Whole lot of blogging out there

I try and keep this blog mostly on the actual Middle Ages and writing about it, and not get drawn into too much conversation between bloggers about blogs. The times that a particular British TV critic would go on about how much he hated TV about TV, in phrases I won’t use here but which could be paraphrased mostly using words starting with ‘self-‘, have influenced me greatly here. All the same, there are times when ya gotta. First of these is that Gabriele Campbell of the Lost Fort has nominated me for an award that I’m not sure what to do with or whence it comes. It seems to just be a meme but still, somewhere I’m sure someone is counting the times the little design they created appears somewhere and generally monitoring us like aliens monitoring us from ABOVE MAN I’M TELLING YOU!!1!eleventy-one! etc. Lemme make with the tinfoil hat already!

I’d be inclined to ignore this, but Gabriele’s nominated me for something before and I ignored it then too, and then, even while this was in draft, Another Damned Medievalist nominated me for the same award! Also, more pertinently, I’m temporarily short of content, so OK, I’ll bite. But I’m not going to tag ten others as the meme wants. I hate being tagged myself unless it really gives me something to play with. What I will do, which is subtly not the same thing, is try and explain why I think ten of the blogs I read are worth the reading.

  • It would be somewhat rude, of course, not to start with Gabriele, who is one of a number of historical fiction writers running a blog to test ideas and connect with her peers. These are blogs that by and large I avoid. The reason I don’t avoid Gabriele’s is partly because of the sense of humour, but mainly because when she writes about somewhere she’s usually been there and taken brilliant photoes. Honestly, there are more shots and explanations of European castles at The Lost Fort than on several castle tourist sites, and the photoes are far better.
  • Another fiction writer whom I make an exception for is Carla Nayland. A quantity of the blog is local photography and there’s a recipe every month, some of which look damn tasty but not medieval. However, she does her research: there’s as likely to be a post untangling matters of the Anglo-Saxon calendar or disambiguating two Pictish kings as there is either of those, and if you don’t know Insular early medieval history or its debates particularly well you will find a clever and easily-fathomable introduction to several at Carla’s blog. So if you had been ignoring it because of its averred fictionality, let me assure you that that’s misleading.
  • Now let’s talk the ones that I turn to hoping for a smile to be raised. You are all reading Jennifer Lynn Jordan’s Per Omnia Sæcula aren’t you? I can’t see why you wouldn’t be. Irreverent perhaps—well, no, definitely, in as much as paper cartoon puppets of Charlemagne can hardly be reverent—but erudite, passionate and you never know exactly what’s going to crop up.
  • Much more certain for what will turn up, in as much as there is a tag cloud in which the words “Angelina Jolie” and “boobs” turn up quite large (though the latter not as large as another tag, “not boobs”), is Carl Pyrdum’s Got Medieval; despite what I’ve just said Carl deploys considerable learning about the Middle Ages, often based on close readings of manuscripts that are carefully illustrated in his posts, in the great purpose of having fun, and also of using large numbers of amusing footnotes. Also, there are but few places out there where an author publically disclaims everything he’s written, and this is one.
  • Sticking with the reading for enjoyment, two very different approaches to an Anglo-Saxon academy come from Professor Michael Drout and she who trades as The Naked Philologist. From Drout’s Wormtalk and Slugspeak we get justifiably infrequent but always learned posts which take complicated things, be they Old English verse and its manuscripts or academic management, and make them comprehensible to the outsider in a sensitive way. I don’t feel involved in many of the things that Professor Drout does, but I’m always interested in reading them.
  • On the other hand, la Philologiste is more likely to come up with carefully-crafted cartoon icons and humourous retellings of hagiography than give lengthy state-of-the-field discourses (though there have been some of them as well). What can I say? At some level, the enthusiasm and the love of the subject matter are not dissimilar, and they mean I’m always glad to see her avatar in WordPress’s blog surfer (as well as faintly envious of an undergraduate already deep in manuscript work).
  • There is a little cluster of three, which there are many good reasons to read, but which I follow because what they write is likely to touch my own research, and there aren’t very many people who do this, and still fewer on the Internet. Best known to the readership because of being so well-established, I suspect, is Another Damned Medievalist whose Blogenspiel was one of the first medievalist blogs of which I was aware and gave me the consciousness that people were doing this and that it could be done in conjunction with a job. Second, because I know the writer in real life and because our interests overlap considerably, but also because the questions she asks of our material are very different from mine, is Magistra et Mater, whose likewise long-established blog I took rather longer to happen on. Third and newest, but providing me a series of interesting perspectives on how my material looks from later, if you see, is Clio’s Disciple, whom I may have frightened by mentioning here (though I imagine it’s good for no more than a couple of hits, all the same).
  • That seems to be nine. So let me last mention The Rebel Letter, which is not something I might be expected to like. I don’t think that the author and I would get on in person, we have very different backgrounds and interests and a great deal of the blog is personal life which I don’t really consider it this blog’s job to bring forward. However, she writes really well and often enough that is writing about, if not medieval texts (though sometimes) the academic life, its travails and costs and its occasional fierce joys, that I have no compunction not only in linking it but following it as if it were the most relevant thing in the world.

