Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
This isn’t about bikes.
Last night we had dinner with our third year students. They finished their final exams a couple of weeks ago; in a fortnight they’ll find out their results; as term draws to an end right now they’re beginning to pack up their stuff and move on to the various jobs, internships, courses and travels that will be the stuff of their lives from now on.
For them, I guess, this is a moment at which sadness and excitement and nervousness combine in equal measure. But although I’ve watched students come and ago for many years now, I’m still not sure what to make of this moment. They are all heading somewhere—however unpredictable that journey might turn out to be. We stay where we are: other cohorts progress through their degrees and new students continue to arrive year on year.
This is the first group of students that I’ve seen through from interview to graduation at Magdalen. In itself, that changes how you perceive them: working with them so closely over the past four years has certainly meant I have more invested in their development. Looking around the table over dinner last night, I was struck by how much each of the students there had changed. We have another dinner in the first week they arrive—a more formal dinner, when they have to wear gowns and sit in hall and encounter the pomp and circumstance and rituals of Oxford for the first time. For many of them, it’s a moment of realization and shock; for all of them—and us—it’s an awkward social experience defined by nerves and awkward conversation. Three years on, at another dinner, they were more confident and assured. I guess the free alcohol might have had something to do with that, but I came away with a real sense of having watched them change in ways that were profound and striking. It’s a privilege to work with such a group of smart and funny and engaging people in the study of the past. But more importantly than watching their development as historians, I wonder if it’s even more of a privilege to work with them while watching their development as people during such a formative period in their lives.
And now they leave Oxford. Sometimes we say goodbye; sometimes we don’t. Often we keep track of them as their careers develop further; sometimes we don’t and they simply disappear into the future. As we start to prepare for the new students to arrive in October, I realize that there isn’t really any end in this part of the job. The wheels keep in turning and there’s a endless pool of fresh faced eighteen year-olds against which to measure my own ageing.
And on that note I am going out on my bike.