Category Archives: Blog

A Doubter’s Sermon for Easter Sunday

This Facebook post from Paul Raushenbush is the one Easter message I’ve seen this year that’s really resonated with me. I’ve been going to church for seven years, but in the last couple I’ve felt more as if I was going through the motions, as if the mystery and wonder of the Christian message was being drowned out by the evil in the world, and as if the gulf between me and my friends and co-congregants who are actually Christian and actually believe was wider than ever. This morning in church, while the preacher—an academic theologian—was selling real hard a message of joy and celebration, I was thinking about Mary Magdalene, about the anguish in “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” If you had lost a close friend, perhaps the only one you had, to a painful and humiliating public execution, I don’t know how comforted you would be by the idea that he was “ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Surely you would still feel a great chasm in your life, and surely you would still feel doubt as to whether that great cause for which your friend made a big song and dance about sacrificing himself to was really so worth him abandoning his friends who loved him.

I watched Casablanca for the umpteenth time the other week, and I still think it’s one of the great artistic products of the twentieth century.But thinking about it as a version, in a way, of what’s going on between Jesus and the disciples helps to illuminate the doubting side both of the film’s message of moral clarity and of that in John’s Gospel. We are told in the film—which was created to encourage Americans to support the Allied war effort—that American self-interest and isolationism (personified by Rick) must be sacrificed to the higher end of helping Viktor Lazlo to carry on his great work in the Resistance. In Casablanca, as in the Bible, women are represented as pawns, and it takes some work to recuperate them as fully-realized, strong figures with agency. So Rick, having said that he will make the decisions for everyone, tells Ilse that it is her duty as a woman and a wife to go with Viktor and support his noble struggle for justice and righteousness, instead of giving in (perhaps?) to her baser desires to rekindle a sexual and romantic affair with someone who isn’t constantly spouting vague messages about what a hero he is in the great struggle. Of course, the film makes us want to believe that Viktor will win against the forces of darkness, it makes us want to continue that work, it makes us want to leap to our feet with tears in our eyes when they sing the Marseillaise in the café. But we also—at least, those of us who are modern European historians by trade—are aware of how much rhetorical and political work went into making World War II into a moral war of good against evil, and how much has been done since in the name of that narrative to paper over the sins of racism and imperialism and fascism deep within American and French and British politics and culture before, during, and long after the war. It is the work that story of the war has done that makes it hard today, in our communities, perhaps among those with whom we have celebrated the resurrection of our Lord, or the freedom of our people from bondage, these last days, even to see the evil and sin that is still co-constitutive with all that stuff about holy miracles and triumphing over death.

If any of the stuff in those stories that we rehearse year in, year out—those stories I have memorized word-for-word after seven years of churchgoing—ever really happened, I wonder too if Mary Magdalene, when she arrived at the tomb early that morning to take care of her dead friend’s body, was irritable and frustrated, empty and bereft, and if the disappearance of Jesus’s body felt like just another thing that she and the other Mary and any of the men who could be bothered to stick around and help had been left behind to deal with; while their great friend, who was as difficult and self-absorbed as he was charismatic and kind, had preferred heroics to the down-in-the-dirt daily work of sticking around to care for the sick and the poor. For, these days, when I kneel and someone recites a familiar list of prayers for church leaders, political leaders, zones of conflict, the homeless, those in the community who are sick and dying, I think it feels a bit like what Mary Magdalene might have felt when she saw the empty tomb—the divine presence has left us here, rather haplessly, to carry on its work, with little guidance and without even a body to mourn. It’s hard to imagine that a ghostly, glowing presence popping up from time to time to offer elliptical neo-Platonic remarks about ascending to the Father could have substituted in the minds of the disciples for the kinds of practical, down-and-dirty work for which Jesus became famous during his lifetime. What I still find compelling about the Jesus story is how practically-minded his miracles are. They’re about making sure people have enough to eat, a lot of the time; about easing their physical pain; about being kind to people—I think especially women—who were used to fading into the background; and along the way about giving life to a new kind of radical political message. I think, if I were Mary Magdalene, and it was that practical message—making a real difference in ordinary people’s lives, not least my own—that had drawn me to follow Jesus, I might be thinking, “Why did you have to go and make everything so much more difficult? Now how am I going to feed every beggar who calls at the door? What am I going to tell everyone? Yeah, yeah, I know, you have to ascend to the Father, you said, but does that mean you’re too good to do the washing up? We had to feed a lot of beggars this week, and there’s a lot of it.”

