Oxford Revisited, by Keri Walsh

This is a guest post written by Keri Walsh, who completed her M.Phil at Oxford University in 2002, then went on to receive a Ph.D. in English from Princeton University in 2009. She joined the Fordham English faculty in 2011.

This summer, I briefly got the chance to feel like a student again. I went to England to pick up a Master’s degree that I completed over a decade ago at Oxford (Oxford degree ceremonies are strange things; you don’t automatically graduate with your class as you do in America. Instead, you apply for a degree ceremony which you can attend at any time that’s convenient for you). By coming back to a place I love dearly, I realized that a relationship with a school is like any relationship: it changes over time. Below are my reflections, written in journal form on the day of the ceremony itself.

July 12, 2014

Today I was presented with Oxford robes and pronounced a "Master of Philosophy” (M.Phil) in British Literature from 1880 to the present.  It was a beautiful sunny day as we strolled the quiet streets taking photographs in the morning, and it remained so as we raised our afternoon glasses of pink champagne in the college gardens.

As I walked the old cobblestones with my fellow “graduands” (the word they use here at Oxford in place of our word “graduates”), I thought back to the two years I’d spent here from 2000-2002. I was in my mid-twenties, and was coming to live in England for the first time. I had grown up in rural western Canada (Saskatchewan, specifically) and was fully primed to be awed by the glamour of Oxford’s ancient architecture and traditions.  It was before I embarked on my American Ph.D., and before I truly discovered the specializations—drama, film, Irish literature— that consume me in my teaching and research today.

I’d taken a two-year degree in modern literature that had an intensity of focus that is characteristic of Oxford, a place where it is deemed necessary that one read all eight hundred pages of Thomas Hardy’s poetry, even if it means reading none of anyone else’s. I’d made lasting friends, not just in my M.Phil course but also at “Bops” (i.e. dance parties), “Women’s Teas” (i.e. feminist reading groups) and in my college literary society. In this Arcadia, I’d met with some interesting snobberies too, towards “colonials,” women, and basically anyone else who wasn’t a British aristocrat. But still, I loved Oxford, as did many of my friends from England’s former colonies and beyond, and the warmth of the Irish contingent that claimed me more than made up for any snubs from other quarters. I left Oxford swearing my lifelong fidelity to it, yet I’d never managed to actually pick up my degree.

So, when I arrived at the festivities, I found myself at least ten years older than the typical graduates who accompanied me as we set off from our college and processed down Merton Street, through Turl Street, past the Radcliffe Camera and into the Sheldonian Theatre where degree ceremonies are held. Most of my own Oxford friends had long since donned these robes and marked this milestone. I felt an interesting, anachronistic feeling as the welcoming speech from our vice-chancellor promised us that the education we had received at Oxford would decisively shape our future lives and careers. Though my Oxford days still felt so close, my own “future career” had already been underway for twelve years. And when he promised that “the core academic values learned here will stay with you for the rest of your lives,” I realized I was in a rare position to test whether this was more than graduationary rhetoric. As the degree ceremony went on around me (in Latin), I mulled over these questions: had becoming an Oxonian shaped me so definitively? And why, aside from the obvious fact that it’s a beautiful place to be when you’re in your beautiful twenties, did Oxford mean so much to me?

One of the reasons I’d come in the first place was because of Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure (1895). Jude is the story of a character from a rural English village who dreams of going to Oxford, and who sees it as a magical place—a city of dreaming spires-- that might provide him with a better life than the one of harsh labor that would otherwise await him. He falls in love with his cousin Sue Bridehead, who has her own dreams of a life lived free of the restrictions placed on Victorian women. As you’ll know if you’ve read the novel (which is likely if you’ve ever taken one of my classes), Jude and Sue’s dreams are crushed by the cold realities of life, and of British Victorian life specifically. Hardy had written Jude the Obscure based on his own experiences, which he described in the preface to the novel as his own “difficulties down to twenty or thirty years back of acquiring knowledge in letters without pecuniary means.” For Sue, Jude is the patron saint of hopeless causes, but Hardy holds out the suggestion that he may also become a figurehead for university access. In the novel, Hardy disguises the Oxford setting by referring to the town and its university as “Christminster,” but the places and practices of Oxford are easily identifiable, and to this day a pub in Oxford’s Jericho neighborhood bears the name Jude the Obscure in honor of Hardy’s book.

