Category Archives: Blog

Recuperating Intellectual History

I’ve just finished reading James Kirby’s wonderful book Historians and the Church of England. I have to say that the title did not make me feel optimistic, and I sat down to the book with a certain grimness, not unlike the feeling one has when one has no choice but to cycle several miles in the pouring rain. But it didn’t take long for me to set those assumptions aside. This is intellectual history at its best, making dry and complicated ideas clear and engaging and elucidating the relationship of the ideas to material causes and consequences. James doesn’t just read texts (though he does that very well); he also pays attention to national, church, and university politics, economic recessions, international cross-fertilizations, and more, showing us what historians who work in different subfields might gain from engaging with intellectual history/history of ideas, and what intellectual history/history of ideas can learn from other subfields.

I’m writing a real review for a journal, where I’ll be able to tell you more about the really creative and helpful interventions that the book makes. But I just wanted to say something a bit more personal here. Having spent the last three years editing one of the more public venues for writing in intellectual history/history of ideas, having along the way had a number of negative personal experiences with particularly cliquish, pretentious, and sexist intellectual historians, and having read an orals field in intellectual history and becoming frustrated with the persecution complex but simultaneous barrier-erecting/gate-keeping displayed by many of intellectual history’s most famous practitioners (sorry not sorry), I had resolved to wash my hands of the whole thing. For me, James’s book offers a kind of redemption for the field (which I’m sure would have pleased his Anglican historians!). It’s unapologetic in its core subject of historiography and its core method of analysis of published primary sources; to ask it to do something else (I found myself wishing that it had more to say about popular reception of the ideas under discussion) would be outside its remit. But it can do that without being crabbish or sententious or dull. I don’t think I knew that a book could do that until I read this one.

When I was a child I found mathematics unspeakably dull, didn’t put in any effort, and viewed myself as rather bad at it—having been placed, unlike most of my peers in the gifted program, into the second-from-top instead of the top stream. In an educational environment in which only success at math and science was valued, and in which boys clever at math and science in particular were regarded as the heroes of the school, this meant that I often didn’t view myself as especially intelligent, and had a constant vague sense of being short-changed or undervalued (it was my parents who noticed the gendered element to all this). Not only was I surprised when I was accepted to Princeton (which I persisted for several years in thinking must have been some sort of mistake—now I understand how lotteries and class privilege work), I was also surprised when, in my final year of school, I at last had a really great math teacher. I came to find calculus exciting, felt motivated to make endless neat little pencil columns of derivatives and proofs, and did very well in the class. Like many, I think, who didn’t have a good early education in a particular subject, I feel a sense of loss and regret that I didn’t have the opportunity to fulfill my potential in math, and that in particular a sexist environment told me that I wasn’t as capable of succeeding or being rewarded for my efforts as boys were. This is not to say that I would ever have been a brilliant mathematician, or that I’m not thrilled to be a historian and history teacher and far better suited to these roles than I have ever been to mathematical or scientific work. But I suppose it says something about how our ideas about intelligence and mental aptitude are socially/culturally constituted, and about how climates for learning matter as much as the ideas imparted or the pedagogical techniques used to impart them. (It also, by the by, says something about how understanding the history of ideas might well be aided by historians who also seek to understand the material contexts in which ideas are produced.)

I rehearse all this as an analogy for why we need more intellectual-history work like James Kirby’s. It would be nice if intellectual history were a field I might primarily associate with the tools that it brings to aid our understanding of the past, rather than with cliquishness and making me feel stupid. (This is not unlike how, at about the same age as I thought myself irredeemably stupid because I wasn’t in top-set math, I thought the primary criteria for being a Christian were opposing evolution and hating gay people—those were the main views espoused by the self-identified Christians I met and heard about in the Bush era.) It would be nice if it were a field like any other, that might be more open to engaging profitably with other fields of historical research and that were accessible to new voices and to those who prefer not to do their intellectual work in a tendentious, argumentative style or who seek to demonstrate their credentials through the greatest use of jargon and name-dropping. When I read James’s excellent prose, I feel like he takes the reader seriously and seeks to have a conversation with her (or with the historical profession more widely, as in his judicious reference to the work of the other historians with whom he engages). I don’t feel as if—as has happened when I am representing an intellectual-history publication at an intellectual-history event—he is walking straight past me in order to speak to my male colleague. His writing style shows that he views it as his responsibility to express his arguments clearly, not the responsibility of the reader to keep up with arcanities if she doesn’t want to be thought stupid. I want to assign all the awful intellectual historians I’ve met in the past few years to read Historians and the Church of England, to show them what it really means to be intelligent and generous, how to make their field a little less alienating, and how to write something from which even those of us who no longer consider ourselves intellectual historians might take some value.


