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“Staying in the trouble” at Oxford

“Staying with the trouble”. This was a quote from feminist geographer and all-round academic queen Donna Haraway (2016), cited in Elwood and Leszczynski’s (2018) paper about feminist digital geographies. Despite having not realised that ‘digital geographies’ is actually a subdiscipline of the degree that I’ve already spent a year studying, something about the quote intrigued me. It was urging us to embrace the messiness of the digital world as it invades our everyday lives. I wrote it down on a neon green post-it note and stuck it above my desk. I’ve never been one for inspirational quotes – too often I find them painfully cringy and capable of inducing a weird nostalgia for 2014 Instagram and “Zoella”, deep inside my soul. I think that most quotes are overused, largely as B&M wall art splattered across the interiors of two-up two-downs the country over. But this one clearly meant something to me, framed as it is amongst curled photos from first year, receipts and postcards from my dad. It made me think about how I can ‘stay with the trouble’ in my own life – I’ve always been a feminist, but I’ve also always been a worrier. I worry about worrying. And whilst a dream team of citalopram and long FaceTime conversations with my mum abates the worst of the worrying, the ‘trouble’ doesn’t go away. And I think that, maybe, this is the same for a lot of Oxford students. I say so tentatively because some of you really seem to know what you’re doing. Striding as you do down Cornmarket, puffer inflating with the November wind, tote bag slung over your shoulder, I would have no idea about the trouble in your life. But I imagine that there’s a healthy dose of it. So, as Oxford students, how can we ‘stay with the trouble’? What would that mean for our lives? And when is it right to jump ship?

For me, ‘staying with the trouble’ raises a lot of feelings about a lot of different things. I feel compelled to qualify that, whilst most of my life is incredible and I feel very lucky to be here, I’m not happy all the time. Herein lies my first point – ‘staying with the trouble’ means sticking with those troubling, uncomfortable doubts you have about being at Oxford. Like me, these may arise from your state school background, or your rage at the University’s ongoing colonial links (this paper reported only last week about the looted Cambodian artefacts in the Ashmolean). I’m no Mystic Meg, but I promise you that these feelings won’t go away. They might dull with time, as you find distractions in like-minded friends who also enjoy playing drunken Uno on Thursday nights, but Oxford’s omnipotent history makes it impossible to forget your own. How can we make peace with ourselves at a university which is trying – and struggling – to reinvent itself?

One thing I say to myself when doubting if I deserve to be here or not is that ‘Oxford wants more people like you’. And it’s true. Training and working as an ambassador for the School of Geography has made me realise both what Oxford is doing to diversify its cohorts and what it is failing at. Geography, for instance, faces the issue that many young people view the subject as inferior to Medicine, Law or other ‘harder’ degrees which lead directly into defined career paths. Thus, teenagers who may already question the value of university are unsurprisingly dissuaded when our professor says that geography is a “soft option” for stupid posh students. Since campaigns like Rhodes Must Fall seemed destined to rumble on indefinitely, we are forced to find new ways of addressing troubling emotions for ourselves and future students. As a white, middle-class woman, I am in no place to judge how people of colour navigate Oxford. But, for me, I think that we need to do more than tell those feelings to go away (therapist-style). We need to confront them. Yes, historically Oxford has been dominated by Boris Johnson-types. Yes, the split of private school students to state school students remains skewed. But our very presence as ‘Others’ at this strange university unsettles that legacy, as does getting involved in societies, open days, and sports. One night a few weeks ago, as I was crying to my mum about how hard I was finding term during our daily catch-up, I said through tears ‘but I’m doing what I always hoped I’d be doing at Oxford!’. By that, I meant that I get to go into schools and de-mystify Oxford for kids like me who would never have thought it an option. As access officer for the Geography Society, I can write cool stuff for websites and help run a club for young geographers. In my life, ‘staying with the trouble’ has meant not ignoring things about Oxford that make me angry, but actively trying to change them instead. I encourage you to do the same, rather than writing coded Oxfesses about it. 

I think that part of the general aura of ‘trouble’ in Oxford is that we’re constantly trying to be good students. By ‘good’, I don’t just mean in the conventional, submit the essay on time, show up to lectures and contribute in a tutorial sense. That is hard enough, before you consider all the events that someone you vaguely know is running and you’ll feel bad if you don’t show up to them. Some of these events will be just what you need – dancing ferally to a jazz trio in a dress that you keep telling everyone you bought for £8.99 in Oxfam – although others will feel like a slog, saved only by the cheesy chips you acquire from one of this city’s many beautiful food vans. Hence, being a good student is also about maintaining good relationships… which are famously full of trouble.

