Should I do a PhD in history? Which country should I do it in?

Between finishing my PhD last spring and teaching master’s students this term, I have had more conversations than ever before about whether to do a PhD in history and whether to do it in North America or the UK. (Many of the people I have spoken to this year are, like I was, Canadian or American students pursuing master’s degrees in the UK and weighing whether to stay or not.) Finding myself saying the same things repeatedly, I thought I would distill here some of my principles for thinking about these questions.

The usual caveats apply: I benefited from immense structural privilege throughout my higher education, am fortunate to have only a negligible amount of student debt, and do not have any dependents. Your mileage may vary depending on your economic and family situation. 

Principle 1: A PhD is an investment in you, not in a future employment outcome—though it might also be simply the right job for you right now.

Hopefully I am not the first person to tell you this, but there are no jobs. The number of people earning PhDs in history every year far, far outstrips the number of traditional full-time, long-term academic jobs available. This was true before the pandemic and is even more true now. The majority of people who earn a PhD in history statistically will not be able to work in academia long-term, no matter how much they might wish to, how elite the program from which they graduated, and how qualified they might be in other respects. 

Therefore, pursuing a career in academia should never rank top on the list of reasons why you want to do a PhD. Some compelling reasons to pursue a PhD might be because you feel intrinsically excited about the prospect of studying history at graduate level, because there is a particular long-term, book-size research project about which you feel extremely passionate and motivated, or because—regardless of what you wind up doing for a living after—a PhD is the right job for you right now. Graduate school might be the right job for you for all kinds of reasons. A term of at least five years (North America) or three years (UK) of guaranteed employment at a certain minimum standard of living might be more job security than you’ve had previously in your working life. It might be a vehicle for you to move to a certain city to follow your partner’s career or simply for the satisfaction of living there. You may have a clear sense of how you will balance developing a more precarious career (say, as a writer or artist) alongside your PhD work, which might provide an opportunity to pursue that creative work that you might not otherwise have had. (Though doing a PhD can be very all-consuming, and you might find that multitasking more difficult than you anticipated.) Few of us do the same job all of our working lives these days, and there are all kinds of reasons that starting graduate school might be a sensible, stable, and exciting choice for several years, provided that you are clear-eyed about the reality that it will not easily translate into a specific career outcome afterward, and that the work you will wind up doing after may well not be something for which the PhD has specifically qualified you.

For these reasons, I can think of very few circumstances in which one might reasonably want to pay for a PhD. Maybe if one is very wealthy to the point that money is absolutely no object; or if one is older (retired, say) and has a pot of money available specifically to put towards pursuing a passion project. But if you are thinking of starting a PhD in your twenties or thirties, and there is no reason to think of a PhD as an investment in a guaranteed future career outcome, it simply doesn’t make any sense to go into debt for it. You can’t look forward to a return on your investment in a way that you might, say, for American graduate professional degree programs like law school or medical school. I would recommend only pursuing a PhD if you are funded at a standard that is financially feasible for you to live on (taking into account other relevant circumstances like a partner’s income, etc.).

There are, of course, things that you can do both before and during grad school to make yourself the most competitive candidate that you can for academic jobs. Discussing these is somewhat outside the scope of this post, and would also be presumptuous coming from someone who hasn’t (yet?) secured a permanent job in academia. But when you’re just considering whether to apply, the important thing to remember is that there are no guarantees—and indeed, the odds are stacked against you—even if you do everything right.

Principle 2: There is no huge rush to start a PhD.

I often speak to prospective grad students who are anxious about the time commitment involved in a PhD and are eager to get started right away. I would advise against rushing simply for the sake of rushing. Again, there may well not be a long-term career in academia waiting for you on the other side of the PhD, so it is worth taking your time to consider a wide range of career trajectories and try out possible paths. Right after college is the time that it’s easiest to get a short-term fellowship or paid internship to try out a career in journalism or teach English in another country. You can be a paralegal or an editorial assistant for a year or two, then leave it behind if you don’t care for it. All of that is much harder when you’re in your 30s.

Furthermore, starting a PhD in your late 20s or your 30s might be beneficial. You might have some emotional distance from college, and be more prepared to treat the PhD as a job and not as an all-consuming experience (which will help to guard against burnout). You might have had the opportunity to pursue higher-paid employment, or to live with family rent-free, and thus to put some money aside or pay down some debt. To be sure, there’s a balance to be struck here—by the time I finished my PhD at 30, I was very excited to be rid of the minor indignities of being a student and to make slightly more money (as I am extremely fortunate to do in my present position but is of course not guaranteed). And of course not everyone has other job opportunities, and grad school might be the best way to nail down an income right now, to secure a necessary immigration status, or other practical considerations.

If you’re able, though, taking a year or two out after undergrad or a standalone master’s will give you the time to make a considered decision about which programs to apply to and what broad area of research you would like to pursue. (If you are applying to UK PhDs, I would think you would definitely need that time to develop a sophisticated and thorough thesis proposal.) It will also allow you to draw on a completed undergraduate or master’s thesis in your application, showcasing the best evidence of your capacity to take on graduate-level original research. The programs will still be there next cycle, and a year is not very much time. If you don’t quite feel ready to give the applications your best shot, and you’re financially able, then wait.

Principle 3: A UK PhD and a North American PhD are not, actually, the same qualification.

As you probably know, the structure and norms of the PhD in the UK and in the US and Canada are very different. The PhD in North America includes two years of coursework, comprehensive exams, language training, and a fairly substantial teaching load that is at best extremely valuable professional experience and at worst exploitative grunt labor (sometimes it’s both at once). It typically takes 6–7 years, with a standard funding package guaranteeing funding for five of those years and the rest made up with full-time teaching or external fellowships. While at many UK universities grad students do increasingly assume (increasingly exploitative) teaching responsibilities, the degree is still primarily oriented around exclusively writing a thesis. There are no coursework or exams (the one-year standalone masters does not, in my view, approximate the extent of the work one does in the first two or three years of a North American PhD). The degree typically takes around four years, with three of those funded in a standard package. These are different and on some level incomparable experiences, from which one leaves with different skills and having been prepared for different job markets.

My experience of doing my PhD in the US was that the coursework, exams, and teaching experience were absolutely invaluable both in preparing me to write the best dissertation possible and in preparing me to work in academia, including in my current role at a UK university. Like most US PhDs, I did not write the dissertation I imagined that I would write when I applied to my program. The intervening years allowed me to develop a larger and more sophisticated project and to conduct the huge amount of archival research necessary to execute the project. It is difficult to imagine how I could have done as well as I did on the US tenure-track job market last year if I didn’t have the breadth of teaching experience and other professionalization opportunities that I gained through my US PhD; that experience has also served me well in being able to pursue teaching and other professional opportunities within my UK university. My sense, based primarily on my own experience, is that if it is important to you to be legible to and competitive within the academic job markets on both sides of the Atlantic, the North American PhD is the better bet—and well worth the added time commitment, not least because that’s three more years during which one has more secure paid employment than one might have otherwise, which is not something at which any of us can turn up our noses these days.