This omits a few obvious suspects: again, I assume everyone is already reading some, like The Unlocked Wordhoard and Geoffrey Chaucer (TM) Hath an Extreme Blog: Go England! It Ys Rad!, as it’s currently trading. Also, I think it’s vital to keep up with David Beard’s Archaeology in Europe, but I only mentioned that a few posts ago and no-one seemed interested; more fools you then, that’s where the new source material’s going to be reported. But this’ll do for now.

* * *

Now then. You’ll perhaps have noticed that significantly absent from the blogroll is In the Medieval Middle, which is because I don’t read it. My occasional ventures there when Richard Scott Nokes cherry-picks a good bit have left me thinking I don’t really want to: at its worst I find it irrelevant, self-gratulatory and insubstantial, and at its best mainly poetic rather than useful, to me at least. In general terms, it just doesn’t have much to do with what I want to study, which is not to deny its worth for others working in a more literary and less historical vein. However, because I’ve been known to say so much in public fora, I thought it was worth making it clear that I am nothing at all to do with this. This, a new rival blog enjoying the title In the Medieval Muddle, is a far worse waste of effort, or at least it is so far. I wouldn’t deny the importance and potential use of their mission, but the combative tone, the inherently destructive critique with no positive readings to balance it, and the incessant sniping at particular people means that it reads like a very bitter and over-elaborate grudge match that I would have no part of even if it were offered. I shan’t even comment there, tempting though it has already been; I am on neither side. I’ll explain why.

I did my undergraduate and my Masters degrees at Cambridge, and then by a series of accidents ended up doing my Ph. D. at London. I will usually defend Oxbridge against stereotypical charges of élitism: it does want to be, and tries hard to be in ways that people ignore, an élite that anyone good enough can join, though given how slowly its recruitment base changes, I can understand the point of view that doesn’t want to be part of it. I do get upset by people who tell me they didn’t apply “because they don’t take people like me”, though. Rubbish: I knew some. They had more ambitious teachers, perhaps, parents with bigger aspirations, more support, but none of this means that Oxbridge wasn’t interested in recruiting the best brains it could get wherever they’d been trained. Of course, they also want to select people who’ll do well and not hate it, which is much more like gatekeeping though not necessarily sinister in motives. Actually, inside the system there is quite justifiable paranoia about what this perception of bias may do to their funding some day; it’s in their interest in many ways to change it, which means changing whatever reality lies behind it too, but it’s slow doing. (This is all fresh in my mind because of a recent article about it in the British Guardian newspaper, which you can find discussed here where you’ll realise you’ve just read my comment.)

All the same, Oxbridge does remain, for the moment, altogether too upper-middle-class, rich and isolated from social distress. This can only be changed by changing its population, which is rather Catch-22; in order to attract people from a broader social base, it needs more of them. And sometimes, it is not very attractive to these people. Sometimes, indeed, it is downright stupid and ridiculous and does itself no favours. One of the reasons I was glad to get out to London, once those accidents had occurred, was the far easier dialogue between ‘rival’ scholars that I met, for example, at the Institute of Historical Research. Quite a lot of them were ex-Oxbridge or on their way back, but they didn’t feud. And this struck me as pleasantly strange, because the first and only time I went to a graduate seminar during my Masters (poor, I know, but read on and also understand that I had a great deal on my plate that year outside the degree), I’d seen Oxbridge at its worst. I won’t name the names, but an eminent professor who was convening the seminar that day, was heartily disliked by another eminent professor. The latter turned up late and bustled in, interrupting proceedings, whereupon the following exchange genuinely took place:

Eminence 2: Hullo everybody, sorry I’m late, you weren’t starting without me were you?

