Category Archives: Oxford

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

There’s been rather a lot of clickbait recently about gender and Oxbridge, on account of the fact that the newspapers love a good skewering of the intellectual elite. But the themes the newspapers have been taking up recently involve serious questions about what it means to teach at an elite university, about how to design a curriculum that best facilitates such teaching; about the history of how women were absorbed into these two particular universities and about the intellectual-historical circumstances under which they came to be credentialling institutions for an intellectual elite as well as finishing schools in which rich young men might spend a few years drunk. These include the news (misleadingly reported by the Telegraph, but ably defended by the wonderful Lucy Delap on the Today programme earlier this week) that Oxford is restructuring its undergraduate history curriculum to include more coursework in place of sat exams, in an attempt to reduce the large gender gap in exam success; and that Cambridge is trying to exchange feedback like “brilliant” or “genius,” which is highly gendered, for more specific descriptive language that makes substantive comments about the quality of the actual work. It will come as no surprise that I think these are entirely sensible measures that will improve the quality of teaching and feedback and help all students to succeed in the context of very rigorous curricula. But what to make of them—as a historian of British universities, as a university teacher, and as someone who in 36 hours will be boarding a plane to go back to live in British elite universities again, after three years? Here is some context.

Anyone with a passing acquaintance with the history of Oxford and Cambridge (e.g. me, age 20, the first time I washed up there) can see the legacies of these nineteenth- and twentieth-century historical processes in the present-day institutions. Two important characteristics that strike me as very unlike my experience in elite US universities are that the official institutional culture (of Oxford, at least, I’m not as familiar with Cambridge) has changed remarkably little in the last hundred-fifty years considering that the student and staff population has gone in that period from 100% to roughly 50% male (this of course due in part to the continual deliberate reinvention of tradition—but also I think to accident); and that there is a persistent myth that objective brilliance is a thing that students might exhibit, and that it can be measured through particular assessments at admissions, when awarding degrees, and when awarding particular scholarships and prizes. This is, of course, nonsense. In reality one’s ability to succeed at assessments is always structured in part by one’s intelligence, but in part by one’s class background, one’s access to decent education from early childhood, one’s access to a safe home and supportive family and other guardians and mentors. And a timed exam measures only one skill: a kind of quick-wittedness and ability to blather on about nothing convincingly. Those of us who are academically competitive, who have big mouths and lots of opinions, and who have been well-trained by our posh educations to bullshit, may get a thrill out of succeeding in these kinds of assessments. But they won’t capture the skill of a beautiful writer who takes her time to choose just the right word, of the cautious student who waits to make a pronouncement until he has assessed every piece of information and is certain of the answer, the self-doubting student who never got to hear that she’s just as good as the pretty and privately educated, or the student to whom the exams mean so much that to come anywhere other than top is a dire referendum on his value as a person, and who all too often simply collapses under the pressure. Competitive exams and the myth of genius disadvantage those whom we might expect to be structurally disadvantaged, but they do a disservice too to posh, academically talented men with unequalled access to excellent education. Okay, now maybe the Telegraph readers will sit up and take note—but it’s true.

I came to see this when I sat the All Souls exam in 2013. The holy grail of competitive exams, allegedly designed to identify the most objectively brilliant of all the candidates (who sit specialist papers in a wide range of fields, making them impossible actually to compare directly, but never mind), it was eyed as a prize by a certain kind of Oxford man who had come top in every exam he had ever sat since primary school, who had done his share of scholarship exams, who through both the National Curriculum and the way Oxford works had come to see his value determined by his ability to keep coming top in exams. 95 people sat this exam, some of whom told me over the course of the two days we spent sitting in a room writing together (perhaps they were just saying it, but the fact that they were saying it was itself telling) that they hadn’t bothered to revise anything because the exam was supposed to test intrinsic brilliance, not subject recall. I wouldn’t have thought that to be a sensible way to approach an exam of any kind—my All Souls specialist papers asked me questions about things like Ruskin and 17th-century North America, things it might help to remember something about in order to write on them, and even when we take the SAT or the LSAT or a similar “intelligence test,” we do some practice tests and revise how to do algebra first, and we know those tests reward people who can afford practice and tutoring and the like. But anyway, back to the All Souls exam: of these 95 candidates five were shortlisted, and one was elected as a fellow, and many of those men whose brittle exam stress I had sat in a room and watched for two days seemed crushed by it all. It’s no way to live, that—and how sad not to be able to see yourself for your personal qualities but only in terms of your marks. I’ve seen it too many times and I feel so sorry for them all—for the people whose brilliance those exams are supposed to find and reward, as well as those who feel left out by a system that is looking for something at which they feel they will never be able to succeed. As an instructive epilogue to this very interesting experience, some weeks after the exam, when I had already heard that I wasn’t shortlisted, I received a letter from All Souls in my college pigeonhole. The examiners had marked the scripts blind, and it turned out when the shortlisted candidates were revealed that they were all men. This was rather embarrassing for the examiners, who had made a special effort to encourage more women to sit the exam on the notion that all you needed to do was get more women in the door and then the exam would continue to find the most brilliant candidate, who might as well be a woman as a man. The shortlist seemed to give lie to that notion, so they sent me (and, I presume, some other women) this letter to say that I had done rather well, if not well enough to be shortlisted, and would I consider sitting the exam again next year. I rolled my eyes and resolved in that moment only to apply to PhDs in America.

