Chavs, Class, and Christ Church

It’s summer time in England.  I know it’s only April, but there are two weeks of decent weather a year on this island, and we’re currently burning through them.  The Thames River is particularly fantastic right now: there are adorable ducklings everywhere, all manner of flower is in bloom, and Christ Church tower looms crystal clear over the river.

When I’m rowing, though, I try to push all of this out of my mind and just focus.  Arms.  Back.  Legs.  When it’s cold and rainy—as it usually is—the rowers have the river to themselves.  The sun, however, has brought all manner of Oxonian out of the woodwork.  Our line through the water is interrupted by punters, canoes, and paddleboats steered by people in various states of intoxication careening up and down the banks.

And then there are the hecklers.  Usually, I can ignore them, but a comment today caught me off-guard.  Someone on the bank had been ribbing us, to no response, when he yelled out: “It’s okay, just ignore the peasants.”

The speaker was a “chav”.  I don’t really know what a chav is, but—thanks to time spent with British rowers on my crew—I know a chav when I see one.  They’re the people who hang around in public spaces all day, drinking cheap, no-label supermarket lager.  They sport garish tattoos and hoop earings, and dress in track suits and Adidas trainers.  Chavs are—supposedly—the unemployed detritus of Britain’s class system, the kind of people who use public benefits to buy satellite dishes for the council houses.  They definitely don’t go to Oxford.

I guess chavs are a bit like “white trash” meets “Jersey shore.”  Except that while, in America, the supposed “white trash” are confined to trailer parks and the state of West Virginia, in England, apparently, the chavs are everywhere—or, at the very least, they’re in Oxford, sharing the town with Britain’s poshest and most privileged.

The fact that so many chavs have taken their midday drinking to Christ Church Meadow is, I think, more than just chance.  Christ Church College has, after all, produced thirteen Prime Ministers—more than all the colleges of Cambridge combined.  And, on sunny days, the gates are open, and anyone and everyone can come down and drink on neatly manicured lawns, chucking insults and the occasional beer can at some rowers.

The result is that, to me, sometimes Christ Church meadows feels a bit like a battle ground.  Drinking irresponsibly and harassing passer-byes is not exactly an activity that only chavs engage in, but I can nonetheless see hackles go up anytime the British people on my crew walk past them.  And, I know that, whatever my pretensions to be an anti-elitist, there can be no question about where on the posh-chav divide I—a rower and an Oxford student—fall.

So when that chav made his comment about the “peasants”, I knew there was nothing—really, nothing—with which I could respond that would do anything but confirm the assumptions I’m sure he had about me.  And, perhaps because of my own discomfort at that inescapable truth, I would never actually go talk to him and dispel some of my own myths.  And so, somehow, I have become part of the English class system, without even knowing it.                                                  

A few minutes later, our rowing rhythm is once again thrown off—this time not by a heckler, but a floating plastic bag caught on the end of an oar.  “There sure is a lot of trash out on the Thames today”, our cox remarks.  From behind me, another rower responds, “Wait, is he talking about the bag or the people?”

Two years here, and I still don’t get the joke.

Once (Again) a Runner

When I run hard, the world collapses around me.  External concerns which often to be circulating endlessly in my brain disappear, and my thinking narrows into calculating splits, sizing up the next hill, and willing myself to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  As soon as the run ends and the endorphins are gone, plans for research projects, worries about my thesis, and concerns for the fiscal health of the U.S. flood back in.  The world that, just a few hours before, I couldn’t see anything beyond suddenly becomes almost impossible to recall.  All I have left to remind me of what it felt like when I was running are the mile splits on my watch.

This is what I can remember about what it felt like running today—prompted by the twenty-six one-mile intervals saved on my watch, leftover from the London Marathon.