Whether Jesus lived or died, whether he was or wasn’t co-equal with the Father, whether we celebrate his resurrection or not, makes awfully little difference to whether all the beggars on this planet stuffed full to bursting have enough to eat, or whether we are capable of passing on to our children an earth worth inheriting. I am still inspired by what Jesus called on his followers to do, who he called on them to be. But even on the first Easter Sunday (inasmuch as there was one, etc.) Mary Magdalene still had to go home and get dinner on the table, perform emotional labor for all the male disciples as well as process her own grief, and get on with doing the work of living here on earth. She didn’t get to—we don’t get to—ascend to the Father. We have so much work to do, and somehow we have to find the strength to carry on.

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Me, Too; or, Gender as a Category of Historical Analysis

The first week of my PhD, I was entering the elevator in the history department building when a male grad student—someone whom I had already identified as a bit weird, a bit icky, to be around—followed me. We nodded hello. The doors closed. There was a silence, which he broke. “So, you’re the one who works on sex,” he said. “No,” I said flatly, “I don’t”—for not only did every instinct I possessed scream that being alone in an elevator with a man who has just said the word “sex” is a situation that has to be shut down as quickly and coldly as possible; in those days, having just come back to the States from Oxford, I had absorbed certain preconceptions about working on gender and sexuality. I thought that leading with these subjects would make me be taken less seriously as a scholar, that the only way in with the Big Guns was to purport to be an intellectual historian. And I knew from experience, honed since I first started going to conferences and talking about my work in public fora online as an undergrad, that the “sexuality” research-interest box is so all-consuming that it is very easy to get typecast, very easy for colleagues to forget that you do anything else, very easy to find yourself only talking to interlocutors who do exactly the same thing—and who maybe take just a little too much prurient interest in rehearsing, say, the content of nineteenth-century pornography or the exploits of the men who populated London’s cruising grounds of yore.

This is, of course, a “me too” story, one of the large number of anecdotes women have been sharing—mostly to sympathetic audiences on Facebook—in the last couple days, I suppose as a consciousness-raising and solidarity-building exercise. Others have expressed sentiments that are variations on the theme: that they feel guilty saying “me too” because their daily experiences of sexism have never shaded into the horrific, the violent; that they are looking for a form of action that is concrete rather than symbolic; that they are experiencing cognitive dissonance between the righteous moral outrage of left-leaning metropolitan-elite social media and the impossible task of how they would ever broach subjects like this with their fathers or their brothers or their high-school classmates. Scrolling through my news feed and reading the litany of “me too” and the periodic expansions upon it, though, what came to my mind are the other things I think my anecdote about the Fayerweather elevator suggests: the ambivalence I’ve had throughout grad school about whether to identify as a gender historian and my simultaneous frustration with sexism in intellectual history; the ways that my research into gender and sexuality have often either symbolized or sublimated my personal relationship to gender and sexuality; and the way that experience has trained me to flatly shut down, run away from, and view with deep suspicion forever any man with whom I have a slightly unpleasant interaction. It doesn’t feel safe—for one’s career or for one’s emotional and mental health—to leave oneself open to the possibility that something might go wrong. (And, indeed, years later I learned that this particular grad student had a history of violating women’s boundaries in far more inappropriate ways, and that he did so consciously and not through social ineptitude—much as I later learned that the senior academic I backed away from because he really, really wanted to stand in the corner of a classroom and talk to me about how we had attended the same Oxford college fifty years apart also had a history of harassment.)