Jude the Obscure brutally rebuked nineteenth-century English elites—especially those at Oxford—for the exclusions of their class and economic systems.  But even a hundred years later, it still had the power to fill me with an overwhelming sense of urgency. It was the novel that made me care about university access, and has reminded me to value and make time for the work of expanding resources for students who come from families where they may be the first to attend or graduate from college.

Jude is an autodidact who tries to read and learn while he works, or after he works. In one of the most famous scenes of Jude the Obscure, after having been mocked in a pub for his effort to pronounce the Apostles’ Creed in Latin, Jude writes a protest against the snobberies and exclusions of the Victorian university in chalk on a college wall: "I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you: yea, who knoweth not such things as these?"—Job xii. 3. In another moment of the novel, the third person narrator, seemingly a blend of Jude’s voice and the narrator’s, reflects: “Only a wall divided him from those happy young contemporaries of his with whom he shared a common mental life; men who had nothing to do from morning till night but to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. Only a wall-- but what a wall!” Discouraged by both the administrators of the university and the students he encounters, and told to stay in his given menial path of life, Jude’s dream eventually collapses. Hardy communicates this in a memorable passage in which Jude climbs up to the top of the Sheldonian Theatre and contemplates the city of dreaming spires:

He always remembered the appearance of the afternoon on which he awoke from his dream. Not quite knowing what to do with himself, he went up to an octagonal chamber in the lantern of a singularly built theatre that was set amidst this quaint and singular city. It had windows all round, from which an outlook over the whole town and its edifices could be gained. Jude's eyes swept all the views in succession, meditatively, mournfully, yet sturdily. Those buildings and their associations and privileges were not for him. From the looming roof of the great library, into which he hardly ever had time to enter, his gaze travelled on to the varied spires, halls, gables, streets, chapels, gardens, quadrangles, which composed the ensemble of this unrivalled panorama. He saw that his destiny lay not with these, but among the manual toilers in the shabby purlieu which he himself occupied, unrecognized as part of the city at all by its visitors and panegyrists, yet without whose denizens the hard readers could not read nor the high thinkers live.

The Sheldonian Theatre viewed from the window of Blackwell's Bookstore

When I teach this novel, I ask my students to look closely at this passage. I share photographs and maps with them that help them to think about the way Oxford might feel to a visitor who has no university ID, even today. It can seem like a city full of walls that give brief glimpses into secret magical worlds that are tricky to enter (it’s no accident that the wardrobe gateway to Narnia was dreamt up by an Oxonian). I emphasize that for most non-members of the university, the only way to see what lies inside the college gates—the gardens, deer parks, and quads that make the Oxford Colleges so lovely—is by ascending to this viewing gallery in the Sheldonian. We talk about how the architecture of the university itself imposes a town/gown split, and also the significance of the fact that Jude maintains these very buildings.

When I came to Oxford as a student, I came with this book already in my heart, and it taught me to be aware of the exclusions that my access, and that of other Oxford students, depended on, even in a period when the university was working to open its gates beyond the traditional elites. So today, as I waited outside the Sheldonian to receive my long-awaited degree, I gazed up to that observation room at the top of the building, the very location at which Jude had decidedly given up on his dream of entering the university and acknowledged that he simply couldn't accomplish in one generation the kind of social mobility that would take two or three.

I knew I was of that lucky third generation-- fully aware of how much it meant to me that I had been given the chance to study for this degree.  I also knew how much Hardy and my love for his characters had marked my life— but what about my Oxford education itself? Had it brought to me what Jude hoped it would bring to him? What did I take away from this place, and what had I been trained to give to my own students, during this two years in which I enjoyed all the privileges of a nineteenth-century English gentleman—to read (sometimes purposefully and sometimes aimlessly), to stay up all night talking, to get to know illustrious people, to study in some of the best research libraries of the world?

Getting a degree from Oxford confers privilege. In fact, coming back here made me think harder about that word. We often remind our students (especially when they are not performing as well as we know they’re able to) that getting an education is a “privilege.” But do we really think about what that word means? White privilege and male privilege are not luxuries to be enjoyed by those who can: they are injustices to be combatted. Perhaps it would be equally useful, when talking to our students, to help them also think about their educational privilege in this more socially contextualized way.

