On (Academic) Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembrance

Note: There is extensive original archival research backing up the information shared in this essay, which is drawn from my Ph.D. dissertation. While I have not included citations in-text, I am happy to provide references upon request.

Had I been alive one hundred years ago, my life might have been a little like Rose Sidgwick’s. Sidgwick was 41 in 1918, and I am 28 now, but otherwise the similarities stand. Born in 1877, the oldest child of an academic family, Sidgwick had access to impressive educational opportunities, and finished her first-class BA in history at Oxford the age of 22. Structured PhDs were not yet common for lecturers in the UK, and after her first degree Sidgwick lived with her parents in Oxford, pursuing the mix of part-time work, further independent study, and semiformal education common among many young people at the turn of the twentieth century who aspired to an academic career. While doing a job at the Somerville library she met and began a relationship with the librarian and maths tutor, Margery Fry. Fry was shortly to take up a new position as warden of the new women’s hostel at Birmingham University; she negotiated a history lectureship—the spousal hire of its day—so that Sidgwick could accompany her. Sidgwick began her first (and what would turn out to be her only) full-time academic job in 1905, at age 28.

University House, the Birmingham hostel, must have been an extraordinary place to live and work. Fry, Sidgwick, and the like-minded women they hired to join their resident academic and pastoral staff sought to build a new kind of vibrant community for the young women in their care. Most of the first women’s halls of residence at UK universities, run by wardens of an older generation, were deeply worried about respectability, preoccupied by the need to assure parents that it was safe to allow their daughters to live away from home, and aware of their marginal (and sometimes contested) status within the university. The residents, mostly in their early twenties, complained that they were treated like schoolgirls. But Fry, Sidgwick, and colleagues such as Marjorie Rackstraw and Bertha Orange were part of a younger generation of women who had been to university themselves, and who were often inspired by the freer pace of academic and social life at North American women’s and coeducational colleges. Benefiting from the support of a vice-chancellor who prioritized women’s education and gave them a free hand, the University House staff treated their students with dignity while still looking after their welfare. Inspired, perhaps, in part by Sidgwick’s father, who had fostered a similar kind of community among his men students at his Oxford college, they opted for a kind of controlled silliness that had an implicit higher purpose. Students put on plays; they made a snowman in the image of the vice-chancellor; the staff could be relied upon to do a comic song-and-dance routine in the end-of-term entertainment. Through this, they knit together bonds that might sustain these young women in the difficult life-course they were undertaking. The overwhelming majority of women university graduates in this period did not marry; a strict binary pertained between marriage and a career; women who desired to work in professional occupations or otherwise pursue a public life faced an uphill battle. Single-sex community—and a physical space where young women could be themselves—was a compensation, but also an essential form of nourishment. The letters that Fry, Sidgwick, Rackstraw, and other Birmingham friends exchanged throughout their lives testify to the richness of the love that these women felt for each other.

A new-built brick building on a hill outside of Britain’s great industrial city is not exactly the archetype called to mind when one imagines nostalgia for the summer of 1914. But the safety and surety of this microcosm, too, would be fractured by the war. Shortly after the outbreak of hostilities, the building was requisitioned for a hospital. The male side of the university emptied, and many women students elected to train as nurses or pursue other forms of war work. The staff each faced a difficult decision about whether and how to help, which entailed consideration of deeply personal questions about religion and ethics, and about gender, that many felt torturous. Fry, a devout Quaker, seems to have fairly easily concluded that it was her duty to engage in nonviolent war work, joining the Friends War Victims Relief Committee to bring aid directly to those civilians whose homes and sources of income had been ravaged due to their unfortunate location near to the front lines of the conflict. As crop fields became battlefields, the FWVRC’s volunteers distributed food to starving villagers, and set up schools for traumatized children. Educated women had usually received extremely thorough training in modern European languages, and their ability to communicate with French or Russian peasants was in as high demand as their organizational skills. Fry—whose social circle seems widely to have perceived her as a paragon of selflessness—inspired many of her friends, including non-Quakers, to follow her into the FWVRC, where they spent the duration of the war in camp conditions encountering famine and devastation firsthand.