That said, optimizing your life around the tenure-track academic job market is, for the reasons discussed above, in some sense a fool’s errand, and there are several countervailing reasons one might wish to do a PhD in the UK. A particular supervisor(s), research group, or large research council-funded project who happen to be based at a UK institution might be exactly the right person/people for you to work with. You may actually know that you do not wish to pursue a career in academia after the PhD, and that what you need out of grad school is more of a residential fellowship to write a book, for which three years of income and access to a research library is actually more useful than all the trimmings of a North American PhD. There might be personal/family reasons for you to be living in the UK, and settling in the UK long-term (with an academic job or not) might be your desired outcome. It is always fine to prioritize personal considerations in terms of where to live for grad school! Though sometimes it involves taking into account tradeoffs of various kinds, and it’s important to be clear-eyed about what those tradeoffs are. The important thing to bear in mind is, I think, that if you start a UK PhD with the desire ultimately to seek academic employment in North America, you should be very aggressive from the start about maximizing opportunities such as transferable teaching experience, connecting with North American mentors and peers, etc. so as to counteract some of those transatlantic differences in the nature of the qualification and the academic culture.

On (Academic) Writing

For several months now, I have regularly been posting on social media photos and screenshots of my efforts to write my dissertation. Some might call it self-aggrandizing, but I have found this habit—and the “likes” and comments it generates from my Facebook and Instagram friends—to be a powerful source of motivation that keeps me cranking out words daily. Due to posting these photos, I often receive requests to describe my writing process, and in particular what I am doing with the hundreds of little slips of paper with which I cover my desk and bedroom floor. So (and really this is just an excuse to procrastinate on cataloguing the endless varieties of misogyny expressed by interwar male undergraduates, which I find rather wearing) I thought I might write something describing how I write.

It’s necessary to begin with several caveats. First, there are not objectively better ways to write—or to do research, or any other academic or creative task. People find the systems that work well for them based on their learning styles, writing styles, and other life circumstances (for example, if you have children, your writing process may look very different to mine!). Second, while I am probably fairly good at being a fifth-year graduate student, I am not the right person to advise peers at the same career stage as me how to write a dissertation, because I haven’t written one yet. Furthermore, due to a combination of the structure of my program and receiving an extra year of funding through an additional internal fellowship, I have not had to teach for the last two years and thus have been able to engage in an intensive period of research and writing. While I do part-time work to supplement my income, it amounts to less than ten hours per week, and I mostly do it in the evenings and weekends. I say all this not to brag, but rather to observe that structural privilege accumulated over many years affects our ability to write in the way that we would most like. For example, the flexibility of my schedule allows me to block out a few hours every morning, at the time when my brain is sharpest, to devote only to my dissertation, a circumstance available to few graduate students. I am thus not the right person to advise the many peers whose path through graduate school has been considerably more difficult than mine.

In general, most of the brain-work I do is not very systematic. I have a free-associating mind rather than an analytic one, whose natural tendency is to dive very deeply into one topic rather than assessing patterns across different cases or bodies of material. I mostly do history by collecting very large quantities of archival material and then simply telling the reader, at some considerable length, what they contain, before embarking upon an editing process in which I compress that description to a more manageable size. When I get round to writing, therefore, I have spent many weeks or months in an archive or several, and have hopefully had the time to organize my findings, taking apart the Word document of hundreds of pages in which I have recorded my stream-of-consciousness impressions of the archive and creating an entry for each document in my Zotero database. I don’t do much in Zotero beyond recording the correct citation information and organizing all the documents by repository and by date. But I can then print off that database—the poor trees, but for me the most essential part of the process (enabled by the laser printer I bought out of the research account I am exceptionally fortunate to possess)—and get on with writing.

The writing, then, starts with several hundred pages of source material, and a space like a floor or a big table, large enough to lay it all out and get a visual sense of the shape of it. Even a large computer monitor doesn’t quite provide the scope for this, for me. Spreading it out makes it possible to see patterns—for example, if student politicians across many different institutions all became preoccupied by a particular topic in a particular year—and also to trial different ways of structuring the argument and exposition that I might follow over the course of the text. It’s actually possible to skip this step if the piece of writing is very short (such as a conference paper or a blog post), as in that case it might be possible to hold the whole structure in my head at once and/or to take a less comprehensive approach to incorporating all the source material. But for a dissertation chapter, it is absolutely essential—I shouldn’t be able to do any actual thinking without it. I used to nail down a structure on the floor and then paste all the slips into a notebook, but more recently as I have been working with larger and more complex quantities of material I have found that I want to revisit and revise the structure as I write. I keep the slips laid out on the floor, or file them in a more mutable way with paper clips and folders.

So that’s what the slips of paper are. They become the raw material out of which the story is written up, and I interpellate in my own words context and analysis that lead the reader from one slip of paper to the next and sum up what the whole picture is. To draft, I use a piece of software called Scrivener, which allows one to do various fancy split-screen things that make it possible to see, for example, an outline, multiple chapters, and the footnotes all at once, and to save notes and chaff in different folders as part of the same database as the main text. (Scrivener costs $38 with an educational discount; I am fortunate to have been able to afford to buy it.) I write at the rate of about 600–1,600 words per day, which will take between two and four hours of concentrated, intensive thinking that typically leaves me too exhausted to do brain-work the rest of the day. I do this about six days a week, every week (it has been many years since I took a vacation). I usually write between 10am and 1pm, and do other work, paid work, or housework in the afternoons, but occasionally this varies or I have enough energy to be able to write all day. I try to push myself if I can, but listen to my body and stop if I can’t. I never write in the evenings, and only rarely, under extreme time pressure, do other work at that time.

While on the face of it this quantity of word production in this amount of work time might seem productive, it is actually not efficient at all. With so many slips of paper, it can take weeks to progress through a given section of the text as it is laid out on the floor. Almost every aspect of writing the dissertation so far has taken much longer than I had imagined it would, and my goal of finishing a draft by September has slipped progressively further out of reach. Moreover, this word production is the first in a series of revision stages. The first drafts of the chapters that have so far got as far as a first-draft stage have been 35,000–40,000 words long: baggy objects that are not only of an inappropriate length for the genre of thing that they are, but would be much too onerous to ask anyone, even my long-suffering advisor, to wade through. It takes another series of weeks to sculpt this material into something that looks like a chapter. My goal is always to get it under 20,000 words before I show it to anyone, through a painful and painstaking process of winnowing. Then comes the slow round of workshops and seminars, getting feedback from expert and general audiences that will be the basis for further revisions. In previous writing tasks this process, potentially endless, has been put to a stop by a university-imposed deadline or by publication of one sort or another (in a journal, on a blog). But in this case I am several years away from the book going to press which will mark the formal end of writing.

