It is now a week since I succeeded in my campaign to become the next Policy Coordinator of my union. Last Saturday I received the votes of the student body to take on the role, commencing in two weeks' time and lasting for a year.
I had thought that I would use my blog as a medium for independent writing and honest thoughts about the election process and the events as they unfolded. Unfortunately, I did not have the time to blog (no change there, then). In fact, with campaigning and covering the events on my agenda, I struggled to get the time to commit to my studies that week as well.
The election process took up more of my time than I had thought. I had planned to keep campaigning to the online world, establishing a Facebook page and scheduling posts to come out at busy times. This scheme changed when I walked onto campus on the first day of campaigning to discover my opponent unravelling two shiny, expensive banners, which they would drape around the most popular areas of campus.
For a little while I was panicking. I had no campaigning team and no resources for campaigning besides access to the Internet. Other candidates had assembled a team of helpers and acquired cardboard, string and tape in good time.
On the first day I went to see students dining at three colleges' cafeteria, finding groups at tables and taking a minute or so of their time to justify a vote for me. After that came a visit to the campus Labour Party and then to another college's Monday biscuit and cake night. The following day saw me visit three colleges' Junior Common Room Committees (JCRCs). The rest of the week has become a bit of a blur now...
Halfway through the campaigning, I messaged one of the other candidates. Quite unexpectedly, I was sitting in my room unable to think of a reason to dislike YUSU. The cynicism, the negativity and the frustration that had motivated me to stand in the election had somehow withered away and died. Everyone was trying as hard as possible to make the election process fun, kind and easy. The union provided us with a week's access to its community space, dishing out fruit, biscuits and cups of tea. Whether it was for journalistic inquiries or campaign advice, the Democracy Officer was always willing to offer assistance. Without that cynicism, we were able to laugh when a union officer Tweeted the wrong dates for the voting period. Campaigning may be exhausting, but it's thrilling.
Campaigning alongside potential representatives for other areas of the union also taught me a lot about problems and concerns that other students face, most notably disabled students. Many candidates drew attention to how strenuous and difficult the election process is. Some elements of the process are even harder for disabled candidates. How are students on crutches or in wheelchairs meant to make it into nightclubs where other able-bodied candidates go campaigning, or to the multiple hustings across campus? Participating in the process, even for one of the smallest roles in the union, taught me a lot about concerns that other students have.
Last Saturday was the results night. The Policy Coordinator position was the first to be declared. Sitting with The Yorker's News Editor, I could not make out the results diagram, but I heard the host call my name as the victor. "What's your role?" he asked me later, on stage. "Policy Coordinator," I responded. "Are you looking forward to coordinating policy?" he asked back. Make the role sound exciting, why don't you?
If anything I'm looking forward to making sense of the policy process. When campaigning, the top question to me was, "What actually is the Policy & Review Group?" Most students don't know that the PRG exists. They have no idea what it's for, how policies are suggested and reviewed or what responsibilities the Coordinator has. I pledged to ensure that the PRG does what it's supposed to be doing, but if there's an opportunity to make the policy process clearer without drastically changing it, I'd be interested to look into it.
That cynicism I mentioned hasn't really gone away - in the throng of campaigning and writing for The Yorker, it must have just been put on hold. With the job approaching, I have my objectives in mind: following the constitution and putting an end to an interpret-how-you-want-when-you-want approach to important documents, exhibited time and time again by staff.
I was elected on promises to get the PRG back in form, following the rules that are laid out. But a good Policy Coordinator isn't necessarily one who is very good at adhering to protocol (or, being a good bureaucrat, as you might put it). The Policy Coordinator must ensure that the policy process is carried out fairly, honestly and without biases. The Coordinator should also be looking to get more students involved in the policy process: it's one of the most effective ways of changing the way the union runs itself.
"You've joined the establishment now," one student commented. I suppose I have; the union cynic, the anti-establishment candidate, will be in a union position in a few weeks' time. But that doesn't mean that I have to behave like the establishment that I have criticised; if all goes well, I'll tidy a few things up!