Eminence 1: Now [Eminence 1], we wouldn’t dream of starting without you.

Eminence 2 cocks hand to ear: Did someone say something? No? Well anyway.

At this point I realised I was seeing two grown men who supposedly represented the intellectual peak of my intended profession unwittingly reenacting the Mary Whitehouse Experience. Eminence 2 is an authority on his subject whom no-one can ignore even now; and here he was playing playground “I can’t hear you” games. Yessir: welcome to adulthood. Oh no, that would be somewhere else. London was never like this; there were in fact feuds but they were conducted by means of the antagonists just avoiding each other and getting on in public, you know, like adults. Back in Cambridge, it was much too often History Today done live.

So, anonymous blogger at In The Medieval Muddle, you see this:

That’s you, that is. And alas, you are in stalwart, noble and respected company.

17 responses to “Whole lot of blogging out there

  1. Thanks for the kind words! I am glad to make you smile; my Charlemagne puppets have not been made in vain.

  2. You’ll forgive me for not linking to this post; I just finally chased the fight between Middle and Muddle off the Wordhoard!

    I thought that my statement that I’m not involved with Muddle would end all the e-mails I was getting about it, but boy was I wrong!

  3. I fully and entirely understand and sympathise… and am rather disturbed to find that people can manage to suspect it of being you. You’d have to be an insane cackling stylist leading a secret and rather malicious double life (another double life, that is) and well, that really isn’t how the Wordhoard reads…

  4. I will usually defend Oxbridge against stereotypical charges of élitism: it does want to be, and tries hard to be in ways that people ignore, an élite that anyone good enough can join … (Successful applicants from different backgrounds) had more ambitious teachers, perhaps, parents with bigger aspirations, more support…

    And more money. Come on Jonathan, if you’re going to refer to me accurately and unflatteringly as your bitter friend who didn’t get the chance to go to Cambridge, then at least tell the rest of the story too. You omitted the part where I got an offer of a PhD place there but was told nicely that in order to take it up I would have to show proof that I had £25,000 in liquid assets. They may well be after top-quality minds, but only with top-quality wallets attached.

  5. Thanks for the reading suggestions. I wasn’t aware of a number of those blogs. Duly added to the blogroll now.

    And you’re right about the blog-fight. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger paraphrasing an older aphorism, “The reason why academic feuds are so venomous is because the stakes are so low.”

  6. I loved the “History Today” video. It helped me remember why I’m happy to be an adjunct with no further academic career ambitions…

  7. Amarga, you are very far from being the only person I know who has told me they “got three As but wouldn’t have got in”. Also, while your story’s pretty bad, I did my Masters at Pembroke on about £3,000 quid I’d raised myself/been advanced by parents from a fund, and they found most of the rest themselves. Neither of us should be generalising from a sample of one, particularly for different colleges and different degrees. I wasn’t clearly thinking of you, but you were the most recent case who’d brought the others to mind. OK?

    Matt, Jeff, glad to be of service in one way or another…

  8. Happy to stumble across a medieval blog :)
    Best wishes to you from Scotland

  9. On the finance side of Oxbridge, there is a big difference between undergraduate and postgraduate study (for UK residents). For undergraduates, Oxbridge costs no more than a degree at most other universities and the financial help available for students there tends to be more substantial than for other universities. At one point indeed, my Oxford college gave me money without me even asking for it (because I was a clergyman’s child and therefore eligible for some obscure fund).

    However if you can’t get funded, there are two specific problems for postgraduate study (at least at Cambridge, I don’t know the Oxford rules). One is that you have to pay college fees as well as university fees (which feels a swizz as none of the masters teaching I got was actually at my college), which adds a couple of thousand a year. The second problem is that Cambridge demand proof up front that you have the money to support yourself for the duration of the course. I had to prove that I had £10,000 available to do the masters course (and that was 10 years ago). Most other pg courses I’ve heard of, in contrast, only care that you’ve got enough to pay this year’s fees.

