Friday, 17 May 2013

Oxford Conference

Last week, I presented my work at "Global Knowledge", a PhD/early career conference run by Oxford University's Transnational and Global History research group. Most of the other speakers were doing Colonial/post-Colonial history (either British or French empires, with a little discussion of Spain/Portugal thrown in for good measure). I was on a panel with another American, David Olson of Boston College, whose research on UNESCO was really interesting (and one of the few papers there where I recognised citations, like Ninkovich's The Diplomacy of Ideas!).

Overall, the conference was great--learned a great deal about archival research and how to think about history, and just had a really lovely time. I made friends and connections, and remembered to hand out my business card. It's the last conference I have planned for the foreseeable future, so I definitely thought about networking.

Being at Oxford got me thinking about my thesis chapter (as yet unwritten) on the way that the Fulbright Program alumni feed back into the program (volunteering, writing, funding, lobbying, etc.) and reproduce future generations of Fulbrighters.  It's all about elite institutions and elite people--"future leaders." I've written here before about my struggles with reading Bourdieu, but being at Oxford for the weekend has inspired me to give it another go. There is something fascinating about these people, their view of the world...It's hard for me to articulate it, but I'm going to have to if I want to include it in the thesis.

Here's an example: on the morning of the conference, I posted a Facebook status about how presenting at Oxford was beyond my wildest dreams, growing up in rural Stanwood & being born in Siloam Springs. I said that being around people who attend these schools sometimes makes me forget how amazing it is. I had my friend Tracey in mind. Although she's from Halifax, West Yorkshire and is refreshingly down-to-earth and lovely, she is also brilliant and read history at Oxford. She even did a study abroad at Princeton, the Ivy League school that I'd applied to, early decision, and was rejected by. Tracey makes my accomplishments far less special. She's amazing. The point of my status update was that, while sometimes amazing people like Tracey make me feel like I'm not 'enough', I should be proud of myself for presenting at Oxford. It's an accomplishment that the 15-year-old me in Stanwood would have been proud of--the kid who had never met anyone who went to Oxford or Princeton.

And, as often happens in social media, the status update didn't go down like I'd hoped it would. In just a few minutes, I had a comment from Tracey. She said "Awww, I love it!" and then went on about her time there. I didn't want that. I felt her "aww" was a bit patronising, as though she thought it was 'cute' that I was excited. She didn't know that I would take it that way, and she certainly didn't mean it in a negative way at all. But the point is, she didn't get my point. And that, essentially, is what my whole elite institution angle on the Fulbright Program is all about. They don't get it. They are elites being given grants to become more elite, and they don't see it that way at all.

I'm still trying to articulate these thoughts more clearly, but there's something important going on here. The main reason I haven't said it is because I'm afraid of sounding bitter--like I just have a big chip on my shoulder because of my non-Ivy League/Oxbridge background. I don't want to come across like an anti-elitist, because obviously I've been working hard all of these years to become an elite (a PhD in much more elite can a working-class American get?). I like touring stately homes, eating brie and drinking port, but I also love Wal-Mart and Mexican food.

I hope that I never lose touch with my working-class roots, and never lose that sense of wonder & appreciation, no matter how many times I present my work at elite institutions.


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