I rarely write about my own life or general day-to-day experiences here. I've still not mastered the delicate art of blogging. There's not much point in telling long stories about student life - it would only make sense to others on campus. So, I use this as a medium to express my thoughts about history, philosophy, politics and more. It's much easier to discuss ideas to which any sensible person can relate.
However, my time as Editor of The Yorker is coming to a close. Though I intend to continue contributing to its journalism, I imagine that my focus will slowly shift towards my own writing medium, where I can write more about my own experiences without fear of using a media outlet as a loudspeaker for my personal anecdotes.
It's just me writing here; there's no one else and I'm not tied to anything. That's something that matters particularly right now. On Thursday, I finished a self-nomination for a part-time role within the students' union at York. At 3:30am yesterday I refined the nomination to include a manifesto longer than "MANIFESTO TO FOLLOW." I hope to be elected to become the Policy Coordinator, a role that involves directing the creation of policy, holding officers to account and hosting a few union events as a chairman.
Putting my name forward for a union position brings about a peculiar feeling. After a year of critical journalism and years more of hearing no end of distrust and grumbling from friends, society members and colleagues, it feels bizarre to be applying to work (without a wage, alongside an MA degree) for YUSU. It's like I've been playing for a football team long enough to sing the chants and jeers about the rivals from memory, only at the end of the season to sign on to play for the other team.
My application to be in charge of the policy-making process is rooted in frustration. Putting it bluntly, rules aren't followed, staff mislead students and a handful of officers behave like unrestrained autocrats, inventing rules that don't exist and drafting policies without the need to run it by anyone else. I had to water down my anger, but my manifesto mentions a particular slip-up and nods to several others from the past.
To be clear, my students' union is not governed by malicious people. In fact, when you get to know the staff, as I have done before, all of them are generous, kind and well-meaning people who do want to make students' lives better. So where do these "unrestrained autocrats" come from? Usually, it's down to ignorance - not ignorance in the sense of stupidity, but ignorance with respect to a lack of knowledge about important constitutional instructions, policies and by-laws. My pledge is to do something to alter that. Following the rules laid down would actually go a long way to exposing mistakes and putting things on the right path.
"Why open up about this now?" you may be wondering. "Why open up about this here?" My involvement with The Yorker means that I can be a student journalist without kowtowing to frustrating union regulations, but even so, many would say that, if this appeared elsewhere, I would be using The Yorker as my own little propaganda machine in the pursuit of election. Here, there are no third parties. I am my own editor. I have the freedom to write without interference and without association with anyone else.
In our perennial quest to determine what history is, it doesn't take long before we (students of History at university) attempt to define what a historian is as well. Even if we are satisfied with our definitions of history - a study of the past, a collection of past events, an account of previous events based on evidence, an interpretation of sources and artefacts from past ages to form a narrative - we must ensure that our understanding of the historian is as accurate as our understanding of history.
The most popular way of explaining the concept of the historian, including his or her role, function and limitations, is to compare it with someone from another discipline or in another job. Historians cannot simply study the past, it seems: they must be archaeologists, digging up primary sources, relics and artefacts and examining them; they must be reporters, gathering information from a wide range of backgrounds and publications to make a concise statement about a past event; they must be scientists, not in the same vein as conventional scientists, who make conclusions by observing experiments under prepared conditions, but interested in compiling evidence to form a judgment; and they must be novelists, composing the story or stories of history in a clear and enjoyable enough style for the general public to digest.
Are historians storytellers? This was a question put to History students in a recent assessment. My own joint-honours degree meant that I did not have to take the course that would have challenged me with a similar question, but, hearing about it from single-honours students, I wanted to respond.
At first, I intended to criticize this description. I think that the description of storyteller is a demeaning one for a historian. Storytellers serve a different purpose to historians. Often a story is written in order to entertain an audience. Stories, by definition, are fictional and can be rewritten at the storyteller's whim. History, however, is unchanging. Historians do not have the power to rewrite history and must base their 'stories' on the unchangeable evidence. I preferred to describe historians as journalists of the past. Historians are expected to report the past accurately and clearly, using appropriate evidence and sources to support their accounts. They are duty-bound to report the past fairly, without bias or prejudice, and to acquire their knowledge through honest means.
