The Nostalgia Series, Part II: Ascension Day

Five-hundred-or-so years ago—which, in Oxford, falls under “modern history”—a mob of townspeople were chasing two students (as tended to happen back then).  One student was from Lincoln College and the other Brasenose.  They reached Lincoln’s gate, at which point the porters—being English and, by extension, sticklers for the rules—permitted the Lincoln student to enter but shut the Brasenose student out.  The Brasenose student attempted to climb the Lincoln walls’ ivy to safety but, alas, fell and was killed.

The rivalry between Lincoln and Brasenose has persisted for five-hundred years, though, and Lincoln continues to commemorate the event by inviting Brasenose students over, once a year on Ascension Day, for a conciliatory pint.  In an act of lingering bitterness, though, the ale is spiked with ivy, which makes it nearly undrinkable.  I was lucky to have all this explained to me over one of the aforementioned pints with a friend at Lincoln, who—in addition to relating the above story—assured me that the free beer in no way constituted an apology.

Bad beer is only part of the Ascension Day celebration.  Instead, Lincoln has conglomerated its annual get-together with Brasenose with a few other, seemingly disconnected, traditions.  When I arrived at Lincoln, a large group of Oxford townspeople, led by several prients carrying long wooden staves, were returning from “beating the bounds” of their parish.  This is, of course, an important ritual by which the Anglican Church in Oxford delineates its boundaries—which now run through a Marks and Spencer’s grocery store and a Wagamama’s noodle shop.

Ascension Day is about more than celebrating mob violence and delineating property rights, though: it is also a tool for teaching important moral lessons.  The high point of Ascension Day comes at 12:30 p.m., when Lincoln students throw £40 worth of pennies from the college tower.  I watched as a group of school children from the parish fought each other to gather them, alternating between jostling to get closer to the tower and howling as they were pelted by pennies.  The Vicar, standing by, explained that in the good-old days, the pennies would have been heated so the children would have to wait for the pennies to cool before grabbing them.  The event would have thus been doubly instructive, teaching the value of money but the perils of greed.

Laughing at the suffering of children: an Oxford tradition

Oxford is full of stories, most of which have been forgotten.  Why the murder of a Brasenose student five hundred years ago is commemorated—and, inexplicably, melded with a religious holiday and penny-throwing ritual—is completely beyond me.  In fact, like most of Oxford’s traditions, the practices of Ascension Day seem to have continued, even as their original meaning and purpose has been lost.  Part of me thinks that this inability to break free from past ways of doing things in part explains why Oxford is struggling to maintain its position as a world-class research university in the 21st century.  And yet, although devoid of any clear academic purpose, these traditions are key part of why Oxford is so utterly unique.

In the last few months, I’ve been frantically ticking boxes in my mental pre-departure-from-Oxford checklist.  I’ve drank port in the Senior Common Room with the college Provost, sifted through disintegrating 17th century books in the St. Edmund’s Hall Old Library, eaten in the Christ Church dining hall (as featured in Harry Potter), witnessed the procession of maces and academic gowns of the Encaenia ceremony, and, of course, sat an exam wearing a red carnation, tuxedo, white bow tie, and academic gown.  I’m already regretting not writing about these experiences—and many others that I am, at the moment, forgetting—because in a few days, I will be back in the U.S., and the absurdity of what here is routine will quickly present itself.

The iconic Oxford photo

I’m excited to move to Berkeley, but I fully understand that there’s something here—be it the traditions, or the architecture, or the formal halls, or the sub fusc—that I know I will miss.  Even the byzantine labrynth of bureaucracy students here are subjected to somehow fits into the overall topography, as if an extension of more entertaining traditions—like the annual college Tortoise Race or May Day bridge-jumping.

Now on my last week here, I’ve given up on ticking any more boxes.  Oxford only reveals its secrets slowly—something that the D.Phils on their third degree and tenth year of study here seem to have realized, but that, for a second-year American masters student, can make leaving very, very hard.