It had been decided that Sidgwick would remain in Birmingham to keep open University House, now squatting in some rented rooms that were not needed for medical purposes. Numbers of women undergraduates throughout Britain remained steady or rose during the war, even as their male colleagues, like other elite men, made up disproportionate numbers of the casualties on the Western Front. Communities of university women could be important sources of momentum for volunteer aid on the home front, as students undertook first aid courses, worked in national kitchens, picked crops in the university holidays, or used their degrees to enter graduate occupations previously closed to them. But Sidgwick struggled with guilt at staying behind. Her youngest brother, Hugh, fed up with what he perceived as the uselessness of his work as a civil servant in the Education Department, had joined up; her friends doing relief work were enduring daily hardships equivalent to his. As she received their letters and posted to France the blankets and toothpaste and candy they requested, she joined the League of Nations Union and lectured to her students and the Birmingham public about how Britain might participate in building a better postwar world—as well, of course, as doing a day job that before the war would have been done by three people. She also traveled back to Oxford very often to join the rota of mother and sisters caring full-time for her father, whose dementia was steadily worsening. But none of this seemed to her like a sufficiently noble sacrifice—and she keenly felt the widening gulf between her and her brother and closest friends, who were being traumatized by experiences she could not imagine. Her grief only worsened in September 1917, when Hugh was killed at Passchendaele, leaving behind his family and his fiancée, who worked adjacent to Sidgwick as a nurse at the University House hospital. Sidgwick felt obliged to put on a brave face, telling friends that she and her family were much more fortunate than others: the word come back from Hugh’s comrades was that his death had been quick and relatively painless. But she knew that in the last year of his life Hugh had been expressing increasing anger about the pointlessness of the war and the duplicity with which politicians had sold it to the nation, and I read a hollowness into how she sought, by repeating it to others, to tell herself that her brother’s death had to be accepted.

While fighting continued on the Western Front until the proverbial eleventh hour, the wartime coalition that had governed Britain since 1916 did so with an eye also to building the postwar order. It was with this in mind that, in September 1918, University House received an invitation from the Foreign Office: would they like to send a representative to join a British Educational Mission to the United States, a delegation of academics who would meet with American colleagues and politicians to determine how universities might participate in a postwar Anglo-American alliance? Fry was the first choice, but, exhausted from her war work and with responsibilities to her aging parents, she suggested Sidgwick go in her stead. Everything happened very quickly: the five men members of the Mission had already set sail (only belatedly had someone in the Foreign Office suggested that some women delegates would be a useful addition), and Sidgwick scrambled to find someone to cover her teaching for the autumn term, ensure her father’s care was in hand, and tie up her various responsibilities at Birmingham. She and her counterpart, Bedford College English professor Caroline Spurgeon, sailed from Southampton; at the beginning of October they were met at the dock in New York by the senior woman member of the official welcoming committee, Dean of Barnard College Virginia Gildersleeve. With Gildersleeve as their host and guide, they took on a whirlwind tour of over thirty campuses in the northeast and midwest, an itinerary more crowded than that of the men, since they had to squeeze in visits to women’s colleges alongside the predetermined official list of institutions. Sidgwick initially doubted her ability to do the trip justice, but she quickly rose to the challenge, gaining a reputation as an effective public speaker about women’s role in building a new, modern, internationally-connected educational landscape. She marveled at the sense of possibility and optimism in America, at the willingness to invest in women’s higher education, and at the social ease that existed among the students she met at women’s and coeducational colleges. She toured everything she could, museums and hospitals as well as campuses. It was October, and she looked out the train window, admiring the foliage. (A couple weeks ago, in late October, I took a train from New York to New England, a not-so-different view.) The trip was life-changing: a chance to do something, be something, make something away from the violent forces that had ruptured her family and her friendships.

I am not an epidemiologist, but it seems possible that, had Sidgwick not traveled to the US, she might not have caught the deadly strain of influenza that, in 1917–1919, claimed far more military and civilian casualties worldwide than the war. By late 1918, the infection had mutated to a less virulent form in Britain, but American soldiers returning from Europe re-imported the worst strain. The last entry in Sidgwick’s diary was a visit to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, a week before Christmas. Her immune system no doubt compromised by the punishing travel itinerary, she was admitted to the Columbia University Hospital with influenza, and died on December 28. She received the academic equivalent of a state funeral in the Columbia chapel, a High Anglican service (at that time, Columbia was officially affiliated to the US Episcopal Church) with high-ranking politicians, diplomats, and university administrators among the attendees. Her coffin—just like her brother’s—was draped in the Union Jack. Casualties of the First World War who died in the service of their country could take many different forms.

