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Yearning for Stability

Here is an extraordinary post by A Clerk of Oxford, an Oxonian academic studying medieval English literature. [1] It begins with her enthusiasm for St. Mildred [2], an eighth-century abbess from the Kentish island of Thanet, where the Clerk of Oxford herself was born and raised.

The Clerk goes on to muse about the mingling of personal passion with academic interests. She speculates that more than a few academics “have private, personal reasons for their scholarly interests which wouldn’t stand up to professional scrutiny, alongside the more publicly acceptable ones. We are human beings, after all, and are attracted to certain things by influences we ourselves don’t necessarily understand.” She thinks that the academy would be better off if scholars were more open about their personal passions, and how they relate to their scholarship. More:

I’m encouraged in this belief by the knowledge that the medieval historians I study generally saw no problem whatsoever in being emotionally attached to their subjects. I like them all the more for it, and when I talk about them to the public, it’s that which catches people’s attention. As someone whose interests are primarily literary (I’m interested in the stories people tell about history, not in whether those stories are true or not), I find it endearing when medieval historians are biased and parochial and a little bit obsessive – all the things ‘monkish writers’ used to be criticised for by modern historians of the traditional stamp. Nothing makes me like William of Malmesbury more than his special fondness for Malmesbury’s history, the fact that he can’t resist being a bit extra interested in Aldhelm and Athelstan and anything connected to his own monastery. I love the thought of Eadmer at the Council of Bari, surrounded by the great and the good of the eleventh-century church but still getting most excited about a minor tidbit of local Canterbury history and the memory of some old monks he knew as a child. And there’s something touching about the way Goscelin talks about St Edith of Wilton as if she were a personal friend, and associates her with a lost happy period in his life. These are emotional responses to the past which have little to do with the facts of history, and much to do with each writer’s personal associations with a saint and the relationships, identities, or communities they represent for the writer. They’re entirely ‘unprofessional’ reactions, from the best English historians of their day, of a kind which few historians now would admit to in public even if they felt them.

Here’s where the post takes an unexpected turn:

I think about this question quite often, especially as social media increasingly allows scholars to have a more open approach to displays of personal enthusiasm than is acceptable in a traditional academic environment. (Even if some will still squeak ‘Oh no, enthusiasm!’) What do we attach ourselves to, and why? These days academics, like many people, are encouraged or forced to live rootless lives, changing jobs often and not developing an attachment to any particular institution. There are few places we have time to know intimately and few communities of which we can become a permanent part. I’m unusual for an early-career academic in that I’ve been in Oxford for years now, although never in a permanent position or anything like a home – it’s been stints of two- or three-year affiliations, while living in different types of rented accommodation (eight places in ten years). Even that precarious form of stability is a black mark against me in the job market (everything’s a black mark against you in the job market!); and if I wanted to get another academic job I’d have to be prepared to leave at the drop of a hat, whatever that meant leaving behind.

That’s a choice everyone has to make for themselves, of course, and one always has the option to opt out. But I wonder if it grows increasingly hard for people like me to understand what it might be like to count on living in one place your whole life – for instance, what it might be like for a monk or nun to spend his or her entire life attached to one monastery, living its communal life day after day in the physical presence of its saints and former inhabitants. Not that monks and nuns didn’t travel, of course – and away from home, home associations pull most strongly. The three writers I mentioned above illustrate this, too: William of Malmesbury travelled around on research trips, Eadmer spent years in exile with St Anselm, and Goscelin, a kind of itinerant hagiographer who worked on commission, could almost be the patron saint of academics on contingent, short-term contracts. And anyway these monks would all have said that no one gets to have a permanent home in this world: Non enim habemus hic manentem civitatem, sed futuram inquirimus, however much we may love the temporary homes we do find in this læne lif. But I think that one reason I am drawn to studying monastic communities is that they offer a rootedness which seems impossible today – at least for people like me. The idea of settling down, finding a home, knowing you can live and work in the same place for decades if you want to – these are things people of my generation are told not to expect or hope for (by people who were able to do just that, of course), and it is difficult, even if we try to believe it’s fun and exciting to be adrift in the world. I crave a sense of rootedness and belonging and if I project that feeling of security here on this blog, as people sometimes tell me I do, it’s because I’m working hard to find it for myself where circumstances don’t provide it for me.