Crisis in Neverland

From the college:

“Last night damage was done to the front quad, and as Garden Master I am writing to you to explain what happened and why it is so important. The College’s Garden Committee will have to take up the matter of the disciplinary consequences of this with the Dean, but this note is an explanation of the problem.

There was a heavy frost last night and in the morning there were footprints all over the lawn in the front quad; there was also evidence of people having climbed up the banks once again. Many of the footprints were heavy, with the grass under the heel of the shoes being crushed. The grass in the quad is NOT like the grass on the sports fields, which is designed to withstand heavy use. Instead it is grown for its fine appearance and it is therefore very fragile. The effect of last night’s intrusion is that the grass under the footprints will become blackened and look unsightly this will also cause the grass stress which in turn would make it susceptible to fungal disease. There is nothing that the gardeners can do now to prevent this; all they can do is deal with the adverse effects later. The places on which there are very heavy foot treads will also require attention so that they can be levelled out.

The garden is one of the most important historical gardens in the region; it has also won many prizes in recent years for the way it is maintained. Generations of students and Old Members have enjoyed it and have been proud of it. What has happened is the equivalent of rubbing oily fingers over a fine painting. Fragile items have to be protected; that is why “Please keep off the grass” notices are NOT petty-minded authoritarian utterances from old fogeys, but are designed to help something from which we all take pleasure being harmed. I would hope that this year’s outbreak of damage will stop fairly soon.”

With all due respect to the gardeners – and I DO love the gardeners – I am grateful for the fact that I live in a community where this is the most grievous transgression that has taken place in a while.

In my country, we'd shoot you for this.

When the Kids Revolted

During the crux of my punk rock days*, I wondered whether “the kids” would ever revolt.  I didn’t put much thought into what would happen if they actually did; after all, as Sham 69 put it, “If the kids are united, they will never be divided.”  I’m fascinated by the student protests in the U.K. this fall—sufficiently so that half my four blogs have been about it—not just because they are a last-ditch defense of the institutions I hope to make my home for the rest of my life; they also, I am afraid to say, reveal the limits of the “people power” I’ve always celebrated.


The first thing to say about the student protests is that they were a lot larger than I could have imagined possible in the post-1968 world.  Although the 50,000 students that mobbed parliament was small as a percentage of the total number of people who are going to be affected, it’s still impressive in light of my recent revelation that a sizeable number of people will be apathetic even in the face of things that are blatantly against their self-interest. I certainly can’t come up with an issue that would lead hundreds of Princeton students to smash through a police line.


The second, though, is how utterly the leaders of the student movement missed the complexities of the politics of victimization.  This occurred to me when, two weeks ago, one-hundred Oxonians occupied the Radcliffe Camera, our main library.  As occupations go, it seemed fairly innocuous: the protesters invited students to continue using the library, so long as they could stand the smell of the food being brought in by Food Not Bombs and could deal with the occasional spirit-boosting protester dance party.  The librarians said they planned to keep coming in: most of the protesters had studying to do, anyway, so the entire occupation was low-key.


The University responded in the only logical way for an institution of higher learning: it ringed the library with police, cut off access, and in turn massively inconvenienced the rest of the student body.  The rest of us on the outside were foolish enough to believe that we were suddenly the victims, not because public education was in the process of being eviscerated, but because some socialist yokels were making it harder for us to get our papers in on time.  The student body turned on the occupiers, via a massive anti-occupation facebook group.


I suppose the story of the Rad Cam occupation could be read, in the Foucaultian sense, to show that discourse and representation are the ultimate drivers of modern politic.  We in civil society do seem convinced that memes and messages are now the keys to power; witness how Time debated between Julian Assange and Mark Zuckerbergs—both masters of information sharing—for Person of the Year.  The entire idea behind Wikileaks, of course, is that if only we can change the discourse and reframe the debate, we will win.


