My site statistics tell me that this blog has just reached its 1000th post. That seems like an impossibly huge number, and if you'd asked me to estimate how many posts I've written here I wouldn't have guessed anything like that - but Google knows all, so it must be accurate! I've been writing this blog since 2008, and 1000 posts in seven years works out to a fairly respectable number. I managed to complete a Masters' degree and write a doctoral thesis and a couple of articles in that time too, so I don't feel like I wasted all my time blogging.
Actually, at this particular moment I feel like the time spent blogging has been more valuable than just about anything else I've done in those seven years. I may never now publish an academic book, but 1000 (award-winning!) posts of freely available information, texts, translations, and pictures, read by thousands of people and available for anyone to find and use, do have a value of their own. I wrote here about some of the personal benefits of blogging, and here about some of the rationale behind my choice of what to blog about; this kind of milestone seems to require a bit more self-reflection, but I couldn't really think how to write about blogging again without repeating myself. I had half a cheery post written on 'why academics might want to blog'. But just at the moment I'm so sick of academia that I don't want to think of myself as an academic, let alone an 'academic blogger'. It's been a difficult week, for reasons I probably shouldn't talk about, and I'm feeling pretty raw. Coming to the end of my current contract, I've been questioning for a while why I would want to stay in academia at all; just about anything else looks more worthwhile than colluding in this toxic culture. So if this post ends up being sad and bitter rather than a good-humoured series of musings on the value of a successful blog, you'll have to excuse me just this once.
If I turn my back on academia at this point, after a postdoctoral research fellowship, eleven years after beginning my undergraduate degree, I can still feel I've been very lucky. I got to spend those years in Oxford, studying and working in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with some wonderful people, learning things I could not have guessed at before I came here. Oxford could hardly be more different from the place where I grew up, but over the years it has come to feel like my home. For all its flaws (and it does have many), it can at its best come close to the ideal of what a university ought to be. 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 there are times when 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.
You probably don't need me to tell you what a poisonous environment
academia can be, but let me talk about it; it will make me feel better,
if nothing else. I don't hope to gain anything by it except sympathy (I could really do with that!), and a
chance to take some control of the sick feeling of powerlessness which has been controlling me for the past week. Perhaps it's not wise to talk so openly about it, but this kind of culture thrives on silence and secrecy, and the hope that
the people who get hurt will just keep quiet and go away. In person, academics can make use of their
power to interrupt me, contradict me, shame me into silence; but no one
gets to silence me on my own blog.
There are some senior academics who (to put the most charitable interpretation on their behaviour) don't appear to realise how vulnerable a position their precariously-employed juniors are in; they have not got used to the idea that the kind of pettiness for which certain types of academic culture are famed - that old line about academic discourse being so bitter because the stakes are so low - might be manageable among equals, but can be devastating when aimed from someone in a position of seniority, security and power towards someone junior and powerless. They might think they're toughening us up, I don't know; a lot of the time it feels like cruelty for the sake of it, and it can cause untold damage long after the powerful person has forgotten all about it. When this kind of thing happens to you, you're encouraged to blame yourself and think you must deserve it; but when I see this aggressive culture hurting some of the people I care about most, things come into clearer focus. The young, talented academics I see around me, eaten up by anxiety and worry about their future, are doing their very best to produce good work amid difficult circumstances, and they need and deserve support, not casual contempt. Not everyone is quite as close to the edge as I've been this past week, but many people are a lot closer than they dare to show in public, and you don't know what the consequences of a careless sneer might be.
Many senior academics seem blind or indifferent to the callous behaviour they at best permit, at worst perpetuate. It's the culture in which they have succeeded, so they can't imagine anything different, and they don't know (I hope) how intimidating and baffling the processes of academia can be for those at the bottom of the ladder. It's easy to make a misstep, and when they see weakness - especially in women, of course - they go in for the kill; if you falter under their scorn, they can shrug and say you weren't tough enough. You can't win; all you can do is escape, preferably before it's too late to do something else, and that's all I can think about doing right now. I've had enough of the scorn, the stress, the fear. It's just not worth it. How could anything be worth it - let alone such a low-stakes endeavour as teaching medieval literature? It's almost laughable that anyone would choose to endure this toll on their physical and mental health for such a purpose. We're not saving lives, or fighting a war - why exactly do we need to be toughened up? What's so wonderful about a job in miserable modern academia, that I should sacrifice my health and my happiness to it, that I should meekly put up with being badly treated in the hope of succeeding in a culture where no one can ever really succeed? This is the great prize of life in academia: one short-term job after another, overworked and underpaid at every stage, surrounded by unhappy people under unrelenting pressure to perform. It's a world of very clever people trying to make each other feel stupid, using their talents as a weapon rather than directing them outwards to serve the wider world. Who would want to be part of that?
