Thoughts on Transatlantic Academia

It’s now been a scant two weeks since I sat down with my undergraduate mentor and started to draw up a list of all the Ph.D. programs I’m interested in applying to this coming autumn, and just a week since I met with my current supervisor and decided not to apply to any UK programs at all. When I realized earlier this year that, if one works on British and/or European topics in a well-funded US program (as any US program that a student hopes to attend should be), one will realistically have opportunities to come back all the time, for summers and possibly even a year of the dissertation, and maybe even for a postdoc, it made it easier to know that I’ll have to say goodbye at this time next year to my favorite country and city. I’m not making a decision now about the country in which I’ll spend the rest of my life.

But as I correspond with faculty and grad students at the institutions where I’m considering applying, it is being strongly impressed upon me what serious decisions I am making, and the high stakes even of writing a simple email of introduction to faculty, months before the application process really begins. One of the reasons I decided not to apply in the UK is that I am intellectually exhausted: after the BA and master’s theses, both of which I’m still working on, I don’t yet have in me a third project for a UK doctoral proposal, much less the energy to turn round and start researching and writing a significant piece of original work immediately after turning in my master’s thesis. I want to feel as if I can take next summer off, and then spend a couple years writing research papers and just trying out ideas before I commit to the one that’s going to stay with me at least through the dissertation and first book, if not forever.

Those, too, are considerations that American programs take seriously, and another reason I’ve decided to go back is that I’d like to be in a program that cares about what you’ll become after the doctorate, regardless of whether you wind up in a traditional academic position. As someone who thinks teaching is the most important part of academia, I’m looking more favorably upon programs that provide for a significant amount of teaching experience (one program I’m interested in has you teaching one class/section a semester for three years, starting in your second year, which sounds like the perfect balance of significant experience without preventing you from finishing the degree)—not to mention that this will be the best training for my Plan B career, teaching school. That said, even though I know we’re not supposed to think of non-academic careers as “Plan B” these days, it is for me: I recognize that not everyone who wants an academic job can have one, but I’ve wanted an academic job nearly all my sentient life, and I’d like to be in a program that will prepare me to go on the job market, and that will teach me intellectual independence without just throwing me in the deep end and seeing if I will sink or swim.

There’s a certain amateur quality to the British Ph.D., at least in its Oxbridge form (I strongly suspect it may be different elsewhere, and am surprised by how isolated Oxford grad students and faculty seem to continue to be from the rest of the top British research universities where people are doing excellent work). You notice this among the many doctoral students who don’t have any particular desire to be professional academics, as well as among the many doctoral students who do, but who are clueless about how to prepare for the job market, don’t have the institutional support to do so, and simply haven’t been given the talks that my advisors gave me all throughout undergrad about how few jobs there are and how statistically unlikely it is that you’ll be the one who bags one. There’s a sort of gentlemanly attitude here of pretending that you’re just in it for the life of the mind, which would all be very well if we really were all gentle(wo)men of leisure who didn’t have to put food on the table at the end of the day. As infuriating as this is, it’s also just interesting to note how it’s manifested itself in an application process that differs greatly from the US. My British friends on master’s courses here who applied to continue to the doctorate had to write a doctoral research proposal, sure, but they don’t seem to have worried too much or thought too deeply otherwise about the different strengths and weaknesses of all the available programs in the country (or world!), applied to a wide swathe of programs to ensure they would have a couple options to choose from, or taken into consideration the placement statistics of their selected programs. Most just assumed they would carry on at Oxford (many of them had also done their undergrad here), and maybe a few also applied to Cambridge or to another Russell Group university in case they didn’t get a funded place at Oxford. Some didn’t get funding, and carried on at Oxford anyway, the major no-no of American grad-school-application advice. For them, it seems, it’s all been a matter of routine.

Compare, then, the emails I’ve been getting from American faculty and grad students, and from my own mentors, all impressing upon me the seriousness of this decision. While most of the faculty I’ve approached have been kind and helpful, some have given me the sense that I’m auditioning for them and have to prove myself, reminding me of the at times cutthroat nature of American grad school, particularly in the most elite programs. (Indeed, what prompted me to write this post was an offhand remark in Historiann’s latest post about the “paranoid fantasies” grad students tell each other to freak each other out.) I may not be deciding which country to live in forever, but the American system makes it clear to me that I am making decisions that will determine my future career prospects, or at least my happiness and intellectual fulfillment for the next six or so years, and the city where I’m going to spend the rest of my twenties. At least there’s also an expectation in the American system that this is a decision older and wiser people will help you to make, and I’ve welcomed the vast quantity of advice I’ve received from sage and well-informed elders, even as difficult as it is to sift through it all.

The question that lingers in the back of my mind, though, is whether I can take the heat. In some respects I’ve felt under-stimulated by the amateur, and entirely self-directed, quality of Oxford academic life. But can I handle the pressure-cooker that is American academia? Will I learn to develop a thicker skin and more intellectual self-confidence, and withstand the atmosphere of direct competition with the most brilliant young historians in America? Will I, indeed, be on the face of it clever enough to compete with them at all? After all, I feel as if I have so much catching-up to do in terms of knowledge of the past and of the historiography. And, most importantly, am I willing to spend the rest of the decade halfway up a greasy pole (there’s a nice Victorian metaphor for you!), knocking off others in order to shin my way up to the top? If it gets too ugly, will I be able to let my dreams of status and intellectual fame go, and take an unhistoric teaching job anywhere that will have me?

Never mind the historical questions I have to wrestle with as I revise my writing sample and begin to think about how to structure my personal statement. I feel like I’m in a reality television show, and shit just got real.

Progress Report; or, Some Thoughts Delivered in the Vague Direction of Michael Gove

When I do outreach workshops with teenagers, trying to get them excited about coming to university (and maybe even studying history!) I make myself out to be a bit like Indiana Jones. To the 15-year-olds from inner-city London or rural North Wales who come to visit Oxford on a programme that seeks to demystify the supposedly (or maybe actually) posh university and give them the same sort of university-application resources that students from independent schools get, I’m an eccentric, renegade American on an adventure who dives headfirst into archives and comes up for air ready to wave manuscripts in their faces and lecture them about Victorian women’s menstrual cycles. This is, naturally, exactly the sort of persona one wants to cultivate in stints as a schoolteacher, but it sure obscures the dull reality of the days spent in the library trying day after day to pull together the motivation to write master’s essays on the history of political thought (“this needs to be less about sex and more about political theory,” my supervisor said upon reading a draft), all the while thinking to myself that at least if I stay in Britain for my doctorate, I’ll never have to write another term paper. It’s been a long term.