But this has nothing to do with why the Radcliffe Camera occupation failed.  They had a well-distributed blog and a big e-mail list.  The occupation was not won and lost over the internet.  Instead, after 36 hours in the library, the Thames Valley Police force broke down the doors to the library using a battering ram.  As we fall over ourselves in our rush to figure out our place in the networked world, we would be wise to remember that the people in power are powerful not because they control the media—although that helps—but because they control the police and all the apparatuses of violence.  I’m sure someone has already said it, but the revolution will not be tweeted.


Anti-Flag, it would seem, got it wrong: you can kill the protester, and you can kill the protest.


* As historical as that sounds, this was about three years ago.

New Family

This week saw a new addition to the Sachs Scholarship family.  We are a small tribe—the scholarship has existed for 40 years, and only one person has been chosen in all years except one—and it is really exciting to have a new member among us.  (Seriously, check out Veronica—what a brain wave!)


The announcement of the new scholar is also a marker, a fixed point in time that allows me to measure how my time at Oxford has changed me.  Two years ago, of course, I was floating on cloud nine when—after being rejected by the Rhodes and the Marshall—I was finally ‘chosen’.  One year later, though, the announcement of the new scholar came at a nadir.  The early sanguinity of being in this place was just starting to wear off, and the reality of being a small fish in a big, unfamiliar academic pond was just setting in.  Reading about Josh—the new scholars—incredible accomplishments as an activist and community member at Princeton just made me feel like a fraud.


This year, things couldn’t be more different.  It certainly helps that Josh is here, and while he’s actually more inspiring than I thought, I’m no longer worrying about whether I was ever ‘worthy’.  As I look over Veronica’s mind-blowing resume, I have the sense of self to realize that someone else being impressive doesn’t make me not so; it just means I’m different.  And I guess that has been the key to finding happiness at Oxford; I am, at long last, at peace with my limitations and willing to acknowledge my strengths.


It’s hard to explain what has made this term so great.  Most of my time has been spent buried in a GRE study book or filling out tedious PhD applications.  When I finally had a chance to stop thinking about the future—about two weeks ago, when my last application to the University of Michigan went in—I realized that life is absolutely fabulous.  This term, I’ve had my first ever academic publication skirt through peer review; I cracked the code for writing an Oxford essay (rule #1: cite Foucault early and often); I even realized that class in my department could be engaging and exciting.  As always, some of the best parts have had nothing to do with learning: I stroked my first rowing race, and, with the boat club, cut a swathe of destruction through downtown Cambridge on a Saturday night.


So, more than anything else, what I feel for my new family member is jealousy.  I’m excited for the future, but I could go for a bit more time here.  I feel like I have just recently cracked the code to Oxford, and yet I’m already forced to think about moving on.

News from the Front

Oh hai.

If you haven’t heard, there’s a war on higher education going on.  As nearly every social service that makes civilization, well, civilized is currently up for debate, it’s not particularly surprising that university funding hasn’t really made it on to most peoples’ radars.  But in Britain, the restructuring of higher education that is going on is both profound and disturbing, and today, we actually did something about it.

I’ve complained about the Oxford system—and, by comparison, vaunted the U.S. one—many times on this blog.  That said, one thing that is positively amazing about Oxford is that it is both elite and public; students here pay a pittance of the actual cost of their education.  This is not some historical idiosyncracy, like Latin grace and sub-fusc.  It’s the result of a conscious realization made by the British people, at some point, that universities like Oxford serve the public good, and thus deserve public funding.  The new ConDem government here, however, has rejected that and decided to bring the university under the yoke of the all-powerful market.  The future of Oxford rests in American innovations like crushing graduate debt and insanely high fees.

To some extent, I don’t have a dog in this fight: I’m fully funded, and I’m likely escaping to a private university with a cushy endowment next year.  Even the proposed 80% cut in teaching funding isn’t likely to hit me (80% less of zero teaching is still zero teaching, after all).  While I can escape British policy, though, I can’t escape the ideology.  It is not just in the U.K., after all, that policymakers seem to believe the notion that the life of the mind is not worth very much, or that there is no use in research without an immediate economic benefit.  Self-interest has never been my thing anyway, of course, and it’s precisely because “elites” know that they’ll still be able to get an education in the post-public university system that these cuts are happening in the first place.  So, naturally, I laced up my blackspot sneakers, and set out for another protest.