My way of thinking about and doing writing has been influenced—I am still realizing how much—by the semester I spent in John McPhee’s writing workshop in spring 2009. McPhee, a longtime New Yorker correspondent and the author of many works of long-form journalism, has taught a creative writing seminar at Princeton for decades. Most of the students are aspiring journalists, as I was then—though most were much better writers than I was, and I think McPhee was rather tired of my tendency to insert myself into every piece of writing I created for the class. The main lesson McPhee impressed upon us was about structure. Clarity, he said, comes from the structure the writer creates, which leads the reader through the events or concepts discussed in the text and slowly opens out its central meaning to the reader’s understanding. In class, we scrutinized the diagrams McPhee had drawn to visualize the structure of his own essays, often metaphors taken from the natural environment which has been the subject of so much of his writing: a snail shell, a wave. This class was my first realization of how important it is to be deliberate and disciplined about writing, rather than just expressing one’s feelings. I took to heart the structure lesson. It fell to the back of my consciousness when I became disillusioned with journalism and began to study history, however, and I was surprised recently when reading a New York Times review of McPhee’s new book to be reminded that his office, like my bedroom, is filled with little slips of paper that he obsessively arranges and rearranges in an effort to make meaning. Evidently, I had taken away more than I had imagined; evidently, too, there is more than one way to be a writer. But now I, too, tell my students about structure.

I have always had a natural aptitude for writing, though it has improved considerably as I received more formal instruction in the subject and have been prompted as a professional academic to think more consciously about suiting one’s writing to a specific task. As an adolescent, I had perceived writing primarily to be a means of self-expression, and rebelled at restrictive formats. But now I see it primarily as a means of communication, and am happy to embrace formats as constructs that convey meaning and aid the reader. A dissertation chapter, a grant application, an online essay for a general audience, an email all have different audiences and purposes, and the format and style one selects must vary accordingly to be effective at getting one’s message across. I believe it is possible to (strive to) marry beauty and eloquence with clarity and analytic rigor. I admire in others, and try to achieve, a style which is engaging but also articulates a clear argument and makes it possible for the reader to follow it without working too hard. I have had interesting conversations with colleagues who opt for what I might call a more subtle or literary style, to tell a story more than to deliver an argument. It is clear that this is a matter of personal preference that might vary, and that when workshopping others’ writing it is important to respect what their aspirations for their own writing might be.

It is difficult, however, to remain true to personal preference in the context of an academic environment, where one has the sense that one is constantly being evaluated, that extenuating circumstances affect one’s ability to follow one’s instincts. Almost daily, my feeling of pride at having created 1,000 usable, relatively intelligent words in a morning is subsumed in my feelings of guilt, anxiety, and exhaustion: are those words good enough? why am I so tired now? how might I summon up the energy to do an afternoon shift? how will my advisor, or a conference audience, react to them? am I making enough progress to finish on time? will anyone else find this interesting, or just me? If I had to live solely by selling my words instead of by the strange cocktail of things that might see one lucky enough as to win the academic jobs lottery, I might be asking different anxious questions. But I have often felt that if I somehow had income coming in regardless and could still be writing for my own gratification, I would be much more confident in my ability to do good work, and to stop when I am tired and it isn’t possible to do more. It does not help that many in permanent jobs seem often to advise advanced graduate students about writing in precisely the same tone they would take with undergraduates ten or fifteen years younger, forgetting that grad students might have extensive professional training and experience in writing and editing—or, as I indicated above, that writers’ own personal processes and styles may differ and that what works for one person may not work for another.

We all, whatever our level of seniority, I think, often forget that work does not always look like work, and that there are all kinds of non-obvious pursuits—baking, going for a walk, sitting in the pub with friends, playing video games, childcare—that for many are actually an integral part of the writing process. For those who do their best thinking while doing something else, it is necessary to set time aside in the day not only for office/desk time but also for these activities. It is necessary also, whether an individual graduate student’s routine includes caring responsibilities or not, to respect that a 9–5 office schedule is not everyone’s best way of achieving work–life balance. To me, the greatest benefit of academic work has always seemed to be the flexibility of its hours. While for some the babysitter’s schedule is the most important constraining factor, or the 9–5 really is an ideal setup, for others the time that has to be set aside is late at night, or as in my case the hours of 10am to 1pm and those alone. For others still, the luxury of being able to do the grocery shopping in the middle of the day on a weekday may be the one thing that allows them to get the housework done alongside their more-than-full-time job. Much as the writing process takes many forms, and not everyone may be best served by drowning themselves in little slips of paper, so too is it the case that different people work best at different paces or at different times or in different ways. We do not guard work–life balance in the way best-suited to making academia accessible to everyone if we insist that everyone conform to a 9–5.

And with that, I am off to play video games. A happy 2019 to all!

Advice to Those Starting Graduate School

(geared—due to a friend’s request for such advice—to those starting a PhD in the humanities at an elite program in the US)

Always keep a sense of proportion and perspective, and keep alive your contacts with the world outside academia. Few problems you will encounter are unique to academia or uniquely bad within academia, and have much more to do with negotiating the working world/adult life generally, especially in our present blah blah neoliberal precarious gig economy which affects most of us under 40. Limit your engagement with academic social media and the social life of your department if you find that stuff only dials up your anxiety.

Take advantage of one of the really special things about academia—the opportunity for flexible working—but make it work for you. There will be times in the course of graduate school when your timetable is not your own and you won’t be able to impose limits on your work, but make sure you’re only working 24 hours/day when it is absolutely necessary. If you need to work 9-5 in order to impose boundaries around your work life, then great. But if you work better at other times, that’s great too. You do NOT have to work 40 hours a week, or any other set amount. Intellectual work happens at different paces for different people. You might find it more helpful to make to-do lists/set goals, and stop when you’ve finished them.

Some actors—university administrators, maybe your advisor or other professors—will try to treat you as if the category “student” means you’re not really an adult. But always act like the professional adult you want to be treated as, and insist on that treatment if it isn’t automatically given you. You have the right to dignity and respect, as do others—don’t defer to someone else simply because they are professionally senior to you, but be polite and professional if you disagree. Act like the dream colleague you want to have when you’re in your dream post-PhD job, including with your grad-student peers. While you may well become good friends with many of your peers, you aren’t obliged to hang out with (or even like) your whole cohort. You are obliged to be civil—unless someone has done something so egregious as not to merit your civility, in which case you shouldn’t give it them. (This will happen at some point—you may want to think in advance about where your boundaries are.) Like any office, the department will have a rumor mill. If you’re a budding academic politician you may wish to use its powers for good—but otherwise remember that if, for example, you date a classmate, everyone else will soon find out.

When you’re teaching, you are a staff member of the university. Dress professionally (within whatever remit makes you feel comfortable according to cultural norms/gender identity/whatever—I am continually surprised by how flexible these norms seem to be now, even for women). Don’t sleep with your students. Do join the union and insist that the university recognize you as the worker that you are.

