IWD: DR TAM BLAXTER: Diversity and the future of the college

First of all, we would like to say an enormous thank you as a committee for making International Women’s Day, and the launch of ‘FRANKLY SPEAKING’ such a wonderful success!

After selling all copies of the zine within a few hours, we have decided to publish a digital version on ISSUU. So, here is a glorious online edition of ‘FRANKLY SPEAKING’ if you didn’t manage to grab a copy on the evening:

 

 

Below, we have the transcript of Dr Tam Blaxter’s speech, who is a Research Fellow in Linguistics at Caius. In their speech, Tam discusses the future of Caius: how we foresee diversity issues within the college for future generations of students and fellows and how different efforts towards inclusion will speak to and support each other.

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I want to say thank you to the Joyce Frankland Society for inviting me to speak—I’m honoured to be asked, and I hope you’ll find the perspective I bring interesting. The future of the college is a big question and I think that is it very important that any of the future of the college should come from all of us—so while I’m speaking, I hope you’ll be thinking about what questions you have or about your own ideas for the future to contribute to this discussion.

I’m a Research Fellow—for anyone who doesn’t know what that is, in the college statutes, the position is actually called an Unofficial Fellow. This is because Research Fellows are a bit of an odd position in the college community. The idea is that we’re not really office holders or employees per se but still Scholars—so, almost still students. An Unofficial Fellowship is four years to spend pursuing your own research, with no teaching or administrative duties to distract you. It’s an incredible luxury—there are very few comparable early career positions outside Oxford and Cambridge Colleges, and it’s perfect for someone like me who got to the end of a PhD and said—that was great, I’d like to go again.

My own research is in historical linguistics. I look at how and why changes in languages spread through populations. My masters research was on gendered language in medieval Iceland; my PhD was on language change in medieval Norway. My current work looks at medieval and modern Norwegian and English.

I don’t know how much that informs my view on the future of the college, except that it means my instinct in thinking about the future is to start with history.

What does inform my view on the topic—and on college and Cambridge life generally—is my background. I did my masters at Oxford and my PhD at Cambridge, but I did my undergrad the University of Essex.

My undergrad experience was really different to what I think the undergrad experience is here. Essex is a 1960s university. It’s a campus university, it’s in a big bit of parkland outside Colchester. The campus is all concrete—the effect is kind of like walking around a huge multi-story car-park, although I’m told it’s actually an important example of Brutalist architecture. The campus is kind of like a little village—it has shops, pubs, restaurants, clubs, tower block and housing-estate type accommodation—so that at least in first year, everyone lives on campus and never really has to leave. The university has a history of being very left wing—and in my first year, in a landslide election the Socialist Workers took over the whole of the student union, which I can’t quite imagine happening at Cambridge. It’s also a very diverse university—currently ranked 15th in the world for proportion of international students, and when I was there international students were more than 30% of the student body—but also a very local university in other ways, with lots of students from East Anglia and London.

All of which is to say that I had quite a culture shock when I arrived at Oxford for my masters. At matriculation formal, I remember being told by the fellow I sat next to that this year’s menu was very dull because last year they’d had ostrich—whereas this year it was only quail. When I went to lectures,I discovered that the lecturers and even a lot of the students opted to wear suits and ties. Cambridge and Oxford are very strange places in some ways—and I try to stay grounded in that sense of strangeness, the memory of how weird it all felt when I arrived, to keep in touch with how these communities must feel to people when they arrive at the beginning of their degrees.

So that’s one perspective that informs my thinking.

Another is that I’m trans—I identify as non-binary and as a trans woman. Those identities have hugely shaped how I’ve experienced being at Cambridge, and so they also shape my view of the topic at hand.

Now the topic I was asked to speak on was the future of the college—and I am going to get there, but you’ll have to forgive me for going on a bit of a historical tangent first. So, thinking about this evening, I spent a while in the college library reading about the history of the college, people who’ve been associated with it, books and artefacts that have been here… Because in a place like this, with such an incredibly long history and such an intimate relationship with its history, I think you have to situate any vision of the future in a long view of the past.

And one of the things I got a strong impression of as I read and thought about the history of Caius was of the college as a homely space. It’s this quite small community that has existed for centuries and has had its moments of strife, but for most of the time it’s been just that—a small community, looking after its own. A home and a safe space.

And maybe this is romanticising, but I think you can come up with good reasons why that should be. A college should be a space in which people come of age intellectually, and for that to be possible they need it to be a safe space in which they can experiment, and a community which holds them up. It’s also a space in which academics can think daring thoughts and write daring things—and that’s also work which benefits from roots in a safe, supportive community.

The college has created this sense of community and stability in lots of ways. Partly, the feeling comes straight from the college’s depth of history. You can read nineteenth century diaries and get images of people having the same meals for the same occasions in the same rooms that we do today. Or you can read words that are said on ceremonial occasions and hear the echo of people repeating the same words for the same ceremonies down the centuries. And I think lots of people find something very comforting about that, something very grounding. Like this community is so stable, so impervious to outside change, that you can always rely on it even as you yourself change or experiment.