Stability! The Clerk of Oxford goes on to say how much she enjoys talking to the public about medieval saints. You would think that stories about medieval saints were inaccessible to modern people, but it’s not true, she says. In fact, she goes on, it’s a real pleasure talking to the public about her scholarly work, because the public is really diverse, not at all narrow, like academics. More:

It would be best, of course, if such a diversity of experiences could be represented within academia itself, but as routes into the profession drastically constrict the less possible that seems. As I watch my postdoc friends quietly leaving academia, it seems to me it’s not just talent which is lost but that very diversity: those who leave are the people who can’t live rootless lives, because they have (and believe it’s important to have) children, parents, and partners to think about; or the people who appear less ‘professional’ by academic standards (too working-class, too female, that kind of thing); or the people who don’t come from backgrounds where constant rejection and job instability are things you just shrug off. The more academia becomes the preserve of people who are able – financially, practically or emotionally – to move countries every few years and to support themselves through extended periods of part-time work, the more socially and psychologically narrow a world it will become, the more detached from the wide range of human experience it claims to be able to classify and explain.

Read the whole thing. [1] This is pretty much the Platonic ideal of a blog post. If I were in England, I would invite the Clerk of Oxford to join me in an Oxford pub for a long, long dinner, and just listen to her tell stories. She is a kindred spirit. Maybe she should also be a source for my book on the Benedict Option. If we’re going to look back to the wisdom of the Middle Ages to find stability and order in a chaotic world, it seems to me that I have something to learn from the Clerk of Oxford. Fortunate indeed are the students who will have the opportunity to learn at her feet.

UPDATE: “A Clerk of Oxford” is Eleanor Parker, whose blog is massively esteemed among medievalists, [3] I’ve just learned.

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "Yearning for Stability"

#1 Comment By mdc On July 18, 2015 @ 9:56 am

“at her feet” ?

Let’s not get carried away!

#2 Comment By Peter Hovde On July 18, 2015 @ 10:11 am

Research into pay gaps between men and women in academia suggests that one disadvantage that women have is that their threats to move are taken less seriously, and threats to move are the primary path to raises.

#3 Comment By Hoosier On July 18, 2015 @ 10:58 am

Thank you for this! The entire blog is fantastic. What a find. Looking forward now to browsing through older posts. Already found some on George Herbert which brought a big smile to my face.

#4 Comment By Chris Rawlings On July 18, 2015 @ 11:14 am

Were the Middle Ages really that stable?

[NFR: I’m using “stability” in the specifically Benedictine sense. Benedictines take a vow of “stability,” which means that absent unusual circumstances, they remain in the monastery where they made their profession, for the rest of their lives. — RD]

#5 Comment By JLF On July 18, 2015 @ 11:54 am

Six years into my practice of law, a client (and friend) informed me I wasn’t really happy because he’d never seen me reading a law book, only history books. True enough, I’d always loved reading history – I’d even gotten a master’s degree in it before going on to law school – though I had no inclination to teach. But the idea of being paid to read (and think about) history was too much to resist, so I quit law and found a job teaching history to some pretty smart high school students. And that’s when I learned that teaching history can also be such great fun.

Looking back on a career in the classroom and the decision thirty-two years ago to leave the practice of law, a decision I’ve never once regretted, I can only say that NOT following my own personal passion would have been the biggest regret of my life. I was fortunate – no, blessed – to have followed Frost’s road less travelled. It has, indeed, made all the difference.

#6 Comment By Rich S On July 18, 2015 @ 12:06 pm

As I understand it right now you’re looking for examples of what this could be. Have you established what the framework of the possibilities are? As an example, I’d like to see something that looks like the framework I’ve put together [4].

I’m sure there’s better frameworks out there, and I’m not saying that it needs to be this detailed (or this basic?) but I would like to know how you’re structuring your thought process around the BO and your observations of other communities.