Say what you like about American elite education—and my peers did, when I first came to Oxford seven years ago, and one of the first things the crowd around me in hall asked was, wasn’t Princeton one of those colleges where you get in because you’re an athlete or a legacy student but not for your academic ability?—the multiversity and the flexibility of its curriculum do allow for different forms of assessment and different measures of student success. A holistic admissions process (helped along, of course, with my class privilege to start with) is what gave me the opportunity to attend Princeton; my relative innumeracy meant that my test scores did not get me into the best state universities. That opportunity saved me: the chance to leave San Diego, to receive a world-class education, to meet lots of people who valued me for who I am, to be a smart, mouthy woman without being reviled (or, well, only being reviled a little bit—but supported in far greater measure), to participate in the exchange program that brought me to Oxford for the first time, early in the morning off a red eye and dragging two suitcases down Broad Street, unprepared for my first encounter with the English elite educational culture which I have spent the ensuing seven years trying to understand, through archives and through participant-observation.

Tomorrow evening I will drag two suitcases to JFK to board another redeye, and Friday afternoon another bus will spit me and my luggage out into “the heart of that grey city.” Oxford only for a week, for work, then to Cambridge, where I will be living for the next year as I research and begin to write my dissertation. A British friend who lived in the US for seven years before moving back to the UK said it feels like going back in time, and that rang true for me as well. The past three years in New York have changed me more than I had realized, and I am not sure what it will be like to face Britain now—not because of Brexit or the election or anything like that, but because I am older, and more tired, and more cynical, and ready to be the adult who teaches the young in these institutions instead of one of the young on a voyage of discovery myself. But it’s many years yet before I’ll be able to be that person—a long period of waiting, and shuttling back and forth between two continents, and writing a book about university coeducation—and I’m not sure who I am in the meantime. If there is a mode of social relations that lies between teacher and student, I don’t know how to inhabit it.

I was at my five-year college reunion a couple weeks ago, and while there I picked off the shelf in a mentor’s house a copy of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ collected works, which seemed like a sensible coping mechanism at the time. Here’s a piece of juvenilia Hopkins wrote when he was an undergrad himself, which stuck with me in terms of capturing something about nostalgia and youth and college and going back in time, even if the somewhat sickly-sweetness of it seems a world away from how I feel about things now:

New-dated from the terms that reappear,
More sweet-familiar grows my love to thee,
And still thou bind’st me to fresh fealty
With long-superfluous ties, for nothing here
Nor elsewhere can thy sweetness unendear.
This is my park, my pleasaunce; this to me
As public is my greater privacy,
All mine, yet common to my every peer.
Those charms accepted of my inmost thought,
The towers musical, quiet-walled grove,
The window-circles, these may all be sought
By other eyes, and other suitors move,
And all like me may boast, impeached not,
Their special-general title to thy love.

