Category Archives: Thesis

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.

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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.

Research Notes

After much dithering, I’ve finally started to get back into the swing of archives, and to start to process the fairly large pile of material on Arthur Sidgwick and his times that I’ve already gathered: converting the Word documents in which I take notes linearly as I proceed through the archives, fascicle by fascicle, into individual database entries in EndNote for each letter, poem, set of lecture notes, scrap of paper on which is scrawled a bet Sidgwick made with his youngest daughter as to whether women would get the suffrage or the Oxford degree first (no, really!). Impelled both by practical urgency—this thesis is due in only nine months—and by a hope that getting down and dirty with the documents will rekindle my passion for the scholarly craft, I’ve been sifting through the raw material in the hopes that out of it some kind of narrative will magically emerge before my eyes. The scope of this project means that it doesn’t lend itself quite to a chronological telling of Sidgwick’s life in a manner analogous to the Symonds thesis; instead, I have to figure out how to get from Sidgwick’s life to a coherent and more thematically-organized argument about the nature of politics, universities, and the people who lived within them in the Victorian-Edwardian period—a rather more complicated proposition.

One reason it’s complicated is by a fairly obvious point about the nature of how real historical life is reflected through the sources, which only just hit me yesterday and today; it’s for this reason that I’m writing this post. You see, I’ve been irritated all along by the paucity of Sidgwick’s material leavings when compared to Symonds’: in Symonds’ case there is just piles and piles of paper, most of it well-documented (though some of it, excitingly, I was able to discover!) and much of it preserved in about 2,000 pages of edited, published letters. In addition to all these letters to far-flung friends, there are lecture notes, books with marginalia, manuscript poetry, and other such documents on which I’ve relied heavily in constructing a picture of Symonds’ mental furniture and the routes by which he arrived at his theory of homosexuality. This winds up actually being fairly straightforward, because it will turn out that he’s written a letter to Henry Sidgwick, Graham Dakyns, Edward Carpenter, or Havelock Ellis saying exactly what he thinks about some aspect of Greek literature, sexual science, or what have you and how it relates to his vision of what the homosexual man is to the rest of society.

Due to this incredible stroke of luck, I went into the Sidgwick project expecting that this is just what you find for literate, intellectual Victorians who were scrupulous in documenting their evolving ideas about the world. But while the disparate, candid, lively nature of Sidgwick’s day-books was what made me commit to a thesis on him, I’ve found that the archives contain very little actual working-through of the intellectual themes important to his life: pedagogy, women’s education, and professionalized teacher-training, Liberal politics, and the bonds of friendship in educational/intellectual communities. There is plenty of institutional record of the basic fact that he was involved, for instance, in such-and-such a reform committee or student society, but almost nothing self-reflective about what impelled him to get involved in such an organization or why such work was socially important—which makes writing the kind of thesis I’d hoped to write about how such day-to-day activities can help us to understand Victorian values and the “intellectual aristocracy” vastly more difficult, if not altogether inconceivable.

Yesterday I cycled up the Woodstock Road to St Anne’s College, formerly the Oxford Society of Home Students. Back in the 1870s when there were only two women’s colleges, Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall, which were not formally incorporated into the University and could only offer certificates that attested that their students had completed an equivalent level of work and exams to that of the men students who would be given degrees for it, there was also something variously known as the Association for the Education of Women, the Home Students Association, and the Society of Home Students, which was an administrative body that would organize teaching for and advocate on behalf of women students—often the wives, sisters, or daughters of dons—who lived at home in the city instead of joining Somerville or LMH. T.H. Green was the AEW’s first secretary, in 1877; two years later, his wife, Charlotte—Symonds’ sister—took over the position. Members of the committee over the years, before it became a more formal organization with a Governing Body, included the venerable Annie M.A.H. Rogers, the first woman to formally register for a University degree (because she registered at Balliol under her initials, and they didn’t realize she was a woman until she showed up), Walter Pater’s sister Clara, renowned heads of house and professors like Mark Pattison and Henry Nettleship, and—you see where this is going—Arthur Sidgwick, whose daughters Rose and Margaret sat Pass Mods and Modern History Finals as Home Students in the 1890s and 1900s. (Rose went on to be one of the UK’s first women lecturers, first at Somerville and then at Birmingham University, before dying tragically in the 1918 flu pandemic while on a tour of America with other British academics.)