Always remember that you have agency and power and independence. Disagree with your advisor if you want to take your dissertation in a different direction from what she prefers, or if you have aspirations for your post-PhD life that he hasn’t considered. Disagree with your cohort-mates if they’re causing drama about something that doesn’t merit it. Never lose sight of the job market, but I don’t mean freak out about it. Constantly ask yourself where you’d like to be in 10 or 20 years, and while recognizing that absolutely nothing is guaranteed or absolutely within your control, do your best to stack the odds to make that vision possible. If you want an academic job, it is your responsibility to seek out as many sources of information as you can, attend every professional development workshop your department puts on, stack up your publications and your teaching experience and your progress on your diss and your network of contacts. No one else is going to hand all that to you. If you don’t want an academic job, great—and your PhD journey and the scholarship you will produce along the way is just as valid and valuable as anyone else’s. But do what you need to do to gain a realistic picture of how to enter the sector that interests you when you graduate. Have back-up plans. You have the right to make whatever tradeoffs you need to make, and no one cares if you disappoint your advisor by not following the path she has imagined for you—but don’t expect you can both land a tenure-track job and keep your family in your current city where your non-academic partner is employed (or whatever).

There are limits to what it is reasonable to feel entitled to. If you are fully funded at a top program at a private US university, always remember that you are the most privileged of all possible grad students, and that if you don’t have dependents you are making a comfortable middle-class wage; and think about how you can help those both within your profession and outside it who are less fortunate than you.

You will encounter many people trying to peddle their crack system for note-taking or memorizing or organizing information or archive workflow. I can tell you about my generals study strategy or my archives system, but these sorts of things are highly individualized and through trial and error you will find the system that works for you. Coursework seems important when you start the PhD, but a year after generals you’ll have forgotten all about it. Remember that you spend most of your time as a grad student researching and writing your dissertation and teaching. Anything you find stressful or annoying about coursework will soon pass.

In conclusion, I really cannot emphasize enough perspective, autonomy, self-confidence, agency, dignity, and dialing down the drama whenever possible!

A Short Essay Upon Submitting Grades

I submitted my grades yesterday, and so I am back to doing something I have not done in years, now, since the beginning of the Sidgwick project (and Christ, how different life looked then): writing up archival findings from scratch, making a first attempt to put them in a kind of order and add interpretation, trying to link that interpretation rigorously to the work of other scholars (that’s the part I’m worst at). I’ve written a little about some of the evidence already, but this is the first time I’m trying to do it on a large, PhD-scale canvas. And it feels great. It makes me happy to be alive. I’m all the more excited that this is the first piece of serious historical work I’ve done that has an explicitly feminist cast, and that seeks to make an intervention into the field of women’s history. Aside from the Sidgwick article MS this is the first thing I have written in a couple years that is not a historiographical essay. It’s like blood is flowing in my veins again.

The first year of teaching went well, all things considered. I have known all my life that a life of service to higher education is defined in terms of one’s teaching of undergraduates, and I began this academic year in terror that I would fail at this most central and morally freighted task. Happily, I found I have some modest natural aptitude for the work, and many things on which I hope to improve as I continue to TA and then begin to teach classes of my own. It is easy to teach at a place like Columbia: my students are universally intelligent, kind, motivated, respectful, and curious. Teaching is an intellectually and emotionally engaging kind of work. It is obvious that it is meaningful.

But I also admitted to myself a couple months ago that I am not sure that I would be as fulfilled in a job that did not afford me the opportunity to write and to work with words. Many of my mentors have told me that the thrill of the classroom gives them the strength to keep writing. I don’t want to say that for me it’s the other way round–aside from anything else, it’s too early to say. And I know that lecturing is a kind of writing, and I know that service to the university matters more than seeing one’s name on the cover of a book. But. When I think about what job I would do if I have to leave the academy, which usually involves having to make a choice between teaching and writing, I think I might choose writing (and editing) over adjuncting or teaching in a school. For one thing, teaching is hard, grindingly hard: hard enough this year with 22 students at a time (I know, fancy Ivy League); seemingly impossible with hundreds. For another, I am good at writing: good enough at it that when I do it I manage not to hate myself quite so very much.

Since I came to Columbia it has been necessary, in a way that it was not in the political climates of other institutions, to reckon with my privilege. The word is an unhelpful one—to some it says too much, to others too little—but for me it has meant two things: learning for the first time (I know) about whiteness and blackness in the United States, and that I am white and therefore my hands are stained with blood; and learning on a more mundane level that coming from an academic family gives me access to knowledge and points of view that many of my colleagues lack, and that have made my passage through graduate school markedly smoother thus far. There are predictable advantages: I have known that there is such a thing called a graduate student all my life; I am rarely intimidated to talk to faculty in a professional or a social context; I know what a provost is, and a hiring line, and how the tenure system works; if I am not sure how to handle an interaction with a colleague or a student crisis, there are two people whom I can call up at any time to ask for advice. And then there are less predictable ones: I know that this life is not easy, I know that everyone does not win the lottery, I know what it is like to work at a less elite institution than Columbia (or Princeton or Oxford), I know what it is like to have a high-status job and not very much money, I know that a life in universities is a life of service to a greater good without immediate personal reward, I know how lucky I am. I know what it looks like when someone has a vocation. It is hard, then, to admit, when one looks at who one is and what one wants, that one might imagine a career for oneself that doesn’t look exactly like that of one’s parents and one’s other teachers. One might have implausibly high aspirations in some areas, and more modest ones in others. And one might have to confess to oneself—this is truly difficult to write—that, knowing that the career only gets more difficult after the cushy Ivy League PhD, one craves a life of greater comfort, of greater space to think and to breathe and to love, than most academic jobs can provide. If teaching, and trying to make one’s institution run a bit better for everyone, is the tradeoff for summers of quiet, of ideas, of getting to know oneself and days spent in libraries or walking across southeast England not speaking to anyone, well—that’s probably the best tradeoff there is, at least as far as I’m concerned. But could I lose the summers? I suppose at some point I’ll have to, because probability suggests that one can’t sustain such a life of extraordinary good fortune as I have had for long. But at least I can admit to myself that I am fallen enough to need the summers—more, perhaps, than I need the classroom or my colleagues—in order to feel that life is worth living and that I am capable of doing good. For in the summers I am able to access a world in which I do not have to struggle—against intellectual history bros, against bureaucracy, against dogmatic leftists, against insecurity, against self-hatred, against dirty and crass Manhattan—and I am able to be at peace. How to do good and help others while maintaining that peace is, of course, the question yet to come. But today I am grateful not to have to set foot in the department for three months, and to have the gift of writing.

A sermon and a pep talk for the morning of Wednesday of 13th week

With tomorrow’s lesson on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time in my head, Will Pooley’s evocative blog post as my text, and two more weeks of this crazy semester to go.

There is far to much anxiety and negativity among the apprentices in my trade, and it has an extraordinary capacity to feed off itself and grow.

People who know me well know that I am so anxious, that I am too quick to let my academic work define my self-worth, that I can so easily come up with excuses to hate myself for not working hard enough. I have been lying awake at night the last few weeks worrying because in mid-May I know I am going to hand in a term paper—my last term paper—that will fall short of the highest intellectual standard of which I am capable. But the reason I know I am going to do that is because the term paper actually isn’t important and I actually don’t care.