What I do remember quite well—because it was happening for months before the marathon—is that I didn’t train.  Saying you didn’t train for something is a really shit excuse for poor performance; I’ve never really understood why it makes someone more impressive when they say, “I did such and such, and I didn’t even train for it.”  The real feats in life come not from coasting on talent, but from hard work and discipline.  Both these characteristics were, I am afraid to say, lacking in my marathon preparation.

I finished rowing in early March, and immediately embarked to the U.S., where I bounced from couch to couch, managed a few long runs here and there, and took far too many days off between them.  When I got back to the U.K., I had what I worried was a budding stress fracture in my foot, and rested a week.  Last Sunday, I wasn’t even sure if I was going to run—and I knew that, if I did, it would be an accomplishment if I even managed to finish, much less run a respectable time.

That was, pretty much, my mindset this morning: go, run, and try to come home with a time that isn’t too embarrassing.  My starting area was near the front of the non-elite group, thanks to an overly optimistic “projected finishing time” put down on my registration form back when I thought I might actually prepare for this marathon properly.  I looked around me and saw lean, sinewy veteran runners with mile splits written in sharpie on their arms and belts full of electrolyte gels.  I had no idea what to expect at the start, no sense of what pace I should be running, or clue what it felt like to run more than seventeen miles, my previous maximum.  There’s something glorious about that kind of naivety, though, because when the gun went off, I just went. 

The first mile was a lot of stop-and-go jostling and jockeying for position.  It wasn’t until the second mile that I had a chance to actually open up and stride out.  And—to my surprise—it felt amazing.  I had been told to hold back in the first half of the marathon, having been warned that it always feels good when you’re starting.  But I didn’t just feel good; I felt fantastic.  I was so happy to be running, so happy to be in England, and so happy to listen to the thousands of footfalls around me.  At the end of the second mile, I looked at my watch—6:35 for the mile, way, way, way faster than I had planned.

Reason suggested it was time to slow down.  But I really, truly, couldn’t.  The entire London Marathon course is lined five-deep with spectators, handing out candy and water and cheering exuberantly for everyone.  There are no teams, so no opposition; everyone receives the same encouragement.  I was lucky enough to be running next to a guy with “Alex” on his jersey, so I heard a lot of “way to go, Alex”s.  I’ve never been at a sporting event with such an immensely positive atmosphere, and I just fed off of it.

I spent the first few miles waiting for reality to set in, but it was taking its sweet time and, eventually, I got tired of waiting.  I realized that, having settled onto 6:45 miles, I had a reasonable chance—if I kept it up—of breaking three hours.  The field was starting to spread out, and I started picking people off.  I focused on the people running in “fancy dress.”  There are all sorts of awards for “Fastest Person Dressed as a Leperchaun” and “Fastest Fred Flinstone Look-Alike”, so the marathon is crammed with people dressed in fantastically stupid costumes.  At a certain point, I decided that I simply couldn’t be beat by a Viking, Clown, or Smurf—so I passed them.  I passed the half-marathon mark in 1:29, right as the sun came out and I became vaguely aware that I was, slowly, getting dehydrated.

They say that a Marathon can be divided into two halves—the first twenty miles and the last six.  The dividing line between the two, of course, is the infamous “wall.”  No metaphor—be it a field of landmines, endless inhospitable desert, or thirty-foot-high concrete barrier—can accurately capture what I ran into at mile twenty-one.  I finished one mile in a comfortable 6:50, and the next in 8:15.  The costumed idiots—and a whole lot of other people—that I had painstakingly passed the last twenty-one miles, ran merrily by.

There were quite a few moments when I thought about stopping.  It’d be one thing if it felt like a pure matter of willpower, but it wasn’t.  There are some things you can’t fake, things no amount of grit and determination can overcome; not training, I think, is one of them.  The last five miles felt like an absolute eternity.  I hated running, hated the marathon, and hated the crowd cheering me on.   Men have a bad tendency to claim that anything they do that is painful is roughly equivalent to childbirth.  I won’t make the analogy, but I will say that I can think of few things in my life that I have enjoyed less than those last five miles.