    I don’t know whether this proves that Cambridge are less trusting or just more realistic about people who start on a course without having the money to survive for the whole of it. It is certainly a barrier for self-funding students, but I would say a bigger one is that Oxbridge won’t normally allow you to do your masters/PhD part-time. That was the main reason I did my PhD in London.

  10. Magistra, what you say about undergraduate funding and costs being comparable to any other university is true, of course, but doesn’t take into account the difficulty of making it into Oxbridge from a state school background. The inflated proportion of students at Oxbridge who attended fee paying schools rather suggests that a considerable cash outlay by one’s parents on private education narrows the chances of you making it in. Of course, it’s not impossible to attend Oxford or Cambridge having gone to a state school, I just can’t think of anyone I know who did.

    Then when it comes to PG study, as you point out, there are more barriers to entry in the form of demanding proof that you have enough cash to live on. In your case it was £10,000, in my case four years ago it was £25,000, in both our cases we ended up doing PhDs in London. As for the availability of College funding, which the estimable Dr J refers to, I understand that it’s generally earmarked for students who did their undergraduate degrees at the same college. While this makes sense – retaining the best minds in-house – it perpetuates the exclusion of people who weren’t able to get into that college first time around.

  11. I was mainly thinking of undergraduate entry in the original paragraph, I have to admit, which isn’t clear in the text, perhaps because my thinking wasn’t perfectly lucid either. On the postgraduate front though, as I’ve said to you elsewhere, it seems to me that given I knew people who were funded by AHRC, EPSRC or commercial grants through their Cambridge Ph. Ds, which are not only renewable but conditional grants, there must be wriggle room on the all-up-front when the system wants. I may have known people who were self-funding for a Ph. D. here, but if so this was never made known to me.

    Likewise, I did know I think two people from state schools well (my social group wasn’t huge) and could still introduce you to one of them, Amarga, if you don’t mind your sample being bent; he’s a laugh. Both the schools were pretty venerable ones though, so there may still be a class divide at work.

    But all that’s anecdotal, however unfortunate or fortunate. I remembered reading that the proportion of state-school students at Cambridge, at least, is roughly proportional to the fraction of state-school applicants, and went looking for actual figures. I haven’t found that, but I have found this report. I haven’t gone deep into it, but this Guardian report says that it says, firstly that as of 2006 a third of Oxbridge applicants come from only 100 schools, and only three of those aren’t fee-paying, but secondly, that admissions at the two universities were 54% and 56% state-school for Oxford and Cambridge respectively in 2006. That must therefore be a pretty decent chunk of the two-thirds who are coming from less frequently-applying schools. None of which cures the places of the suspicion of bias, of course, as I say gate-keeping must operate on both sincere and insincere bases. But it’s salutary to keep some sight of how big this problem actually is, statistically; any perception that state-school pupils just don’t have a chance needs correcting. (I would however be very interested to see how drop-out rates split between those groups.)

  12. Purely anecdotal of course, but if you want someone who went from a comprehensive to Oxford at undergraduate level there’s me. Local village primary school, Bishop Luffa Comprehensive, St Anne’s College, Oxford.

    My school was a C of E comprehensive in a prosperous area (Chichester in Sussex), had a number of middle class pupils, and expected to send a fair number of students to high-ranking universities with one or two a year going to Oxbridge. I don’t think that was untypical for the time (1983). We had a bit of preparation for the entrance exam, but I didn’t take that in the end, but instead got in on interview and a high A level grade offer.

    I’d also add that I had about the worst interview technique possible at the time, being so shy that talking to strangers was a struggle. What saved me was that I was applying for mathematics and although I couldn’t make intellectual conversation I could solve enough of the maths problems they gave me to show some promise.

    What would be really revealing is to see the figures by subject and by college for public/state admissions, because that would (I suspect) pick up a lot of differences. St Anne’s in the 1980s (a deeply unfashionable college) had very few students from the big public schools (I remember one or two from Dulwich, but that’s about all), and a mix of people from comprehensives, sixth form colleges, grammer schools, grammer schools turned public schools (my husband was at Bristol Grammar School when it left the state sector) etc. Most people were from middle class backgrounds (as I was), but there were a few of my friends with fairly humble backgrounds (one friend’s father had been the best tractor mechanic in Lincolnshire).