But it’s nearly over, it’s staying light ever later, and doing these outreach sessions helps to remind me of the big picture of what the hell I’m doing here aside from what seems like just another year of term papers. After all, my funding is grounded in the idea of furthering mutual understanding between Britons and Americans, and I received that funding, I presume, in part because I spent 25 minutes in a conference room in Los Angeles telling a panel of interviewers how much I believed in universities and cared about what’s happening these days in the politics surrounding British education at the secondary and higher levels. Happily, this happens to be true, and actually having the opportunity to talk regularly with ordinary schoolkids—the ones I work with come specifically from schools who do not have a history of sending students to Russell Group universities—is an extremely effective way of putting what the newspapers have to say about British education, and the changes it has undergone since the ascent of the coalition government and Education Secretary Michael Gove, into perspective.

This became particularly apparent to me today. My lesson is centered on a handout including some excerpts from a primary source I’m particularly interested in at the moment, the diaries/daybooks of a Victorian classicist called Arthur Sidgwick. Sidgwick faithfully records everything—and I mean everything—that happens to him in his daily life, but the part that I’m most focused on—and that I discuss with the kids—is the story of his courtship, engagement, marriage and children. We look (or try to look) at the way he discusses getting to know and falling in love with his wife (after the first session, I ditched the section where he falls in love with a student—call me a whitewasher of the queer experience in history if you like, but that was just too complicated to take on in an hour with school groups), and what that can or can’t tell us about love, desire, and relationships in Britain c. 1850-1914. I make clear to the kids that this is my actual research question at the moment, that I don’t know the answers to the questions I’m asking them, and just see what happens and hope that it gets them excited.

When it doesn’t, however (like today), I veer off into more general conversation. Today, mindful of Michael Gove’s proposal to re-orient history education around narrative, I asked them what they thought about the fact that their history education has been entirely in isolated, thematic chunks (for instance, as one girl said she was doing this year, the American West and the history of medicine). To a student, they said they couldn’t imagine that a chronological approach would seem as fun or as accessible—they looked very bored indeed when I said that I had done all of American history from the Pilgrims to the present three times over in school! One boy said he felt that the anti-chronological approach had led him to make unexpected connections across different time periods, and that narrative would give you set answers about how one thing led to another and not allow you to draw your own conclusions. It was an interesting statement, and one that if I were a more experienced teacher I might have picked up and run with: what about things that are actually different in the past, not the same? Isn’t it important to know how different social or cultural contexts came about, and to assess whether change over the time is the same thing as progress or regress over time? Admittedly, these weren’t concepts that I truly started to grapple with until I started taking history classes in college, but the reason that my college classes—particularly those in American history—got me so excited was because they upended my preconceived, progressive narrative of American history. Getting that narrative drilled into me from a young age gave me a base of general knowledge that my college teachers were able to query and fill in, particularly about complicated topics such as gender, race and sexuality that often defy our attempts to make them into progressive narratives.

Anyway. Wary of digressing like that in my class, I returned the discussion back to Sidgwick’s diaries. A girl asked if Sidgwick’s obsessive recording of the minute details of his life was typical or representative, and by way of comparison I brought up the diaries of the prime minister W.E. Gladstone. Not one of my twenty students had ever heard of him at all. While I was explaining him and comparing his diaries to Sidgwick’s, I tried to figure out of this was worrisome or even remarkable. How many US Civil War-era politicians could I name, for instance? Certainly not as many as I could abolitionists, which is no doubt a result of historians’ and history teachers’ increasing acknowledgement over the past decades that history is made as much by people outside the corridors of power as within them. A central criticism of the new National Curriculum for history has been that it restores focus to dead white men that had been removed by a Labour curriculum that sought to emphasize the everyday experiences of ordinary people, and the contributions of minority and women figures to history. Gladstone and Disraeli get their own bullet point, however, in the new curriculum, and while I do hope that means that a new generation of schoolchildren will have the opportunity to titter at Gladstone’s “reform” of prostitutes, I still don’t know whether I think that matters. After all, just like David Cameron and Ed Milliband, Gladstone went to Oxford; like Nick Clegg, Arthur Sidgwick went to Cambridge. What it says about modern Britain that twenty kids from “nontraditional” university backgrounds have come up to Oxford for an open day attempting to demystify elite universities and encourage them to apply, only to sit in a fancy classroom in a sixteenth-century college and have an American grad student teach them their own country’s fairly recent history, menstrual cycles and all, is a question far above my pay grade, but it’s certainly one that I feel duty-bound to keep thinking about.

Either that, or it’s just that it beats writing about utilitarianism.

Impossible Love and Victorian Values; or, In Which a Talk is Advertised

Sentences from my BA thesis, now appearing in a seminar paper I will be delivering very soon:

Symonds’ life is not a story about gayness. It’s a story about humanistic study and self-development, about a search for truth, a search for ethics, and a historian’s interest in ferreting out “human documents” and bringing them to light. A modern reader might find no shortage of problems with and limits to Symonds’ philosophy of love. Yet there is something profoundly moving about his belief that his erotic ideal was powerful enough, spiritually-driven enough, pure enough, that Victorian culture, far from considering it a disease, would have to accommodate it, too, as a bearer of “sweetness and light”—even if it proposed to love the most impossible things.

Want to hear more? I will be talking on “Impossible Love and Victorian Values: J.A. Symonds and the Intellectual History of Homosexuality” at 12.15pm on Friday, 2nd November at the Platnauer Room in Brasenose College, Oxford, as part of the Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Culture Forum’s seminar series. All are welcome!