So, three years on, I lead with my research interest in gender, because I am not in Oxford anymore, and also I think times have changed across different institutions since I first started doing research in modern British history. I was at a discussion yesterday about a new monograph in economic and political history, and multiple participants—even those who don’t consider themselves to work on gender—suggested ways that the book might have incorporated a discussion of gender. That would just not have happened five, six, seven years ago when I first started to sit in the corner and listen to faculty and grad students talk about new historical research. (Maybe some will contradict me, but it didn’t happen in the places where I was at that time.) A colleague once said that when deciding which of her historical interests to pursue in graduate study, she made her decision based on which group of historians she’d most like to be in rooms talking with. The openness of modern British historians to a wide variety of thematic and methodological approaches, particularly at the present moment, is one reason why I’m loyal to my field. My colleagues who work on political thought can also think about gender; my colleagues who work on neoliberalism are alive to culture as much as to economics. (It strikes me that this is one reason to continue to promote national histories, even after the “global/international turn”—they can serve as useful containers in which to put an eclectic set of methodological approaches, which wouldn’t be the case in a field that is primarily organized around a methodology, such as intellectual history.)

I also find, as I gain more expertise in my subject, that I have more to offer to the wider public discussion we are currently having about how particular norms and practices surrounding gender structure our society. In due course, naturally, the outraged Twittersphere will move on to something else, but right now gender is having its moment. I became interested in the ways that gender difference, and gender segregation, loom large in elite British culture and the culture of elite educational institutions in particular because I have spent a significant part of my adult life living within elite British culture and its educational institutions, and it turns out that there are highly specific historical explanations for the reasons why this culture works the way it does. But once you’re attuned to reading documents for evidence of how gender works, you see it as much in the Greek-letter organizations of American universities, in the Boy Scouts, in the President, in your own social and professional networks, as you do in nineteenth-century single-sex colleges and student societies. The disadvantage of this, of course, is that you can’t unsee it—and I find that as a woman, it makes it harder for me to relate normally to men, to see them as something other than either research subjects or potential predators. This is a state of mind I find it unpleasant to live within, and I’d like to find some way of moving past it.

They say the public have had enough of experts. And that may be true, but sometimes I think we experts are not sufficiently imaginative about how we might reach people with our expertise and use it for good. Expertise is not something best promulgated through broadsheet op-eds or through written work intended largely for already sympathetic audiences; it’s not only a matter of theorizing about something abstract like, say, global economics that seems removed from the experience of daily life; it is not always about having more facts and about the top-down dissemination of them. Instead, experts can encourage non-academics to think analytically about something they might not have thought about before, and then to think with them as they bring that analytic tool to bear on new pieces of information or experiences or feelings. Coincidentally, this practice has a name: it’s called teaching.

Thus far in my academic career I have only given three undergraduate lectures. If I do not win the academic-jobs lottery, I may never give another one. But in each one, I have found a way of telling the story about the past dearest to my heart, the one where my interest in the past began. In each one, I have told fifty-odd young people new to thinking analytically about the past that our modern conception of homosexuality is historically constructed and contingent. I have given them some heroes overcoming adversity that they can take away with them, but also some ways the story is more complicated and less satisfying than that. Every semester there are a couple students who actually care—who use the content from that lecture in their final paper, who come up to me after class and ask a follow-up question. Hopefully, though, in still further students, the presentation of a new way of thinking about a familiar topic plants a seed that they might, unconsciously, come back to later, even if they no longer connect the thought to that particular lecture or to the history of nineteenth-century Europe. In many forms of psychotherapy, it is held that the conscious awareness of patterns of behavior or ideas or emotions that you may have unconsciously held since early childhood, and of how those tendencies might have originated, can help you to move on from tendencies that might be unhealthy or unhelpful and lay down new patterns. The more that we can point to the things we read in the news—or, more important, every single interaction we have every day—and say “look, gender is happening here,” the more we can recognize harmful behavior when we see it, and move outside boxes of gendered behavior that imprison and hurt everyone.

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.