This term more than ever, I have found my mood fluctuating in line with the overall ‘vibe’ of my friendship group. Boy drama? Best believe I’ll be the one helping you solve it. Annoyed by other people’s relationships? Let me share your woes. Desperate for a relationship but don’t think you can manage it alongside your colouring-in degree? Um…me too bestie, me too. But ‘staying with the trouble’ doesn’t just mean being there for your friends when times are hard, it involves finding people who will support you throughout these crazy few years too.

It’s undeniably difficult to find new friends, especially if you’ve had the same circle since the early days of first year. Long gone is the era where you just showed up at your primary school classmate’s birthday party and bonded over potato smiles and panda pops. Yet, Haraway (2016) emphasises the idea of connectedness and living together. Such harmony might seem far removed from your accommodation, especially if you’re sharing kitchens and bathrooms (I know the feeling). So branch out. Oxford may be set up to force you to spend long hours in college, but you can trouble this assumption. I play on a football team and ADORE the girls I share the pitch with (even though I’d never played before university). I invite people from church out to coffee. I might be making it sound easy, but ‘staying with the trouble’ at Oxford partly means rejecting the stereotype that you should spend every waking hour working silently and alone. Let’s try hard not to be isolated this term, even if it does mean splashing out on a latte every so often.

Ok, so you’re making new friends, you’re forming closer bonds with people you already know and maybe you’re engaging in some access and outreach work too. Wow. Sounds like a lot of work. Hypocritical from a person who has just told you to do all these things, but ‘staying with the trouble’ also means letting loose. I would like to introduce you to a concept that my dad is a great proponent – maybe even initiator – of. It’s called ‘crazy fun’. ‘What?!’ you might be thinking, ‘but I have crazy fun all the time!!’. My friend, you are wrong. Twice weekly trips to Atik does not constitute crazy fun. Indeed, crazy fun is a mindset. Bear with me here, whilst I give some examples from my own life, in an attempt to define it for you. Crazy fun is driving to the beach just because you like playing bingo at that one place on the seafront. Crazy fun is buying tat that you don’t need in charity shops, just because it’s a nice colour and makes you happy. Crazy fun is making ‘canapes’ out of Primula squirty cheese or having a McDonald’s breakfast on a weekday. Don’t worry if none of this seems particularly crazy or fun to you, the beauty of crazy fun is that it can be what you want it to be. Crazy fun often emerges in the moment, for instance when you’re sitting having a quiet drink on a Sunday evening in Turf Tavern and I ask whether you’d rather be a robot or a dinosaur. Suddenly, as people awake from their deadline-induced, end of week slumber, you’re having crazy fun. ‘Dinosaur, duh!’ one friend replies. ‘What kind of dinosaur would you be then?’ another replies. ‘Can’t I be a robot dinosaur?!’ is called out by one lovable rogue. This is a form of ‘staying with the trouble’ because crazy fun involves accepting that life is rubbish sometimes and rolling with it; making the best of the times when you’re not reading or writing. Oxford can be far too serious. Embrace the crazy fun. 

If you take nothing else away from this ramble about our lives, let it be that we’re all a bit chaotic and that’s a wonderful thing. Haraway (2016) wrote that “we require each other in unexpected collaborations and combinations”, and I believe Oxford to demonstrate this more than anywhere else. One week, you may be consumed by a concept you just cannot grasp, relying on a friend to deliver you emergency snacks. Next, you may well be the friend whose room becomes the place to cry as we share our homesickness or frustration. Truthfully, aside from when I was a child, I have never relied on people as much as I have done this past year or so. And that means that ‘staying with the trouble’ isn’t a formula which can be prescribed, or a manifesto to follow. It’s certainly not a one-size-fits-all. If you don’t resonate with this article, that’s fine because ‘staying with the trouble’ is, in my opinion, about finding your own path through the chaos and your own way of coping. 

But, most importantly, we must learn that we cannot captain the good ship Oxford without each other. Rather, we need to burn down the colonial, elitist, overworked ship and build a new one together, which acknowledges that we all have different troubles harbouring complex solutions. It would be built with love and understanding, rather than judgement and a craving for academic validation. Maybe I have taken this metaphor too far, but in describing a ship I also allow space for you to ‘jump overboard’ when it gets too much. Despite having spent the majority of this article encouraging you to continue trying to be ‘good’, ‘staying with the trouble’ isn’t a flawless mantra. From time to time, you may find yourself needing a break from work, relationships, and college politics. And that’s totally fine. Some people realise that Oxford isn’t for them or isn’t appropriate for their circumstances – I am certainly not advocating that you stick with something which is detrimental to your wellbeing. But for more minor issues, instead of running off to Spoons or picking whatever constitutes your ‘easy way out’, try sticking with it, just for a minute or two longer. The friend who bangs on about her boyfriend. The tutorial topic which seems to be absent from every textbook ever published. Stay with it because you might be able to salvage something positive. Failing that, there’s always crazy fun to be had at the end of a long day. 

Image credit: Luis Villasmil via Unsplash

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