Baby-Stepping Towards Adulthood

Just now, I received an email that began, “‎Dear Ms. Rutherford, This is to inform you that preparation for your Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS) number at the University of Oxford has begun.” As preliminary–and silly–as “preparation for your Confirmation of Acceptance” sounds, this is the important document standing between me and my student visa application, for which I’ve been eagerly waiting. But the silly tentativeness with which the very helpful woman in the History Faculty office framed this email also speaks volumes about where it seems as if my life is right now. Over the past few weeks, my mind has accommodated itself to the notion that I graduated from college, a place that I’m now speaking about in the past tense. I’ve had some distance from the people and the place that has helped me to be able to figure out what I think about it, overall; coming back to my thesis after months away, I’m starting to recover from my burnout and be able to do academic work again; and I’m also just doing a lot of thinking on my own. I’m reading for pleasure, I’m walking, I’m looking at art and listening to music, I’m talking to friends and family, and most importantly I’m trying to figure out what I want out of life, and what a good life entails. Just as the History Faculty are preparing my CAS, it seems, so am I preparing to formulate a set of principles and goals and hierarchy of needs that will help me decide whether the adult life I want to live is both a personally enriching and a socially valuable one–and, if it’s not, how I can try harder to make it so. And, well, I guess that if there’s anything more impenetrable than immigration bureaucracy, “What is the good life?” is it. It’s worth a little thought.

I write now from Paris, where I’m spending the month of July rather on a series of whims and coincidences. I’ve not been doing very much to further the pursuit of my short-term academic goals: I’m still not quite up to the level I need to be at to benefit from the ancient Greek class I’m taking in August; the academic article I’m trying to write is in the earliest planning stages; my subscription to the Bibliothèque Nationale Française has gone largely unused. Instead, in the city of the flâneur, I think I’ve been benefiting from being a little less goal-oriented. Some days I sit and read and write at home, but on others I walk halfway across the city in alleged pursuit of some English-language bookshop or better-than-average cafe, but really just to walk, and to have the time to myself to think about what I’m doing here. There are a lot of reasons that brought me to Paris, but all of them are personal, and as ever, the balance between what is good for me and what is good for society is very difficult to strike.

This year, I consciously tried to take some time away from agonizing about whether what I’m doing with my life is socially beneficial (and then doing it anyway) in order just to focus on doing what I’m doing with my life in the best possible way. Then, and perhaps accordingly, this year was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. Between writing a thesis, leaving the first place I ever lived as my own person, and learning what love is, I was rather preoccupied with dealing with huge personal emotions, some of them for the first time. Going back to read my thesis in preparation for the article I’m writing has been quite painful: as I revisit every sentence, I can remember exactly how I was feeling when I wrote it, and whether it was a joyous or a melancholy day down at my desk in the library basement. I can see all the conversations I had with my advisor reflected in its pages, and wince especially at the parts where I can only now see what he meant, why he was right, or why there were some points that I could have fleshed out in more detail or with more substantive evidence. In this thesis, also, are all the pieces of my world that over the past year came to mean the most to me about acknowledging and acting in accordance with my own desires for connection and comradeship. When I read the story I told of Symonds’ journey through Plato, through Oxford, through faith and science, through passionate positivist pursuit of the truth, through personal relationships, and when I see how I brought in outside, related writers and thinkers like Freud and Forster, I remember how Oxford, the Anglican tradition, the Phaedrus, psychoanalysis, Howards End, and the people with whom I became friends over the past couple years all helped me to feel as if I was discovering for the first time something extraordinary about what it means to be human, and as if living well and living joyously are important for their own sake, not merely ancillary to living a purposeful and socially useful life.

Well, it’s been a long and difficult several months since the last time Oxford sponsored me for a student visa, and the novelty value of the world’s beauty has soured just a little. There are upsides to this: I started to think, again, about the social value of my life goals, and realized that while I can ethically justify becoming a university teacher and living a life that is fully invested in intellectual community for its own sake, I can’t justify according to my own idiosyncratic code of ethics being a freelance researcher/writer who isn’t committed first and foremost to some kind of communitarian enterprise. (This isn’t a prescriptivist position—it’s a calculus based on how I think I can best use my unique talents to make myself and others better. Others, with a different distribution of skills, wants, and needs, may reach different conclusions.) And I realized, just a little more recently, that while part of being committed to the public good is taking public stances for unpopular positions when you believe that you’re in the right, doing so doesn’t do much social good if in trying to explain your position others, you end up alienating them, or making them believe that you’re purely self-interested instead of trying to put your own house in order before trying to move outside of it.

Last night, a friend who was in town for the weekend walked with me up and down the Seine for hours, and he quizzed me on my moral principles, trying to prod me into defending my intuitions about what is a sufficiently good way to live, and leading me to talk in circles about whether any life path that doesn’t focus on solving world hunger is justifiable. It was a very undergraduate kind of conversation, like many such conversations I’ve had before in my dorm room or around my co-op’s kitchen table—the kinds of conversations you can have when it doesn’t matter whether you need to wake up early in the morning sharp enough to put in a productive day at your job. Because, you see, I think one of the things that we do in the modern western world when we become adults is that we start thinking about putting food on our own tables, on living lives that make us more materially comfortable (because the older you get, the harder it gets to sleep on an air mattress or see the world while staying in youth hostels), on seeking out the people who will make us feel less alone and will help us to share the burden of leading stressful, busy lives. I’d argue that that’s one of the many reasons why university is a good, and why our society needs people who will devote their lives to ensuring that it continues to be a good: that three- or four-year haven from the world is where we get the chance to stay up late talking about ethics and morals, and where high-minded ambitions of solving world hunger—or instilling love for the humanities in a new set of young people—are born.

But my friend is a better arguer than I am—I’m not a very good one, especially when I have a quick and forceful interlocutor and don’t get to take thousands of words to spin out my thoughts—and, besides, thinking that the university is a good doesn’t insulate professional academics from the various calls of pragmatism, seductive materialism and security, and marketized politico-economic logic. I’m as guilty as the next academic of wanting things that give me pleasure: a high-ceilinged and big-windowed apartment in a pleasant place to live, a prestigious job with good students who are easy and fun to teach, my name on the cover of a well-reviewed book, maybe pets or even a family, leisure time in which to really appreciate them, the ability to keep visiting new places and meeting new people. And I know as well as the next humanist with slight Marxist tendencies that while the downside of the capitalist consensus is that it enslaves us to things and alienates us from people, it can in the here and now get food on tables that haven’t got any in a way that all the utopianism in the world can’t—and that teaching the British history survey isn’t exactly helping to bring about the revolution either.

