As far as I can tell, about three weeks before exams, most Oxford students cease to be human beings. No, really: having an exam within the next month is a universally accepted excuse for abandoning all commitments and getting out of anything, ranging from rowing practice to doing the dishes. Somehow, though, I seem to lack the focus and dedication for extended, single-minded exam preparation and so, despite a looming test that will determine whether I qualify for a second year in my program, I continue to search out meetings and activities between which to over-strech my time.
Last night, my procrastination-through-activism took me to the annual meeting of the Oxford Animal Ethics Society. As secretary of the Oxford Student Vegetarian Society, I’ve know for a while that the two groups should probably be coordinating our efforts. I haven’t been particularly proactive, though, because as far as I can tell, like most political groups at Oxford, the Animal Ethics Society doesn’t really do anything.
The meeting was held in the small, very English townhouse of Professor Andrew Linzey—a jovial and quitisentially Oxford tutor of philosophy and theology. When I arrived, I was led into a dimly lit back room, crammed with teetering piles of books, Persian rugs, and antique furniture, with a pair of contentedly rotund cats to round out the scene. The meeting was attended by a half-dozen graduates, post-docs, and professors, four of whom studied classics and had the eccentric personalities to match.
As “Annual General Meetings” go, the event was a bit of a bust. We heard a report on the group’s funds (it has none), its activities (few), and chose new officers (elected in abstentia—they had exams). Having dealt with this procedural nonsense for ten minutes, Professor Linzey then declared the meeting adjourned, and announced to me, the only newcomer, that “We in the Animal Ethics Society smoke and drink, a lot.”
For the next four hours, I hobnobbed with the other attendees about, well, everything. We talked about our pipe-dreams for a vegetarian campus and debated this year’s candidates for the infamous Oxford Professor of Poetry position. A classicist from Northern Ireland told me about her absurdly ivory-tower academic interests (she studies references to poetry made within Greek poetry), and I learned how to swear in Ancient Greek. I was grilled about my religious beliefs, research interests, and about academic life at Princeton. All the while, Professor Linzey—who must be nearing seventy—poured endless quantities of vegan wine and aggressively offered cigars, pipes, and cigarettes to the rest of us, as we gradually sunk deeper and deeper into the overstuffed armchairs around the room.
For all our stress, our terror about tenure and funding and professorships and placements and peer review, nights like this remind me that academia remains the greatest gig in the world. The only experience I can describe as being quite comparable came my senior year at Princeton, when Professor Fernandez-Kelly invited me to her Christmas “Pig Fest.” Those familiar with my rather storied history with PFK would probably not be surprised to hear that she insisted I stay at the departmental bacchanalia long past when most of the other guests had left. By midnight, Paul DiMaggio—the most cited sociologist of all time—was drunkenly hammering away at a piano, while the rest of the department seemed to have collectively discovered that they would appear more intellectual if they suddenly took up smoking. As the night ended, Alejandro Portes, the department chair, stood up and declared, “Since we are sociologists, we are therefore also socialists. So please join me in the singing of the Communist International in your native language.” While I’m still slightly in disbelief that this actually happend, I then listened as the song was sung—in unison—in Yiddish, Russian, Spanish, Italian, and English.
Returning to Oxford, though; at the end of the night, the topic of conversation briefly shifted to my own future plans. When I mentioned that I thought I wanted to return back to the United States to do a PhD, Professor Linzey asked why, if that was the case, was I bothering to do a tangential master’s degree in Oxford? Why not just go straight through, get my schooling over with, and move on?
He had, of course, been answering his own question all night.
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Jukebox: Good Clean Fun – Beat the Meat