Thus, I come underneath this chapel-side,
So that the mason’s levels, courses, all
The vigorous horizontals, each way fall
In bows above my head, as falsified
By visual compulsion, till I hide
The steep-up roof at last behind the small
Eclipsing parapet; yet above the wall
The sumptuous ridge-crest leave to poise and ride.
None besides me this bye-ways beauty try.
Or if they try it, I am happier then:
The shapen flags and drillèd holes of sky,
Just seen, may be to many unknown men
The one peculiar of their pleasured eye,
And I have only set the same to pen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orals Diary, 2

Another two days staving off jetlag and mild boredom in the Upper Reading Room, another two orals books despatched. I move on tomorrow to Sedgwick’s Between Men, and as I trudged down and then up the circling seventeenth-century staircase on yet another unnecessary bathroom break, I remembered that five and a bit years ago I took a selfie (before we called them selfies) in the Easter vac—my first Easter vac (and my first Easter)—reading Between Men for the first time outside the Rad Cam on a sunny day (it was March, and too cold to sit outside the Rad Cam, but I was trying to look picturesque), because I thought it might help me with Symonds. I am still of an age when five years seems like a very long time, long enough for me to have been a different person then. I saw someone today in the street whom I first met when he was a first-year undergrad: now he’s a fourth-year, and he and his comrades finished their finals this week. My youngest grad-student friends here are submitting their doctoral theses over the next few months. I have yet to submit my exams—and I am still here, still in love; though oddly alone, while others are moving on.

It’s a strange and overdetermined segue, but in Diana Fuss’s introduction to the volume Inside/Out, which she edited in 1991, she writes of the instability and uncertainty of language used to describe gay and lesbian identities and desires, the collapse of language in the face of concepts which seemed at such radical disjuncture, it appears, with the society in which many American theorists of the ’80s and early ’90s lived. This is evident also in the second half of the Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, which I covered yesterday and today, in which the past looms large in how to think about lesbian and gay identities but in which almost none of those writing about it were trained as historians. I googled one after another, found them to be emeritus in a great English department somewhere—but only John D’Emilio, in his essay “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” made what seemed to me to be the kind of argument a historian would make. I didn’t agree with the heavy causal weight he puts on a marxist narrative of economic development in the essay, but his desire to relate the emergence of new ways of thinking about sex, the family, and society to other social and economic transformations is simply and recognizably what historians do. It was very different—puzzlingly—from David Halperin’s contribution, a set of facts Symonds could have told you about paiderastia in classical Athens (which is made to stand, as Symonds made it, for all of antiquity); or from Martha Vicinus’s and Gloria Hull’s essays, which are focused on recovering a lesbian past that I am not so sure really existed, even a hundred or two hundred years ago. I know all too well the historical context that might have given Halperin a recourse to such tropes, and I look forward to engaging further with them when I reread his One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, also on my list. But I lack the context to make sense of Vicinus’s or Sue-Ellen Case’s sense that it is a radical and essential move to emphasize the presence of butch/femme dynamics in lesbian communities. Perhaps a reader might be able to explain to me why this seemed so politically progressive in the days of the Reader, why it seems important to Vicinus to conflate historical women assuming masculine-gendered dress and behavior and historical women having romantic friendships with other women. Of course, now that we have the category “transgender,” and it is so culturally widespread, we don’t need or want to do this. But maybe the present and its politics are not the place from which to write of who people in the past wanted to be and whom they wanted to love, and maybe Vicinus’s “mannish lesbians” (in the 19th century! really!) or Ulrichs’ anima muliebris virili corpore inclusa (for he was a queer theorist too, in a sense) are no more transgender than they are gay; they are simply themselves, no matter how earnestly the academics-who-are-most-decidedly-not-historians, writing around the year that I was born, try to throw all the forces of Lacan and Derrida at them.

And so Oxford, which is sui generis: its conservatism (which I have begun to liken to that of the Catholic Church) resisting calls, however well-intentioned and urgent, to become otherwise; the kind of mystical force it exerts on its captive audience (me) defying easy explanation. In Howards End the most ill-fitting of all the Schlegel siblings, the brother Tibby, describes Oxford, not any man (or woman, but really the alternative is a man), as the object of his love. It’s been a while since I read the novel, but as I recall Tibby’s location in the plot is uneasy; he’s not swept up in the plot-driving “muddles” that his sisters are and that are the larger point to what Forster does as an author. It’s as if Oxford is a kind of unstable sexual orientation: if we were to put it in Fuss’s densely theoretical Inside/Out framework, we would surely say that it’s the slight puff of air that causes the deconstructionist house of cards (or should we say house of binaries) to come falling down.