In short, my conversation last night, from which I’m still reeling, ended with a big “I don’t know.” I felt embarrassed that I couldn’t satisfy my friend with the rationality of the life choices that I’ve thus far made, but I also feel that as I’m lucky enough to have more time before pragmatism really sets in, I might as well take it. I have at least two more years before I have to settle, and I have a lot more to learn about myself and what, therefore, is the social good that I am actually capable of doing. And so, as I sit in Paris and read over my BA thesis, I become ever more certain that my next thesis is going to be more centrally about love, about what it is that draws us to other people, about the things about the world that we intuit and can rationally explain the least of all. I’m curious to know, in Victorian Britain, what sex had to do with love, and why; I’m curious to know how what students read in schools shaped their ideas about love in and outside the classroom; I’m curious to know what sexual science, coeducation, shifting socioeconomic structures and population distributions, the changing social role of religion, and many other exciting developments of the nineteenth century, have to do not only with how people had sex with each other but with how they cared for each other. And, because when we do projects like this, we can’t deny that we’re studying ourselves first and foremost, I hope also to learn what love has to do both with desire and with social responsibility in my own life, and what the hell a sentimental education is good for, anyway.

At the end of the next two years, will I be able to start a PhD with an easy conscience? Probably not. Will I have become mired in even more navel-gazing whirlpools? Probably. And will I have spent two more years pacing up and down wallowing in the luxury of being able to think about what I’d like to do with my life, and sitting up till all hours discussing it with members of my intellectual community? Undoubtedly.

As academics say when they give papers at works-in-progress talks: “I’m still early in my thinking about this.” It’s one of my favorite pieces of academic jargon, and I am profoundly grateful that there still exist enough people with power, money, and prestige who will take a bet on a young historian’s moral waffling turning into something properly good.

Small World; or, Bettering in the Neoliberal Age

Today was the first day I was properly happy with my post-graduation life. This morning I used the Wonders of Modern Technology to talk on the phone with a friend fifteen time zones away; from only eight time zones away, I got a delightful unexpected email from another friend I know in quite another context. Then my parents and I drove at 75 miles an hour across the California desert-scape to campus, where I spent much of the afternoon sitting at a table outside under the cloudless sky, wearing sunglasses and linen trousers and attempting to do some editorial work on a project I love dearly for which I’m even (gasp!) being paid.

At one point, I took a break to wander into the campus bookstore, where I failed to find a copy of A Passage to India but did, in an unforeseen coincidence, run into a new paperback edition of David Lodge’s trilogy of campus novels, Changing Places, Small World, and Nice Work. I’ve been thinking about David Lodge’s books a lot recently, because as my parents and I talk academic politics at the dinner table, and as I myself flit between continents and universities, it seems as if very little has changed since the 1970s, with the exception of one extremely important plot point. The Rummidges of this world are still being pushed into bizarre Thatcherite partnerships with business, Anglo-American academics still find excuses to pursue exciting conference travel, people still get laid at the MLA, and the entire subculture still takes on a sort of darkly comic tone. But the great public university system that once enabled Morris Zapp’s life of glamor and ease is now crumbling (in fact, literally, as I saw from one building I passed through today), and it’s definitely not a paradise for anyone in the humanities or even the human sciences now. The sunshine and occasional ocean views obscure scarce and badly-apportioned resources, a real mess that can’t quite be turned to comic ends.

But, perversely, it was my anger about the UC situation today (and, indeed, the present state of affairs at UVA) that afforded me at least some measure of self-acceptance. For as I sat garnering a sunburn amidst what was once part of the United States’ great testament to what public money could do, I posted links about UVA to Facebook, and I felt sufficiently fuelled to fire off angry emails about much smaller-time political wranglings at Princeton—still so well-to-do and so insulated, but not always absolved of the need for a few strongly-worded missives. And as I was doing this, a letter came in from my dear advisor, who is always an apt person to be recalled to mind when one wishes to remember what kinds of teaching, learning, and preservation are at stake in the battles for the heart and soul of the university. A report from overseas, from the Small World of academic life, that letter reminded me (as if I needed reminding) what good is done to the greater world by our small one, and why it is so morally, spiritually, emotionally worth paying quite learned people to study what they love and to pass it on to young people who need most in the world to come into contact with that guiding spirit of love.

The pedagogic eros: it works in mysterious ways, and in more wholesome and heart-stirring and profound ways than any use of the term “pedagogic eros” would usually care to admit. It connects friends across the world, and scholars to their work and to their students amidst a wide range of working conditions. It breathes connection—to people and places, texts and ideas—into the air of anywhere that honors Wisdom, and it has the power—if not cruelly debased by the rule of the market—to turn even the humblest concrete campus into its own city of dreaming spires. It can help us to bear with each other, to lighten the load of the accumulation of small daily troubles, to ease the anxiety of wondering whether the “terrible disease of loneliness” will ever be cured. Since at least the days of Plato—that is, in the story of the days of Plato that we tell—it has taught us to sublimate, sublimate, sublimate, but also that there are more erotes, and more ways to connect, than a paradigm in which all is sublimation might lead us to think.

Which is all to say that if my undergraduate days are over, the battle for the soul of the university is not, and my ability to play a part in that battle is only beginning. Though it may be tempting to mourn lost youth, and indeed rather difficult not to, it is only through some modicum of self-acceptance and perhaps even self-love that we can purpose ourselves to the higher causes of loving the others and the great moral principles for which we live. And so look for me on the barricades—we shall not be moved!

David Lodge, Collected Works
Jeff Nunokawa, Collected Notes

Shameless Self-Promotion; or, Baby’s First Conference

On Friday, I will be attending my first real academic conference—and giving my first talk—ever! It’s at the Ohio State University this Friday and Saturday, and it’s called Queer Places, Practices, and Lives: A Symposium in Honor of Samuel Steward. Samuel Steward was a fascinating person and an OSU grad, who was at the center of gay identity formation in mid-20th-century America in a way analogous to how Symonds was at the center of homosexual/Uranian identity formation in 1870s-90s Britain. The conference features a bevy of panels and plenaries on all sorts of aspects of queer identity construction in history and in the present, in addition to attendant methodological questions about discovering and preserving queer histories.

I’ll be speaking at 9am on Friday on a very cool panel that will be taking a variety of disciplinary perspectives to queer masculinities. I’ll be talking about Symonds’ life and work in relation to methodological issues that arise at the intersection of the history of sexuality/queerness and intellectual (and other forms of) history, and I hope that it’s going to be a lively conversation. Should you, dear reader, by any chance happen to be in the area, I’d love to see you there!

