I realise this email is REALLY long overdue--I can't believe a month has slid past so quickly! And what a month, full of ups and downs, hard work and fun events, dinners and holidays, races and projects, and a million little moments that I probably won't be able to recall without suggestion. I will do my best to bring you up to speed on the life of a graduate at Oxford...you may want to make yourself a cup of tea and settle in, because this is going to be a long one.
The night after I last wrote to you (October 20!) I went to see Stewart Lee at the Regal Theatre on Cowley Road. Stewart Lee is a comedian best known for his T.V. show, "Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle," which mixes a stand-up routine with pre-recorded clips and makes intelligent commentary on topical issues from politics to education. His understated style can take getting used to, but I find him hilarious--feel free to check him out on YouTube! In Oxford he was testing out some new material that he meant to use in a new show, called Vegetable Stew, coming out next year. He was really funny, though I was glad I had Phil with me to explain some of the political references, because I had no idea who some of the people he mentioned were!
Then that Friday I had my Hand-Press Printing class. I think I mentioned before, this is an extra class that I volunteered to take because it gave me the opportunity to see first hand what printing practices were like in the 16th and 17th centuries (though really they didn't change all that much till the 20th!). It's held in the basement of the New Bodleian, where they have about seven different presses, some European and some American, which are cared for by Paul Nashe, a delightful little man with a beard and a cheerful smile and a sweet, old-fashioned voice rather like that of a hobbit or an elf. The first three classes were about the history of paper, type, and presses, but last week and this week we have actually been setting type and learning how to ink and press it! The typesetting can be tedious, and the tiny little bits of type can be difficult to handle, but I am just loving it. It is difficult to understand if you have never seen or done it yourself (as I learned, having read all about it and then having a number of epiphanies when I actually tried it), but I will try to explain. What you do is to stand in front of a pair of type cases which have compartments for each individual letter and piece of punctuation, the capital letters on top and non-capitals on bottom (which is where we get the terms "upper-case" and "lower-case"). In your left hand you hold a "stick," which is a metal-and-wood contraption made to brace the type while you are setting it; with your right hand you pick up tiny pieces of type, which are mirror images, of course, like rubber stamps, and place them one by one next to each other in your stick. You keep your eyes either on your copy (the text from which you are setting the type) or on the case guide, which tells you where each letter is--if you do this long enough, you start to remember where frequently-used letters are, and you don't even have to look up to reach and grab the right letter, much like touch-typing on a modern keyboard. Each piece of type has a little ridge in it which should face away from the bottom of the stick, so you know that it is the right side up. When you come to the end of a line (most of us were setting poetry, as it is far easier to set than prose, which must be justified), you have to fill in with spaces until you reach the end of the stick, and it has to be wedged tight, so the little pieces of type don't slip out and ruin all your hard work. Finding just the right size spaces to do this perfectly is a real challenge; it can get intensely frustrating, and probably takes the longest of any part of the process! When you have set five or six lines into your stick, you have to transfer the type to a galley (because the stick doesn't hold much more, and because your left wrist is about to collapse because those iron pieces get really heavy!), which means you have to carefully slide out your type and move it onto a wood-edged metal frame, which is what will eventually go on the press. This is where that tightly-wedged spacing really matters, because if you have loose type, it will not hold together when you try to move it in bulk! Once you have finished the whole piece (mine is John Donne's "The Good Morrow," though only the first two stanzas, because the size of the book we are making wouldn't accommodate all three), you place your galley on the press, roll over it with ink, close the tympan (which holds the paper) down over it, and roll it under the platen. You pull a lever to work the press, and hopefully, if you have done everything right, you end up with your text beautifully printed! I didn't get to ink mine yet, though I will next week, but I had fun playing with someone else's which had just been proofed. I pressed my wrist down over the inked type, so my arm now reads "ONE PERFECT ROSE," but in beautiful irony, the word "ROSE" only got half-inked, so it is rather imperfect.
The following Monday I had an opportunity to go to a Master class on some of the sermons of John Donne. These classes include rare opportunities to see and handle manuscripts of the period, so I was eager to go. One of the presenters was Peter McCullough, who is Lincoln's resident Donne expert, though he is on leave this year to work on his edition of the sermons, so I cannot ask him to be my dissertation supervisor, which is a shame. He told us a bit about his edition, which aims to recreate from manuscripts what Donne was actually like in the pulpit, as opposed to idea we get from the printed sermons which were cleaned up post-delivery. The rest of the lecture, given by students Sebastian and Emma, was about the different compilations of his sermons and why they were collected with other works (as was most common in the period, you purchased printed or manuscript books unbound, and then could have them sewn together with any number of other texts that you found interesting. I rather wish we still did books this way!) The manuscripts were not actually in Donne's hand (there is only one known manuscript of his works in his own hand, though we have some of his letters, too), but in those of scribes. I was still interested, because I have been learning to read secretarial hand for my Paleography class, so it was fascinating to see what I could make out. Also, I was giddy just to be allowed to touch things that are usually kept locked up. One of them in particular, the Ashmole MS, was written on acidic paper in a highly acidic ink, and the writing was terribly blurred by the corrosion. Chris Fletcher, who is Head of Western Manuscripts at the Bodleian and who had brought these to the lecture room at the Pitt-Rivers Museum that day (in steel cases!) told me that it is literally self-destructing, and that we can do very little to slow the process. I though about how sad that was, and yet how inevitable, that these texts cannot last forever.