I kept forgetting it was Saturday today, and wondering why the library was empty and the city centre clogged with tourists (if living in New York has done anything for me, it has made me exceedingly impatient with large groups standing and gawping on narrow pavements). But on Saturdays the Bodleian closes at 3, as it has at least since I have known it (Sunday opening hours, however, an innovation that occurred in my time, much like the Gladstone Link, the old tearoom and its successor, the reopening of the New Bodleian, and other such things that make it seem as if I have been here for an age). And so, now that I no longer have borrowing privileges, I set out to walk back to my accommodation along the scenic route—in both senses, that is; a detour and the Thames, on whose banks lie some of the most beautiful places I have ever beheld. It turned out to be Eights, wouldn’t you know it, and you couldn’t have picked a better case to illustrate how Oxford has not changed in 150 years, despite what should have been the grand upheaval of the admission of women: the boats half female (the marshals, though, mostly not), yet the women’s-college boats mostly men, and the towpath was clogged by people and the air thick with the echoes of coxes’ commands. I don’t care much for sport, but there it is, at once terrible (I read a couple books for my last term paper that in part blame Oxbridge rowing for World War I) and banal. So the front bedroom of the sturdy brick terraced house which I am currently inhabiting, about a hundred years old, on a side street in East Oxford next to a pub and a playing field. A hundred years ago, a family of six whose pater familias worked in the auto factory? Today, an alternative medicine clinic on the ground floor, and a spinster temporarily lodged in the flat above: with its retro wallpaper and its unconvincingly boarded-up fireplace, the stair-railing giving her déjà vu every time she walks out onto the landing and thinks of every other identical terraced house in England she’s ever entered, and the people a hundred years ago who did so before her. Said spinster heard a spooky creak a couple hours ago, and comforted herself in realizing that a century-old brick house is as sturdy as anything.

Did I think that orals would (thus far, anyway) turn out to be about being lonely, haunting a city I should have left long ago, not knowing how to explain why I’m still here, learning from what queer theorists have taught us about the limits of language? Of course not—but also yes, of course, how could I not? This is what the deconstructionists teach us, I think: the cutesy-clever wordplay that looks much less impressive than it did five or six or seven years ago, that sets me nodding off in the Upper Reading Room, isn’t really about that house of cards crumbling into nothing. Collapse the binaries and I don’t actually think you have neither. You have both. So Anne Lister can be a lesbian to a woman in 1990 who needs to know she’s not alone; and she can be a woman completely of her time whose terms are impossible to translate to another woman, not so different, yet for whom faithfulness to the past’s distance and incomprehensibility carries more personal meaning. And Oxford, odi et amo: the same place it was a hundred and fifty years ago, and yet entirely modern; I, the same person I was five and a bit years ago outside the Rad Cam, and yet changed utterly.

Aged 21, still new to Oxford.

Aged 21, still new to Oxford.

Orals Diary, 1

Yesterday I arrived in Oxford, on a glorious warm and sunny day in seventh week of Trinity. It is beautiful to be here in term: it’s light till 9.30pm, and last night I walked for an hour along the Thames despite my jetlag and having spent the previous night on an airplane, and milling about in the city centre today I was surrounded by young people (too many of them white, too many of them posh-accented) ruthlessly dissecting their exams, doing the same for parties, or (in one case) vigorously advertising a start-up. I met a friend for lunch in a college garden, and finalists floated by, covered in glitter and silly string. They look younger every day, undergrads: but I was one of them, here, only five years ago.

I came here despite intending not to, and I can’t fully explain why I came. Yes, it’s my home—I felt that for certain as I set eyes upon the river last night, cast a familiar eye over the familiar terraced houses of East Oxford—but like most people I have a conflicted and ambivalent relationship to my home, mine perhaps more so because it’s an adopted home, located in a country of which I am not a citizen, where I have lived for a total of about three out of 26 years, a place so strongly allied with class privilege and imperialism in so many people’s eyes that to have chosen it as one’s home is mildly reprehensible. And yet it is, and here we are.