But I also think that the Oxbridge colleges create that sense of safety and community using tradition. Something that really strikes you here is how readily people start traditions, or start labelling things as traditions, or how keen they are to do things in faux-traditional ways. And those traditions function to mark them out as a community. Like we all share all these weird cultural quirks and language and ways of doing things that everybody outside Oxbridge finds incomprehensible and a bit silly—and so we create a sense of ourselves and these places as a community by differentiating ourselves from the outside.

But of course, these things don’t exist in a vacuum and aren’t neutral to social background—if you read about the weird traditions in the Houses of Commons, or the weird traditions at Eton and Harrow, you find all of these echoes of Oxbridge college life. The ease of building traditions over the years is partly due to strong links with other wealthy institutions—and with the cultural homogeneity of who has traditionally come here.

And the thing is, the upshot of all of that is that Oxbridge colleges haven’t felt safe and homely and inclusive to everyone. In a very obvious sense, on the scale of the history of the college, this was a space that simply excluded women until really very recently. There’s an anecdote that really brought home to me what that means in terms of how people felt.

In 1897, the University held a vote on whether to start awarding women degrees—because at this point, the women’s colleges existed but couldn’t officially award degrees. And they lost the vote by an enormous margin—the vast majority of dons and alumni voted against giving women degrees. And though students couldn’t vote, it was also a big political issue among students—the students at Caius made a huge banner and hung it along the buildings opposite Senate House, which read “GET YOU TO GIRTON, BEATRICE, GET YOU TO NEWNHAM; HERE’S NO PLACE FOR YOU MAIDS”. Beatrice I’m guessing is the Beatrice in Much Ado who is a woman regarded as too witty and not deferent enough. And after the vote, having successfully prevented women from getting degrees, they had a riot and smashed up a load of local shops. That’s how strong the feeling was, that’s how offended male students were at the idea of—not even including women in their spaces, but just thinking of women as equals.

Now obviously that was over a century ago and there have been several generations of students and fellows since, so lots of opportunity for the culture to totally transform, but do I think it’s left a residue of feeling. A sense maybe that women fellows have to be twice as good, have to always be on form and never let the side down, because they’re not just representing themselves—they’re somehow still representing the political argument that they deserve to be there at all.

There’s an account I read from the early years of women being admitted college which I think still rings true, of a woman student saying that for the first year, she really believed all her male peers were head and shoulders above her in terms of academic ability. But when the exams finally came, she found out that that wasn’t true at all—they had just always been more forward in the supervisions, more ready to offer their opinions—because they were more confident in their right to be in the room in first place.

And this differential feeling goes beyond the academic sphere and it goes beyond cis women. The elements of college life that are devised to create a sense of community—all these traditions, this weird language, this acute sense of history—works to make the place seem alien to lots of people on arrival. And maybe that’s true for most people, but you feel it much more acutely if you’re already not totally confident about your right to be there. So women, yes, but also people from working class backgrounds and people of colour can very easily discover that the way that Cambridge College life operates is forbidding and exclusive, rather than seeing it as a way to build a sense of commonality, of shared community.

And if you’re a person of colour, or if you’re trans, or from a working-class background, then constantly confirming that initial impression, if you look around the rooms you’re in, you see very few faces like yours, hear very few voices that sound like yours. All of that cultural work that people are putting into creating shared identity and sameness instead operates to make you feel like you’re out on a limb, that you stand out for having a weird identity that doesn’t really fit here. So yeah—you feel like you’re constantly representing the political argument that people like you can function well enough, are good enough to be here.

And students here are always sharing stories of supervisors who have said misogynist things, or racist or transphobic things—and those all also work to confirm this sense that a lot of people at Cambridge carry around with them, which is that even if nothing’s happening to you right now, it’s not fundamentally a very safe place for you to exist.

So—I have to get to the question eventually. I’ve identified a problem, as I see it— but what does this mean we should want from the future of our community?

We’ve already heard tonight that the answer is more diversity—and that’s clearly right, and maybe it seems ridiculous to have spent like quarter of an hour slowly getting there again. But diversity has become sort of a bleached word, and I wanted to give a richer picture of why it is needed and what it should mean.

In the 1960s, the principle of St Anne’s in Oxford used this phrase when talking about colleges going co-ed: “essentially a men’s college with some women in it.” And that, I think, is what a lot of people are aiming at when they say they want more diversity in Cambridge colleges. More people of colour, more people from working class backgrounds, more women, maybe more queer people in the mix—but culturally, visually, impressionistically very little change.

But to really disrupt that creation of cultural distance and otherness, we need to go further than that. Because the thing is, walking into a room and seeing and hearing truly diverse faces and voices—people of different abled status, and different sizes, and dressed differently, who are talking differently, and engaging differently with this community—as well, of course, as people differing in terms of gender, sexuality, class and ethnicity —that can be a transformative experience. Because if everyone is different somehow, then there’s no cultural centre of gravity—no ‘normal’, no cultural majority against which to define someone as the odd one out. The community can then be about communication across difference, communication about difference, rather than being about constructing a homogenous ‘us’ that’s different from the outside world.

And yes, that probably has to mean loosening our grip a little on our love of tradition and history and on formality and hierarchy. But I think it would be worth it because if we could make a community like that—then the college could become for everyone what it has always been for some people—a truly safe space that holds them up and enriches their intellectual development.

 

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