Finishing undergrad is a strange, special, and difficult time, about which I hope I’ll have the energy and the inspiration to write in the couple weeks (!) between now and graduation. But until then, it’s time to sit my last exam, and then fly to Ohio.

Past and Present; or, Sesame Street and Lilies: A Scene of Academic Life

I remember when I was a radical, and when I was an activist. I remember my “welcome to college” moment, in the days before I was a historian, before I discovered Symonds, when I sat up late with some friends and a guitar writing comedic and ultimately nonsensical lyrics about keeping freshmen off the grass to the tune of “This Land is Your Land” because my friends and I had a bright idea about how to make fun of California’s Proposition 8. I remember meeting one of my best friends when we got together to blast “It’s Raining Men” at the headquarters of the so-called National Organization for Marriage across the street from our dining hall. I remember going alone to talk to the Board of Trustees about gender-neutral housing. I remember being attacked for being too masculine-looking in the right-wing press from here to Washington. I remember when I took the early morning bus down to Washington and marched in the streets.

A couple weeks ago I was walking with a friend through a collegiate neo-Gothic arch at dusk, prattling on about virtue ethics, or the evils of political economy, or the value of agrarianism, or maybe that particular neo-Gothic arch, or something, and this friend—whom I had not hitherto taken as particularly familiar with the canonical Victorian essayists—said to me, “You’re really a Ruskinian conservative, aren’t you?”

Reader, I am.

The thing is, I am honestly exhausted by social engagement, by participating in a marketplace of ideas whose undergirding metaphor I am uninterested by. I do not believe in the values enshrined by the government of the country in whose elections I have voted, and I cannot be bothered to play along with its discourse to the extent required to try to fix it. I have never made change through statistics and “accountability,” and I have no intention of starting now. I don’t believe in “winning the future,” or indeed in winning full-stop. And I haven’t marched in the streets many times, but I have marched in the streets enough times to have gained the sense that the great change marching in the streets promises is not something I can believe in.

What can I believe in, then? Well, a lot actually. I can believe in going to class or going to a meeting with my advisor or another professor and coming home with a new idea. I can believe in spending an hour over lunch in hall bitching with my friend about the school newspaper, and coming up with a cogent critique of a campus problem; or in spending months with the same friend building up complex theoretical models to describe the world around us and the texts we’re reading. I can believe in helping the freshman advisee who wants course advice, or the fellow senior who wants to vent to me about her job hunt, or the sophomore torn between joining her friends’ eating club and her general distaste for the Street, or the junior who wants to know how I handled my workload when I was writing my first JP. I can believe in the community of my cooking co-op, where we all (mostly) do our part absent any reward but each other’s satisfaction. I can believe in the transcendent beauty of seeing Symonds work his ponderous Victorian dialectical way to a vision of sexual freedom no one has ever had before. I can believe in the transcendent beauty of a freshman, coming out for the first time, recreating that process, or an upperclass student, redefining his sexual identity having gained a little more theoretical apparatus, doing the same. I can believe in the big-government best intentions of our administration’s efforts to keep grading fair and to make sure there are social options on campus in which everyone can feel included. I can believe in the camaraderie in my college, in my co-op, and in my new home, the History Graduate Study Room. I can believe in the value of a place that tells undergraduates, “Here are four years that are yours. We’re fortunate enough to be able to give you all the resources you could ever possibly want to realize your best self in those four years. Use them well.” And I can believe in the value of being, year after year, part of an institution that helps young people have a shot at being better. I can believe in the value of a place that, to its graduate students and its faculty and its staff, embodies the only lifestyle they could ever possibly live and live well. And I can believe in the value of being, year after year, there for the next kid who comes through it and needs to discover that there is actually a place for those who love knowledge and wisdom above all else, and that they can be taken care of, respected, and even perhaps loved in turn therein.

Defending the ivory tower—the impregnable fortress of the world’s knowledge, guarded by its lovers of wisdom—is, as readers will no doubt know, nearly impossible in today’s politico-economic discourse. In a world whose terms are so much set by the calculus of utility, how can we defend something whose virtue lies precisely in its un-usefulness? Well, after years of asking this question, I’m beginning to think that we can’t—not in so many words.

Instead, we have to live it. We have to turn conversations toward why we love what we study and away from our anxiety about what we’re going to do about it afterwards. We have to make space for unstructured free time in our lives, and we have to talk about not why you should do one job instead of another, but why everyone, no matter their job, deserves the right to an eight-hour day and a forty-hour week. We have to demonstrate that two hours spent playfully joking and arguing over after-dinner cups of tea isn’t (as one friend suggested to me last night) a luxury, but is rather the just desserts of stepping off the hamster wheel. Think of it like slow food: this is slow college. This is living deliberately, learning deliberately, learning for its own sake, and loving to learn: about our fields of academic study, yes, but also about others and about ourselves. And maybe, in the process, some of us will become conscious of our own alienation, and resent that the wringer of elite universities in the western world today has turned us into automatons trained to produce. And maybe we will think more about how to be good, whole, loving beings.

Why haven’t I picked up shop and moved to Occupy Wall Street? Because refusing to engage with the terms of a discourse of wealth and production that I loathe is my job. Because spending every day in a basement three floors underground writing about a subject I adore is my job. Because helping freshmen—and everyone—find their way is my job. Because making food and eating it with my friends at my co-op is my job. Because being home if someone knocks on my door needing to talk is my job. Because I love any one of these things that I do more than a job, and more than I love standing outside with a sign. I love that I make a living—a spiritual as well as a material living—through my mind, through my pen, and through my conversation. I love that my conversations have the power to change hearts, and minds, and lives—or, well, if they don’t now, they will someday. I love that when the world seems very, very dark and I feel very, very alone, it is a life full of books and ideas that makes me feel as if I can go on.

This is my world. This is a world that I believe in—that I will always believe in—and that I will always fight for. I may have long since ceased to be “the campus radical,” may have long since stopped caring about gay marriage, but I will always be on the front lines for the right to sit and think. Knock on my door, and sit on my window seat next to my Bert and Ernie plush figures, and let me make you a cup of tea.

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

And then sing with me: Solidarity forever. We shall not be moved.