Instead it is important that the sun is shining and the weather is warmer; that I have wonderful students whom I am teaching an interesting book this week; that I have a roof over my head and a salary that allows me to live comfortably, to eat well, to give to charity, to travel; that I am going to the UK in just six weeks; that my house will be filled with old friends this weekend; that, no matter what happens on the job market in four or five years, I have so many structural advantages that I will have no difficulty landing on my feet in some sort of middle-class, professional employment that uses my skills.

There are things that one can do to make oneself a stronger candidate for an academic job: other competitions (for grants, for publications) that one can practice winning, hours that one can put in on one’s intellectual work as well as the other aspects of being a professional university teacher. There are also structural inequalities that make some people more likely to get academic jobs than others. I am sure I will carry to my grave the shame and sadness that by virtue of being born into an academic family (though not, it must be said, a particularly wealthy or elite one) and by virtue of the extraordinary post-secondary educational opportunities I have had, I have a greater chance at success than some. But I think there are ways to work constructively around that unavoidable problem: to do one’s duty, to be a responsible and hardworking holder of that place that one didn’t deserve, and to make at least modest efforts towards widening access for those who will come after.

I also think—and I know that I have said this to many of you—that there are countless ways in which all of us who are engaged in pursuing a fully-funded PhD at a top program are extraordinarily, jaw-droppingly lucky. I kind of cannot believe how extraordinary it is that I live in New York, that I make a decent living, that I get to teach bright, fun students, that I have access to such good library and information technology resources, that I live a life where going to Europe every summer is normal. I also, sometimes, get to think and to write, and despite how hard it is to be clever enough, I think I want to keep thinking and writing for a long time to come. I think I will be doing this even if I am not paid to do it, because I have been doing it all my life thus far, and in any case if I am fortunate enough to obtain an academic job what I will be paid to do is to instruct the young, anyway.

Will Pooley’s advice is right: we have to stop behaving as if our advisors are monstrous parental figures of one’s worst psychoanalytic nightmare, sitting in judgment on us. We have to have the confidence to live into being the scholars and teachers that we want to be, even if our efforts don’t have immediate external reward. We have to do the work that we are willing and able to do, and not the work that we are not. And we have to accept that all this may not be enough, or the right sort of thing, to get us the Oxbridge JRF or its moral equivalent—but if not, we have accrued a breathtaking quantity of advantages that others in the US or in our home countries do not have. We will be. just. fine.

What we need to do is to ensure we are advocating for our colleagues around the world who are not making a middle-class salary, to dispense the one good piece of advice—that in this day and age it is not worthwhile to do a PhD unless you are fully funded—to give other such pep talks where they are needed, to ourselves as much as others; and also to remember that the poor are always with us—that there are many in this country and around the world who do need our material and spiritual help, that we need to think about how we as humanities academics can find our ways of being a voice for the voiceless, whether as activists or, for those who do not feel called that way, as teachers of the western humanities tradition or other traditions, or simply with our financial donations or volunteering time.

For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required.

More on the trouble with benefactors

Posted on FB last week in response to this Guardian piece.

It’s entirely appropriate that the RMF activists have had a strong response to Oriel’s decision, but I think the views expressed in this piece demonstrate the need for greater understanding of how institutions work, particularly how they are funded.

I remember when I expressed frustration to the convenor of my master’s course that the History Faculty did a disservice to students by accepting so many onto my course, with a very wide range of abilities (some not well-prepared for postgraduate study at all) and many of whom were up against greater odds because they were accepted without funding. The convenor told me a bit about the numbers, and showed me a spreadsheet: without the revenue from those unfunded students’ fees, the Faculty literally couldn’t afford to keep the lights on in the George Street building—much less funding other things students demanded as important components of a rigorous graduate program in history, like research travel grants.

There are involved historical reasons why the Faculties at Oxford are particularly poor, but this experience made me keenly aware of how many difficult (and ethically questionable) decisions faculty and administrators have to make to generate the revenue that allows their institutions to operate. For some elite institutions, even those far from Harvard and Princeton’s financial league, there are obvious places to reprioritize the budget, such as astronomical administrative salaries and, you know, “global” programs. For others, especially smaller ones, there is much more limited room for flexibility when student campaigns push for divestment from a particular industry or for the institution to take a particular decision that will alienate donors; institutions may reasonably conclude (as much as one might disagree with that decision) that prioritizing students’ needs is best done by taking money that allows them to continue offering student services, rather than taking a political stance that will lead to a loss of revenue. Still other institutions may make the troubling decision to admit students of less academic merit because their admittance might yield donations that will allow more students of great merit to receive financial aid that they need in order to study at that institution. It is possible to raise sound ethical objections to all these decisions, and I respect the opinions of those who in recent weeks have compellingly argued that the principle of the thing means that the money isn’t worth it. But I think it’s important to recognize that there is a real choice here, and that it isn’t so easy to turn down money that you can put to good educational use (or even money that you can put to shitty neocorporate use). Those of us who have ever been made to write a letter of thanks to someone who endowed a scholarship for us, as I have every year since beginning higher education, should be aware of this. Another time I learned this lesson is from the many good people who made thoughtful, reasoned objections to my principled decision not to donate to Princeton. They haven’t convinced me to change my mind, but they’ve got a point too.

It’s hard to say how I would vote if I were on Oriel’s governing body (and how extraordinary that Oxbridge colleges still retain a form of collective decision-making entirely lost at most institutions of HE today—there are some forms of small-c conservatism not wholly evil). Probably, sort of like my vote in the Democratic primary, it would have to do in part with a constellation of strategic and emotional reasons not necessarily based in a rational, philosophically-minded weighing of the pure ethical factors at play. I’m not a philosopher, and I don’t have a rigorous logical method for weighing what is Right in situations like these. I think the history of institutions demonstrates that what is Right can often get really muddled by other pragmatic considerations; my study in this respect has led me to prefer forms of politics, philosophy, and ordinary living that take this into account. As much as I deeply respect the convictions of those who live otherwise, I just can’t get on that page, as much as I may be sorry for it.

On Decolonisation

some thoughts written in response to a Guardian article entitled “Oxford Uni must decolonise its campus and curriculum, say students”:

I am sure a lot of people won’t like what I have to say here, but I think it is a good opportunity for “history matters” so I’ll roll that line out even though I have some misgivings about whether it is the right take/argument here and am perfectly willing to be proven wrong.

I. Okay so I don’t know how you would go about “decolonising” Oxford—Codrington aside, the modern institutional structure of the university was created through a series of government commissions from the 1860s on—just like all of us whose lives are bound up in some way with the UK and the Commonwealth and the other parts of the globe the British Empire touched, there’s some part of our lives that is complicit in empire. Some of us have ancestors who profited from the slave trade; some of us have ancestors who were slaves; some of us might think, “My ancestors never left their farm in Cumbria; what did they know about any of that?” and we have to remember where their tea and sugar came from.

II. You could burn the whole institution down and start completely over—with what? It wouldn’t be Oxford, whatever it was; I’m sure that would be great for many people; it isn’t enough for me because history matters and erasing its physical presence doesn’t ever help.