Though the chair of the British Educational Mission did not mention Sidgwick or Spurgeon in the memoir he wrote of the trip, Sidgwick’s death sent shockwaves throughout the community of university women. Numb with grief just after the funeral, perched on trunks in a New York hotel room, Gildersleeve and Spurgeon (who had just begun a decades-long romantic relationship of their own) resolved to found the International Federation of University Women in Sidgwick’s memory, tying together groups of graduates across Europe and North America in the name of internationalism and world peace. Its first act was to found the Rose Sidgwick Memorial Fellowship for a British woman pursuing graduate study in the US. At memorial services in Oxford and Birmingham, the tributes to Sidgwick poured in. Sidgwick had left her estate to University House; the new warden, Bertha Orange, decided to spend the money on a fund for books and travel for low-income students. A year later, after their father had died, Sidgwick’s sister Ethel made the trip out to New York to visit her grave at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Ethel and their mother had written the inscription on the headstone, and Gildersleeve had seen that it was installed. It read, very simply, “In loving memory of Rose Sidgwick, of the Universities Mission of amity to the United States, died Dec 28, 1918, aged 41 years.”

I have told you Rose Sidgwick’s story on the eve of the centenary of the 1918 Armistice because not only those who take up arms are the casualties of war. Sidgwick did not have the pacifist convictions of her beloved friend Margery Fry, and remained genuinely ambivalent about whether the Great War was a just conflict. Her pride in Hugh’s sacrifice only turned sour after his death. But she, too, was a casualty of war, one whom we might care to remember this special Remembrance Day. The Sidgwick family lost two children to the war. Their loss was as real as that of any other family who lost a child—and as real as the loss that accompanied the fracturing of the University House community; as real as the deprivations endured by the families in France whom Fry and other Friends War Victims Relief volunteers sought to help, who saw their crops burned and trenches dug through their fields; as real as the grief of German-speaking parents who lost their children. Like many of the most ardent members of the League of Nations Union, Sidgwick sought a forgiving settlement with Germany, and a postwar order that would quickly incorporate it within a liberal community of nations. Like them, too, she probably gave less serious thought to the ways that postwar internationalism might align all too neatly with British and French imperial ambitions. But there can be no doubt that she, and the family and friends who survived her, knew that modern warfare does not discriminate in those on whose lives it drops (literal, figurative) bombs.

The Rose Sidgwick Memorial Fellowship was still going strong in 1933, when members of the Women’s Cooperative Guild adopted the practice of displaying white instead of red poppies to protest the ways that remembrance observances were being used to stoke nationalist fervor and justify rearmament. The following year, the symbol was adopted by the newly-founded Peace Pledge Union (nondenominational but founded in connection with the Church of England), which continues to encourage its use to this day. It is above my pay grade to re-litigate the story of the appeasement of Nazi Germany, and the place that popular opposition to rearmament had in that story. And it is somewhat outside the scope of this essay to consider the ways in which this kind of women’s political activism intersected with popular imperialism—(which it, like basically every other form of British politics, did). But what the Women’s Cooperative Guild understood—like, I think, the International Federation of University Women, like Rose Sidgwick and her friends—is that if war is in some times and places a necessary evil, it is always and everywhere an evil. There is nothing glorious about war. Mostly it is death, and it is mud. And even when we imagine the antithesis of this particular vision of war bequeathed to us by the Great War—the sanitized, automated drone killings of today’s wars—the pervasive stink of evil endures.

When I was the age Rose Sidgwick was when she took her degree, and I too was living in Oxford, I sang in a Remembrance Sunday service in which the processional hymn was “I Vow to Thee My Country.” I know it’s a state church, but the conflation of nationalist battle fervor with Christianity sickened me, and has sickened me since, all throughout these years when the red poppy has become ever more commercialized and ever more mobilized as a litmus test of empty, amoral patriotism. For people like Rose Sidgwick and Margery Fry, and many like them who lived through it or didn’t, the Great War gave lie to patriotism. This year I hope you will join me in remembering them, as well as the countless unnamed casualties of war before and since who were not given a choice about whether to identify emotionally with a conflict fought in their name or on their land or with their bodies. I hope you will join me in doing what you can to resist war and violence in your own lives and communities; in informing yourselves about the wars fought overseas, including those fought in your name, and whether you want to be party to such conflicts. There is far too much anger in our world, as there was a century ago. I hope that, like me, you seek to commit yourselves to peace.

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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.

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.

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.

Labor improbus; or, D-Day minus two months

It has been two years since the final downhill sprint to my last thesis. When I handed that one in, I knew it was too long and not ready, but I did know that it was good, at least for a college senior. I was keenly aware how much of my self and my lived experience had gone into it; moreover, my advisor had checked the history and had me convinced that somewhere in those too-many pages there were at least one or two things worth saying.