On Responsible Drinking and Reverse Culture Shock; or, In Which Adulthood Is Again Pondered

I have been thinking a lot since I returned to the U.S., and to Princeton, about the different cultures of drinking that manifested themselves in my higher ed experiences on either side of the Atlantic. I think that perhaps the foremost cultural difference between Princeton and Oxford (which are in many respects quite similar) is how I saw alcohol consumed at the two institutions: the juvenile way I saw it consumed for the two and a half years I spent as an under-21 student at Princeton; and the adult way I saw it consumed and consumed it in Oxford, in an environment where I was not only legal, but where most of my friends were graduate students and thus the tenor of social drinking was different. Being an RA this year—as well as reading about the dangers of student drinking from a faculty perspective—reminds me how important it is to talk openly about how college students drink, why they drink, and how to encourage them to drink like adults. Now that I am actually 21, I can not only drink much more openly and responsibly, but also talk openly and responsibly about why and how I drink and have drunk at college. This is obviously very important, and we need to be having more conversations about this.

I spent my share of my orientation week at Princeton lurking awkwardly behind eating clubs, a member of one of the furtive crowds around kegs on back porches of the clubs to which a roommate’s OA leaders belonged. I felt uncomfortable, disoriented, out of place, overtired, but there didn’t seem to be much else to do. And in orientation week, of course, freshmen travel in packs, and they follow the throngs of people heading east to Prospect Avenue because it is such a clear visual marker of the direction of the campus social scene. I kept this up first semester. Culture-shocked to all hell, convinced I didn’t belong here and didn’t deserve to be here, I repeated the routine once or twice a week, going to an eating club to drink cheap watered-down beer because drunk people are always happy to see you. At the time I didn’t know how to drink, and was unused to it, and would often end my nights crawling back home alone to throw up the three or four watered-down beers I’d had. I wasn’t endangering myself much, or slipping into alcoholism, but I wasn’t drinking maturely, I wasn’t drinking healthily, and I wasn’t happy.

The thing going for me was that I knew this. I knew this kind of drinking was childish, different to the kind of drinking that my over-21 friends did and in which I wasn’t allowed to join them, since most of them had advisory roles in my college that prohibited them drinking with their advisees. But I didn’t know how to find for myself the middle ground between drinking childishly or drinking as a coping mechanism, and not drinking at all. Until, that is, I turned 19. When I turned 19 I was legal in the other country where I live, Canada, and the first summer that I was 19 I started drinking wine at home with my parents, and my dad and I went to the local pub. In however small a way, I finally got access to a world where consuming alcohol was something adults did. It was exciting, a sense of Things to Come—and when I returned to Princeton for my second year, it made me feel more embarrassed by the emotional and social distance between me and my older friends, and the extent to which they had to make allowances for me. When I was around, we couldn’t go to the bars where they might have liked to go. I spent a memorable portion of ages 19 and 20 standing inconspicuously across the street from liquor stores: no big deal for some, but for me a constant reminder of how far I had to come, how much I had to grow up, to be the adult my friends were.

A few weeks before I left Princeton for Oxford, one of my older friends jokingly said to me, “People drink a lot in Oxford! You’ll have to improve your tolerance!” I knew this—I hadn’t drunk much thus far, and knew I didn’t do it well—but it took going to Oxford for me to really hit the alcohol learning curve. I had no idea what many kinds of things I would be expected to drink (and to develop a discerning palate for), what diverse social contexts in which I would be expected to drink, and how important it was not to get sloppy-drunk on starting the third glass of wine. But, as this blog shows, I learned. I learned not to show disorientation when I was making it through those weird Oxford marathon formal dinners, and similarly to reevaluate my process of alcohol consumption as something where drinking, but not drunkenness, is the goal. I’d go to the pub with my friends and have one or two drinks after a long day. And thus I learned also to do my drinking in public: instead of cheap vodka out of those opaque red cups in the claustrophobic confines of a dorm room, I’d be drinking beer or wine or gin and tonic out of a clear glass. And it felt, even when I went out dancing, that I was acting much more like an adult. I felt like I had what I’d always wanted: access to this mystical world where grad students lingered at the reception instead of running away right at the end of the lecture, hobnobbing with famous scholars, the motif of their hobnobbing the little plastic glasses of red wine they’d clutch with the tips of their fingers. In Oxford, with access to that talisman, I felt I had the ability to hobnob, too.

I came back to Princeton as a 21-year-old, and so have been able to replicate a lot of what I liked about social drinking in Oxford in a way I couldn’t before. I can go to the nearest equivalent to a pub in Princeton and order a pint of a good ale. I can go to the liquor store and buy a bottle of gin and have a g&t with my friends on a Saturday night. This past Thursday, I attained what for me has always been the apotheosis of adulthood and, at the reception after a talk, had a glass of wine. For me, drinking without getting drunk is always something that has been made possible by having the legal and financial ability to order and/or buy one’s own alcohol. I can’t practice responsible drinking behavior if I don’t have any control over the environment in which I come across accessible alcohol. Now that I can drink at departmental receptions, I don’t have to vomit from eating-club beer anymore.

I went to one party during this year’s orientation week (when, before everyone’s classes and workloads begin, there’s a lot of revelry). I had one of the biggest moments of reverse culture shock I’ve had since being back when I noticed that everyone at the party was acting much drunker than two or three drinks over the course of a couple hours should have made them. I went home early: whether it was Oxford or the age of majority, I just didn’t know how to relate to this culture anymore. Two weeks later, though I’ve done plenty of moderate social drinking in other settings, I haven’t “gone out” again.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the atmosphere of juvenility at Princeton: how much hand-holding there is, how much in loco parentis attention we get from grown-ups, how freshman orientation so much resembles a summer-camp atmosphere, how despite claims to the contrary in the brochures, there’s not a lot of institutional support for undergrads who want to do the work of and be treated like grad students. We’re coddled, we’re treated like children still, and while that seemed normal when I was 18, three years later it’s all gotten a little bit boring—not to mention ridiculous. People our age are learning how to shoot AK-47s and going to risk their lives in Afghanistan. We’re being given matching college t-shirts to wear in a parade during orientation and an intramural sporting event in the gym, and then the adults who manage our lives are surprised that we drink excessively, shirk our academic work, and otherwise behave with little attention to consequence, so determined are we to forget the strains placed upon us by a pointlessly uber-competitive academic atmosphere and the uncertainties of the grad school and employment opportunities (or lack thereof) that we face upon graduation.