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.

On Gender and Oxbridge, on the Eve of My Return There

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.

On a certain troll in The Spectator; or, did I mention that I am also defending my dissertation prospectus in four days?

I was struck, today, by Mary Beard’s response to that awful troll in the Spectator. (Edith Hall’s response is also great, as are the comments of Olivia Thompson and many other classicists on Twitter.)

Historians are often in the rather irritating position of having to pop up every so often when it’s relevant to offer a fun historical fact, which has the unfortunate consequence of leading other humanities scholars to suppose that all we do is learn facts and that we’re duller and more pedantic than others, who of course work with texts and read theory and are original and clever (spoiler alert: we do those things too!). But in my God-given role as purveyor of historical fun facts I will note that, whatever trolls in the Spectator may feel about the matter, the history of increasing access to classics at Beard’s university and others dates back to the massive expansion in grammar schools and in women’s education of the second half of the nineteenth century; and that there have long been dons who resisted Oxford and Cambridge entering the nineteenth century (to say nothing of the twentieth and the twenty-first), but that a great many good and dedicated people who were masters of university politics have slowly, in bits and pieces, manipulated institutional structures to make these universities far more open than they once were. There is still, of course, much to be done, and many difficult and unanswered questions about the way these two universities loom large in the national culture and whether that is a foundation on which good can be built at all. The teaching and study of classics has particularly played a disproportionate role in a debate about such questions that has been very much in the public eye over the course of the last two hundred years. But change has evidently occurred, and is going to keep occurring, because the question of what universities are for, like most questions, is a historically contingent one. I will explain why.

According to Wikipedia (yes, historians use Wikipedia, it’s awfully useful), said Spectator troll is the son of a factory owner, and the single-sex independent school he attended, founded in 1865, was part of a sort of access movement of its day, the public schools run on an Arnoldian model that were founded in the early-to-mid-nineteenth century precisely because progressives thought that the sons of factory owners, and not only the sons of landowners, deserved a good education. Said Spectator troll then went on to read English Language and Literature at Christ Church, Oxford, something made possible by Arthur Sidgwick and other dons, many of them classicists, who designed the English course as an equivalent to the language-and-literature education of classics suitable for women and other students who had not been to a public school—the great curricular revolution of the early twentieth century which also saw the development of Modern History, PPE/Moral and Political Sciences, and other such courses that sought to face the reality that translation into and out of Latin and Greek was not exactly the only suitable preparation for living in the modern age. Classicists have always—I think probably since Roman schoolmasters struggled to teach recalcitrant pupils Greek—been aware of the burdens and barriers that the study of two difficult foreign languages imposes even on the most willing pupils, and sought to find ways of circumventing that obstacle. And classicists, like all teachers, would always rather teach a willing pupil than one who already knows stuff but is bored and boring.

I always struggle to find ways of justifying and explaining my historical research on institutions and a surrounding culture that shaped the experiences of only a tiny minority of people in Britain and the empire in the period I study. I can never give an elevator pitch in a way that makes my work sound sexy. People ask me all the time why I only study elites. But the thing is, weirdly, for all that we live in a completely different universe from the one in which someone like Sidgwick lived (as my correspondence with his 104-year-old granddaughter vividly reminds me), these debates about the significance of elite education to British culture at large just won’t go away. They are rehearsed over and again as part of the drama of class (as culture, not, or not only, as dialectical materialism) in Britain—and as we are now all too aware, class as culture is the stuff of the 52 versus the 48 and of the uncertain future of unions of all kinds. This is a country in which how education makes class has a remarkably large role to play in who is in and who is out: the very first bill proposed by May’s government was about grammar schools. Many of the 47 Labour MPs who voted in Parliament against Article 50 represent university constituencies, not least Cambridge’s Daniel Zeichner. (And until 1950, of course, universities had their own seats in Parliament; in looking up that date, which I should probably already have committed to memory for Thursday, I learned that India and Rwanda still have university seats in their legislatures. The legacies of empire are more wide-ranging, and sometimes more bizarre, than we imagine.)