I didn’t even have to come here for work, though I have let a great many people believe I am here for the archives. But no, I am here for the copyright deposit library, for I am spending the summer ramping my frantic reading for my departmental comprehensive exams up to fever pitch. At Columbia, we take our exams (“orals,” for they are) at some point in our third year, and I am slated to do mine in December or January, at some point before the start of the spring semester. I have four fields, for each of which I must read about 50-80 books, on which I will be examined viva voce. The fields are Britain 1688-1832, Britain 1832-present, European social and political thought in the long nineteenth century, and queer theory/history of sexuality. Particularly in the latter two fields, a lot of the books are new to me, and I thought I might do a bit of light writing as I go along about the experience of encountering these new texts—for I think I will be doing a lot of reading, and very little socializing, in the next six or seven months, and I thought it might ease the burden somewhat if I could talk to you. I thought it might ease the burden also of being in Oxford, a painful place where I am not at all sure I want to encounter the people who filled my past lives here, about which I am still not sure how I feel. I may not keep this up, but I will carry on every once in a while as energy and enthusiasm permit.

Today, then, the first day I cracked an orals book open, I started with my queer theory list, and I started slow, with the Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, a weighty tome edited in 1993 to bring together what then was the current state of scholarship in what then was called lesbian and gay (rather than LGBT or queer) studies. I read Part I today—not much, 137 pages, but I was jetlagged—and focused particularly on the first two essays, Gayle Rubin’s “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” and an excerpt from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s book-length The Epistemology of the Closet. I hadn’t encountered Rubin’s essay before, and I was shocked by some of the assumptions it could hold in 1984 that we could not countenance today. Rubin writes about the need to develop a radical politics of sexuality that combats “moral panics,” denying (or so it seems to me) that any moral valence should be placed upon sex. Fair enough when she’s talking about the AIDS crisis, which many groups and individuals in her day were leveraging to stigmatize gay men; but this 26-year-old has to wonder whether feminists who worried about sadomasochistic pornography, or people concerned about how children’s sexuality might be exploited by older people, might actually have had a point. In our current atmosphere of renewed concern about child sex abuse (many of which newly-discovered instances occurred in this earlier period of support for children’s sexual freedom that, as we now know, covered up instances of exploitation), it is hard to see how someone could (as Rubin does in this essay) regard NAMBLA as right-thinking or inveigh against the law’s exclusion of minors from sexual expression.

More interesting for my purposes, though, is the way in which Rubin and Sedgwick both make historical arguments. Neither is a historian, but both take seriously the view, shaped by Foucault among others, that sexuality is historically constructed—and that, moreover, our modern paradigms of sexuality were fundamentally shaped in the last decades of the nineteenth century. I think of myself as someone who knows the last decades of the nineteenth century (as far as they pertain to sexuality in Britain, the US, and Germany) very well, and I don’t necessarily think of Foucault as a historian or this moment as the most critical one in which our present-day notions of sexual identity coalesced, although it was certainly a very important time for expert (legal, psychological, scientific) understandings of sexuality, particularly homosexuality. Recourse to this narrative lends itself to a stereotype about “repressed Victorians” that I believe fundamentally to be untrue and unhelpful, as unhelpful as describing premodern people as “gay.” It also makes me wonder about how to relate this past to the authors’ present: that is, the AIDS crisis, a time of great urgency in thinking about sexuality and its relation to society, a time in which everyone’s individual right to sexual self-expression must surely have been cast into doubt (this is testified to by the many primary sources which discuss the divides in the gay community in the very early years of AIDS about whether to adopt safer sex practices). AIDS permeates deeply the entire first part of the Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, which is about politics, and I am sure it will make its way into the other sections as well. Recently, I reviewed a theory book for EHR which started its narrative earlier than Rubin and Sedgwick do, but which also took AIDS as its present, even though it was published last year. What are the consequences for theorizing about sexuality when it assumes a periodization that begins with the Contagious Diseases Acts, with Oscar Wilde’s trials, or with Havelock Ellis and Magnus Hirschfeld, and that ends with AIDS? What is left out of this narrative, and what paradigmatic assumptions (Foucault’s?) does it make?