However, I realised today that these kinds of inquiries don't actually resolve the question, what is a historian? People of other professions do things: scientists construct experiments and carry out scientific research, novelists and storytellers compose stories, journalists report the news and so on. We cannot answer the question, what is a historian? by saying that "a historian is a storyteller" or "a historian is a journalist." It may be that their methodologies bear similarities, but to leave our explanations of historians at simple comparisons with other people and professions is not enough.
To explain what constitutes a historian, I think that we must have a concrete understanding of what a historian does. Anyone who has an interest or a degree of expertise in history can be, or rather be called, a historian, but these kinds of historian may just be people who read a lot of books about history. If this is true, my grandmother is probably a historian. I think the historians who work in academic departments would not take kindly to being equated with a bookworm or a subscriber to History Today, in the same way as a zoologist would be offended if he were compared to a keen watcher of Planet Earth and the Discovery Channel. It's not necessarily about written qualification - you don't need to have a doctorate to be a historian - but there are historians who gather their knowledge by reading other historians' work, and there are historians who play an active role in the discipline, researching and writing up their findings. The former historians are not contributing to the field and, if the accounts they are reading are poor, they will become poor historians themselves. The historian that I'm conceiving, then, is a professional: he is someone who genuinely engages with the sources and scholarship in order to further our knowledge, rather than an armchair reader of a Boris Johnson book or a watcher of a Simon Schama documentary.
Historians investigate a period, theme or event of history. They acquire sources in order to understand the subject of their inquiry. As students know, practically anything can be a source: a book, a newspaper, a photograph, a diary, a letter, a speech, a debate, a cartoon, a radio programme, a musical composition, literature and poetry, a political treatise, a census, minutes from a meeting and so on. Good historians, I would argue, look at the sources themselves and make their own conclusions; bad historians read other historians' books and recycle their arguments to the point where they do no real research of their own.
Many historians are historians of an era or a movement: in my university, for instance, there is a historian specialising in early modern English history, including the Tudor regime. Some historians look at the histories of other disciplines such as science, mathematics and philosophy, or other activities such as sport, public speaking, racing or religion. A historian I met a few years ago, when I mistakenly thought I'd be clever enough to study at Oxford, had recently published a book on the history of sex.
So far in this blog post, historians research areas of history using a variety of sources, coming to a conclusion that is informed by the evidence. However, this is not yet a satisfactory answer to the question, what is a historian? Anyone can read about a particular area of history and make their own conclusion. I could go to the university library tomorrow and pick out a few books about medieval China, Edwardian drama or Hungarian socialism. According to the earlier, primitive account, reading a few books about Edwardian drama would make me a historian of that subject, yet I would likely be rejected if I were to apply for a job at the Department of History here. Therefore, historians' conclusions have to be more than a concise summary of the historical literature they have read; they have to advance something. They have to say something about their subject.
Was the Tudor era a stable period in politics? Was high society in the Georgian era dominated by a culture of extravagance? At what point during the Cold War were relations between the superpowers at their tensest? Who was the most influential figure in the development of the Russian Communist Party? Were the 1970s really as bad as our parents recall? Historians contemplate how our predecessors have perceived previous areas, or how they are currently perceived, and challenge them if they feel that the evidence should indicate something different. If there is something that is missing in a colleague's historical investigation, a historian may choose to pick up on it and make it the topic of their research. Who knows - it might swing the general understanding of the period entirely? History, I think, is intended to be a cumulative study: we build on the work of previous historians, correcting their mistakes and looking into areas that they had not considered.
There is, of course, a danger that a cumulative account revolves around presuming that previous historians always got it right and that we're simply furthering historical knowledge. Part of being a good academic, I think, is the willingness to go over old scholarship and critique it, removing bad ideas and bad investigations and revising them.
The requirement to advance an argument is perhaps one of the most terrifying aspects of studying history, because it requires the historian to go beyond simply gathering information and come to a clear judgment. Students feel that they must smash the consensus in each one of their essays. This is misleading, however: historians are not motivated to smash the consensus while they are researching. Few historians do what they do because they have a deep desire to overturn the historical consensus on any given matter.