Some will probably say I oughtn’t to write several hundred words feeding a troll. But I’m not just feeding him, I’m congratulating him for being just the latest in a long queue of members of the British chattering classes who frequently remind me that my research—and the study of history more widely—matters, and bears a critical relation to understanding the mess that Britain is in today.

Ninth Week; or, Six Days to Orals

Many rather good things happened today, and after a gruelling week I am feeling rather more cheerful. But I think my favorite was the brief moment when I was walking back from the water fountain in the break between my two sections (the kids took very seriously the charge to think carefully and historically about whether to draw contemporary parallels with Mussolini’s fascism) and paused for a moment just out of sight in the doorway of the classroom next to mine. An undergraduate was sight-translating Greek, and he was pretty good.

I thought of the comedy of the Greek class scene in If, but also of a past in which I was in classes like that, and how far that person five years ago seems from who I’ve become since I came to Columbia; of how glad I am that the corridor of an educational institution allows such in medias res glimpses into instruction happening (would that someone would pause as longingly on the threshold of my classroom as I did on that instructor’s, and see the same beauty in my increasingly eccentric attempts to coax a discussion out of my students as I did in his quiet listening while his student effortlessly construed), but also how naïve now seems the certainty I once had that the western humanities were the natural center of a liberal education and that there is some kind of meaningful through-line tying together that instructor’s work and mine.

I also think now (home alone on Friday night, trying to make some meaning and some identity as an educator out of a scattered mess of my teaching, midcentury British film, and some half-remembered factoids involving the Municipal Corporations Act that I should probably learn by Thursday) how unselfconsciously I used to write to you in a confessional mode, and how embarrassed I feel doing so now; how evident it is that, at 27, I am not the person I was when I first began to write to you at 19 because I felt that my liberal education was falling into place.

An undergrad whom I sometimes buy coffee (holding in sacred trust the many cups of coffee my elders have bought for me over the years) told me that he is turning in his senior thesis a few days after I take my orals, and it turns out that it will be five years to the day from when I turned in my senior thesis, which is enough to make anyone get all verklempt in mourning for their lost youth. On April 3, 2012 at 1 p.m. I walked from the Rocky dining hall to my room on Holder quad to collect a heavy parcel wrapped in brown paper, and I cradled it gently as I crossed campus to Dickinson and was given a cookie in exchange for my cargo. Then I had to go to class—I think we were probably reading Swift, or Pope—and there was no one to celebrate with, and by the time I fetched up at co-op dinner I had managed somehow to get myself very drunk and very sad.

I am sure my friend can manage better to celebrate his thesis—and I know that I will manage better to celebrate my orals. For quite astoundingly—as far as it seemed that I had come in 2012 from the lost and lonely and angry child in San Diego who did not know that there were others like me—life has since then got better still. I suppose all this tells us is that (rather like the notion that those who have grants on their CVs win more grants) of those to whom much is given, still more will be given, and that one ought not to gloat. But of those to whom much is given much will be required, too, and why shouldn’t there be a place for lost souls to whom the sound of a student translating Greek is a siren call? There was resistance in just such a sense of a life outside of getting and spending before our times, and there will be again.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Third Week

It’s so rare, in my life as an American PhD student, that: a) I get to have the experience of going to the pub after a seminar; b) that going to the pub after a seminar makes me want to go home and Have Ideas and Do Academic Work. Usually I am aggressively procrastinating on doing any real work whatsoever, and generating largely pointless admin to avoid coping with the reality of whether I am intelligent enough to take on the weightier tasks of orals and prospectus.

