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.

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!

References:
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.