In fact, the only redeeming quality of those last five miles was that they ended.  There was no dramatic sprint to the finish—I barely made it across before collapsing.  My entire face was numb, something that defies explanation.  3:04.22—a disappointment relative to what I had been hoping for an hour before the finish, but an astonishing improvement on what I had been expecting four hours prior.

There’s something truly brilliant about the set up of a Marathon.  Unless you are an elite Kenyan or Ethiopian, you have no chance of actually winning.  Once that element of competition is taken out, the entire dynamic changes.  I think there are few sporting events where, simultaneously, I can be thrilled to run 3:04 and the woman next to me on the bus back is equally excited to have finished in six hours.  When there are so many people taking part, who cares if you finish 3,093th or—having rudely elbowed and clawed your way forward—finish 3,092nd.  It doesn’t really matter, because nearly everyone in a marathon is racing only against themselves.

I am pretty sure I have a new hobby.  Boston, here I come.

Part IV: Stanford

It’s been a month of déjà vu.

My junior year of high school, my parents decided that my spring break would be spent visiting universities on the east coast.  Now, seven years later, I have spent my last spring break in Oxford—that is to say, the last period in my life where Prague will be an £11 flight away—touring graduate schools in the U.S.  The places are all different, but at times, the people feel the same.  In my first college tour, my family seemed to be on the exact same itinerary as a few others, and by the time we got as far north as Harvard, it was obvious who was going to ask which question—“Ah yes, there goes the ‘do you have wireless access everywhere?’ parent.”  Similarly, by three schools in, I already knew who in my cohort was going to ask for excruciating details on the courses, and was certain that I, for my part, would ask about job placements.

During my visits, I’ve also spent a decent number of hours with professors discussing my senior thesis on the freegans.  Rewind my life two years—almost to the day—and I was turning in my thesis.  Little did I know that I’d be revisiting it two years later—going over the same data, re-reading the same pages.  As I see a wave of facebook statuses announcing that people from Princeton that, in my brain, will always be Freshmen, are turning in theses, it’s hard not to get the sense that my life is, at this point, just on replay.

Déjà vu hit me especially hard when I visited Stanford.  I had travelled to Stanford with my Dad as a high school senior, but it wasn’t that trip I was remembering.  Once I got past the beautiful colonial architecture and California sunshine, all I could see was Princeton.  The comparison between Princeton and Stanford was glaringly obvious when I entered Palo Alto, a upper class surburban wasteland of coffee shops and clothing boutiques.  But I also saw Princeton in the departmental presentation, when the chair took pains to let us know how much more money they had than other schools.  In my mind, it was Princeton undergraduates—not Stanford graduate students—talking when a graduate student told me “We don’t really do activism here.”  Before we went clubbing in San Francisco, there was a debate over who would take the train into the city, which prompted one current grad to whine, “Ugh, I hate taking public transport.”  That was Princeton too.

Don’t get me wrong, Stanford has a phenomenal department—much as Princeton is a phenomenal educational institution.  Doug McAdam is hands-down the greatest scholar of social movements out there.  Mark Granovetter is the most cited sociologist alive, and the fact that he is interested in my work is an opportunity I would be insane to turn down.  The financial package I’ve been offered by Stanford gives me a tantalizing opportunity to escape the misery of TA-ships and graduate-student poverty and live a borderline-affluent existence.  And, at the end of the day, it is in California—sunny weather is one thing that definitely didn’t feel too familiar to me.  I also shouldn’t be too hard on the people I met there.  Probably my favorite host of the entire trip was at Stanford, and I had no shortage of engaging conversations with current students.

At the end of the day, though, it is difficult for me to give Stanford a fair hearing.  As I talked to other students in my potential cohort, I realized that I was framing everything through orange-tinted glasses.  Others—coming from cash-strapped state institutions—clearly loved the idea of generous funding, and I don’t begrudge them that.  Nor do I hold it against them that they were drawn in by the prospect of teaching only world-class students, as we were promised.