The vice-chancellor did not use the words “privilege” or “entitlement,” and I’m sure those were not the things he was trying to send us away with today, even though I felt acutely aware of possessing them. The word he used was “independence.” At this prestigious English university, few things are more highly prized than the ideal of intellectual independence. “One thing you can be certain of at Oxford is that no one here will tell you what you should think,” the vice-chancellor remarked (I’m paraphrasing). His statement struck me as so very Oxford—this idea that teachers teach best by not teaching at all. He might have added that here no one will teach you how you should think either, since in my experience professors were very careful not to impose methodologies on their students any more than they would impose ideas. Oxford students are very often left to find their own way, sometimes because of the benign neglect of a highly decentralized college system, sometimes through the conscious pedagogical choices of their tutors, and sometimes simply through a pervading laissez-faire attitude that everyone is, at the end of the day, responsible for her own education, for writing or not writing, for making a mark or not making a mark. As he spoke, I remembered that there were times when the terrible freedom of an Oxford education seemed like a liability, and there were times when it forced me to take possession of my own intellectual development in wonderful ways.

As a teacher myself, I gravitate more to American academic models, models that tend to emphasize student development through a set of carefully explained assignments of increasing complexity. My experiences as a teacher have tended to confirm that students thrive in an environment of conscientious instruction. I also don’t believe that classrooms are automatically spaces in which all students feel equally free to express their independent thoughts. It is part of my job to try to create that egalitarian space. I can’t presume that everyone feels equally comfortable speaking in class discussions. As we all know, some students are talkative and some are less so. Such things may vary according to personal temperament and the student’s own level of interest in the subject, but we also know that these variables in classroom participation are influenced by a range of social categories including gender, class, race, accent, language, sexual orientation, and more. Without the values of inclusiveness and equality working alongside that of “intellectual independence,” I worry that we might just reproduce existing hierarchies and not do enough to open up space for the range of voices we should be hearing in the classroom.

So I don’t think that I value mere “intellectual independence” as single-mindedly as I once did, back when I was an Oxford M.Phil trying to impress my tutors in an academic culture that revolved around notions of “brilliance” and “coming first.” Perhaps that’s partly because, thanks to my time at Oxford and beyond, I’ve now internalized the need for intellectual independence well enough to trust my own impulses in the process of research. But it may also be that I’ve been inspired by other models of academic life, such as one I see in our students’ commitment to service and economic justice in the context of a Jesuit university, or the ethos of collaboration that exists in the feminist theory group I participate in with other faculty and graduate students in the English department here at Fordham. It now seems most important to me to cultivate values like collaboration, inclusion, and equality as key elements of academic excellence.

As I move into the next phase of my relationship with this university of which I am a newly conferred degree recipient, I can understand better than ever Oscar Wilde’s remark in De Profundis that “the two great turning points in my life were when my father sent me to Oxford, and when society sent me to prison." Here, it seems that Wilde is acknowledging that the independence and entitlement he acquired at Oxford—the very qualities he displayed so lavishly and dazzlingly in his plays, essays, and poems—had served him well, but that there was still much that needed to be reckoned with beyond Oxford’s walls, and for which its privileges could not have fully prepared him.

Returning to the most influential location of my twenties has already begun to transform my thinking about what my years here meant to me. I predict that I will always be grateful that I studied at Oxford, and also grateful that I spent three hours sweating through a Latin ceremony while having my degree conferred today.  As we paraded through the streets in our academic regalia en route from our various colleges to the full university assembly, occasionally we heard shouts of “Congratulations!” from various sidewalks and street corners. Some of the toasts came from tourists, some from groups of international summer students, and some from locals who were taking a brief break from work or just out for a stroll. While proper academic reserve might have counseled a respectful silence on my part as we participated in this most solemn of academic rituals, I couldn’t stop myself from calling back an enthusiastic “thank you” to everyone who greeted us so fondly as we passed. As I had learned from Jude, and from my own enduring attachment to this quaint and singular city, our well-wishers were part of the university’s history too, and among them were surely some who were making themselves known as aspirants to our parade. I wanted to make sure they knew that we, wearing the university’s official robes, could see them.

Keri Walsh is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English. She specializes in Twentieth Century British and Irish Literature. Her teaching and research interests include theatre, film and performance studies, bohemian and expatriate cultures, and gender and sexuality studies. Her edition of the letters of Sylvia Beach, the first publisher of James Joyce's  Ulysses and the owner of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris, came out in 2010 (Columbia UP). Her current projects include an edition of James Joyce's Dubliners (forthcoming from Broadview Press) and a monograph on film acting called Acting Like a Hustler: Method Acting, Gender, and the Hollywood Film