I can’t decide whether turnout was incredibly depressing or extraordinary.  I reached Cornmarket Street and found six-hundred Oxford students out of their libraries, and by the looks of it, out of their comfort zones.  I doubt six-hundred Princeton students could be convinced to protest against grade deflation, much less give a shit about public education.  But then I did the math, and realized that 600 is less than 10% of student body—so what are the others doing?  They can’t all have trust funds covering their fees, can they?  Or do they just not realize how insidious all of this is?

The Socialist Worker’s Party was there—they always are—with a handful of provacateurs (“I think I met you at the Afghanistan protest in London”) and a set of pre-fab signs.  Did the Oxford students holding the placards they distributed actually know they were currently advocating for a worker’s revolution and a general strike?  Evidently some did, as I saw people gradually pulling out pens and changing their signs.  Here we show our true colors: “Free education” became “Fair and reasonably priced education.”  “I oppose all cuts” is edited to “I oppose all cuts to my university.”  And, “Down with the Browne Report” is mealymouthed into “I support some elements of the Browne Report, just not the rise in fees” (no, really, someone wrote that).  The war on higher education only matters when it hits us; and even then, it only matters to six-hundred of us.

The protest was on the road to being decidedly, well, pitiful, until the police intervened.  Our mob of humanities majors and philosophy dons wanted to walk to High Street; they wanted us to take a seat around Radcliffe Camera, contemplate our navels for a few minutes, and go home.  A few of us decided that we would go to High Street anyway; they formed a line, and we did too.  A few seconds later, I was on the other side of a row of bobbies, yelling to tentative looking Oxford Students, “Don’t worry, you’ll still get an investment banking job if you come over.”  And, then, they did, and the police parted.

For a moment, we were unstoppable.  The news reports will make us look like a bunch of whiny overprivileged kids fighting to keep our silver spoons firmly planted in our mouths.  They might be right.  But when I am seventy years old living in a hut somewhere in the forests of Northern Finland, trying to avoid the conservative dystopia of the new dark ages, I will take my grandchild on me knee and say, “Yes, when they finally put the nail in the coffin of social democracy, I fought back, and I don’t regret it for a minute.”

Cold Calling

The dirty secret of my budding* career in the social sciences is that talking to people kind of scares me.  It’s a bit difficult to explain why: having spent three years Mohawk-ed in one of the country’s more conservative institutions, I can’t say that I’m too obsessed with what people think of me.  Still, though, approaching strangers—whether to get directions, ask them to take a survey, or order a pizza—has always been something of a phobia.  I pretty much gave up on a political career when, working on campaigns, I realized that making cold calls made me sick to my stomach.  It wasn’t until one year into my last research project, with, that I finally mustered up the courage to actually ask people for interviews.

Last week, I let this fear get the better of me.  I spent a lot of time sitting around my hotel, hoping that people would miraculously respond to e-mails sent weeks ago, even though they were in reality just a phone call away.  I was reconsidering retitling my thesis “An ethnography of the lonely”, because all my data came from people who—seeing me on a park bench down by the pier—were sufficiently starved for human interaction to talk to a solitary gringo. And to think, if I had chosen to enroll in Economic and Social History rather than International Development at Oxford, I could be in the emotionally safe space of a library!

This week, my fear of coming back to Oxford empty handed eventually got the better of my social phobia.  As potentially disastrous as a phone call in a foreign language over a questionable connection can be, I’ve been making a lot of cold calls—and scoring a lot of amazing interviews.  People are, of course, overwhelmingly nice.  This is something that I’ve known all along, but that has been striking me this week, as an enormous number of people have offered me their time and knowledge after I—without introduction—called them.  Today, I even marched over to the mayor’s office, hoping to get an explanation for why her secretary had not contacted me as promised.  I left an hour later having carried out an on-the-spot interview.