I have been quite angry this week with a collegiate culture that places so many parameters on what we do in some fields, and so few parameters on what we do in others. I have spent much of the week fighting to get allocated my own reserved desk and bookshelf at which to write my thesis (as of now, I’m expected to share with another person). Many of my friends have been frustrated at the unexpectedly low intellectual level of some of their classes. I don’t think any of us are perfectly happy with the social scene on this campus, as much as we make do. And yet there is still so little effort on the part of the otherwise overinvolved administrative layer to help us to see ourselves as adults academically and socially. Call it reverse culture shock, call it getting older, but whatever it is, I’ve been frustrated.

But the thing is, we all make our own cultural compasses. Now that I’m 21, I can be the one who models responsible drinking, who treats herself to a drink when she’s put in an eight-hour day on her thesis. I can behave like an adult as much as I feel able, and hang out with people who do the same. And when I’m the RA on-call tonight, I can do the job that I signed up for: the job that entails making sure that 18-year-olds in their second week of college are staying safe and are learning how to grow up and to be better. Growing up means giving back, doing for the kids next to come along all that was—and wasn’t—done for you.

On Gender-Neutrality in University Housing, Briefly

One of the central sociopolitical issues of my undergraduate career has been “gender-neutral housing” (GNH), the term commonly used in the U.S. for official university policies that permit undergraduates of different genders to share apartments, suites, or bedrooms (depending on the liberality of the policy). I was on the committee that brought the first GNH policy to Princeton’s on-campus apartments (in which all the bedrooms are single, so the Bedroom Problem didn’t loom as it would it most other housing configurations at Princeton), and since then I’ve remained involved in questions of gender and housing, such as how to get more public and dorm bathrooms available around campus that are non-gendered and hence safe and accessible for transpeople.

I think Princeton is much more rigid about gendering its student living spaces than many other American universities, or at least the ones that I visited when I was a high-school senior picking colleges. But the firestorms in the student press at other Ivy League universities, for example, suggests that it’s not just Princeton being exceptionally more conservative than everyone else. GNH is a very salient issue in American higher ed, and we who are in the habit of trying to present the utter reasonableness of the position that students should be allowed to make their own choices about whom they want to live with have been forced to recognize that others simply don’t see the logic of our position.

And so one of the most interesting things I’ve discovered in my time as a student in the UK is that GNH is an absolute non-issue here. Granted, at UK universities (or, at least, at the ones that can afford it; I think fewer that are not Oxbridge/London can these days), it is far less customary to share bedrooms than it is in the US, so that problem doesn’t tend to rear its head. But everyone I talked to at Oxford about this expressed surprise that people in America would think it extraordinary for men and women students to share university-owned living space. It’s not especially common for Oxford students of different genders to live together, but it’s certainly not unheard of, and in institutional memory (though assuredly at some point shortly after coeducation at the various colleges) there was no point at which a grown-up said they couldn’t.

While I’m doing research in London, I’m staying in a University of London dorm. It’s your very basic, run-of-the-mill student accommodation: 12-story cinderblock square divided into dozens and dozens of tiny little single rooms. I’m on the ninth floor, but I imagine every floor has the same bathroom layout: two single-occupancy WCs, and one big dorm bathroom with showers and sinks and toilets. The bathrooms aren’t gendered at all, and it’s my first experience being in a dorm setting where they aren’t. As someone with a lot of bathroom anxiety—as a teenager, I was with some regularity told I was in the wrong one—I always hesitated to push the envelope, and no one I lived near ever set a precedent for using the closest bathroom, regardless of gender, or voting as a group on how to gender the bathrooms. And so it actually quite surprised me when I realized this evening that I have been using a big bathroom with men and women in it for three days and it didn’t even register. I expected to feel some kind of discomfort or at least novelty at standing at a sink next to a guy, but I didn’t at all. I was brushing my teeth, he was brushing his, and who cares really?

Maybe it helps that in this bathroom the showers all lock on the inside like toilet stalls, instead of having a curtain. I understand why women might feel vulnerable in the Princeton showers; hell, I feel vulnerable in the Princeton showers, where I’ve been inadvertently walked in on a few times, because it’s just really hard to tell whether it’s okay to push aside the curtain. And that’s in bathrooms that are as rigidly gender-segregated as anything I’ve ever seen.

And so I suppose the moral of the story is, it might not hurt some American students to study abroad, to experience a much less politically fraught attitude to communal student living space. In general I think the less we treat student digs like a culture-war battleground, the better off we’ll be.

Saving Souls; or, In Which We Tie Some Threads Together in Attempting a New Justification of the Humanities

From Mary Beard’s blog this week came the disturbing news that Royal Holloway, part of the University of London, is shutting down its Classics and Philosophy department: moving the faculty positions it can’t eliminate to other departments, like History and Politics, and reducing the total number of student places available to study any of these subjects. The news was subsequently confirmed by Brian Leiter, who posted on his blog a further chilling enumeration of the changes underway, along with contact information for the Classics and Philosophy department, who are collecting letters of support to submit to the RH administration. If I have any leverage at all upon my blog audience, I think now is probably a good time to cash it in: I urge you, especially if you are a classicist, a philosopher, or an academic in any field, to write in support of the RH department and of the study of classics and philosophy at the undergraduate and the research levels alike.

But before you rush off to your email account, I want to put forth an idea for how I, who am an undergraduate with little academic credibility, might go about constructing such an argument. I have been talking seriously online and in real life for almost a year now about the need to find new arguments to justify the academic humanities that are neither instrumentalist or utilitarian (e.g. the Martha Nussbaum argument that studying the humanities makes us better citizens) nor are at risk of tautology (studying the humanities is a good in itself. Why? Because it is a good in itself…). But now, confronting the Royal Holloway issue after some time away from the question, I have a new proposition to make, that is particularly relevant to undergraduate-teaching departments and that is perhaps less instrumental than some arguments I’ve heard and made before.

The humanities save lives.