At the pub a faculty member was pontificating about the differences between grad school in the US and the UK. One difference is surely the prevalence of beer as a lubricant, and that as something that smooths relations between grad students and faculty, rendering those categories something other than a capitalist managerial hierarchy. Another is the view, deeply embedded in American culture, that alcohol is Not Helpful, followed by the realization that I was the only woman of the relatively gender-divided seminar who wanted to go on to the pub after. It has actually–I thought, listening to the men in the pub pontificate about politics–been rather a long time since I pointedly noticed that I was, by choice, the only woman in the room. I related to the group the story of the conversation I once had with a female colleague in an adjacent field, with whom I shared the unease of knowing that we felt comfortable in those kinds of masculine intellectual environments–especially when our gender could be erased when the conversation took a particular route–and yet that many other women might feel profoundly alienated by the same environments, and that we were letting the side down. I thought about how unimpressed I was by the male student with the posh English accent who came up to me after my class last night and tried to convince me that drama rehearsal was a good reason to miss whole weeks of my course. “I know what you are,” I didn’t say, “and for that reason I enjoyed your contributions to our class discussion–but that doesn’t mean I’m taken in.”

I came home and I felt I had no choice but to turn to a Word document that contains my latest thoughts on the subject as it arises in the late nineteenth century. Which is not to say that there is an easy story to tell here about class and gender and elitism, or that I have a political program to advance, or that there is not something about me that is complicit in perpetuating a kind of elite masculine intellectual culture that holds others back. But rather just to say that I’ve come a long way, baby, in the last decade-plus, an astounding journey back and forth across the Atlantic and the centuries, something that has left me increasingly convinced that there is something to say about the pub and the academics in it, not so different to what there is to say about Guitar Hero in Scripps Ranch in 2005, or Cameron’s late Cabinet, and thus why it was that I watched Lindsay Anderson’s if… over and over in high school, a leftist public-school romance with an ironic Kipling reference truer to what it is like to have your character formed by a southern Californian suburban comprehensive high school than any thing I know.

In the summer, just a few days before 23 June, I reunited with some old friends in East Oxford (a cartwheel of streets that feel more viscerally like home than any place I’ve ever known), and their sharp, informed political analysis was exactly what I needed to give me purchase on what was going on in the run-up to the referendum. In large part because of those pints drunk and those views exchanged, I was neither surprised by the referendum result a few days later, nor overwhelmed by it as a grand tragedy. When I posted on Facebook that I’d had a lovely time that evening, however, I was chastised for my self-absorption—a criticism that still haunts me these months later, as we face another, even more momentous, electoral contest between reactionary populism and “liberal elites,” of whom of course I am one. I said tonight in the pub that I am a liberal elite, and my politics are those of a liberal elite, but of course I am glad the world is not made up of liberal elites and I wouldn’t wish my politics on anyone else. I like that formulation, happy that it provides me with some measure of peace, proud that I’m getting better at accepting my differences of political opinion with my colleagues and that I can move past being paralysingly tortured by them. But I also like that the pub provides—across, I would hazard, classes and cultures—a space in which to pontificate, to test out ideas, to say outrageous things and see how people react, to attain some measure of control in our own social universes from events and power politics that seem so vastly removed from us as to be outside our agency. Some would hope, presumably, that the pub is the beginning, a first conversation that leads to a regenerative kind of democratic politics, a sort of Chartism for our time. I, on the other hand, am skeptical of Chartisms, particularly when a feminist critique is applied to them; and also because of the particular life experiences that I’ve had (institutionalized as I have been since the age of majority, and indeed rather longer), which have led me to view physical locations where food and drink are shared as ends in themselves, their physical location within communities (colleges, neighborhoods) constitutive of a kind of public sphere that seems very thin on the ground in our virtual age. As I was walking to work today, I found myself recalling the crazy things anonymous readers of the student newspaper used to say about me in the online comments, recalling what it was like to be a figure of outré radicalism, where now I find myself so often on the right. I remember by contrast the challenging but civil conversations I had in my last semester at Princeton, when people walked up to me—in the dining hall, the chapel, the library, my cooking co-op, outdoor spaces—and respectfully disagreed with the point of view I expressed in an op-ed that was skeptical of Annual Giving. Shout all you like after a few drinks in the pub, but you still have to see the members of your community when you’re cold sober the next day.