It seemed not out of character with St Anne’s informal beginnings—which I was there to research in their college archive—that it was also the most informal archive visit I’ve ever done. There were no rules about bags or pens; I was simply shown to a desk in the college library’s main reading room and invited to call up anything I fancied, which the archivist then had to go and hunt for, piling masses of disarrayed papers on my desk. Looking for evidence of Sidgwick’s involvement in the AEW, I did. I noticed that he was President of the AEW during years that the organization made a major push to lobby the University to admit women to the degree, 1907-10, and so looked for him particularly in a scrapbook Annie Rogers had compiled documenting that fight. There were a few letters he had written on behalf of the AEW to the then-Chancellor, Lord Curzon, but no private correspondence between him and Rogers, in contrast to the many letters Rogers had received from prominent dons and teachers to whom she had written asking for their support for the degree campaign. It finally struck me that, even today, the leaders of social and political organizations don’t make important decisions by letter (or email): they do it in meetings, face-to-face. And even if they take minutes, those usually don’t reflect the same kind of frank, candid opinions that a letter might. Annie Rogers and Arthur Sidgwick lived in the same city, and they were good friends: if they had a matter about women’s education to discuss, they could go round to each other’s houses and chat about it face-to-face, leaving no permanent record of the conversation.

Circling round back to Symonds, while going through the other archival material today I re-encountered a letter I found in Henry Sidgwick’s papers at Trinity College, Cambridge. Shortly before Christmas, 1875, he wrote to his mother, “If you have to be in London after the 10th, you will find us all there—by all I mean Nora, Self, A.S, Charlotte, H.G. Dakyns, J.A. Symonds – “the whole company” as I told them this morning when I wished good bye at Clifton….” Nora is Henry’s wife, A.S. is of course Arthur Sidgwick and Charlotte is his wife, and the Sidgwick brothers were very close to Graham Dakyns (whom they knew from Cambridge) and his good friend Symonds (Dakyns’ neighbor in Bristol) until Symonds took off for Davos in 1877. The four went on holiday together to Europe when they were just out of university; Henry, Dakyns, and Symonds staged an intervention when Arthur was thinking about initiating an erotic relationship with a pupil at Rugby in 1867; and it sounds as if after the Sidgwick brothers married, their wives joined the gang too. (It’s interesting to note that Symonds’ wife Catherine, who wasn’t as intellectual or as outgoing as either Nora or Charlotte Sidgwick, doesn’t seem to have been part of this particular gathering.) I devoted some minutes to wishing I could have been a fly on the wall at assemblies of “the whole company,” before the contrast between this time and the period after Symonds moved to Davos really illuminated itself. Of course, after the move, Symonds only had letters with which to keep in touch with his friends, let them know what he was thinking about, and share personal feelings about which, because of their homoerotic nature, he couldn’t confide in his wife. In England, on their Christmas holidays, they could just hang out in London—as Henry, Arthur, and their other friends continued to do even after Symonds left the country and basically lost a normal social life in the process, having to replace it with those now-familiar, oh-so-confessional letters.

It turns out that you can really do a certain amount of historical work by thinking about the relation of the present and the past. The intellectual problems with which these men and women grappled—the ones which I’m most interested in unravelling—can seem very foreign to us today. We think we’ve solved quandaries by which they were sincerely troubled, or aren’t affected with the same passionate intensity by emotions that could overcome them. But if I think about how many Deep Conversations I’ve had in university and since with close friends that no one wrote down, I realize how much the prospect of reconstructing my own intellectual world would stymie a scholar a century and a half hence. There is continuity as well as change, and being sensitive to the ways in which this circle of friends are like so many other young people with ideas can make us still more alive to the ways in which they are very alien indeed.

