Category Archives: Personal Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

Bettering in Glasgow

I write from Glasgow, where, after four days of stooping over a desk squinting at the scrawl of some nineteen-year-old doing the minutes of the Queen Margaret College Debating Society, following on from ten or so days of intensive work with colleagues at conferences and workshops in modern British history, I am pretty shattered. Glasgow has been fascinating, just ever so slightly different from England and full of history and also good food (did you know that there was a major wave of Italian immigration to Glasgow in the interwar period, leading to a profusion of espresso and ice cream shops? I learned that at the museum today). But as thrilled as I am to find out that I am able to work again, after so many weeks in a fog, I am still faced with the questions that have troubled me for the last few years, but particularly since orals: how does one make a life of which work is only one part? How does one develop other capacities, other parts of oneself? What does one do with the time in which one wants to step away from work, or simply can’t work any longer? How did I get to be in my late 20s already, and what the hell am I doing with my life? Absent any easy answers (or a decent segue), I’ll do what I do best and spout some facts. Here are my main takeaways from the archive (which will not be as good as the fish and chips I intend to have before leaving Glasgow tomorrow—see what I did there?):

When, ten days ago, I decided I wanted to focus my dissertation on opponents of or those uncertain about coeducation, I was acting on a hunch and the excited reactions I got when I told this to some people who had had a few glasses of wine. Happily, I found some usable stuff at Glasgow to add to this story: to the male Oxford benefactor I have who endowed a college to keep women out of it, I can add a woman benefactor who singlehandedly endowed a women’s college and fought as hard as she could for it to have exactly equal teaching to the main (men’s) University but just as hard for it to remain a separate institution rather than admitting women to the classes and lectures already happening at the university—over the objections of the university staff and administrators who, not unreasonably, pointed out that it was a bit unfair to expect the lecturers to teach everything twice to two groups of students when they could just as easily lecture to all the students at once. This benefactor and the other Glasgow ladies who started and continued to run the college (who tended to be married, and not necessarily educated) also actively barred women from applying for academic posts at the college. They said it was a conservative atmosphere at the University obliging them to discourage women from applying—but it was they who sent the cold and firm letters to hopeful applicants for lectureships in English and German. There was a generational gap, too: the students interacted more easily with their male counterparts than these ladies did, and the formality of having one annual joint debate between the women’s and men’s debating societies, or hesitation about whether the men’s and women’s student unions should merge, ultimately gave way to interpellation (the choral society was the first to blend). By 1935, when Queen Margaret College dissolved and women were admitted as full members to the University of Glasgow and all its constituent parts, people seem to have struggled to recall the mentality of the 1890s and 1900s when the struggles over the benefaction were happening.

Another thing I want to achieve with my dissertation is to take the story of British universities away from Oxbridge. The Scottish universities in particular are as old as Oxford and Cambridge but never have a place in the stories of university reform, student life, and gender that historians who prefer to take their cues from Dorothy Sayers and Vera Brittain tell about my period (not, of course, that there’s anything wrong with either! But you see what I mean). But as I learned this week, important things were going on constitutionally in Scotland—the Universities (Scotland) Act 1889 constituted a major reorganization of the higher education system, of which opening the door to women’s admission was just a part—and social and cultural changes followed suit. Yet just as we now know that national histories cannot be told in vacuums, as if borders are really barriers, you can’t tell a story about the Scottish universities that doesn’t also take Oxbridge into consideration. Knowing themselves to be behind the curve compared to their colleagues at Girton or King’s College London, the Glasgow women constantly compared themselves to their English counterparts. They wrote letters and made visits to Cambridge and London in particular to see how things were done there; and as these society philanthropists learned from scratch and through trial and error the business of how to run a college, they relied on the advice of Girton’s Emily Davies and other pioneers to help them navigate the terrain. A story of coeducation and resistance to it that left out the Scottish universities would be woefully incomplete, but so would one that treated the Scottish universities as if they weren’t less than a day’s train travel away from southeast England—as I will find out tomorrow, when I take the East Coast mainline home to Cambridge, just as any of these ladies might have done a century ago. In the Queen Margaret debating society in 1891, one of the students, speaking in favor of the motion, “That we are fortunate in having escaped the ‘good old days,'” mentioned women’s newfound ability to travel alone by train and by bicycle as one of the extraordinary social revolutions that had happened in her lifetime. When I get to Cambridge station tomorrow evening and get on my bike to go home, I’ll do it thinking of the undergraduates in Glasgow who write in their minutes of leaving the annual joint meeting with the men’s debating society and racing each other down the street to make the last tram.