Nonetheless, the need to come to a conclusion is still a scary thing, as a historian's conclusion is only as good as his evidence. It is easy for us to quash a conclusion by citing evidence that the historian did not use. For example, one historian might argue that a given decade was a time of a positive, cohesive society, citing promising responses to happiness surveys, high social mobility and rare moments of industrial action. Another historian might argue that the given decade was a terrible time for the society, citing high crime rates, political scandals and poor healthcare. A third historian might come along and synthesise the two historians' accounts to conclude that the decade was pretty average, but a fourth historian might reject one theory and advance the other - not only were crime rates high and healthcare poor, but average pay was low and the national economy's level of growth was sluggish.
The question that is then provoked concerns the purpose of historical inquiry. Historians seek an accurate depiction of the past, but how do we understand accuracy? Some would argue that accuracy concerns fine details: historians should seek to scrutinise elements of the past as much as possible so our understanding is correct. Others would argue that accuracy relates more to the wider picture: by turning the spotlight on new evidence, we can shape our understanding of the big picture accordingly. Putting it another way, do historians seek to improve our understanding of events by uncovering the finest details, or reshape our understanding of events by drawing attention to lesser-known elements?
Arguably, historians engage in both. It wouldn't take much effort to point to historians who do such a thing. Some historians believe that our understanding of a moment of history needs refinement; others believe that our recollection of history is told in the wrong way and needs editing.
Historians do not seek to simply learn about the past - anyone can do that with a visit to the library, or even a browse of Wikipedia. Historians seek to present the past as accurately as possible, adhering to the evidence as closely as possible. Doing this often involves revising old ideas, solving old problems and even contradicting existing scholarship. But we should avoid awarding the historian with someone else's responsibilities. The historian has his own duties and function.
I did not expect to be more tired in my first week of my third year of study than my first. Freshers' Week is renowned for being a week of partying, drinking, sleep deprivation and general madness. To my surprise, I experienced all of these things, albeit not in my own first week of university life.
I have been working as a Second & Third Year Contact - a STYC - for my college at the university. STYCs are there to be guides for new students, from helping lift their suitcases into their new accommodation and giving them directions on campus to accompanying them on their first nights out in town.
All STYCs are required to sign an agreement, stating that they will behave appropriately while in their role. The STYCs pledge to assist new students when they need advice and suggestions and to cooperate with Head STYCs and members of the Junior Common Room Committee. STYCs promise that they will not make assumptions about incoming students on the basis of their looks, accent, sex and opinions; that they will not give instructions about matters far beyond their jurisdiction; and that they will not judge students on what they believe, what they wear and what they like to do. STYCs also promise not to ignore the instructions of Head STYCs, be drunk on the job or have sex with new students.
STYCs who fail to keep to their promises run the risk of being barred from particular events, or being dismissed altogether - 'de-STYCed', as it is known. Some misbehaving STYCs will be asked to avoid evening events or events that typically involve alcohol, or, in more drastic cases, be ejected from a nightclub by bouncers and ordered home.
During my time as a Head STYC I have probably had more fun than I did in my own Freshers' Week. I've had the opportunity to work with old friends and housemates as well as new faces, making new relationships and strengthening old bonds. Working with a team of different backgrounds, faiths and attitudes to ensure the wellbeing and enjoyment of a fresh generation of students has been one of the most exhilarating experiences I have had while at university.
That said, there was one moment that stood out during Freshers' Week, something that saddened me greatly. Though it has not spoiled my time as a Head STYC, it made me think deeply about a lot of things.
At 3am one morning I was on my way home from a college event at a nightclub. Almost every student of my college had left and the designated 'responsible persons' of the JCRC had ordered me home.
I walked across the bridge on (the aptly-named) Bridge Street. I thought about walking down the river path, which would eventually take me very close to my home. As I came to the steps descending to the riverside pubs, I saw two students, a male STYC and a female student, talking. The conversation seemed frustrated.
As I walked down the steps, I heard the scrape of shoes against the stone. "Are you all right?" I asked, whipping around. The STYC had slipped but was still on his feet. He mumbled something incomprehensible - he was drunk. I repeated my question, but he responded with something that sounded like, "f*ckin' shag 'er".
I walked on. Something wasn't right. The students were not having a happy chat. I decided to pause and watch from afar. Standing under the sign of the King's Head, I observed for five minutes or so. They talked; the girl made two phone calls, pacing back and forth as she spoke. She looked alert.
