A Letter from Oxford

Things are busy: I write from the bus to Gatwick airport, whence I’m off to a conference in Amsterdam on the Soviet 1960s and 1970s hosted by the wonderful Artemy Kalinovsky. I intend to be blogging some of the proceedings of the conference on this site this Friday and Saturday, but in the meantime, I include a ‘Letter from Oxford’ that I’ve written for The American Oxonian, the quarterly publication for the Association of American Rhodes Scholars. As the letter underscores, even in times (like now) of much bussing, jetsetting, and train-ing, it’s important to take stock of the fixed places that are meaningful to us.

Here’s a question worth pondering: what places in Oxford do you associate most with particular phases of your time there? While I’ve spent several terms, or parts of terms, outside of the city, I retain in my head very specific snapshots of the places that were meaningful to me at different points during my first, second, and now, third year in Oxford.

During my first Michaelmas Term, I occasionally indulged myself during the bicycle ride from the Iffley Road to the Oriental Institute by taking New College Lane. Holywell Lane was more direct, of course, but on the rare October or November morning when sun still hit the walls of New and All Souls, I’d relish zipping around the corners of the street with the spires of the latter peeking up above sun-whetted college walls. The sense of agility, the morning sunlight, and the sense of having penetrated behind these high walls of privilege reflected the giddiness, the sense of a new start, and responsibility that I associate most with that first year.

New College Lane

My second and third year have been different. Personal upheavals – not to mention no more Persian classes – wiped the early morning ride through New College Lane from my days, but introduced me into some of the more intimate spaces of Oxford and my Rhodes class. Grubby kitchens and living rooms in Grandpoint student housing, or the desultory, undersized basketball courts that the British welfare state erected for council housing playgrounds in the 1970s and 1980s, aren’t precisely the things that the Oxford brochures tout to prospective students, but the friendships forged in those less glamorous parts of Oxford nourished me in a way that even chipper New College Lane couldn’t.

Now that I’m working more on finishing my D.Phil., I’ve become more of a peregine bibliophile, nesting and de-nesting from the Bodleian, the Rothermere, and Corpus’ MCR. But I still make time for new places – Port Meadow, the walk to the Trout, or the walk south from Christ Church Meadow along the Thames – and, perhaps even more importantly, try to find the time for walks or tea to introduce First-Years and Second-Years to these Oxonian locales. They’ll make their own meaning, different from my own, in places like New College Lane or Grandpoint, but they’ll constitute a common topo for us when we meet up again in the future in different places.


The future, different places: maybe that’s why I have Oxford’s places on my mind. Already I constitute a minority in my Rhodes class in having elected to stick around for the D.Phil. Most of us – like those who write in in class letters to The American Oxonian – have already migrated on to the familiar locales (Cambridge, New York, Palo Alto), or onto the next clearly-defined opportunity: officer school, medical school, law school, graduate school, work experience in NGOs. Some are married, building but not yet having formed a familial world for themselves yet in their mid-twenties.

But no matter what people are doing (from trading grain on international markets in Kansas City to pursuing epidemiological on American racial minorities), I find that many conversations these days are dominated by the theme of constant migration, transition, and hyperactivity. Sometimes you wonder: is our generation is too ‘engaged’ with ’causes’, ‘projects’, or ‘initiatives’ to be busy with people? Not that your author is innocent, either: I write this letter a day after returning from a busy academic trip to Israel, while on a train to Exeter, and just having been informed that I’m on the waitlist for a youth conference that promises to wine and dine me with sessions in Washington, Beijing, and Berlin. We’ve signed up for a life of global Brownian motion, bouncing from prestigious appointment to international airport to consulting gig, one after the other.

A bench in Mesopotamia Walk: 'O REST A BIT FOR TIS A RARE PLACE TO REST AT'

Over-scheduled, manically on the move, and bound to causes and career trajectories that vault us from London to San Francisco to Capetown to Beijing regardless of where family and friends are : here’s the (perhaps overly pessimistic) picture that I’ve drawn you of where our generation is right now. But herein, I think, lies one of the meaning of Oxford and the gift of the Rhodes for us. It’s true, as I noted, that we’ll attach different meanings to this or that tree in the St John’s Gardens, the 8:55 AM sunlight shattering against All Souls’ walls, or a jogging route through the Parks and Mesopotamia Walk. But for our relentlessly peripatetic generation, I think, it’s in part this boundedness, over the course of two years, to a series of Oxonian places that makes the experience of the Rhodes so special.

It’s true, I suspect, that in the future I will run across people from my Rhodes class, and those immediately ahead and behind ours, in those North American enclaves mentioned above. But by then we’ll be actually ‘engaged,’ or ‘busy,’ and we’ll never all be there at the same place. And it’s only as I think about my post-Oxford moves that I appreciate the year or two we had in those shared places. Thirty-two separate directions, thirty-two separate lives, and a whole new set of bicycle routes, basketball courts, and parks to attach memories to – we’re on the move, yes, but we remain grateful for having had that brief moment to anchor ourselves in a mosaic of Oxford places.


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