Academic Twitter has been afire the last few days with something disparaging a Labour peer said about academics and how we waste our summers. I didn’t follow the controversy closely—for whom do I need to assure that I work in the summers, as this commentary attests; or that working very hard drove me to three months of stupefying exhaustion and burnout from which I am only just emerging?—but my eye was drawn by a wonderful thread my senior colleague Christina de Bellaigue posted yesterday on precisely the theme of “That we are fortunate in having escaped the ‘good old days’.” Christina’s call for the need to historicize shows us just why university history matters so much, why we need to write analytically and not nostalgically, why it belongs to those trained as historians as much as those trained in other disciplines or none, why it needs to be written by those who didn’t attend the institutions in question as much as those who did, why it is a subject of serious historical research and not merely of trivia and pedantry. We need to recover the history of institutions that don’t get talked about, like Glasgow, and show just how hugely important they are—but we also need to write the history of the institutions about which NO ONE EVER BLOODY SHUTS UP in better ways, more serious ways, ways that—maybe?—it takes a foreign young woman with a chip on her shoulder and a very, very complicated relationship with Oxbridge indeed to achieve. (I mean, you know, that’s just a hypothetical example. I’m certainly not thinking of anyone in particular.) We need a history of the universities in Britain that does not treat them as isolated kingdoms but as, in the nineteenth century (though also before), part of a modern, interconnected world linked by sophisticated communication and transportation networks, advanced capitalism, and a common language and that necessarily looked to each other on matters of policy and culture as well as sharing a relatively tiny set of people who were actually qualified to teach in and administer them. The modern history of these institutions—which were first organized into their recognizable forms through the interventions of both government and private enterprise in the mid-nineteenth century—had lasting consequences for the institutions we academics and students live and work in today. What some 20-year-old women said in the Glasgow women’s debating society in 1890 has implications for what some 50-something politician who had a JRF once writes in the paper 127 years later.

Spare a thought for Queen Margaret College, late of the University of Glasgow. And spare a thought, maybe, if you feel so inclined—you certainly needn’t—for someone who, though she seeks to write a better university history (and is excited to be back in the saddle again), is still left wondering how to find what else there is to living and being besides the work of universities, and how to make it her own.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Essay Upon Submitting Grades

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

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

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

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

Some Things I Wish I Could Have Said in a Meeting Today; or, An Agnostic’s Sermon for Good Friday

It is Friday of 9th week (there are 16 weeks in our term), and I am exceedingly tired.

There are lots of ways that I could feel inadequate as a teacher, student, and colleague right now, and lots of things I have to do. But I cannot be strong and organized and involved every day, and right now I am going to do things for myself: make a pie, listen to Bach, start playing cut and paste on the bedroom floor while beginning a new manuscript (a dissertation chapter, even?).

My values—the things that make me feel whole and purposeful—may not be your values. In some ways it is unfortunate that the things that keep me going were forged in a childhood of suburban middle-class academic-brat privilege and a higher education at two of the more conservative and traditional elite universities in the Anglo world. It makes me sad, often, that this is the person that I am: that I am enough of a lily-livered liberal to identify as much with university faculty and administrators (the people who made me) than with the proletariat with which, as a graduate student, I am meant to identify.