III. I think we can disaggregate fights against racism, fights to modernise and widen frankly shitty Oxford curricula, fights to improve the climate for students of ‘nontraditional’ backgrounds (all of which are clear and laudable goals) from whether Rhodes and Codrington oppress by their dead, sculpted presence. (It always makes me especially happy when Rhodes Scholars do things that would make Rhodes turn in his grave—like, you know, being not white, or female.) I think a country where the past is so very, very physically present offers us opportunities to assess how far our visions of civic inclusion have come—and how much the political ideologies of the era of the Reform Bills continue to shape the former Empire, something that isn’t changed by disavowing benefactors and statues.

IV. I remember William Whyte giving a sermon for the Commemoration of Benefactors at CCC Chapel that at the time I was a bit peeved about because he took some cheap shots at EP Warren whom I don’t think really deserved them. But on reflection I think Whyte had something more important to say about the need to grapple with benefactors we don’t like. EP Warren endowed a fellowship whose conditions forbade the postholder from teaching—or even encountering—women. Corpus had to go to court to challenge the terms and today the postholder is a brilliant woman. It is justice that Warren has been made, all these years after his death, to pay her salary.

V. This week I am reading about men who, like Warren, often preferred their college enclaves to nasty businesses like the First World War and the rough and tumble of politics. They dabbled, of course, and were delighted to count politicians and social reformers among their correspondents and dinner-guests, but like anyone who’s anyone in Oxford they’d take a dinner over a serious meeting any day. Most of the men I’ve been reading about this week opposed women’s suffrage. Most of them wouldn’t have seen themselves as homosexual, but they saw themselves like so many fifth-century Athenians who found in the dull prattle of teenage schoolboys and the minutiae of school and college life something richer than what they thought their wives and daughters could offer.

VI. On the face of it these men are frankly despicable. I was spending all day today reading their letters—and thinking about all that goes unsaid in letters—and realizing that even if I had the historian’s longed-for time machine I would never in a million years have been allowed into the spaces where they said to each other what they could not say in letters. It is not simply the passage of time that denies me the knowledge of why Oscar Browning took such an, err, active interest in the totally mundane life of a particular fifth-form pupil at Norwich Grammar School in the 1880s; it is that I am a woman, and when women encroach upon male homosocial worlds the men clam up and won’t say to you what they might say to each other behind closed doors or in languages to the knowledge of which you are not granted access.

VII. All of this is the case and perhaps it goes doubly for race, in the name of which hierarchies it is arguable far grosser evils have been committed than in the name of a gender hierarchy. And then I spent all day in the reading room looking out the window across the court at King’s Chapel and chills went down my spine. When I came home along the river after dinner in golden evening light (and hit one after another the cliché trifecta of swans, church bells, and Morris dancers) a sense of something longer and deeper than any past I can access caught in my stomach—and also a sense of what power nineteenth-century historians have in understanding how that construct of an English past was first crafted. And empire, of course, is there too. It’s everywhere. You can’t get rid of it—you can only apologise, if you like me or rather my great-grandparents are a settler colonial and had to come to England to know how that is so—and you can study history, and you can teach history to anyone who will listen and then some. And perhaps go home and have a quiet reckoning with yourself about where the money comes from that stewards institutions, and that protects those institutions that are safest from the ravages of trendy government diktats. It is not a happy story, any more than is your sugar or your tea. It is a story to be told.

VIII. What we can do—what does, I might even hazard, more good than questioning the Codrington—is tell the dysfunctional, solipsistic Oxford bloody History Faculty to update its syllabi to reflect historiographical developments that have occurred since I was born, to take responsibility for its own institutional story. American history professors have done great things in recent years by taking undergraduates into the university archives and helping them to piece together the university’s implication in slavery and enduring racism. I guarantee you that there are documents that could tell similar stories in every Oxford college founded before the twentieth century—and students should be asking to see them.


Postscript: the main thing that I learned intellectually this year is the extent to which the lives and stories of most people in the world are implicated in empire. I first learned it not from postcolonial theory but when David Cannadine’s Ornamentalism led me to think about how my own life was shaped by British empire. Since then, I’ve been realising over and again the extent to which that is such a fundamental world-historical paradigm that needs to be understood on a concrete, personal, individualised, persisting level.


America and the Ivy League, Rediti; Incipit Columbia

I would apologize for my terrible Latin, except that it is rather a relief to walk down the streets in my new city and feel that my lack of Spanish, not my rudimentary Latin, is what most belies my ignorance. Amidst the culture shock of my first five days in Manhattan—the apartment building and the elevator; the oppressively constant noise; NPR instead of Radio 4; dollar bills; loud Americans who actually belong here; different products on the supermarket shelves; and much more—there is little to explain why Latin is the language that came to my mind when I decided to begin this post. Unless it was stepping onto the Columbia campus for the first time today, seeing the classical authors engraved on the facade of Butler Library and the Core Curriculum books for sale in the university bookstore, Latin and Greek everywhere on the logos of Morningside Heights’ various educational institutions, and a melange of Gothic and neoclassical architecture which evinces a very specific nineteenth-century American vision of the meaning and purpose of the university. Columbia in many ways is nothing like Princeton, but in their common historical investment in the liberal arts and in research, in their erection of temples of learning, they have more serious and meaningful connections than their common participation in a sports conference and an interlibrary loan system (though believe me when I say that being back in the Borrow Direct network was a significant factor in my decision to come here).

As all Ivy League graduates who read the internet are probably aware by now, one person who believes that Princeton and Columbia have a rather different set of commonalities is writer and former English professor William Deresiewicz, whose new book Excellent Sheep (teased at length in The New Republic) holds up what he calls the Ivy League (by which he really seems to mean Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Stanford, with perhaps a couple extras like Columbia) as evidence of what ails a generation of overambitious, careerist, narrow-minded, and above all anxious young adults. Instead of blaming the economy, or paradigms such as shifting trends in college-going and the differing priorities of students of different socioeconomic backgrounds or countries of origin, Deresiewicz thinks that these ills are directly perpetrated by the culture of a few select colleges, their admissions offices, and their teachers. (Mind you, he left full-time teaching himself over twenty years ago, giving his excoriation of Ivy League professors a hollow and bitter ring.) Let the youth of today go anywhere else, he pleads, even if it means that with less financial aid they would have to work their way through school. That would be a better education than anything Harvard or Yale could give you.

When Deresiewicz’s TNR piece first came out, I posted a long and emotionally involved essay on Facebook about it, but I don’t intend to rehash that here. It’s not a little embarrassing how myself and my fellow Ivy League graduates have gravitated towards the essay and projected all our own status anxieties onto it, and it’s important to remember that in the large landscape of higher education in the US, what anyone has to say about the Ivy League is pretty irrelevant. And it’s true that some of Deresiewicz’s diagnoses are accurate—though he is so ungenerous to students and teachers that not I nor a single one of the peers to whom I’ve spoken recognizes the universities we attended in his characterization.

