There are times when Oxford and Princeton seem eerily similar.* Case in point: the Oxford bubble. As I am prone to do, I occasionally gripe to anyone within earshot about the apathy and inactivity of the student body here. The other day, when I was whinging to my housemate, she sighed and said “Oh, I guess you haven’t heard about the Oxford bubble, have you?”
Technically, no, I hadn’t heard about the Oxford bubble before. But I have definitely heard about the orange bubble—that invisible barrier that somehow prevents Princeton students from taking an interest in the world around me–and I must say, the Oxford bubble sounds remarkably similar. I found the concept annoying as an undergraduate, and I find it equally problematic now. I don’t mind that universities are, to some extent, isolated from the world around them: that’s part of what makes them unique. What bothers me, though, is the implication that we are somehow trapped inside by forces outside our control, that deep down, we’d really like to get out into the world, but for now we’re stuck in the bubble and just can’t get out. It’s as if the only way to escape is to drop out and become a full-time volunteer at an orphanage in South Asia. The reality, as I’ve been reminding myself, is that the bubble is easy to puncture, and I only have to go a few hundred meters to do it.
Abstract, moralizing now out of the way, I should say that, for me, I’ve been perforating my own Oxford bubble for a few hours a week, volunteering for a local charity called Food Justice. It’s nothing world-altering, and I certainly can’t take credit for playing any part in organizing it: I just sit in a van and pick up food that has passed its shelf-life from grocery stores and help redistribute it to local charities around Oxford. Although averting food waste obviously appeals to my freegan side, I have no pretensions that Food Justice is doing anything radical. If anything, it’s a bit depressing to juxtapose the few half-full crates of food the stores donate with the veritable mountains of food headed for the trash compactor (no dumpster diving here). In the grand scheme of what Britain’s new Prime Minister is describing as “savage” cuts to social services, moving around a few loaves of bread is a drop in the proverbial bucket—and while I know I should do more, I don’t (“sorry, I’ve got exams”).
What I do like about Food Justice, more than anything else, is that it shows me a chunk of my community that I wouldn’t see otherwise. We students tend to think of Oxford as the center of the universe, and the town surrounding the university as a place that exists solely for the purpose of providing cheap ethnic restaurants. Food Justice takes me to homeless hostels, soup kitchens, mental health clinics, and drug rehab centers—all totally invisible to the student community, but also incredibly close to where we students live and study. It’s a harsh reality, but one that I think is worth seeing, if for no other reason than that it is an integral part of the community where we live. Not outside the bubble, but in it.
* Albeit, never when I am dealing with university bureaucracy… moments in which I inevitably miss Princeton terribly.
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Jumping back to the topic of Oxford-Princeton parallels, I recently encountered another one. I got back my grade for my second assessed essay today (which counts for something like 10% of my mark for my final degree). It wasn’t abominable, but it certainly wasn’t up to the standard I expect from myself. When I complained to a friend about it, he told me, “You know what they say: Oxford University, where your best hasn’t been good enough since 1248.” Of course, they say that at Princeton, too; just with a different date. The unfortunate thing is that, at least at Oxford, the statement feels like it’s true. We don’t receive any comments on our essays—just grades—and the markers are anonymous, so there’s no clarity as to why I didn’t perform up-to-snuff. The result is I catastrophize, thinking that it’s not just an essay that has been judged, but me as a intellectual being—and I have been found wanting. As I constantly vacillate between wanting to go into academia and thinking I’m not cut out for it, it’s a little dispiriting to think that I can’t even get a 5,000 word essay right.
Anyway, thanks to my poor mark, I was feeling a bit of ennui and melancholy as we embarked on our Food Justice run today. One of our stops was a crisis center for at-risk teens. One kid standing outside struck up a conversation with me about how boring being stuck in a home was, how much it sucked to be on methadone, and—briefly—our mutual appreciation of punk rock, which he seemed to bring up in response to the fact that—wearing all black with plugs and an eyebrow stud—I did not quite look like the typical Oxford student. As I walked away, he commented on the hoodie I was wearing, which has the logo for the band “The Unseen” on it.
“Hey man, you are not unseen. You are totally seen.”
Somehow, that was exactly what I needed to hear.
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Jukebox: Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon