Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Blogging, Academia, and Aspiration

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?


Lucy Allen said...

Just checking in with solidarity.

I love your blog, and I am so sorry about your experiences. I hope things get better.

John Woodman said...

An initial comment in haste. I am so sorry that you are going through such a difficult period. All I can say is that since I discovered your blog a couple of weeks ago it has given me profound pleasure. You write beautifully and you bring to it your whole intelligence, learning and deep understanding. Whatever the immediate future brings for you, I urge you to continue with the blog. You are very special, and I would miss you terribly.

Anonymous said...

The paragraph ending "Who would want to be part of that?" made me think of some more C.S. Lewis: the character Doctor Cornelius in Prince Caspian. He did not, in any obvious sense "want to be part of that" Telmarine castle life as it was. But he went on being a part of it to do good despite it, against its abusiveness, teaching truly in secret. And I cannot but think you have been doing much the same in your (academic) daily life, as well as on this blog. Which does not mean that a point may not come - as it did for him! - where "all you can do is escape, preferably before it's too late".

So, whether you find you can go on gladly learning and teaching within 'academic life' or better outside it, keep edifying one way or another (however it best fits in with staying fed and housed and clothed and sane)!

An Old Mertonian

Daniel Staniforth said...

Academia is a rigid caste system - I know exactly what you speak of as an adjunct professor with no hope of advancement or acceptance.

Collate your writings into a manuscript and try a few small presses - they can all be academic pedigreeism snobs!

Anonymous said...

You have my sympathy. Your blog is a joy and has given a beautiful light, illuminating a world that is, to most of us in darkness.
You are correct when you strive to be positive. Your experience is not unique, but your valour in speaking out is both courageous and remarkable.
Thank you for sharing your immence talent and knowledge.
I hope that you find a pathway to success on your terms.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading your blog for a couple of months now . I have no idea how I first came across it , but it gives me such pleasure to open my iPad at the start of the day and see what new insights and information you are sharing.

I'm so glad that your blog crossed my path. It has opened my eyes to new things and reminded me of things which captured my imagination as a student many years ago and has returned those pleasures to me.

You are a natural communicator,and because this is something within your own unique being and clearly gives pleasure to you and others, I'm sure that whichever paths your life takes, communicating is something you will always be doing. It is a great and valuable gift.

There are many ways and places to "gladly lerne, gladly teche" in life, and new doors have a habit of suddenly and surprisingly popping up and opening, all along the way.

Sending you very best wishes and much love,

Anonymous said...

Yours is not the only blog I read written by a disillusioned academic - and, as a word of warning, the other is written by a woman who did not manage to leave before her health was seriously affected (however, she is now hugely successful in her new chosen field). I am sad that there are those who in their profound ignorance choose to despise your ability to convey not only your learning but your delight in your subject, and to convey it with clarity to a non-specialist audience without losing any of your academic rigour. You are a scholar first and foremost, an academic second: the former calling is in my opinion the greater, but does not, sadly, come with pay packet and pension scheme intact. In the years since I discovered your blog, I cannot count the number of times you have cheered my day by reminding me of my love for nature, the medieval period, churches, poetry, and my Christian faith. I am obviously, from the comments you receive, not alone in this. This is a huge achievement, and not one that just anybody can reach (your sneering academics almost certainly could not). I treasure your blogs, but if ever you do decide to write a book, be it the most academic study or a collection of musings, I will be in the queue for a copy. I am so sorry you are having a rotten, horrible, time. Whatever your future holds, you have many readers with your well-being in their hearts.

sensibilia said...

Good luck. You will find a way. Never despair, life is full of twists and turns. Stay positive, you have so many talents!

Itinérante said...

Clerk of Oxford, I know that I can never repay your generosity of spirit (except that I often pray for you)! But if I can, I want to borrow this from Fred­er­ick W. Fa­ber, and offer it to you:

Workman of God! O lose not heart,
But learn what God is like;
And in the darkest battlefield
Thou shalt know where to strike.

Thrice blest is he to whom is giv’n
The instinct that can tell
That God is on the field, when He
Is most invisible.

Blest too is he who can divine
Where real right doth lie,
And dares to take the side that seems
Wrong to man’s blindfold eye.

Then learn to scorn the praise of men,
And learn to lose with God;
For Jesus won the world through shame,
And beckons thee His road.

For right is right, since God is God,
And right the day must win;
To doubt would be disloyalty,
To falter would be sin.

SP Turner said...

I'm sorry to read of your current pain, especially as I get great joy from so much of what you share. The Mag on YouTube has been very helpful. My brother walked away from Academia, 12 years in. A classics guy with a love of comic books, he ended up as a CEO of a computer games company, too much Homer was in fact good for business. I worked in a high stress career where lives are on the line, and it amazes and angers me to see people try and behave like us in an environment that can afford nurturing. It is because they never saw what Lewis saw, it becomes much easier to be a gate keeper, when you have never buried better men than you. Good luck in whatever you decide, I am looking forward to your blog and follow what comes next

Keys said...

Thai you for sharing yourself in your last blog. Age has taught me the we can often become discouraged when we find rejection when working to accomplish what we truly love. When this happens we may quit or withdraw until another day when the conditions of battle are more in our favour. If we truly love what we are doing giving up is not an option. Withdraw and learn from the momentary set back.
I wish you luck in your future. You have a lot to give to others from you studies. Just my short exposure to your blog has made the old retired teacher want to continue to learn.
It may not be considered proper to say in response to you blog but I will pray that God will be with you at this time.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thank you all so much. Writing this post, and reading your wonderful comments, has given me a much more hopeful and positive outlook about it all! I'm excited about it, actually - who knows what might come along if I keep an open mind? Bless you all for your kindness in taking the time to comment.

Anonymous said...

I am sorry, and sympathetic. It probably does not help much to let you know that the same thing happens in many other fields of endeavor (although some of them pay a lot better). Personally I attribute this to the continuing shrinkage of opportunity for all during the last several decades. Less to go around makes most people meaner and more protective of their turf, and I suspect that the contempt of the general populace for any one and any occupation that does not produce great wealth makes even those who are "safe" feel a need to make themselves feel more important by belittling others. I do not, unfortunately , have a solution.

Anonymous said...

More to my comment above beginning with "I am sorry". During my career (I am NOT an academic) I was once informed by a colleague that a senior "boss" had confided in him that in a meeting with me, the senior guy tried his best to make me cry. I had many other consistent experiences. The modern world is a great place for sadists, and all of the traditional values that respected another person's dignity, as well as any loyalty and/or politeness, have been jettisoned. To the extent that finances allow you to do so, I would recommend exploring other options in hopes that if the culture is toxic everywhere, at least the pay might be better!

Clerk of Oxford said...

Yes, I'm sure you're right! I think that for me it's just a matter of accepting that there are several aspects of academia (not only the culture of needless aggression, which as you say is a more general social problem) which simply aren't a good fit for the way I want to live my life. And that liberates me to explore other options, rather than feeling the need to drift along in academia until things improve. I've been thinking about it for a while, but this recent experience has actually helped me to feel that turning away from academia isn't necessarily 'giving up', but making a conscious choice about the kind of life I want to live. People have been telling me this, and I should have listened to them earlier!

bloobird said...

I'm so sorry to hear of your recent experiences and your downheartedness. Hopefully writing of your feelings has proved cathartic. I've been enjoying your blog for a while now and because of the clarity of your writing I'm able as a 'lay person' to enjoy insight into the mediaeval world which would otherwise be closed to me.
I really hope you don't let the vile nasties you've encountered sour your enthusiasm for scholarship, you have much to offer.
My very best wishes to you.

Cornflower said...

Just another message of support, and of appreciation for all you do here.
I hope that whatever you decide, your future will be a bright and happy one. If you do stay in academia, may you have the strength to influence the culture for the better, but within or without, I'm sure you'll show by your own example that a compassionate and generous spirit will not be crushed.
I wish you well.

Anonymous said...

Didn’t want to let that post go by without commenting – it reminds me so much of myself when I was coming to the end of my second postdoc in my late 20’s – living a mad intense academic life, struggling to fit in in a male dominated university science department – with my (now) husband in an equally perilous academic role at the other end of the country. It got bad but if I could write to myself now, 20 years later, I would say to myself – your path through life will be fine. It just might not necessarily lead you in the directions you think it will. Life is an adventure – there is so much to learn – things you never thought you would learn (as a Scientist I never thought I would fall in love with Old English, for example), so many people to meet, so many experiences, good and bad. There will be bleak times, and heart breaking times, and times when the struggle doesn’t seem worth it – just as when you are walking through the mountains there are times when it is hailing, and the path is uphill, and the visibility is near null…but it’s worth it for the times the sun breaks through and you see the view – learn something new, exciting and unexpected…. Your blog brings so much joy to people, it is beautifully written, the characters of the early mediaeval period come alive in your writing … have the senior academics who have upset you done that?

Mark Hausam said...

I just wanted to say that I think the world of scholarship needs much more of the sort of unique approach that you obviously have--a humanizing approach that doesn't squash compassion and a respect for human dignity under the guise of "being straightforward" and "professional criticism," etc., and also an approach that humanizes one's subject itself--allowing oneself to have and express a personal connection to one's subject matter.

On that last point, one of my favorite things about your blog is the personal love and involvement you show when you discuss your topics. Reading your blog feels like getting a window into the way medievals actually saw the world--not just from the vantage point of impersonal academic detachment, but really living, feeling, and thinking alongside of them, in a sense.

In short, why must humanity be separated from scholarship? It shouldn't be that way, and you do a great service in challenging those trends, even if some of your colleagues have been too provincial to see it.

Emily said...

Hello, I just wanted to add a message of support and sympathy. I spent three years in Oxford as an American woman from a modest background. I came to love it deeply, painfully--and to realize that I had to go back to the US if I was to survive my doctorate. You capture perfectly here the good, the bad, and the ugly of Oxford's conservatism and disinclination to engage with reality. It's a wonderful place to be an undergraduate but often a very cruel place to try to make it as a young professional academic. For what it's worth, I've spent time in several different British and American universities, and a lot of what I recognize in your extraordinarily evocative post is Oxford, not academia. It's not this bad anywhere else I've been.

I love what your blog does to bring something of the rhythms of the natural and liturgical year back to modern life. I live in a big city and getting a notification that you've published a new post always makes me stop and think about a different way of understanding and relating to the world. And you are so skilled at capturing what's beautiful about the literature and art you share with us. I'm glad it's as important for you to write this blog as it is for me to read it, and I do hope you'll carry on no matter where you go next!

With respect and admiration,

lyn said...

I've only been reading your blog for a few months but it's added a new dimension to my life & my reading. I love Anglo Saxon history & it's been wonderful to have a knowledgeable & friendly guide to the wonderful literature of the period. I also love the look of your blog & the illustrations you choose for your posts are beautiful. I just want to add my support & best wishes & hope that you can find a way to continue your studies away from the poisonous atmosphere of academia.

John Charmley said...

I am so sorry that you have been driven to feel like this. Like many here, I 'know' you only through this and your Twitter feed, and have profited hugely from both. You are right not to be silent about how you have been treated - there is too much of it in academia, and too much of this sort of treatment.

Apart from sympathy and prayers, I can offer only a certain indignation.

Dave Christianson said...

I too simply wanted to say how much I have enjoyed your blog, and hope to continue. you have a gift for making your interests accessible and you have greatly enriched my life with it. I like you, have no idea of that's worth but it is considerable, although not monetized, and I can't really pay it back, although I wish I could. You (and a few, very few others)are one of the main reasons that I am most thankful for the internet, it has opened up an entire world for me.

So Thank you, so much and so deeply and whatever the future brings, you will have my best wishes in it.

Lazarus said...

I recognize so much of what you say both from my own experience and what I have seen with others. For the moment though I simply want to say thank you for this blog and this post and my very best wishes and prayers for your future.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thank you all, again, for your sympathy and support - I wish I could respond to each of you personally but I think I would just end up saying 'thank you so much!' again and again! I feel a million times better for hearing your stories and perspectives. I know my experience is not uncommon in academia, and it's just so easy to forget how much more there is to life - so much still to learn and discover and aspire to.

Lindsey said...

Do check out other institutions before making your decision...Oxford is so rarified and insular. Stamford have a wonderful department that co-operates with Cambridge in an on-line course called Digging Deeper. The Prof is one Elaine Treharne, she seems eminently approachable and down to earth. Hope you don't mind my suggestion but sometimes you 'can't see the woods for the trees'. I hope all goes well for you. I enjoy your blog and save it for a quiet time to read at my leisure.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thanks! I have a huge amount of respect for Elaine Treharne, for her scholarship and projects like Digging Deeper, so I take your point - there are many incredible academics doing wonderful work all over the world. Oxford certainly has its own particular flaws not shared by other institutions, but the culture I'm talking about (especially exploitation of the precariously-employed) is sadly prevalent throughout academia. At a certain point you just have to ask yourself what exactly academia can offer as a career prospect, and it seems to be very little.

Zue said...

I think that you will find a path in life that will give you joy and purpose. If you are certain you are unhappy where you are, the only way forward is to let go and move into pastures new.

You have so many could start by having some sort of teaching academy online.

It's difficult making the first step in a new direction and if you try you may be pleasingly surprised.

Wishing you well.
Sue from south Oxford

Zue said...

If you start an online academy, I will be your first student!

Andrea Sandri said...

Dear Colleague and Friend, thank you for this post which has given me a more objective vision of my own situation. I'm writing from Italy and I am an academic as you are. I deal with law in the Catholic University of Milan, but I think that law is not only a regulatory sistem. Therefore since several months I read your blog finding many important suggestions not only for my intellectual life but also for my studies. I agree all your arguments about the increasingly great distance between the academic organization and the true aspiration of every scholar. I will continue to follow your blog with the hope to meet you a day here in Milan or in England. Thank you for your intelligent work, thank you for sharing it. And forgive my bad english grammar. Greetings from the land of Saint Ambrose.

Andrea Sandri said...

My email is
I will be very happy to read you, if you want.

chris elliott said...

Thanks for your honesty, and please keep on thinking and writing about things that are beautiful and true. It makes the world go round

Michael Walker said...

God bless you for contributing to my authentic intellectual and spiritual development, along with that of the rest of your internet audience, through your blog. I intend to attend Blackfriars College for graduate work in Philosophy and Theology during the year after next, God-willing.

However, I must say that this article on academia resonated with me as few pieces on the subject have. It accords with the ardors of my own experience, which has often brought me to the brink of despair, not to mention abandonment of literary pursuits. I have come to the conclusion that the arbiters of the academe are oft-times as capricious as a panel on America's (or Britain's) Got Talent.

I feel like you must have witnessed some of the things I have suffered. Know that you are not alone, and that people like you are necessary to revolutionize our culture from within. In fact, in light of what the world faces in our hour, medieval literature has never before been more relevant in my opinion.

I agree with absolutely everything you said. It is not in your head. I think an academic career these days must be a vocation of love and suffering in reparation for the assaults on truth, goodness, and beauty, in the effort to restore them.

Tao said...

I just wanted to say that I have loved your blog ever since I stumbled upon it nearly two years ago. You share so much beauty and history that I would never see otherwise. I cannot thank you enough for that.

May God bless you in whatever endeavor you choose to pursue as part of this long tradition of His servants and saints!

Nicole Guenther Discenza said...

I missed this post back when you first made it. I hope things have improved for you since. I very much enjoy your blog and am sorry that academia has been so cruel to you. It chews up and spits out far too many good people these days! I wish you the best of luck in whatever job market or markets you're on now, and I hope that you find a position that nourishes mind, body, and spirit.

kortagerðarfræðingurinn said...

Thank you so much for such a wise, humane, and honest post. It's so sad that someone so talented (I know you wouldn't admit it!) has been made to feel so wretched in trying to do something they love and holds so much value.

You're certainly not alone in feeling this way. There's so much petty nastiness in academia, and it almost always comes from people who should know much better. I know very well that some members of the old guard in my field are vicious towards younger scholars, and while this nastiness is a kind of sport for them, it's humiliating for us (you're so right in calling attention to the differences in power between these parties). We need to stand up to these kinds of abuses, for ourselves and those less able.

Your words are so compassionate and wise; you would be a huge loss to your field. I sincerely hope things for you have improved.

Anonymous said...

From one who has also struggled in the world of academia, where the fight is so bitter because the prizes are so small, I was greatly touched by this post. All we can hope for is that in the future, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well :) Good luck!

Rachel said...

Julian of Norwich:
Our dearworthy Lord said not, Thou shalt not be troubled, Thou shalt not be travailed, but Thou shalt not be overcome.

Anonymous said...

In solidarity. I've had an awful experience at Oxford, spanning over a decade. Words fail me. Thank you for you post.

Liz Evershed said...

To a clerk of Oxford from a writer of London: I saw the lovely piece on your blog in the Telegraph via the Hoccleve Society's Twitter feed yesterday, and it reminded me how much I enjoyed it when I stumbled on the blog a few months ago. When I hopped across to see what you'd written more recently I was so sad to read about your recent experiences in academia that I wanted to drop you a line of encouragement even though I'm adding to this thread a little late and as a stranger.

C.S. Lewis once said the university was founded to teach wisdom and perhaps the lack of compassion is more deeply felt when we find it in these institutions because it flies in the face of our ideals of what all that an academic community should seek to achieve and to be. That environments so rich in knowledge can be so impoverished in wisdom is especially heartbreaking. The inhumanity in the system (and I know there are many pressures on UK universities right now) might be easier to bear if it wasn't exacerbated by the inhumanity of some individuals within it. These instances of casual cruelty and thoughtlessness can cut very deep, but I wanted to reassure you of the truth that you have already written elsewhere in this post: that there are still some wise and generous souls in academia and if you can find a way to stay and flourish there, as I hope you will, I'm sure you'll add to their numbers. In those centres of learning where the balance is towards nurturing younger academics, it can result in a healthier atmosphere. If you can't find this where you are at Oxford at the moment I hope you'll be able to find it somewhere else.

I'd also like to echo what others have written here and Christopher Howse affirmed as well: you have great skills as a communicator and the work you are doing with this blog is beautiful and valuable. Whatever happens, if you do decide to leave academia, I hope it's not because you feel defeated by your experiences there but because something better and more exciting for you opens up elsewhere. Sending good wishes and prayers in your direction!

Anonymous said...

Let me add my own words of solidarity. The fact that you are responding in truth and with eloquence displays the actual character needed to reform institutions of higher education. I hope you can find a place where your perspective might help in some way to bring reform. But if you leave, you are certainly correct: it is not a failure, in any way!

Thanks for your beautiful contributions here. They are appreciated. Who knows? Perhaps this type of writing and interacting is also part of the reform.

Anonymous said...

Goodness, what a stunning piece of writing. I am trying hard not to devour your whole blog at once as I want to savour it when most in need of some soul food, but this! I needed to read this! It's so insightful I don't think I can pick out any single element here.

Thank you for resolving to take what you have and do good things with it, 'despite and still'. Thank you for not taking the journey for granted like some. Thank you for the fact that you see the value of understanding Margery Kempe AND mental trial, Piers P AND incompleteness, in a culture many hundreds of years on. They will not succeed in crushing you, you know. I think that love and wisdom together are too strong to keep down (in your own mind, I mean), and your writing interleaves both.

Ex-Kebleite here.

Anonymous said...

...and, @zue, I'll be your 2nd student please!

Caecilia Dance said...

Hi Eleanor,

I just came across this post and hope that you're in a better place now, a year on. I found your perspective very insightful as I had a wonderful undergraduate experience at Oxford, and was not in a position to see what things were like from the tutor's end of things. I did think of pursuing postgraduate study, but articles such as yours dissuaded me, at least for the present.