There are a lot of things that make me an early-twentieth-century liberal, some more objectionable than others. Tonight, what stands out to me is the pub, or (as I’ve often said) the college hall: a space many find repulsive and intimidating, but with which I (for whatever reason) feel that I know where I am; a space on which, even if fascism does come to America, I’ll continue to place my bets. There really is something about the connections you can make across political lines when you’ve properly got to know your interlocutors, and when you’re in a space (a dining hall at an elite college with endless supplies of free guacamole, a particular kind of drinking establishment with precise social rules about who buys whom drinks, a welfare state) in which certain structures are in place to smooth (if cosmetically) over social divides. I still think these are the spaces in which important things happen, even if they are things which reinforce power structures and which depend on encoding the system of references that inheres in a reference to the men who walk up and down every afternoon from 2 to 4 on King’s Parade. If not by any means the only things which demand the historian’s attention, they certainly do demand it.

I am a pessimist about politics at present, and whether I can find a socially and politically relevant role for this work if things in my country do become very, very bleak remains to be seen. One thing I do want to become better at is to live out the implications of my work; to participate more wholly and less judgmentally in the public sphere and systems of local politics, the cultivation of one’s own garden, in which I claim to have some faith; and to find a way of using the perspective that I can bring to American and British elite male intellectual and political culture for good.

Back to School

I am sitting in a cubicle (my computer is broken and I had to come into work to use one there) and I am meant to be creating tidy little summaries of monographs about the eighteenth century Church of England (corrupt or vibrant? you decide!). But weighing on me is the script of The History Boys, which I pulled off the shelf on my second day back in New York for the new academic year. I have seen the film so many times I have most of the dialogue memorized, but I had only read the script once, five years ago now, when I bought it at Blackwell’s on my first tour in Oxford. At the time I noted that the play seemed more morally ambiguous about “handling the boys’ balls” than the movie is (was able to be?), but now on the other side of the teacher/student divide, I noticed much else besides about how the play handles the problem of pedagogic eros. There are three things I think it’s worth pointing out about the play, particularly if you’re familiar with the film.

1. It seems like one of, if not the most, central driving force of the play is Irwin’s fear that he will turn into Hector. In the play it is much clearer that Irwin is gay, and knows himself to be gay, and that his conversation with Posner when the latter comes out to him as well as Dakin’s proposition are real moments of crisis to him about what that means for his future as a teacher. So is the scene with the three teachers outside the headmaster’s door when it is being explained to Irwin and Mrs Lintott that Hector is being let go. It seems like Irwin makes this sharp tack into telly-don life as a way of escaping the fate of Hector—and more what the fate of Hector means about being in tantalizingly close proximity to teenage boys than it does about having failed to become a scholar or having only gone to Oxford for your PGCE and not for your undergrad degree. None of this really comes out in the film, though now that I am more familiar with the play script I can see that the actors (almost all of whom were also in the West End production) are putting this into their portrayal of the characters.

2. I don’t know Alan Bennett’s corpus well, but I believe that people say that in the plays there is typically a character based on Bennett himself. The film would lead you to believe that character is Posner, whose struggles with his homosexuality get a sweet, sympathetic hearing, and who ends the closing scene by saying that he lived up to his teachers’ example by becoming a teacher himself. In the play, by contrast, it’s very clear that the Bennett character is Scripps, the devout Christian, who becomes a writer and actually narrates the play, stepping out of the scene to provide a retrospective view on events. In an introduction to the published script, Bennett cements the connection, discussing how religious he was as a teenager and explaining that he puts his own experience of going up to Oxford for interview directly into the mouth of Scripps. Posner, by contrast, grows up a really hapless eccentric, essentially broken by all the events, who fails to find a profession and becomes a crank: in the middle of the play, we see him as an adult, confusedly, almost crazily, trying to wrest some kind of apology from Irwin for what happened when he was a sixth-former. This adds to the sense that the play offers a rather different account of homosexuality as a sexual orientation and the significances of that than is offered by the film. The play and the film were produced fairly close in time to each other, though, and fairly recently. I can see why the film might have wanted to do less to valorize sexual abuse of minors given that it achieved a much wider audience than the play, but otherwise I’m not sure why the treatment of homosexuality seems so different.