#7 Comment By Charles Cosimano On July 18, 2015 @ 12:09 pm

Somehow the idea of the middle ages as a stable life for anyone not blessed enough to live in a monastery just does not resonate very well.

The cost was pretty high. I would say something about the wisdom of the middle ages but my head is shaking too hard from laughing for me to focus on the screen.

#8 Comment By Sig Sønnesyn On July 18, 2015 @ 12:27 pm

The Oxford Clerk is a credit to academia, and deserves as wide a readership as possible – well done Rod for spreading the word! She has a rare ability to make the middle ages speak to us, on its own terms yet all the more relevant and immediate for us right now. I sincerely hope Oxford realises what a star they have in their midst.

#9 Comment By Tom the First On July 18, 2015 @ 6:02 pm

The Clerk at Oxford is a true scholar.

She states that writing her blog helps to convince herself that:

“… it’s OK to have a personal, emotional attachment to the things I study. It’s even OK to talk in the language of enthusiasm, passion and (dare I say it?) love. …”

The clerk seems intensely suspicious of personal fascination as a motive for scholarship. That reveals a serious problem in education.

I’ve found these three principles incredibly helpful in my work and studies:

– Follow what fascinates you.

– Love the truth more than your own ideas.

– Try to take into account all the factors in play in a situation.

(These ideas aren’t original – I’ve learned them through being a member of the Catholic movement Communion and Liberation.)

To be fascinated by a subject means that you will delve into it willingly. That attraction energizes your studies (and, by the way, makes it possible to teach a subject in a compelling way, too).

Learning a topic in depth requires a great deal of effort, and a willingness to master many details and technicalities. But the original fascination – if it’s true, if it’s real, if it’s profound – will draw you forward, and help you to keep the details in perspective.

And that fascination must be balanced by the other two principles I mentioned above: by a rigorous examination of your evidence, reasoning, and conclusions; and by attempting to take into account all the factors at work.

Our contemporary ideal of scholarship – that people pursue their studies out of an abstract desire to increase knowledge – is unrealistic. And that unrealistic ideal narrows the candidate pool in academia: As the Clerk implies, enthusiasm for a topic is frowned upon by academics.

University education suffers because too few professors are fascinated by what they study, and even fewer attempt to awaken that fascination in their students.

#10 Comment By James C. On July 18, 2015 @ 6:27 pm

My Lord. This blogpost speaks to me so deeply, more deeply than perhaps any I have ever read. Reading it, I experienced an uncanny feeling that the ‘Clerk of Oxford’ has read my heart and expressed its yearnings much more articulately than I ever could. She transported me.

You must meet with her when you prepare your book.

[NFR: Hey, *you* live in England! Make contact with her and go meet her. I want to be two degrees of separation from such a magnificent person as the Clerk of Oxford. — RD]

#11 Comment By Sam M On July 18, 2015 @ 7:34 pm

“The idea of settling down, finding a home, knowing you can live and work in the same place for decades if you want to – these are things people of my generation are told not to expect or hope for”

Honestly… when was this normal? I live in an old school blue collar place. My dad had a blue collar job. Most of the people I know did. But most of THEIR classmates bolted. My dad was really keen on pointing out that lots of HIS classmates from the class of 1951 moved to Pittsburgh to chase big money in the steel mills. Some of them made it through. Tons got laid off end of career in the late 70s or early 80s. So that amounted to ONE generation of stability. Their dads did not have that expectation. Their kids did not. So where are all these hugely multi-generational families shocked at not being able to work the same job forever?

#12 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On July 18, 2015 @ 11:54 pm

I love the esthetics of the middle ages, from the comfort of the 21st century. I would hate to have lived then.

#13 Comment By Jay On July 19, 2015 @ 2:04 am

Her complaints about stability and the diminishing access to academia strike me as somewhat disingenuous. She’s unhappy because the academic life isn’t conducive to either the stability she craves or the type of scholarship she wants to pursue. But so what? That just means that the world isn’t bending to her will and that she isn’t willing to make the hard choices.