When I was a kid, and particularly when I was a teenager, I often felt that I had no real support outside my home. Yes, it was, and is, fantastic to have parents who have always loved me unconditionally, who have with boundless reserves of patience indulged my eccentricities, who have colluded with me in my geekiness, who I have always striven to please, and who have always been pleased—whether my “obsession” of the moment was the Disney movie Aladdin or the intellectual history of male homosexuality. I know how lucky I am to have had such a supportive family life. But I also know all too well what it is like to feel as if that family life counts for nothing the instant I’d walk out the front door. At school, where I was sometimes bullied and rarely had friends, I felt that no one understood me; I cannot remember a time in my childhood or adolescence in which I did not feel as if being authentically myself did not come with some consequences. Yes, I had some fantastic teachers who saw a kindred spirit—or maybe just a lost soul—and reached out. But I knew what I was doing when I ate lunch every day in their classrooms and lingered to talk with them after school. I knew that it meant I was alone, just as I knew it when I once had a birthday party and not one of my guests came.

Those years of angst could have destroyed me. But they didn’t, because I had the humanities. Through literature and music in particular (I only later learned to care profoundly for visual art), I learned how to think and how to feel. When I was six and played alone on the playground, I talked to the mice from Redwall; when I was eighteen and hid behind the tennis courts or in a teacher’s classroom at lunchtime, I memorized Allen Ginsberg’s poems. When I was playing Tchaikovsky with my orchestra, it didn’t matter that only a couple people out of seventy-five or so would deign to speak to me. While other teenagers went to parties, I stayed up late in a dark bedroom watching French films and making older friends in other countries online who challenged my views about religion, politics, ethics, and the way the world works (thank you, h2g2!). Even before I knew how to read in an academic sense, I found myself in texts, in history, in other worlds. And I survived. Just.

When I came to university three years ago, everything changed. The first thing I was assigned to read in a university class was the first chapter of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. I read it on the train on my first trip to explore New York City, and though I was terrified by it I didn’t let it stop me. I didn’t let overambitious attempts to attend senior-faculty-level conferences in literary theory, or prep-school-educated peers, stop me. I read the great classics of the English literary tradition (and made some cautious forays into the French), the stalwarts of literary and cultural theory, my first primary sources, the great works in my own discipline. I slowly but surely graduated from content assessments and literature reviews to doing research of my own. And on my own time, I visited art galleries and attended concerts, I improved my foreign language skills, I started to teach myself the gay canon, and then years passed and I moved fearlessly across the ocean.

That world (that is, that one outside my home) where reading of all kinds is valued didn’t change everything immediately. But it was one time last October, as I sat in the Princeton history department meeting with the professor who was shortly going to become my advisor, that I suddenly realized there was a deafening silence: the voices in my head that had for as long as I can remember been telling me that I was worthless, that my work was worthless, that I would never be good enough, that I didn’t matter had all stopped. I couldn’t remember when, but in that moment I definitely couldn’t hear them anymore. And since then I have continued to devour books, and thrown myself headlong into this Symonds project. And I’m not just talking to Symonds anymore: I have built up friendships in cities on both sides of the Atlantic, the academic’s social network that keeps me sane even when I’m traveling for months on end, and emailing or texting someone to ask if they want to have coffee is no longer the scariest action I can contemplate. I have friends who I can talk honestly to, who invite me to their birthday parties and will come to mine, who say that they will miss me when I move on to my next posting. I am practiced at the art of packing a suitcase full of casual collared shirts, jeans, and blazers; a gym bag full of books; and a backpack with an Apple computer, and setting off on adventures. And I read Henry James on the train, and when I tell my friends that I am learning ancient Greek, I am told that is a sensible thing to do.

I am a happy and a sane and a self-valuing adult. What did it was books, music, and art, good things and beautiful things, and an academic world that values those things. Through my reading and my coursework and my adventures, I have learned not only how to survive, but also how to flourish, how to keep bettering myself, and how to love. This is what the study of the humanities can do for lonely lost children who are certain they are the only ones in the world who feel and perceive the way they do, who are so weighed down by the prospect of getting on in the world that it turns inward into self-loathing that eats away at the soul. And yes, it is true that History and Politics and English Literature and Modern Languages and Art and Music can teach us some of the work of self-bettering. But if I really wanted to know how to do the work of human flourishing, I think I might look to Classics and Philosophy, wouldn’t you? And I don’t mean just for Plato: sometimes, you can only be cured of your self-loathing when you realize that there are whole departments devoted to the study of beautiful languages no one speaks anymore. Getting credit for engaging with esoterica matters.

And so when we think about cost-cutting measures that involve reducing the opportunities for young people to study the humanities in all their facets, we need to think about the implications for those lonely souls looking everywhere for something that they will perceive as giving their lives value—indeed, as making their lives better. (I am reminded of the “It Gets Better” video recently recorded by members of the U.S. Senate, which emphasizes that we all have a duty to help make it better for the young people it is in our power to reach.) I can speak only for myself, but I know that while reading has always helped me to survive, it is the academic humanities that have helped me to flourish—and I don’t know where I would be intellectually or emotionally without the disciplines of classics and philosophy, and my family, friends, and colleagues whose life’s work is in either field.

The conclusion to all this is that today was the first official day of my six-week-long Symonds research trip, and I spent it in the British Library, that glorious temple to knowledge of all kinds, with some notebooks kept by Symonds circa 1870-1876, when he was writing a book about Greek literature and lecturing about it to high-school students and women’s groups, in addition to doing some reviewing/lit crit for the London literary press. Hovering just inarticulated throughout these notes is the pregnant question of homoeroticism, whether in a coy reference to “proportion” and “size” in Praxiteles’ sculpture, in Symonds’ frustrated attempts to properly articulate what it is that draws him to Pindar, or in not-infrequent references to Walt Whitman—all themes that would eventually coalesce into the ideas about homosexual identity that Symonds would slowly start to put forth. Symonds is a man who found himself in reading, in the classics, in a philosophy that called for moderation and self-improvement and belief in Better. So have I found myself in Symonds—and so did I find myself spending much of the day today in the British Library wishing that I knew enough Greek to make sense of his notes on Pindar, which included passage after passage of quotation, too much to contemplate copying down for later struggle. Here is where it suddenly begins to matter urgently to learn a language, to learn a canon, to learn sets of texts and ways of reading and ways of thinking simply because people before us have done so. It matters for scholarship—and it matters, at least for some people, for getting on in the world, for self-discovery, for human flourishing.

And so don’t be the one to deny this to those people who need it, who live by it and for it. And especially not if you are in the business of helping children to become adults. I know that financial times are tough, and that universities have been pushed by necessity into a preoccupation with saving money, but they, and those who live and work in them, must never forget that they also have a vocation to save young people’s hearts, minds, and lives.