QOTD (2013-07-10); or, Adventures in the Archives

Arthur Sidgwick to Catharine Symonds, 15 July 1893 (almost 120 years ago!):

My dear Catharine,

I have just emerged—not yet fully emerged,—from the hardest and fullest and most unbroken years’ work I have ever had. All through last term I have been waiting & hoping for a quiet time to write to you—and in vain. I must seize the first moment of leisure, lest it pass and leave me again in bonds.

I saw Mrs Green on that day in April when she had just got the telegram, and was about to start for Italy. The exact place remains in my mind where I heard that I was never to hear or see again the voice or face of that friend who stands apart from others in my memory and in that of all of us who knew him. Mrs Green was very quiet, and all she said was that it had always been his wish when death came that it should not come as slow decay painful to all: and that she was glad it had been for his sake. That is so: but it does not make it less bitter that it shd come when he was away from home and from all but one of you. And though the strangers were no doubt very good, still they could do little, and they were strangers. And it is no use dwelling on what the sudden news was to us, to think we should see him no more nor hear again his wonderful talk, in which when he was at his worst physically there was more than in any other man’s whom I have ever known. For myself I have always regretted the sadly broken intercourse I have had with him of late years, since increasing business & manifold difficulties intervened, and never more painfully than now when all chance of better using opportunities, and struggling more successfully against circumstance, is over for me in this world as far as he is concerned. We can’t do this, and we can’t do the other: but it remains true that if we were better and stronger, and tried more, we could: and these things come painfully home when the chapter is closed. But on his side there was never a one of my friends who was always more absolutely the same in spite of absence & distance & silence: none with whom one began so easily & certainly & richly where one had left off. And in my heart, as in that of all his many friends—alike those who kept up intercourse and those (of whom I was one as I sadly realise) who fell very short of what they wished & ought to have done—in all of our hearts alike he had a place that was his own, which now is empty and will remain so, except for manifold memories.

The weeks go on, but I find no difference as to the strangeness and the sadness of the news on that April day that he was dead. I have been thinking often in the last two months of the earlier days of our acquaintance beginning in that hot summer in the pension at Dresden: it is hard to believe it is 29 years ago. I remember still some of the afternoon walks & talks—with a sort of shame and gratitude mixed. He was younger, and yet so much older & wiser in everything that mattered: and I had never seen anybody so able to deal effectually with the peculiar sort of confident ignorance which must have been my principal characteristic in those days. He was so easy to talk to: so naturally adapting himself to all moods and frames of mind: so full and bountiful of thought & talk: so gentle & wise & yet so instructive without ever dogmatising or setting himself to instruct. And in my two visits to Davos, and in the few times I have seen him in England, it has been just the same. Old intercourse & affection taken up just as before, with the edges fresh: even the changes in each of us making no difference except a new interest.

All this was only one side of him, & there were many others, of which, most notably, the long and heroic struggle to do his work & deliver what he had to say, in spite of weakness and absence & all obstacles. This is what all the world has felt, and it has been good for all of us to see it. But for myself the most potent thing was the influence he had on me in early days, and the long affection it led to, tho’ interrupted as I have said.

I don’t want you to answer this at all. I shall hear of your plans and welfare from Mrs Green. I hope we may meet before long. This is only written as a sign that my many weeks’ silence—though there is much on my side for years’ past that needs forgiveness—does not mean that I have forgotten or am unthankful for the past,—and for the kindness & affection and many other good things I have received from him.

Yrs ever most truly
A Sidgwick

For the benefit of those just tuning in, my current research subject has written this lovely letter to the widow of my former research subject. And once you have burrowed so deeply inside a long-dead person’s head—read all his extant correspondence, his poetry hidden from all but his closest friends, learned to recognize his handwriting instantly and spent many, many hours sitting in the rooms he sat in and walking the paths he walked, trying to guess at how he might have thought through a given subject—you can’t help a warm rush of recognition when you unexpectedly find a document in which someone else says that dead person meant a lot to him, too.