The STYC looked impatient and eventually walked away. The student turned and walked in the other direction, back across the bridge, alone. I raced up the steps. When I reached the top, the STYC had vanished, but the student was crying, wrapped in the arms of a group of friends. I went over and introduced myself as a Head STYC of another college before holding her.
The two students had kissed in the same nightclub from which I had been walking. Kissing a Fresher is an offence for STYCs and the STYC had been booted from the club. (In fact, I was outside as his wristband was removed by his superior. We had marvelled at how swiftly he had been disciplined.) But the STYC, drunk, pursued the student afterward. In her words, he "expected more." He had expected more than a kiss to follow. The STYC and the Fresher had walked to Bridge Street but things had turned sour. The phone calls she made were to her friends, asking for immediate help.
But the girl was crying for another reason. "I got him de-STYCed!" she said. We tried to convince her that it wasn't important: he had signed a contract to behave appropriately and he had violated it. "But I got him de-STYCed..." she said back again.
The students promised me that they would take a taxi home immediately. I walked home by the river alone. Maybe it was just the wind in my eyes but I came close to crying myself. In the face of not just improper advances from a supposedly responsible student but also the expectation that she would sleep with him on their return to campus, she held herself responsible. If it wasn't for her, she thought, he would not have been dismissed.
People do very stupid things when they are drunk. Maybe it would be cruel to attack the STYC now - he might be a much more well-behaved person when he is sober. I didn't catch his name (nor the name of the student) and I wish him no ill will for what happened. But whether he was sober or drunk at the time, it was a STYC who had promised and failed to treat his students with dignity, yet it was a student who felt responsible for his disobedience. She could not see that he had broken his vows and that he expected her to have sex with him later; she saw herself as the wrongdoer.
One of the largest factors that make victims of sexual assault unwilling to report their plight is the thought that they were somehow responsible for it. Too often we enforce the idea that a victim was in some way inviting his or her own assault. We still live in a society where, when a woman comes forward as the victim of rape, people her ask about what she was wearing at the time; a society where some capricious men respond to accusations of sexual assault with the putrid defence, "but she was asking for it."
At today's Freshers' Fair I became a member of the Feminist Society. It's a controversial society with members of various schools of feminist thought; it's also something with which I have previously had little interaction. However, I believe that victims of sexual assault should never feel guilt or wonder if they had invited the abuse they received from someone else; feminism and the empowerment of women are necessary to erode the dangerous mentality of self-blame.
"An effectual barrier against the innovations of the vulgar...": Victorian etiquette as a weapon of class
As part of my degree I am writing a dissertation on a topic of my choice. After a lot of deliberation following a mild 'academic crisis' (more on that another time), I elected to research British gentlemen's etiquette manuals in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Over the summer I tracked a handful of manuals down from a variety of sources. Many came from the websites of American universities and online, downloadable Victorian literature anthologies.
Yesterday I took a look at Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen; or the Principles of True Politeness to which is added the Ball-Room Manual, one of many etiquette guides published anonymously in England in the 1800s.
Much of the manual makes an interesting read for the modern reader. We are presented with the various acceptable and unacceptable ways of behaving in introductions, conversations in the street and at dinner, discussing religion and other social situations. As one would expect, many of the practices seem highly austere in comparison with our own today. But the opening pages of the manual are arguably the most interesting, at least to my own research, for it is in the first two pages that the anonymous author defines and describes etiquette and the existence of 'good society'. Not only does the author describe etiquette as the fashion of the upper class, but he also indicates the use of etiquette as a tool of both encouraging social mobility and preserving the status quo.
the name given to the code of laws established by the highest class of society for regulating the conduct, words and actions of those admitted within its sphere...
I can't imagine a clearer indication that etiquette is a social construction of the upper class. Nineteenth century etiquette manuals were not fashionable phenomena of the period. Etiquette manuals were the last of a series of manuals written mainly for an upper-class audience. These manuals began as guides for the young sons of the aristocracy who required tutelage in taking their places at the top spots of English society. Over the course of several decades these guides took a much stronger tone, addressing good moral behaviour with a religious streak. By the 1830s, however, the didactic nature of these books waned and were replaced by guides on how gentlemen should behave if they intended to fit in with high society.