In the past few weeks my teaching in American intellectual history has introduced my students to a range of topics—old topics, from Europe, rooted in the things I see when I look at the nineteenth century as a scholar. We’ve covered notions of democratic culture and education; we’ve covered Marx and marxisms; through quotation and paraphrase in twentieth-century American texts, some students heard about the Sermon on the Mount for the first time. I’ve done more talking in section than I would like the past few weeks, and I’ve not always been as flexible as I ought in indulging students’ desires to relate these texts to their present of racial, class, and regional conflict instead of to the past which I arguably too readily inhabit. But I left the present long ago, when I decided not to do another Washington internship or organize another LGBT protest; when I took the political buttons off my jacket and my bag.

It is so hard to put into words to those who weren’t there where I’ve come from: so hard to explain that the political resolve and personal self-confidence I needed to survive suburban San Diego in the years after 9/11 have transmuted into something quite different after eight years of higher education, a couple continents’ worth of passport stamps, hundreds of new friends, colleagues and acquaintances with radically different life experiences to my own. The farther I go, the less who or what I would vote for in an election has to do with what makes life worth living. It takes all my strength to do my duty to my vocation, my profession, and my university and then with what I have left to seek out some connection to loved ones, to the earth, to something spiritually greater than myself, against all the stresses and hurts of this city. Those who weren’t there can’t know, I think, what it meant then, those three times I did it, to live in a community that observed the rhythms of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter. You don’t have to believe anything about what might or might not have happened to Jesus to be less satisfied, when you come to the metropolis, by something that is lost when life does not stop to take account of the slow unfolding bounty of spring—to feel unmoored, to feel as if you have lost some assurances of what would constitute a good or moral life and how you might go about deciding it. As I said when I left Oxford (knowing I had made the right decision), there is something gravely perverted about philosophy that needs to posit the cocoon of high table and evensong and eight-week terms in order to evaluate ethical questions. But now there is something fantastically seductive in the knowledge that, 3,500 miles away, there is a paradise that for almost eight hundred years has existed with the stated purpose of learning with the intention of glorifying God. What I have found—as shameful as this may be—is that it is difficult to remain a committed American leftist when you know that such a place exists.

I think what I wind up concluding is that if we are to believe in self-care, in the dignity of work, in the place of universities and university teachers in modern Western intellectual and cultural life, that needs to encompass the possibility that university teachers will tell themselves a wide variety of stories in order to explain to themselves why they have taken on a job that has always been difficult, has always required some sacrifice of material comfort, less freedom than we might wish, and, of course, the constant presence of the young, which is both a delight and (particularly when they have midnight frat parties across the street from you) a burden. To survive Columbia, I tell myself a story that comes from Oxford and Princeton, from Arthur Sidgwick, Rose Sidgwick, Benjamin Jowett, T.H. Green, my teachers, my parents. My story is different to the ones my own teachers tell. It is very different to the ones my leftist colleagues tell. Maybe if I am fortunate enough to teach in a university for the next forty years, it will be rewritten over and over again.

I don’t wish to suggest that anyone else should adopt my story, my perspective. Sometimes I look someone in the eye and know that they understand what I mean when I say that it is my duty to serve the past, my students, my university, my professional community. More often than not, I realize that this perspective rests on having had what for me is the great fortune to have been raised with these values, and that what to me is the ultimate reason to carry on is to others simply a statement of their relative lack of advantages and opportunities. My perspective isn’t one about which it is possible to evangelize. But if I am to carry on in this line of work and way of life, I do think it is necessary to explain that it is as radical a statement against the neoliberalization of the university, or what have you, as any invocation of a class struggle.