Another thing that surprised me about the Reader so far is that all the writers I read today assumed a constructivist position, i.e. they imagined sexual identity to vary according to time, place, and the cultural factors present therein, and not to be constant across time and place. They all believed, after Foucault, that homosexuality arose in the context of the late nineteenth century West, and did not seek to apply that paradigm to, say, antiquity, or to discuss cultural products from before Proust and Wilde. They extended the constructivist position to apply to other concepts, such as one author, Monique Wittig, who argued that the concept of “woman” is as constructed as the concept of “lesbian.” This shows some of the ideological thrust of the Reader and its editors, perhaps: for it seems evident to me that there were in 1993, in the ’80s, and still today scholars who believe strongly and centrally in transhistorical notions of gender and homosexuality.

Obviously I’m just starting out in the massive knowledge dump that is orals, and my thinking about these questions may well change. But today they made me think about the real intellectual gains of being a historian having designed a theory field that largely asks what use queer theory is to historians (my list is evenly split between classic works of theory and more recent historical monographs which engage with the theoretical paradigms). When I first encountered queer theory it was in college, before I became a historian, and I knew many grad students from other humanities departments who were very au fait with theory and often a bit dismissive about historians, who they saw as rather dull and interested only in facts, not in greater hermeneutic possibilities. Well, that was sometimes true in the history department talks I’d go to in college. But now I have my own frustrations with scholars of sexuality and other subjects who from a literary background pronounce upon the past: for instance, making statements about the invention of sexual identity in my historical period drawn entirely from literary sources or the biographies of canonical writers, or quoting academic historians as the purveyors of facts, upon which the theorist intends to put the interpretive gloss, as if the historian hadn’t already done that herself. When I reviewed that theory book a couple months ago, though, I had serious frustrations with it as a historian, but I came to realize as I read that although the author was writing about historical cultural products (mostly visual art), and sometimes situating them in historical context, he wasn’t trying to make a historical argument. Instead, in this case, it seemed to me that he was being profoundly ahistorical (part of his project was to reinvent the gay cultural canon, and canons are nothing if not in problematic relation to attempts to historicize them) and that was okay. There’s room for many different approaches, many different political and ideological perspectives—though it would be helpful if people who hold different perspectives were able to listen to and discuss them with each other.

Trinity Sunday

It is my fifth Trinity Sunday today, and so I was reading some of the things I wrote around the time that I learned what Trinity Sunday was, when I lived in Trinity College. I don’t know that they gave me much insight into the triune God, but they did make me feel tired, as if all the trips back and forth across the Atlantic had caught up with me. I’d completely forgotten how preoccupied I’d been with class guilt then. I thought that had only come later, when the romance of being in the same places as Symonds and reading Newman and Thomas Arnold and Jowett for the first time wore off, and I met more British historians who weren’t at Oxford. But it was there then, too, the culture shock mingling with a sense that I was becoming complicit in an exploitative system, not sure how to grapple with the fact that things which perpetuate class inequality can also sometimes be very fun.

The Church and me: to tell the story properly involves as many awkward phrasings and convoluted metaphors as your classic Trinity Sunday sermon. (There was the one I remember that involved the weird anecdote about ducks that didn’t make any sense. And then there was this morning’s, in which the preacher resorted to pointing out some of the church’s stained-glass windows which depict the different parts of the Trinity.) But I suppose the Church and me is a lot like the story of Oxford and me, a conflictual and confusing relationship in which I keep feeling a lot of painful, glukúpikron love despite all evidence to the contrary. Trinity term is named for Trinity Sunday, and it is impossible not to attain some measure of happiness in Trinity term, despite the knowledge that you ought to reject the institution in which Trinity term can be passed, reject all it stands for, reject especially the characteristic decadent trappings of Trinity term–like the end-of-the-year parties at any university, except turned up a class notch or five. Trinity Sunday is a very Oxford feast: attempts to explain it start out highly, abstractly intellectual and wind up in paradox and nonsense, there’s good music, and it seems very old–though actually not too old, more closely linked to its Cranmer collect than to Anglo-Saxon folk tradition. “Almighty and everlasting God, who hast given unto us thy servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of the Divine Majesty to worship the Unity: We beseech thee, that thou wouldest keep us stedfast in this faith, and evermore defend us from all adversities, who livest and reignest, one God, world without end.” The American Episcopal Church doesn’t even use Trinity Sunday to count the weeks of long summer ordinary time: it sings to me thus of another place, another time in my life, another person that I am, another path my fortunes could have taken, if I had stayed there for my PhD. I am so glad for a thousand reasons that I didn’t, but having made that decision I wish I could leave Oxford behind, and not be yet another American thinking wistfully of her time in England, with no thought for the fact that class is real and that there is every reason to hate Oxford and what it represents.