    The subject you’re applying for is probably also crucial. It’s not surprising if classics is dominated by public schools, because they’re the only ones who teach it and in the 1980s you needed A levels in two languages to do Modern Languages, which was tricky for some state schools. I suspect more generally that for any interviews where you had to demonstrate wide reading and background knowledge (particularly in the humanities) you would be better prepared at a public school (or at least a school that regularly sent pupils to Oxbridge), while it might be easier for state school pupils in other subjects (such as sciences).

    As for all the accusations of bias, one interesting question would be how many of the dons themselves went to (UK) public school? I suspect that they are substantially fewer than those either educated in the state system or not educated in the UK system at all (who even if they may be biased towards particular lycees, wouldn’t be well up on the distinction between Marlborough College and New College Swindon.)

    I am therefore not convinced that there is much (if any) bias against state school applicants to Oxbridge. I think the problem is much more that too many good would-be applicants think Oxford ‘isn’t for people like them’, rather than at least giving it a try (and possibly also that some specific colleges/courses are very over-subscribed and so hard to get into).

  13. As for all the accusations of bias, one interesting question would be how many of the dons themselves went to (UK) public school? I suspect that they are substantially fewer than those either educated in the state system or not educated in the UK system at all (who even if they may be biased towards particular lycees, wouldn’t be well up on the distinction between Marlborough College and New College Swindon.)

    You see, this was one of the things I was wondering about. If there is bias inside the process itself, it must lie in the decisions made as to whether or not to offer places. Since Cambridge academics at least, don’t know Oxford as well, are very often recruited from all over Europe, there’s a substantial body of people making those decisions who shouldn’t naturally share the system’s prejudices, except in as much as they thought Oxbridge was worth working at. Presumably they work in committees, but either way, the idea of “the right sort” can’t be as deeply engrained on these people as the Guardian’s articles might lead one to suspect. It seems to be much more deeply engrained among the applicants, in fact…

    I am therefore not convinced that there is much (if any) bias against state school applicants to Oxbridge. I think the problem is much more that too many good would-be applicants think Oxford ‘isn’t for people like them’, rather than at least giving it a try (and possibly also that some specific colleges/courses are very over-subscribed and so hard to get into).

    Here, I ‘just don’t know’. Where’s the line between a panel that decides not to offer a place because an applicant is from a tiny school they’ve never heard of, and one who having interviewed them and found them very scared and stinging from Etonians mocking their accent, decides that really, they won’t be happy here? The latter is probably a good decision but can you distinguish it, even when making it, from the former? And if you can identify that prejudice lies there, aside from making sure the relevant dons are not asked to interview applicants, which may be impractical, is there anything more that you can do?

  14. I can’t make any informed comment on the undergraduate system, but from experience of having been an international postgraduate at Oxford, I would say it is entirely necessary and realistic that these institutions insist on the 25000 pound guaranteed backing. In fact, it would probably be a good idea if other UK Universities did the same. It is miserable being penniless on the other side of the world from one’s established support networks, and the work can only suffer.

  15. Thank you for your kind words. You were on my list too (http://carlanayland.blogspot.com/2008/08/brilliante-blogs-award.html), so you may now consider yourself the proud owner of a second tinfoil hat :-)

    Re Oxford/Cambridge. I can’t comment on Oxford, but “an elite that anyone good enough can join” is a fair statement of the philosophy that I think Cambridge aspires to. I do think the fourth-term undergraduate entrance exam was a major positive for students from schools without a history of Cambridge entrance. I would certainly have been too shy to make a favourable impression at interview and no-one at the school had a clue what might be required, but an exam was a far less intimidating prospect (and actually turned out to be quite interesting; I can still remember one or two of the subjects, sad individual that I am), and the fourth-term exam didn’t require me to have funding for an extra year. I was sorry to see it go.

  16. Damn, how did I miss that post? Must have been the effing influenza. Thank you very much for your kind words about my blog. That was a really nice surprise.

  17. Why did you nominate me, if you didn’t think I’d respond? Happy to cheer you up, anyway.

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