This is a sermon for Good Friday because, this Easter weekend, many Christian faith leaders have said and will say something or other about the radicalism of Jesus’s message. I am sympathetic to the reading that (according to the story which may or may not have actually happened) Jesus died at the hands of an imperial authority and its collaborators because he spoke truth to power in a way that was seen as threatening to the stability of the regime. That that regime came ultimately to adopt some of the tenets of the faith his followers founded, that today in Manhattan people say together words that people in the Roman Empire were saying together almost a thousand years ago, is a jaw-dropping world-historical narrative, at which I think historians of all faiths and none ought to be astounded. But it’s also a story which is not completely assimilable to a narrative of anti-imperialism, struggles for social justice, organizing around political causes. Those who attended a Maundy Thursday service yesterday celebrated the night that Jesus, knowing that he was to be arrested for his sedition and immediately undergo an excruciating death, chose to observe the Passover seder with his closest friends (a group which, many scholars believe, included more women than the European Christian tradition has typically recognized) and to celebrate his love for and communion with them.

A couple weeks ago, I attended a spiritual retreat day in the Ignatian prayer tradition: looking for peace and space away from the city, and curious to learn more about a spiritual practice I had read about. In one exercise, we were asked to imagine ourselves as guests at the Last Supper. Reader, I don’t know what I think about Jesus or the Last Supper or his martyrdom or what he stands for, but I have been to many Passover seders. An image came into my head of Jesus saying the Hebrew blessing over the wine, and I burst into tears. That image left me emotionally raw for the rest of the weekend. At the time I was bewildered, but now, reflecting on it, I think I know why. The story is that Jesus was a brave, loving, charismatic figure who convinced many to follow him and who died for a cause of justice and equality—particularly for the poor—for which millions are still fighting. But it is also that, on the night before he was betrayed, Jesus not only sat at supper with his friends: he sat at supper in the observance of a holy ritual that, by then, his people had already been observing for centuries: a feast of thanksgiving for God’s deliverance, but also a set of customs rich in ritual meanings, conducted in a specific order, that are done simply because they must be done.

Even in the face of the greatest challenges for ourselves as workers, as Americans, as fellow humans, then, there is a place for the past, for tradition, for awareness of ourselves as belonging to a longer and grander human story. We might admire those who can both expel the money-changers from the Temple and preside over the ritual of a religious festival, but we can’t all be Jesus. But we can keep working as we are moved to work, keep loving as we are moved to love, and respect the most honest and heartfelt convictions of others as to what will build a better world as well as heal their own hurts and anxieties.

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.

On Atheist Churchgoing; or, Why I Will Miss This Country

Almost three years ago today, give or take two or three weeks, I went to church for the second time in my life (the first was my grandmother’s funeral), to hear Philip Pullman preach. It was my first term in Oxford, and as the days got slightly longer I was just starting to love this place, and I went to hear Philip Pullman give the University Sermon at the University Church because I wanted to see what an atheist would say when given a literal pulpit. Because it was my first Sunday morning service, I hung on to every word of the liturgy with an intensity I can’t always muster anymore, and when Pullman talked about the common ground that atheists have with Anglicans, quoting Ruskin and Hopkins, I found my way in to the Church. I’ve been there ever since, nearly every week, in Princeton and in Oxford. I keep finding new ways of articulating that same common ground Pullman did: the history, the music, the prayers for peace and justice. One of the reasons I joined the choir at my college on my current posting to Oxford is so that I would have an excuse to go to chapel every week; and while when I first started attending college evensongs I used to visit New College and think that Symonds had praised the singing there, too, these days I think more broadly, all the time, about the generations of anonymous undergraduates who have sat in Corpus’s wooden choir stalls, and who likely have taken every possible theological position it is possible to take with respect to the Trinity and the established church—after all, mandatory daily chapel wasn’t abolished, I think, until after the War.