Maybe this sounds vaguely like gloating, but for me, it’s just one of many ways in which I feel like I have personally grown during this trip.  Of course, having a mountain of data and the right to hold my head up high on my return to school counts for a lot.  And I’m really excited about the idea of now being—more-or-less—bilingual.  But much more valuable for me is the realization that maybe choosing a career path that involves a life spent talking to people of all sorts isn’t such a bad idea after all.

*Or soon-to-be-ending, depending on whether I get around to taking the GRE and/or fail my thesis because I do not use these words enough.

Sink or Swim

There was a time, I imagine, when doing field work in developing countries was legitimately scary.  Anthropologists studying remote islands or indigenous tribes might be cut off from contact with their home countries for years.  Without the internet or television, their immersion in their place of study was total and non-stop, even in the worst depths of frustration and homesickness.  Health care could be spotty and diseases unfamiliar and dangerous.  Lest I sound like I’m romanticizing old school anthropology too much, I should add that researchers could also be endangered, largely thanks to their close association with colonialism.

Of course, as a masters student preparing to go for a mere nine weeks to a modern—if poor—country, with Western restaurants and hospitals and internet cafes, where certainly thousands have gone before to do research, I have nothing to be afraid of.

But shit, I am so scared right now.

Of course, there are some practical worries.  It’d be nice to know that there’s going to be readily available vegetarian food, but I’m expecting to subsist off of bananas.  I’m generally a pretty carefree traveler, but seeing Orellana Province on the state department travel advisory list and reading about the abundance of muggings in Quito has me a bit concerned.  There are all manner of tropical diseases and motor accidents that could occupy my brain, if I weren’t so busy stressing about where I’m actually going to live and who I’m going to talk to.  But, really, these are just practicalities, and I know I can handle them.

Chalk part of my fear up to language.  I’m not sure what the worst mistake I’ve ever made in my life is, but right now, dropping Spanish my sophomore year feels like a strong contender.  I’ve been practicing frantically the last few months, but I know that my ability to hold a conversation in my head is very different from being able to communicate about complex ideas with an actual person.  I’m spending my first two weeks in Ecuador taking intensive language classes, but 40 hours of one-on-one training does not make one fluent.

My mediocore Spanish, though, is, in my brain, symbolic of the broader insanity of this project and, maybe, research in general.  Somehow, I’m supposed to go to a country which I’ve never even visited, talk to people for a few weeks, and, at the end, produce “knowledge.” There is, I think, a certain uncomfortable arrogance to it: the idea that I, Westerner, Oxonian, can offer something that hundreds of other academics can’t.  I make these things harder for myself, too, be obsessing not just over whether I will be able to write a good thesis—all our department really cares about—but whether I can do so ethically, respectfully, and in a way that does enough good for the communities that help me to justify it.  It’s a tall order, and one that I wonder if I managed to fulfill in my previous work with the freegans (and they spoke English!).

And, my fears get even more abstract.  If I can’t make it as a research this summer, how can I ever make a career of it?  If I’m so afraid of talking people, scared of being rejected in requests for interviews or laughed at for cultural faux-paus, why am I so interested in a field where the currency is human interaction?  If I’m this paralyzed preparing for nine weeks, how would I feel before leaving for a year or two to do a dissertation?

Yesterday, I went to the hospital to get my arm looked at.  As they took x-rays, I half dreamed that they would discover some bizarre new fracture which would, for some reason, prevent me from going.  I had a moment where I thought about another summer spent living with my phenomenal housemates, a year to brush up on Spanish and figure out how to make it where I am without throwing myself into someplace new.

But, of course, that’s all nonsense.  The cast is gone, and there’s no turning back now.  Sink or swim.

– – – – –

Jukebox: Rise Against – Survive