But I was so young then, and so filled with the flush of youth and of my first real piece of history. When I went through the year’s worth of revisions that it took to turn that thesis into an article I began to realize that in academic history there is more to a subject being interesting than simply stating that it is interesting, a fact which haunts me now as I try to turn around the second thesis. I started this one a little later on—when I hand it in it will have been just under two years of work, whereas the first one took two and a half—and knowing what I know now about how to do history has made this one harder rather than easier. I only see how difficult it is to do a credible job in two years with little training (and much less advising: the kind of guidance my excellent undergraduate advisor gave me, considered exemplary by Princeton standards, is here at Oxford dismissed as “hand-holding” tantamount to academic dishonesty). The knowledge of how far the bound product will fall from perfect, and how unlikely it is to live up to particularly English ideals of fine academic work, are more likely to be tear-inducing than anything else. The culture here is punishing: no one tells you that you are doing well for fear of causing excessive self-love; while at Princeton someone might have complained that she was too busy and too tired because she was over-committed to extracurricular activities, here the complaint tends to mean (as someone on my course claimed to be true) that you are working on your thesis sixteen hours a day. For someone like myself already predisposed to low self-esteem this is not a happy place to be, and day after day I go to the library under a black cloud of premonitions of failure—except on the really bad days, when I don’t go to the library at all, and I sit in my room all day crying.

I think it is important to talk about these things because no one in Oxford does, especially at the graduate level; the presumption (and I have been told this) is that if you find any of it difficult, that must be your fault, and a sign you’re not suited to it. It is considered impolite, I believe, to reply that you were admitted to various US PhD programs, have a publication, and so on, and still find it unbelievably difficult. And so—though I hate to say it after all this time since the last thesis, living in and loving England and Oxford—I am counting the days until I go back to America and start over with a US PhD. This relationship with Oxford of over three years’ standing, my longest and truest one, has started to turn abusive, and it’s best to get out now while I’m still relatively unharmed.

But with what time I have I am determined to fight back against this punishing culture: to see people, to carve out domestic space cooking and mending clothes and watching television, to eat lunch in restaurants by myself, to run down to Iffley and visit my friends the three Shetland ponies who live in the field opposite the church. I took up running as another way to punish myself, for my fatness and my ugliness, but I have come to value it as a way to take time away from the computer and take myself out of the city centre without feeling guilty. And (here we come to the point) it was while running this morning—and not while putting in sixteen hours at a desk!—that I came up with a central analytic conceit for the section I’m currently trying to write about Arthur Sidgwick’s marriage. Here is a paragraph I just wrote, which concludes the section:

Most of the evidence we have for the intimate details of Arthur and Charlotte Sidgwick’s marriage is written from Arthur’s perspective, and so it is not always easy to know how seriously he took her as an equal, how she felt about her marriage, and—most elusive of all—how willing a participant she was in the ever-present ἀσπασμοί [’embraces’, a euphemism for sex]. But their marriage, falling somewhere between the twin archetypes offered by the much-mythologised stories of Arthur’s siblings [Minnie Sidgwick and E.W. Benson; Henry Sidgwick and Eleanor Balfour], offers a picture of daily liberal life as a pattern of compromises with the strict ideals recorded in published form by Mill, Henry Sidgwick, and others. While people like Arthur and Charlotte Sidgwick may have tried to live their lives along with the pages of philosophy, real life—differing access to educational opportunity; differing ideals of fulfilment, both altruistic and personal; the birth of children; the presence or lack of physical desire for each other—may have, and did, intervene.

I realized as I was writing this paragraph that it serves as a really illustrative example of the kind of history I love to do, the kind of history that keeps me caring about history: finding the sites at which ideas and lived experience meet, where the universally human and the historically contingent stare each other in the face, and where compromise—the idea that came to me halfway back from Iffley, but that could probably be said to underlie most of the history I try to write—is the lynchpin that holds together all my claims for interest. John Addington Symonds, Arthur Sidgwick, and all my other elite B-list Victorian men whose elitism and maleness makes me feel guilty do something that we all do: no matter our ideals, we compromise between them and our own self-interest, and more importantly our own happiness. The theses we hand in, the relationships we pursue, and the balance we strike between the two are all compromises, and while they may torture us (they certainly did Symonds, less so Sidgwick), life isn’t worth living if it’s spent in ceaseless mental anguish.

Months ago I said to an American classmate that I wished I had his capacity to let go: to accept that differences between the conventions of British and American history may affect how our theses are evaluated, and to write the thesis I want to write anyway even if it isn’t going to be, numerically, the best—or even as good as my undergraduate thesis was. I’m not there yet, and it saddens me to think that the first rush of passion for Oxford that helped to make that first thesis possible is now just dying embers. But maybe, like accepting a breakup, that’s what letting go means. And maybe that’s what I’m doing—just not in the way that I expected.