As I’ve sat in pews and choir stalls over these last few years, I’ve found that the liturgy has a very powerful effect: namely, that the more you repeat words week after week, year after year, the more you start to believe them. Not the extraterrestrial bits—for how does someone who was raised secularly conjure a Heaven and a Hell out of nothing?—but the attitude of prayer, of penitence and concentration and hopefulness; the practically-minded bits about loving one another; the sense of wonder at creation; and most importantly for me the cycle of the week, of the liturgical year, of the festivals and the story of Jesus’s life that is told every year from Advent to Pentecost (-ish), roughly following the academic calendar as well. This repetition keeps me rooted to a sense of a longue durée, and it’s the cyclical nature of it that always—every service—reminds me that people have been saying these same words since 1662, regardless of whether (unlike most of the congregations who make a great point of saying the same words that were said in 1662, or longer ago) they were high-born or had beautifully embroidered vestments or could say the words in Latin or knew what, exactly, the words signified. Because I imagine that for a great many people who attended services of the established church when doing so was prescribed by law, the words didn’t so much signify a particular theological position on the Trinity or transubstantiation (which if you listen closely to the C of E communion prayer, even in modern language, it definitely does!) as the right time to plant the crops and the times of year when the days would grow shorter or longer.

My mind wanders to such thoughts most weeks in Corpus chapel, but today our preacher particularly drew our attention to the modern Church’s origins in a long-ago time when different ways of life were practised. Today is Candlemas, a very Anglo-Saxon name for the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and an occasion which (or so I was reliably informed by an observant evangelical member of the congregation) is most definitely not observed by the more modern, forward-looking, urban evangelical congregations these days. Our preacher (who was excellent) focused her attention very closely upon the varied significances of this festival: the really religious bit, in which the lines from the Gospel of Luke embedded in the Anglican choral tradition as the Nunc Dimittis give an early indication of what a marvel the infant Christ will become; but also the ye-olde-Englande traditional bit, when Candlemas marked the time when farmers began to plant their crops; and the takeaway message for our lives, the bit with the common ground for the cynical unbelievers, the miraculous sense of wonder experienced by anyone who (as the old man Simeon does in the Gospel reading) holds an infant in his arms and marvels at the sheer extent of the possibility contained within that one tiny body.

As I have sat in chapels and churches week after week, I have often, I think reasonably, had cause to interrogate myself about what I’m doing there. How far have I come away from being the atheist whose main draw to church was Philip Pullman, and what do I mean when I recite with the congregation the words printed on my service leaflet? I have often stopped just short of wondering whether I should learn more about how to become a Christian, whether I should look for the dotted line on which to sign, so that I might feel like a bit less of a charlatan when I twist myself into layers upon layers of metaphor so that I can say the Apostles’ Creed without lying. What was wonderful about today’s sermon, though, and about the old feasts like Candlemas (similarly Ascension Day, or the last Sunday of Advent, or any other liturgical day connected to a folk tradition), is that they demonstrate how belief can lie less in metaphysics and more in a sense of connection to the past, to the earth, and to fellowship with other people in the present. The Church of England doesn’t bother much about heaven and hell, but it has always made me feel welcome, has never asked what I am doing there or why I haven’t gone and gotten baptised already, and always reminds me to marvel at creation, from the connections I pursue with other people to the Shetland ponies in the field opposite Iffley village church and the first daffodil shoots that today I saw poking up on the lawn outside my house. “Glory be to God for dappled things,” Pullman quoted Hopkins as saying, three years ago, and I still think atheists might listen to Christians if in nothing else at least in guidance for how to marvel at and cherish the natural world around us, where time is not linear and progressive but cyclical.

I am starting to hear from Ph.D. programs, and it is starting to dawn on me that this will be my last spring in Oxford probably for some time. I will be moving to a city next year, and while this spring will bring with it news of a new life, greater opportunities, new connections to form and hopefully new routes to happiness, I don’t think that spring is quite the same in concrete jungles, where you have to look much harder to find a daffodil or a newborn lamb, and where the Christianity (or at least this has been my sense) shares a little less common ground with the secular experience.