There’s something to be said for the strategy of infiltrating elite institutions and gaining qualifications in the name of, at some future date, using them for social justice.  But values and principles are something that can be kicked down the road indefinitely—I’ll become an activist and start living by my beliefs after I get my degree, after I get a job, after I get tenure.  It’s a bit like Mean Girls, though—if you spend too much time around the plastics, you eventually become a plastic yourself.

As far as I can tell, if Stanford sociology were an eating club, it would by Ivy.

Part III: Madison

A few days before I was set to attend University of Wisconsin-Madison’s visit day, a current student sent the admitted students an e-mail with the heading “A note on the protests.”  Madison, as any American vaguely cognizant of the world around them knows, has been the first site of serious resistance to neo-liberal U.S.-style austerity, coming in the form of a two-week occupation of the state capitol in protest against a union-busting budget bill.  While I doubt it came as a surprise to any of us, the e-mail’s author thought we should know that many sociology graduate students had been heavily involved in the protests.  After about eight paragraphs describing that involvement, however, the student qualified himself—“this e-mail is for information purposes only.”  The real reason he was writing was to let us know that people of all ideological pursuasions are welcome at Madison Sociology.

In light of my visit this Friday, that last bit seems pretty laughable.  Sociology students weren’t just “involved” in the Madison protests: they were the leaders of the Teaching Assistant’s Association that instigated early demonstrations, organizers of the capitol occupation’s media center, and operators of the website that has coordinated the event.  The entire department has been nearly shut down for the last six weeks, as grad students deserted class en masse to support the occupation.  Those faculty members who didn’t join them worked collaboratively to cover their lectures and discussion sections, shielding the students from facing any backlash.  One PhD student even told me he came up with the idea of the committee-hearing filibuster—which sparked the occupation—while eating his breakfast blueberries.  Everyone I talked to in the department had been quite literally living and breathing activism since the beginning of the year.

I’ve realized on this trip that most graduate schools look at outside interests as a liability, not an asset.  I, myself, have realized how hard it is to balance serious scholarship and activism, as I’ve lamented on this blog before.  What made Madison impressive to me, though, was how the same students who described to me how they spent the last six weeks camped out in the state capitol would rapidly shift gears to start talking about the first, second, and third books they planned on publishing.  Indeed, I even learned that the students most active in the teaching assistant’s union are already planning an edited volume on their experiences.

Another thing that my grad school visits have taught me is that whatever a department takes pains to assure students isn’t true probably is.  Berkeley told us they weren’t all a bunch of hard left intellectuals divorced from the professional core of the discipline.  Stanford assured us that their department consists of more than atomized, asocial number crunchers.  And Madison wanted us to know that really, really, they weren’t all that competitive with one another.  The fact that Madison’s sociology building has showers inside it, though, suggests otherwise.  After the love-fest of my other visits, I find the prospect rather intoxicating.

That said, Wisconsin would not be an easy place to go to school.  It’s fucking cold—even Michigan wanted us to know that their winters weren’t as bad as Madison’s.  And the funding is painfully bad.  While I’m honored to have received one of their top fellowships, I’m still being offered less than half of what Stanford threw at me.  Sadly, funding is a symptom of a larger problem; a world-class institution—existing against the odds in a small state with a modest income—that is being systematically devalued by the current administration.  It’s also a huge department.  It’s easy to distinguish yourself when you’re the only activist around or the top student—it’s a lot harder when the people around you manage to blend the two so seamlessly.

Madison was the first place I thought about when I decided to do a PhD.  It was the first place my mentors suggested I apply to.  And it was the first school that accepted me.  Last week, though, I thought that in the mental grad school race, it had peaked early, as my mind fixated on other places.  Madison is back in the running, though, in a big way, probably precisely because it feels like the riskiest, boldest, and most dramatically different option.