Individually, I may not be much of a loss to academia. But any culture which eats its young is unsustainable, or should be; and if there's any justice, it will be the loser in the end. If academia is led by a privileged, self-replicating group of people, frequently deficient in empathy or compassion, it's no wonder it can't communicate to the wider world. How can such an environment teach students effectively, when many students, undergraduates and graduates alike, are coping with huge secret pressures of their own? And can such a culture really produce good scholarship? What I find so crushingly ridiculous - or at least it would be ridiculous if it weren't heartbreaking - is that my field is literature. Can you imagine the absurdity of trying to study and teach literature, explorations of grief, doubt, love, anxiety, all human thought and emotion, while pretending to ourselves and each other that we never feel any of those things? It's just laughable. How can you be an expert on Margery Kempe, and have no sympathy for a student with mental health problems? An expert on Piers Plowman, and yet have no patience with incompleteness, with students who have more ideas than they know what to do with? An expert on Julian of Norwich, and belittle female scholars? How can you study teachers and writers like Ælfric, who worked so hard to share their learning with non-specialist audiences, and yet see no value in public outreach? (Please note, these are general, not specific examples.)
If scholarship is a bigger thing than academia, so too is literature; academia scrabbles around the edges of it, claims to understand it, but can never fully account for its reach and its power. Some literature is written to be analysed and studied, but most aspires to do something greater than that, and it's disingenuous, dishonest even, for academics to pretend they can stand outside it, judge and analyse it, while ignoring the lessons it strives to teach them. (More academics should take William Dunbar's advice.) This is all the more damaging when they are the gatekeepers who control access to the texts themselves. Literature is so powerful that academia can't kill it, but my own focus, medieval literature, operates at a disadvantage, because of its general inaccessibility. Thanks to the efforts of some great scholars over the years, a small group of medieval texts have escaped the academy and run wild in the world for anyone to do what they like with them; but huge swathes of wonderful literature are still kept locked up in untranslated books, discussed only at conferences by people insulated from the rest of the world by their mutual self-satisfaction, and obscured by a system of publishing apparently designed to prevent anything from being published, let alone read.
I didn't mean for this post to become a rant about academia, but it's naturally on my mind at present, as I try to work out whether this is really the best use of my life. I usually try to focus here on the positive, the good, for my own sanity and peace of mind; it's important to talk about the negative, if it means you can begin to change it, or even just for the sake of comforting sympathy and fellow-feeling, but there are times when to look at the positive can be life-saving. I blog for pleasure, after all. I do take blogging seriously, as I hope you will have noticed, but it's a kind of play all the same, a healthy exercise for the mind. It's so easy to get stuck into ruts of thought, fixating on details or panicking about criticism, and blogging has kept me sane: it reminds me of the pleasures of research (of inspiration, quest, discovery), of reading (contact with another mind; the moment when your inkling of thought proves to be true), of writing (making words do things; pushing into a text and finding it push back), of teaching (sharing something which is too good to keep to yourself; hearing other people respond in ways you could never have imagined). What place does any of that have in academia? But it is scholarship.
I always write here about things I personally find valuable - beautiful, moving, true. They're not always happy things, but they all have some kind of beauty about them. The people who produced them, most of them nameless poets, preachers and artists, long dead and past any hope of profit, deserve the tribute of being read, and you and I deserve the chance to read them. It's to them and to you, and not to academia or those who perpetuate its injustices, that I feel a sense of duty. I'll admit that this is one reason why I value blogging so much: I see it as a way of connecting with a longer tradition of scholarship, in a way the structures of academia don't allow. There's no code here, no mystery - there's just you and me, researching, reading, and writing. I write if I want to; you read it if you want to; there's no one to ask for permission, or approval, or money. There's just me, and my thousands of readers, and some texts I hope they'll value as much as I do. Very often here I'm translating or explaining the works of writers who were themselves translating or explaining complex texts to non-specialists, and (without in any way comparing myself to any of these people), I like to think I am aspiring to the same ideals as translators like Alfred the Great or William Herebert, as teachers like Ælfric, as historians like Eadmer. That might sound arrogant, but it's an aspiration which leaves one humbled - more humble than those academics who affect to explain such writers' works without believing they themselves have anything to learn from them.
