambridge and London in particular to see how things were done there; and as these society philanthropists learned from scratch and through trial and error the business of how to run a college, they relied on the advice of Girton’s Emily Davies and other pioneers to help them navigate the terrain. A story of coeducation and resistance to it that left out the Scottish universities would be woefully incomplete, but so would one that treated the Scottish universities as if they weren’t less than a day’s train travel away from southeast England—as I will find out tomorrow, when I take the East Coast mainline home to Cambridge, just as any of these ladies might have done a century ago. In the Queen Margaret debating society in 1891, one of the students, speaking in favor of the motion, “That we are fortunate in having escaped the ‘good old days,'” mentioned women’s newfound ability to travel alone by train and by bicycle as one of the extraordinary social revolutions that had happened in her lifetime. When I get to Cambridge station tomorrow evening and get on my bike to go home, I’ll do it thinking of the undergraduates in Glasgow who write in their minutes of leaving the annual joint meeting with the men’s debating society and racing each other down the street to make the last tram.

Academic Twitter has been afire the last few days with something disparaging a Labour peer said about academics and how we waste our summers. I didn’t follow the controversy closely—for whom do I need to assure that I work in the summers, as this commentary attests; or that working very hard drove me to three months of stupefying exhaustion and burnout from which I am only just emerging?—but my eye was drawn by a wonderful thread my senior colleague Christina de Bellaigue posted yesterday on precisely the theme of “That we are fortunate in having escaped the ‘good old days’.” Christina’s call for the need to historicize shows us just why university history matters so much, why we need to write analytically and not nostalgically, why it belongs to those trained as historians as much as those trained in other disciplines or none, why it needs to be written by those who didn’t attend the institutions in question as much as those who did, why it is a subject of serious historical research and not merely of trivia and pedantry. We need to recover the history of institutions that don’t get talked about, like Glasgow, and show just how hugely important they are—but we also need to write the history of the institutions about which NO ONE EVER BLOODY SHUTS UP in better ways, more serious ways, ways that—maybe?—it takes a foreign young woman with a chip on her shoulder and a very, very complicated relationship with Oxbridge indeed to achieve. (I mean, you know, that’s just a hypothetical example. I’m certainly not thinking of anyone in particular.) We need a history of the universities in Britain that does not treat them as isolated kingdoms but as, in the nineteenth century (though also before), part of a modern, interconnected world linked by sophisticated communication and transportation networks, advanced capitalism, and a common language and that necessarily looked to each other on matters of policy and culture as well as sharing a relatively tiny set of people who were actually qualified to teach in and administer them. The modern history of these institutions—which were first organized into their recognizable forms through the interventions of both government and private enterprise in the mid-nineteenth century—had lasting consequences for the institutions we academics and students live and work in today. What some 20-year-old women said in the Glasgow women’s debating society in 1890 has implications for what some 50-something politician who had a JRF once writes in the paper 127 years later.

Spare a thought for Queen Margaret College, late of the University of Glasgow. And spare a thought, maybe, if you feel so inclined—you certainly needn’t—for someone who, though she seeks to write a better university history (and is excited to be back in the saddle again), is still left wondering how to find what else there is to living and being besides the work of universities, and how to make it her own.

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