I’ve taken a certain pleasure in reading a range of critical reviews of Excellent Sheep, but I’d like to quote at length from a review written by one of my own teachers, whose long dedication to teaching undergraduates is, in my biased opinion, unparalleled, and who is rather more optimistic about the youth of today:

Above all, many students suffer from the relentless anxiety, the sense of exhaustion and anomie, that their hyperactivity generates and that Deresiewicz powerfully evokes. No wonder, then, that when he sketched this indictment in an essay in The American Scholar, his text went viral. Many students have contacted him to confirm his diagnosis. Some of my students tell me that they still remember exactly where they were when they read his sharp words. Anyone who cares about American higher education should ponder this book.

But anyone who cares should also know that the coin has another side, one that Deresiewicz rarely inspects. He describes the structures of the university as if they were machines, arranged in assembly lines: “The system churns out an endless procession of more or less uniform human specimens.” Yet universities aren’t total institutions. Professors and students have agency. They use the structures they inhabit in creative ways that are not dreamt of in Deresiewicz’s philosophy, and that are more common and more meaningful than the “exceptions” he allows.

Many students at elite universities amble like sheep through four years of parties and extracurriculars, and then head down the ramp to the hedge funds without stopping to think. But plenty of others find their people, as one of my own former students says: the teachers who still offer open doors and open ears, the friends who stay up all night arguing with them about expressionism or feminism or both, the partners with whom they sail the deep waters of love (which, like sex, survives on campus). They come in as raw freshmen and they leave as young adults, thoughtful and articulate and highly individual. Deresiewicz observes their identical T-shirts but misses their differences of class and resources — just as he elides the differences between universities.

Even the academic side of the university offers richer and deeper experiences than Deresiewicz thinks. Recreating a life or building an argument, analyzing a text or chasing a virus, in the company of an adult who cares about both the subject and the student, need not be a routine exercise. It can be a way to build a soul — the soul of a scholar or scientist, who ignores our smelly little ideologies and fact-free platitudes, and cherishes precision and evidence and honorable admission of error. One reason some graduates of elite universities look unworldly is that those universities still try — admittedly with mixed results — to uphold a distinctive code of values.

When Deresiewicz looks at the universities, he sees Heartbreak House: a crumbling Gothic mansion, inhabited by polite young shadows, limp and exhausted. When I look at them, I see the Grand Budapest Hotel: stately, if fragile, structures, where youth and energy can find love and knowledge and guidance — places that welcome students who make creative fun of their teachers and other authorities, and help them go on having creative fun in later life.

The Columbia undergraduates have just started to arrive, and today campus was swarming with wide-eyed freshmen in shorts and t-shirts and nametags—they looked so young!—taking campus tours. Facilities teams were erecting the traditional big white tents (what the British call marquees) on lawns in preparation for start-of-term ceremonies and barbecues. There was a long line in the campus bookstore and returning students are all of a sudden pounding the pavements of Broadway. (A particularly surreal sight were the frat bros in brightly-colored tank tops, Atlanta Braves hats, and southern accents buying snacks in Rite-Aid.) It’s great being a grad student, and someone who will next year, and for the years to come, teach a small subset of these students: I know that if I were a freshman I wouldn’t necessarily have fit in with most of the kids I saw today, and I would have forlornly wandered the halls of the great temples to learning looking for grad students and professors to take me under their wings. But now I can smile warmly at the sight of these eager kids and think about how important the next four years are going to be for them and how much they’re going to learn. (At Columbia, I can also contemplate the rather bewildering thought that in a couple weeks all of them will be reading Homer and Plato.)

Maybe my time in the Ivy League has been unusually blessed. But although I do see a lot of anxiety and competition and careerism in the Ivy League, and I do see a lot of students in it solely for the grade and the job, I also see a seriously meaningful number of students and teachers working together to get tremendous personal and social value out of their liberal-arts education—and that value doesn’t disappear if the students do go into finance or if they don’t realize what they got until decades down the line. The start of the academic year is a special, romantic time—it has always been heart-soaring for me—and I’m starting to see what university teachers mean when they say that living in universities keeps them young. I can’t help but think that it is Deresiewicz’s loss that when he looks at Princeton or Columbia he doesn’t see this alongside (and perhaps underneath) the status-treadmilling.

Energy, enthusiasm, and luck to all those who are starting a new academic year in the coming weeks!

Year’s End

The other day, a family member asked me if I was planning to do a “year in review” post for 2013, a tradition I’ve kept up in the past few years. But you know?—I said—I don’t have a lot to say. What words I have in me, fewer these days, need to go to my thesis, my coursework, and my extracurricular contracted writing obligations; furthermore, I feel I know myself less well than I did a year ago. My ability to characterize what is interesting about my research has increased through a series of MPhil dissertation proposals and PhD applications, but my ability and my desire to tell the story of my own life has lessened. Lately, I’ve only been doing it in metaphors: how the homosocial environments in which the Victorian and Edwardian men I study grew up affected the forms of heterosocial interaction they pursued through marriage and an increasingly hetero professional and social world; how my love for the hills southwest of Oxford has grown upon me slowly and quietly and gently, not like the less mature rush of passion I first felt for the city centre’s dreaming spires three years ago. Those two statements, read closely, may tell you something about the tempest of emotions that has been the last twelve months, but suffice to say that this year I feel myself to have entered a new stage of life: one that has opened to me the capacity to understand books truly written for “grown-ups,” like Middlemarch; that has caused me to realize adulthood isn’t just budgeting and cooking but negotiating new ways of relating to people, a new level of responsibility for one’s thoughts, words and actions, new webs of personal and professional associations. When I was 18, I had friends who were grad students in their mid-twenties, and I do now the things I marvelled at them doing then: complaining about the worst hangovers of their lives, watching friends get married and have babies, having social interactions (carefully mediated, with clear boundaries and hierarchies in place, but social interactions nevertheless) with faculty in their department. Before, when I was invited to an older person’s house for a holiday meal or got to tag along for drinks after a seminar, I felt like the kid sister. Now, I’m a member of a college and a department. It makes for a certain degree of uncertainty about how to treat people—compounded by the many translation errors I’ve committed as an American abroad—and this year has not been without its deep anxieties and low moods at the difficulties inherent in finding a place at the seminar table. But things are different now, and by and large it feels good.

But academia is the easy part. There are boxes to tick, there are projects for which to lay plans, and at least for the next ten years the steps that I need to take to advance my career are relatively clear. The guidance I have from mentors could not be better. But I have realized that outside the classroom and the archive and the application form, no one can guide you, and that’s the trickier bit. Many times this year I have written emails that say, thank you for this advice, it makes a lot of sense, but I know I won’t be able to really feel the confidence in me that you express until I am middle-aged and can look back and see that my life has amounted to something. These days, it becomes harder to look back and take solace from making a shape out of my life up to this point, when what seems more pressing is how little sense I have of where my life is going to go. I spend a lot of time walking the side streets of Oxford trying to peek through the curtains in the front bay windows of terraced houses and imagining myself established, with a job and a partner and a cat, living in a two- or three-bedroom house with a little garden just like those ones. But there’s no reason to believe that will happen, and all the middle-aged people who kindly say that their lives haven’t turned out the way they thought when they were 23 but that this is perfectly all right, actually, can’t quell the forward-thinking existential angst that makes it hard to really tell the story of 2013, the year when living started to seem a great deal more difficult and more complicated, and when I became less certain that I could tell anyone who I am and what I believe.