3. Twice in the play, characters ask with some urgency, “Why does Hector lock the door?” This is not a line in the film, and it gives an added frisson of weirdness to what it is Hector does in his classroom. Of course, both the play and the film make clear that Hector only touches the boys on the motorbike—but the locked door both introduces the problem of suspicion (as in history, stories about pedagogic eros are as much about what people fear might be happening as about what is happening), and helps our minds to make a connection between Housman and Brief Encounter on the one hand and genital fondling on the other. It raises huge questions about educational structures that transcend the fantasy environment of the play, sharpening this moral question Bennett wants us to come away with about whether the boys have been “scarred for life” or whether they’ve had a really special educational experience that resounds throughout their later lives.

As anyone who reads the New York Times knows, I came back to New York just at the time that the NLRB ruled that graduate students at private universities can be considered employees and as such are entitled to form unions. My university and the union my colleagues are trying to form was the test case. The senior administration at my university, by contrast, argue that unionization would damage relations between graduate students and faculty/the university and disrupt the things that make the university special as a place of work, study, and community. My orals reading in eighteenth-century English social history suggests to me that graduate students and post-PhD academics have much more in common with pre-industrial guild artisans, the clergy, or possibly other traditional professions than they do with industrial workforces, and I have little patience for the small but vocal minority who support unionization at the expense of other models of relation, or who use unionization rhetoric as a way to co-opt all academics into a proletarian struggle as much as, if not more, romanticized as my craft-and-calling vision. But even so, there is no evidence to suggest that the senior administration’s claims hold water. And The History Boys dramatizes how that is so. Learning is a matter of personal relations, structured in deep emotional investments of all kinds: desire, power, adoration, longing. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by those emotions, especially if you are someone who temperamentally is intoxicated by teaching, and troubling things can happen behind locked doors. Individuals who struggle to get along outside educational contexts can look to the institutional structure to provide them things they can’t find elsewhere: affection. appreciation. a lover. a family. And genuine desires to connect, which can be deeply sympathetic and endearing, can easily be turned to highly inappropriate ends. The History Boys is unquestionably a sexist play, but it shows us that these things happen not necessarily because of the patriarchy, but because well-intentioned people get a little too far up their asses in imbuing transference with some kind of positive value. As the headmaster says in both the play and the film in response to Hector’s high-minded invocation of a western tradition of pedagogic eros—eliciting an unexpected moment of sympathy for a character the play seems to want us to hate—”Fuck the Renaissance…. This is a school.” Present-day structures of human resources and health and safety and harassment policies and so on bring us down to earth, keep us from getting carried away or thinking we’re special, and remind us that duty of care is about the students, not about us and our feelings, which we need to find healthier and less grandiose ways of working out. In this case, bureaucracy isn’t a bad thing, and reforming and making more efficient the bureaucracy currently in place, or trying to introduce a new kind of bureaucracy through a framework such as unionization, are worthwhile goals.

The problem we’re left with, though, is that you can’t hate Hector, even though he has committed the grossest violation of professional ethics, and even though a well-played Mrs Lintott would make clear just how small and self-absorbed are all these men by whom she’s surrounded. The problem is that, like Irwin, some of us might have more of a Hector fantasy than we’d like to admit. And while we might agree with the headmaster, Mrs Lintott and the boys that “there’s not room for his kind anymore,” and probably view that on balance as a good thing, we might well still feel a sense of loss at Hector’s passing, and a sense that that yearning has a role to play in determining who we are as teachers and as students.

All this is jumbled up in my head as I deal with the more mundane aspects of back-to-school, like booking classrooms and buying notebooks (and getting back to orals), making it difficult to think straight. I’ve spent an hour writing this. I suppose the moral of the story is a caution against assuming that there is a straightforward black-and-white answer to the future of the university, of education as a vocation, and of the Youth of Today. These issues are huge ones, unequal to any particular political program. I suppose, then, that they wind up making a case for the humanities, since they deal with the deepest questions of the emotions and intellectual responses that make us human, and how we live among other humans in a community and a polity. From the fairly basic type of textual analysis I attempted to do for The History Boys here, to the more large-scale questions about the structure and culture of educational institutions which I intend to approach historically in my dissertation, there are clear avenues for how to approach what seem to be intractable and extremely complicated problems, and clear social and affective roles for my colleagues and I to play, regardless of how we approach questions of reform and revolution.