She could easily have had both the stability she desired and also been the passionate teller of historical stories she wanted to be by staying in one place and teaching high school, for instance. A career that, even in this day and age, more or less allows you to stay where you are as long as you want. Except for University, she could have spent her entire life within 20 miles of Thanet, if she so desired.

But she wants Oxford. So be it. But you have to make the choices and accept the tradeoffs.

And as for this so-called stability of the middle ages, I call BS. First, most of the people who lived stable lives did so because they had to, at least in the later middle ages. They were bound to the lands of their feudal lords or they were part of a guild that would have controlled where and when they could practice their trade. The idea that she would have been able to pursue the scholarly life of the monks and the saints she admires is extremely remote. That was something that was available only rarely, more inaccessible than the upper echelons of the Ivy Leagues are today. Everyone with middle ages fantasies has these delusions that they will be a lord or an abbot. Nobody believes they would be a peasant, and the middle ages were even less of a meritocracy than the present.

And as for her aside that the academic life is becoming less accessible to those of diverse backgrounds and interests, I agree with here there. But that’s only because over the last 75 years it has become so much more accessible, both in the US and the UK. Before the second world war, the idea that anyone with her background (or mine) would have been allowed to even set foot in Oxford in anything but a menial or minor administrative capacity is exceedingly unlikely.

How does this relate to your “Benedict Option?” Well, I think it will be easier to live in the intentional communities that you claim to want to have. What you haven’t confronted is the compromises you would have to make. Yes, it will be harder to pursue some careers for instance. But nobody can have everything and everyone has to make tradeoffs.

#14 Comment By Liam On July 19, 2015 @ 6:06 am

PS: Today’s somewhat subtle Dreher-bait:


#15 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On July 19, 2015 @ 8:58 am


Thanks for digging this diamond for us! That’s why – among other things – what you’re doing is great.

And read this!

She understands that all scholarship is tp discover Truth and Beauty! How rare! How precious!

I have already said this but I’m tempted, as Cato, to repeat this at every comment I write:
Ceteris censeo, universitas studiorum optioni Benedicti condenda est.

#16 Comment By Anne On July 19, 2015 @ 12:21 pm

I didn’t realize life in academia, or at least for Oxford clerks, was all this unstable. No wonder there’s so much back-stabbing and career politics on display there. But of course, most workers today face similar instability simply because corporations are no longer required by union contracts or government regulations to respect something we used to call “workers’ rights.” People everywhere are beginning to accept the idea that they can be laid off, fired or transferred to the other side of the country (or globe) tomorrow, if not this afternoon. Lord only knows how this will affect BenOp planning, except to make the idea of strong community ties that much more appealing, however elusive.

#17 Comment By Viking On July 20, 2015 @ 3:52 am

I had the same reaction as Anne did, believing academic life to be far more stable and place-bound than The Clerk claims. Or at least, believing it to be so once one attains tenure. The aforementioned status may be increasingly hard to get, to be sure. Assuming it is as she says it is, both in the UK and here in the States, what could have caused this? I’m aware that employees of large corporations – and of the military in terms of transfers – have long lived with such instability, but “the professions” seem quite different. Perhaps the corporate mentality has taken over even in places which once thought about the world very differently?

I’d like to conclude by asking a final question, to be picked up by anyone interested: What might the impact of online education be on this state of affairs? It would seem to me that an internet prof could live anywhere (s)he wants, only provided it had the facilities to broadcast (or narrowcast?) the lectures. And I’m inclined to think that there would be ample room for many to follow this line of work, if only because grading tests and papers couldn’t be done by just anyone, and there’d be practical limits as to how many students a particular prof could take on given this. Thoughts?

#18 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On July 20, 2015 @ 5:00 am

Chris Rawlings

Were the Middle Ages really stable

Yes, they were. As the great German medievalist [7] would say, the Middle Ages were the time of the “Forms of Life”.

Society was crystallized into a few forms of life (the Peasant, the Cleric, the Monk, the Noble, the Burger…) each of which had a set of codified rituals, behaviors and way of thinking that provided security and reliability in an era of great material insecurity.

As to Arno Borst, is as shame that most of his [8] are not available in English.