A Clerk of Oxford: Blogging, Academia, and Aspiration
May 22, 2015 10 Comments
One of the consequences of my friendship with Jessica is that I have been brought in touch with a fairly wide cross-section of British historians (and such). Mind you, I know only a few of them well, and a couple have become close friends but, I see a good bit of their public work. Frankly, I wish I was as well connected with American ones.
I have found many of them via Twitter, and that has led to several of them being featured here. One of my favorites, not least because her interests cross mine in several areas is A Clerk of Oxford. The other thing is that she is, I think anyway, a superb writer, able to transport one to the historical places she writes about. Frankly, I love her blog.
She has just published her 1000th post, and its tone is a bit sad, on what should be a joyous occasion. For those of you who read our blogs but don’t write one, I’ll tell you a secret: It ain’t easy. Coming up wit material that is both interesting and that one know well enough not to make too many mistakes is hard. To be able to write it in an interesting fashion is harder yet. She does it very well, far better than I do. So very heartfelt congratulations to her.
But the tone of her post was not all that cheery, as you’ll see. My impression was that she was turned down for a new position (I may well be wrong (if so, I hope she’ll forgive me.) and that it was done with open contempt by a senior faculty member. Well, that’s not unheard of, sadly not in business, and certainly not in academia. But it is not helpful, to the institution and certainly not to one turned down.
I have heard, from some of my friends over there, stories of the rankest incompetence, which would get you bounced off the curb in my company, no matter how senior you are, especially in the faculty leadership. For the most part they were told to me in confidence and so I will forbear sharing them with you but, I’ll say this, I believe every word she says here.
What we call ‘academia’, as practiced in universities today, is a modern invention, not more than a century or two old, and it seems to me that it’s swiftly reaching the point at which it becomes no longer sustainable; but scholarship and learning are much bigger than academia, and living somewhere like Oxford helps you to hold that in mind. The human desires to understand, to study, to teach and to learn are fundamentally good and beautiful things, however much any particular institution or any age may distort them, and Oxford’s long history of scholarship is a reminder of that: from its medieval origins, the monks and friars who gathered here to study and teach, through its history of benefactors, women and men who endowed colleges and gave money, asking nothing in return but prayer, to the countless generations who have laboured in its libraries to win the secrets of books, a silent wrestling-match with no prize but knowledge.
This is an idealistic picture, I know, but you’ll have to forgive me for being a little wistful right now. Most of the scholars, great in their day, who have worked within Oxford’s cloisters would not survive five minutes in modern academia, and I can’t help feeling that’s not a good thing. Of course I know that the world I’m describing would for most of its history have excluded people like me (a woman, from a non-traditional-Oxford background). But in effect, it still does; it still speaks in code, to keep insiders in and outsiders out. You might think that after eleven years in Oxford I’d have learned to crack the code, learned to fit in, but I’m as mystified as ever. It’s not just Oxford, anyway, but academia as a class – a culture still dominated by patronage, opacity and exclusion, only now in different ways. Now they talk the language of inclusion, while being as exclusive as ever. Oxford has a little bit of polite verbiage they put in their job adverts these days: ‘Applications for this post are especially welcome from women and ethnic minorities, who are under-represented among the University’s academic staff’. Well, you can certainly apply; but if you don’t respond well to an aggressive and hostile interview, you might end up quoting that verbiage back to yourself rather wryly. If I leave academia now, I just become a statistic. But I’ve received so much kindness and such rigorous teaching in this place (the vast majority of it from women); when I leave, I’ll take that with me, and do some good with it somewhere.]
And so I have little add, except that I offer her congratulations on a thousand posts, many of which I have enjoyed thoroughly, and commiseration and sympathy on her setback, which I hope will resolve itself to something even better. It can happen, and often does, at least two of my friends have oxford degrees and neither was a traditional type in college.
Toward the end of her post she included a poem by C.S. Lewis (and you all know what sucker I am for poetry).
In 1919, when he was still an undergraduate (and not yet a Christian), C. S. Lewis published a poem called ‘Oxford’. It’s full of youthful idealism, but it would be unjust to call it naive; the boy who wrote this poem had lived through a war worse than anything most of the people who inhabit a place like Oxford can even begin to imagine. He had a right to his idealism and his hope for a better world.
It is well that there are palaces of peace
And discipline and dreaming and desire,
Lest we forget our heritage and cease
The Spirit’s work — to hunger and aspire:
Lest we forget that we were born divine,
Now tangled in red battle’s animal net,
Murder the work and lust the anodyne,
Pains of the beast ‘gainst bestial solace set.
But this shall never be: to us remains
One city that has nothing of the beast,
That was not built for gross, material gains,
Sharp, wolfish power or empire’s glutted feast.
We are not wholly brute. To us remains
A clean, sweet city lulled by ancient streams,
A place of visions and of loosening chains,
A refuge of the elect, a tower of dreams.
She was not builded out of common stone
But out of all men’s yearning and all prayer
That she might live, eternally our own,
The Spirit’s stronghold — barred against despair.
And my hope that she will keep blogging because I, at least, and I know I’m far from alone, love her blog, and her insights. And I hope it all works out for her.