I'm idealistic about blogging in another way, too, because to me it has always felt like a kind of duty - just the right thing to do. I've been privileged to have a thorough and wide-ranging education in medieval literature and languages, one of the best the world has to offer. I've worked hard and I've made financial and personal sacrifices to obtain it, but still, it's an immense privilege to have received this education, the kind of privilege my parents and grandparents could never have dreamed of. The information and knowledge I've been given access to is too precious to be taken for granted, and too valuable not to be shared. If people want to share in it, and I can help them, I feel it's right to do so. Since some academics think it's beneath them to make academia transparent even to their own junior colleagues, let alone to the general public, there's an appreciable gap even someone as inexperienced as me can fill. Just by making myself visible online, I've been contacted by people who want information I can provide: students, journalists, amateur historians, artists, musicians (lots of musicians!), people who think Old English looks intriguing and want to learn a few words of it, people who want me to track down something they don't have the resources to find themselves. And it's not just information they're seeking: people contact me to let me know that my posts about medieval texts have comforted them in grief, made them feel less lonely, given them a new appreciation for the place they live in, taught them something they didn't even realise they wanted to learn. I suppose I could use the power which comes with privilege to sneer at them, laugh at them for not knowing what seems obvious to me, but somehow I'm never even the tiniest bit tempted to do that. No wonder I won't succeed in academia.
Perhaps I shouldn't give my knowledge and effort away as freely as I do here, but I don't regret it in the slightest. Although I'm not quite in the mood to admit it at present, there are many, many academics who are generous with their time and knowledge, working for pure and genuine love for their subject and their students, in the face of obstacles which are no less powerful for being largely unnecessary. They share time, resources, ideas, experience, advice - though these things are often an academic's intangible stock-in-trade, they give them away freely. Within the system, this love is often exploited, and generosity in free giving can be turned all too easily into an unjust expectation of working for free. So I want to be careful here: it can be hard enough to put a fair price on academic labour, without encouraging the idea that it doesn't have a monetary value. And loving what you do does not, of course, make it easy. But there are some things people give away because they aren't of value, and some things they give away because they're too valuable for a price. Being asked or expected to do things for free can be a burden, but choosing to give away your time and effort - really choosing, not feeling forced to choose - can be empowering. When I write and research and translate here to give pleasure and support to myself and others, it feels like reclaiming those powers for myself, reminding myself they belong to me. They're mine, the product of my brain and heart, and all the reviewers and assessors and interviewers who claim the right to judge them don't own them and can't take them away from me. I give them away here gladly and freely, gratis, as people do out of love, and lose nothing by it, but only gain; the reward is gratitude and kindness, which I sorely need.
So, 1000 posts, seven years, a good bit more than half a million page views. It's a risky thing, blogging in public when you're young and inexperienced - inevitably there are some things about my earlier posts which embarrass me, and it takes an effort not to go through and prune a few of the sillier things I wrote in the beginning. (Although I do that sometimes, if they're actually inaccurate - it's one of the advantages blogging has over traditional forms of publication!) There are posts in which, after the passage of a few years, I can now see my own ignorance, but with the distance of time comes self-compassion. Ignorance and inexperience are not the worst sins. I can think about the person who started this blog with amused kindness, and think her intentions and her instincts were good, even if she didn't always carry them out as well as she might have done. I've been growing as a scholar (and a person, I hope) over the past seven years, and I can see milestones in that journey marked out on this blog - visible only to me, perhaps, but useful for the purposes of self-evaluation. I have to at least be kind to myself, see value in myself and my abilities, however much academia attempts to convince me otherwise.
Anyway, I'm going to close with a poem which will make most academics roll their eyes, but which expresses some of the scholarly aspiration I've been thinking about. 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.
'The Spirit’s work — to hunger and aspire'. There's a lot of talk about 'aspiration' in Britain at the moment: it's become a political buzzword, code for something no one has quite yet managed to define, sometimes apparently meaning little more than 'wanting to be middle-class'. Politicians naturally deal in material aspirations, not spiritual ones. But C. S. Lewis, a star Latinist even as an undergraduate, could have told you that 'aspiration' is the 'Spirit's work' to its very etymological core; from ad + spirare, it is what you 'breathe towards', the thing to which your spirit (spiritus, the breath of life) leads you. In a world where owning a house or having a steady job is something people of my generation can only 'aspire' to, we should not allow anyone else to define for us what aspiration looks like. Academia, I now realise, may not fulfill my aspirations. But there's life, and learning, beyond its narrow confines.
So, what next?