Within the first paragraph, the author of this etiquette manual states that etiquette is a construction of the social elite. Adherence to fine moral practice or following the instruction of the divine are absent; this is a blunt admission of the not-so-sophisticated origins of good manners. But the author writes further that etiquette is a way of "regulating the conduct [...] of those admitted within its sphere." Etiquette forms the rules and regulations of a small, exclusive group that polices itself.
Despite the decline of moralism in these manuals, the author nonetheless claims that social disorder will prevail should etiquette be abolished:
[Etiquette is] the keystone in the arch of refinement; and it would be both impolite and a danger to remove it, it is an effective barrier against the innovations of the vulgar...
Etiquette serves a second function besides regulating the affairs of the governing class: it also keeps the unwanted wretches out of the elite's affairs. Removing etiquette would be a "danger" - it would jeopardise social peace, or, as I would imagine, the existing social order. Etiquette ensures that the "innovations of the vulgar" do not endanger the welfare of the elite.
Early into my research I realised that I had failed to ask myself an important question - why, at all, were etiquette manuals being written in the mid-nineteenth century? Something must have prompted their publication. An online article by Professor Kathryn Hughes for the British Library gave me the answer that perhaps I should have already anticipated. The late eighteenth to late nineteenth century was a time of major industrial and commercial expansion, both in the domestic and international sphere. "Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, it was now possible to make a fortune from manufacturing and trading goods." The effects of industrialisation and the decline of land-based wealth meant that a new class of men was emerging: men who had acquired vast sums of wealth by participating in capitalism. The power of the traditional aristocracy was on the wane as this new, bourgeois class matched the former's wealth; but the aristocracy and landed elite preserved its superior social status, keeping them apart from the rich but socially-inept new class.
Etiquette manuals were produced, both in Great Britain but also in the United States, largely to assist this new bourgeois class with making the transition into upper-class society. These new businessmen and industrialists might have had the cash to demonstrate their clout, but their low rank would be revealed by a slip-up in a social encounter with a member of the upper class.
That said, the author of Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen describes etiquette as both an enabler of social mobility, something that no man can ever ignore should he wish to be accepted by 'good society', and a metaphorical wall around the social elite. Etiquette, he argues in his finishing lines, has been deliberately constructed to keep the ruffians out:
For protection against the intrusion of those whose abrupt manners and vulgar habits would render them disagreeable and obnoxious, society has established the laws of Etiquette; and all who would be acknowledged as its members, must submit to its demands.
But what is good society?
...it is the assemblage of persons of education, rank, fashion, and respectablity; and whatever is deemed honourable, polite, and worthy of imitation amongst mankind, will unquestionably be found within this circle.
As I understand it, good society, according to this definition, is composed of the the highest-ranking people, both in knowledge, social position and nobility, whose collective interests dictate what is good protocol and what is not. Etiquette was both the expression of good society's rules and regulations - which are themselves not intrinsic rights and wrongs, as earlier guides would have argued, but expressions of the social elite's opinion - and a guardian against the intrusion of the "vulgar", the infiltration of the undeserving. Etiquette was therefore a weapon to keep the existing elite safe from undesirable persons, maintaining the socioeconomic divisions that permeated Victorian society.
If my understanding is correct, what is the point of selling guides on how to behave according to etiquette? If etiquette exists to keep the undesirables away from the elite, how can it hope to achieve social mobility? Could the "vulgar" not learn their way into 'good society' by reading books like Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen?
All in all, etiquette delivers a sense of paradox within the Victorian concept of 'good society'. It exists both to regulate the affairs of the social elite and as a purchasable guide for a newly-emergent middle class on how to mix with the elite, but also to keep the elite secluded from everyone else, especially the commoners.
In her compelling book Manners, Morals and Class in England, 1774 - 1858, Marjorie Morgan (1994) puts it much better than I have done thus far (p.94):
Etiquette thus functioned paradoxically both to facilitate and to limit social advancement, always taking such mobility as for granted as did the people embracing its behavioural rules.
Ah, Victorian society.