For these reasons I have been following with great attention a fracas of a discussion that has erupted over the holidays in the pages of my favorite academic blogs, Tenured Radical and Historiann. In brief, it seems that a number of pseudonymous discussants projected upon a search committee’s late notification of its interview candidates for a tenure-track position in a literature department all their many anxieties about the present state of the academic job market as well as the social and economic position of young adults more generally. Even calls for civility and what I think people used to call “netiquette” have been interpreted as part and parcel of the grievances the young have against the complacent old. Nothing new, of course—isn’t this what student protesters were saying in the 1960s?—but the new medium does change matters, and it makes me wonder about age and adulthood and maturity. I hesitate to interrupt these social media conversations among senior academics just as much as I would hesitate to insinuate myself into a senior academic’s social circle in real life: what could I possibly have to offer, and why would they want to talk to me? The last time an established professional genuinely asked my opinion about something in a social setting (though in this case it was not an academic but a freelance writer with close ties to the academy), it was to ask how I, as a young person, thought she should have The Sex Talk with her teenage daughter. That I can do—but my thoughts on the job market are pretty irrelevant.

That’s what I think, anyway, when it comes to personalities like TR and Historiann who are respectful to others generally and would seem to be good mentors to their own graduate students. I was less certain of elder wisdom at a committee meeting earlier this year when a suggestion another master’s student and I presented for alteration of our course’s curriculum was literally laughed out of the meeting by a senior faculty member. While most of my interactions in academia since entering the profession as an apprentice have served to increase my faith in the system, if my first forays had only been met with the few instances I have encountered of disdain and belittling—and if advantage compounded upon advantage didn’t serve to ease my entrée into elite institutions—I would no doubt be filled with as much rage and desire to cut the pompous tenured down to size as some of the young people whose stories I’ve heard whose experience in academia was not kind to them. My good fortune may have insulated me from being eaten away by poisonous feelings of betrayal by the system, but I can kind of see where these people are coming from, because I am also young.

I have six months left in the master’s, and soon I will hear where my next, much longer and more momentous, posting will be, in one of three major US cities. At the moment, I am eager to start the next chapter of my academic life: while I have realized that the UK postgraduate education system doesn’t suit my immediate needs, I have become more confirmed in my vocation, and look forward to stepping up my training as a historian, meeting new mentors, having a cohort, having fresh ideas about a wider variety of subjects. And in fact, my academic progress this year has been a delight, and I have had some small successes that have made me proud.

But I struggle daily with the world outside the academic sphere: with being a good and generous person and a good friend and colleague, which is so hard; with being happy day-to-day, which is harder; with how to become the kind of person I want to be able to say I am in twenty or thirty years’ time. What’s more, all this tends towards solipsism, which is something I am also trying to avoid. Hence why I have been writing less here, and why explaining what has happened this year assumes less importance than does putting what energy I find that I have in these short, dark days to being the kind of adult who has the capacity to understand Middlemarch, who remembers what it was to be young and tempestuous and uncertain as much as she finds contentment in the more generous and worldly spirit brought on by maturity, and who prays that loving the world as hard as she can really is what it takes to find love in return.

Happy new year and all my very best for 2014.

The History of the University of Oxford

I was much struck, this rainy afternoon of Sunday of second week, by the text of the Vice-Chancellor’s annual Oration, published as a supplement to last week’s University Gazette. The Vice-Chancellor’s intimation that Oxford ought to be allowed to charge higher tuition has caused a lot of disconcerted muttering in common rooms in the last week, but he’s right that there is a large gap between the already outrageous-seeming £9,000 per student per year and the real cost of educating each student with the low teacher-student ratios, excellent library system, and other distinctively Oxonian features on which the University prides itself. He’s also right that tripling tuition does no one any good when that rise in income is more than undone by the loss of government funding for undergraduate education. I have been suspecting for years now that if Oxford and Cambridge hope to compete with the best American research universities, they need to become more like them in their approach to funding as well, both in terms of private donation (already well underway) and in terms of a massive rise in tuition and–I hope–a commensurate rise in financial aid for those who need it. I don’t know whether I trust the V-C’s politics (I mean, instead of throwing up his hands and saying “Well, so much for government funding; better look elsewhere”, he could be agitating for the renewal of that funding), but I do think he sees the present situation accurately. And hurrah for him pointing out that online courses are best suited for certain initiatives in the Department for Continuing Education, but perhaps not for everything the University does!

I love my university, and I love to study its history, in part because it serves as such an excellent case study in the workings of continuity and change. An institution that has for centuries sustained its own bizarre internal culture but also been inextricably and fundamentally linked to major world-historical events can tell us much about national and international politics, class and gender, and of course the history of ideas and of education. Present-day Oxford is telling in a way few institutions are in quite such a clear way about the ways in which the twenty-first century is rather like the nineteenth: I thought as much yesterday when, taking the minutes at an MCR meeting, I found myself adopting the phrases Sidgwick used when he took the minutes as Secretary for a number of University and college organizations; but it’s there too in the Vice-Chancellor’s reminder that the Department for Continuing Education is the modern-day descendant of the wonderful University Extension movement of the nineteenth century, which sought to make the university’s resources more accessible to members of the public who might not have the time, ability, money, level of preparation, or desire to complete a full degree course, and which first changed the idea of Oxford as the preserve of the moneyed elite so well-known to us from literary representations like Jude the Obscure. This institution tells us untold stories about an entire departed world and the kinds of relations between people and ideas that existed within it, which I see echoed all around me every day in the routines I follow and ceremonies I observe as a member of it.

Yet there is change too, and that change is in some respects farcical and in some worrying. The Gazette and the Oxford Magazine were once institutions, and I suspect I’m one of a very few these days who takes any great delight in sitting down in a common room or study and reading them; more troublingly, the editorial in the 0th week edition of the Oxford Magazine pointed out that, with the burgeoning of career administration and bureaucracy, Congregation (the so-called “parliament of dons”) is little more than ceremonial, its meetings ill-attended, existing only to wave through legislation already determined by a set of bureaucrats with no experience or even real stake in teaching or research. In this respect the “ancient universities” are very different now from how they were in the days long before their doors were opened to the Judes of this world, before government funding for undergraduate education—or, indeed, the very existence of research—was ever on the table. I’m certain that there must be a way for we university folk to have our cake and eat it too, that retaining some hold on government funding and the commitment to democratic access and an educated citizenry that comes with it does not necessarily entail red tape, efficiency experts, and the watering-down of all that is valuable here. I don’t know how to achieve that outcome any better than anyone else, but I suspect that the first step is to care: whether by supporting the lecturers’ strike on 31st October or by showing up or pressuring your nearest don to show up to a meeting of Congregation, or perhaps by taking a learned interest in the history of institutions such as this one—not from some quaint local-history, chronicling perspective, but from one that takes seriously the importance universities hold for the nation.