Yet every day my mind is there, ranging across a landscape of past and present, conjuring up from my bedroom with its view of Butler Library another city, full of ghosts. I’m going back in two weeks, just for a short time, and my heart is full of longing and apprehension, pain and desire, faith and doubt.

26th Birthday

Five years ago, Facebook reminded me this morning, I was celebrating my first birthday outside North America. It was a Sunday. I had been in Oxford less than a month, and hadn’t yet made most of the friends who keep me coming back whenever I can. I took myself to the Ashmolean, ate lunch in the cafe, and in the evening went to the pub with the Lincoln College Choir, because they did that after they sang on Sundays and a friend who sang tenor very kindly gave me somewhere to be.

I think often of those two terms, though particularly of late: my therapist tells me that, at the age of 26, it is “developmentally appropriate” to have some nostalgia for one’s undergraduate years. But I also think of them because I learned rather more in them than how to hold my liquor. Many of my memories are of criss-crossing Oxford in search of books, writing essays in the Rad Cam and poring over Symonds’ letters in the Upper Reading Room; the time that my tutor told me to read Thomas Arnold’s preface to his edition of Thucydides and, when I found the book—a first edition, natch—in the Trinity college library, realizing in astonishment that the main text was in Greek. I had never seen a book in Greek before, and as it dawned on me that many a 16-year-old would have slogged through this edition I began slowly and laboriously to trace the letters of that foreign alphabet in a notebook and sound out the phrases I found in the archive: σωφροσύνη. ἔρως τῶν ἀδυνάτων.

There was so much I didn’t know then about what my life would be like now. I might have been starting to think about grad school, but I certainly couldn’t have told you that most days out of the week I wear a skirt and heels, that I sit at the head of a seminar table and answer endless emails about information that could have been gleaned from the syllabus. I didn’t know that I would go back to Oxford, and then that I would live in New York, as if that is a normal thing that people do. I didn’t know how successful my research on Symonds would be. I didn’t imagine that, just a couple years later, I would experience a romantic relationship, couldn’t guess how changed I would feel after it ended.

Yet there are a few things I could probably have guessed then. I could have imagined that my mental landscape is still largely composed of green fields, Cotswold stone, incessant church bells, and the nagging sense that one has completely bungled an invisible social cue, and that when I look out my window at the frat houses of 113th Street I see the views from other rooms: Broad Street and the Bod; the Magdalen College School cricket pitch and the hills beyond. I could have guessed how often I think of the friends I made those terms, perhaps even how many of their birthday, handing-in and viva drinks I have been fortunate enough to be there to partake in. And surely, surely I could have guessed that on my birthday five years later, I would still, as I did this morning, be writing essays with this paragraph in—and how much love stirs in my soul every time I have the great privilege to write it:

The 1890s and 1900s, when Warren’s collecting business and his community at Lewes House were at their height, were a pivotal moment in the development of ideas about what it meant to be a man who was sexually and romantically attracted to men. Men had always formed sexual and romantic attachments to each other, and male prostitutes always plied their trade. But at the turn of the twentieth century, men of all classes—as well as doctors, the law, and moral opprobrium—began to see same-sex desire not as an activity, but as who you were as a person: part of your identity even if you never acted on it. Highly-educated men in particular could draw on a range of information to contextualize this notion, from ancient and early modern history to the burgeoning new field of sexual science. Men who had studied at Oxford, where a wide-ranging course in the literature, history, and philosophy of Greece and Rome was the hallmark of the curriculum, made a particular contribution to the belief that what they called “inversion,” “Urningliebe,” or “eros ton adunaton [the love of impossible things]” was rooted in ancient Greece. In the Athens of Socrates, they believed, elite men like themselves enjoyed social respect for the erotic and educative relationships they formed with adolescents and young men. Oxford-educated intellectuals such as Walter Pater, John Addington Symonds, and Oscar Wilde often emphasized the “purity” of these relationships: because they involved much longing gazing at young men’s athletic physiques, but no sordid physical contact, they could be assimilated to norms of Victorian propriety without too much difficulty.

More on the trouble with benefactors

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

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

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

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

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