The next night I went to the second Early Modern Graduate Seminar. I had gone to one the night I last wrote, as well. These are informal lectures held over at Merton College (which is fortunately about four minutes from my door), in which visiting scholars speak about what they are researching right now. The first one I went to was by an American researcher named Edward Jones who had spent years poring over Milton archives. He had a lot to say about what useful and rewarding work it can be--though with realistic admissions that it can be arduous and can end up yielding nothing after a lot of work! The second was by Michelle O'Callaghan regarding Verse Miscellanies, or seemingly random collections of poems bound together. One of the most important things I learned from these seminars is the way other professors and academics behave toward each other. The ones introducing the speakers were obviously gracious and kind, and asked interesting questions in the follow-up. But in both seminars, there was at least one who either directly challenged what the speaker had said, or asked a casually snide question like, "Don't you think we might be in danger of over-emphasising the importance of [whatever you are working on]?" Which is stupid to ask, really, because if the speaker thought so he/she would not be working on it, but it also reveals some of the cattiness that underlies academia. I knew it was there, but it is astonishing to see it first-hand; I really wanted the people at Oxford to be grown-ups. I guess I am always going to be disappointed that way.
The following morning I had at meeting with Diane Purkiss, who is my advisor. She wanted me to start working on my dissertation at least a day a week--I can tell you, I have not even come close to that!--and she wanted me to select a dissertation advisor ASAP. She recommended Sharon Achinstein, whom she has since asked on my behalf, and who has, I think, accepted. I have to email her this weekend, actually, which I am nervous to do, as my idea for the dissertation is as yet very vague, and I was hoping to have some more time to work it through before trying to pitch it to someone! Diane said that the dissertation is the MOST important factor in whether or not I earn a distinction at the end of the year, and emphasized that as we only get really four hours of supervision, I had to be on top of the work, myself. She also recommended about four or five books I should look at, and gave me some possible ideas to work with, which was helpful of her. Later that same day I had a meeting with David Womersley, one of the convenors of my A Course, who was to give me feedback on the presentation I had done in the first week. He thought I did well, and was overall quite positive about my paper and my ability to lead the class. I was rather pleased, because he is not notoriously nice or given to praise, so it was good to have impressed him, if only a little.
That Friday evening I went to an Exchange Dinner with Green-Templeton College. A group of us signed up in advance to pay extra to bring a guest to a formal dinner at Lincoln, in exchange for which we got to go as a guest to their college. Green-Templeton is a graduate-only college, and they only have dinners twice a week, so I am afraid the dinner we had there was much finer than the one they got here, where we do formal hall every night. Still, it was a wonderful opportunity to go see how things are done elsewhere. GTC is known for its Radcliffe Observatory, a beautiful cylindrical building that was constructed in the 1700s. The ground floor is now the dining hall, and the second floor is the Common Room, but the top floor remains an observatory--and no, before you ask, I did not get to go up there, because it is accessible by guided appointment only! But the dinner itself was sublime--I took photos of every course, which I keep meaning to post on Facebook... I got to sit at the head of the table, which was beautifully laid with cloth and china and silver, and everyone looked great, the girls in their formal gowns and the men in their tuxedoes. The candles glowed and the wine flowed freely, and there were some excellent conversations. Because it was October 29, there was a Halloween bop the same night, so we got to stay for that without having to wait in line or pay the admission charge like everyone else. All in all, it was a delightful evening.
The next day I went to a careers fair in the Examination Schools that reminded me an awful lot of the Fresher's Fair in its overwhelming amount of flyers, freebees, and faces! More than one stand had candy luring people over, including a Nestlé table and a Mars table, plus a computer sciences booth that had a whole confectionary stand, with those plastic boxes with the metal scoops and little baggies for you to take away! I was very excited, though I somewhat dishonestly signed up with a false name just to get the candy... I sat in on presentations about jobs in Media, Education, and Communications, all of which were interesting, though I still think Education appeals to me the most. The speakers were both women, and I went up afterward to speak to them about how one can have a family and a life and still work in academia. One of them had been a high-powered academic first, and then slowed down a bit when she had her family. She said it does take a lot of balance, and a very good partner, to make it work. She also said that there were ways to stay in the exciting and stimulating Oxford environment without being an actual academic, such as in administration. I have actually been considering something like that, but I think I'd like to spend some time at the Careers Centre before I make the decision. Unfortunately, I don't have much time, as I will need to submit the D.Phil application by January if I am doing that, and I should be asking for letters of recommendation from professors now. I wish I knew how to decide!
That brings us to the end of October, and with the beginning of November came some sad days. Aunt Laura, who, we knew, was dying of breast cancer that had spread to her liver, finally succumbed to her disease on November 1. I hated not being there. Even though, rationally, I know it would have been crazy to try to fly home in the middle of term, and even though we had said our goodbyes to each other before I left for England, I still feel like I should have been there with the rest of the family, been there at her funeral, been there in the succeeding weeks to help support my cousins and my uncle. Death never makes sense, but it is even more unfathomable when experienced from a distance. Because I wasn't going to see her during this year abroad anyway, it feels like she is not gone, because there is no hole in my life here where she would have been. In the first days after I was told of her death, I felt guilty for not feeling it more, for not being able to wrap my mind around it. It is still difficult, actually... So for the moment I am going to stop writing about it.
Hmm, I guess this won't be as long an email as I'd intended--I know, you're so very disappointed, hehe. I'll have to finish November later, as there is a stack of books on my desk waiting to be read and a pile of laundry in my hamper (which looks like a chickadee and always makes me smile!) waiting to be washed. I miss you all, and I wish you a happy weekend!