More than Dodo

Photograph by me. Dodo display in Oxford’s Natural History Museum. CC-BY-NC-SA.

Last week I packed-up my academic gown, mortar board, approximately 40 tonnes of books, then bid farewell to Oxford.

I started working at Oxford, before I was employed by Oxford – taking a summer internship developing Old English digital resources, which are unbelievably still online 17 years later. That September I was given a job as an academic web developer…and it went from there.

17 years…

I have held a number of posts in that time – Web Developer, Project Manager, Project Investigator, Online Tutor, Manager of Engagement, Manager of Education Enhancement, Acting Director of Academic IT, Head of each post I have discovered a bit about who I am and what I want to be. I’ve had some harsh lessons and some amazing achievements. I’m now at the point where I want to explore that in a different context, for how can I be the best I can be if I only bring the experience of one, rather unique, institution?

Oxford is a huge part of who I am. Beautiful, magical Oxford, oozing with history and  tradition. To me it is the city-equivalent of opera. As William Butler Yeats put it, a place where one expects people to sing rather than talk. In fact there was a lady who cycled past my department everyday adorned with flowers signing opera at the top of her voice. Quite quickly that just became normal. Just like the ex-academic who walked around with a  parrot perched on his shoulder wanting to discuss Dante to anyone who would stop and listen, or having lunch with a nun to discuss her digital pedagogy, and October and June being the months where you see more people in sub-fusc than normal clothes. I found myself, after a number of years, naturally reeling off the language of the institution as if it were mother-tongue, like I was meant to be there, a language which to others may sound like the words of a Dickens novel or a JK Rowling creation. Michaelmas, Hilary, Trinity, Encenia…. I once sat on a committee that took place in a magnificent oak-panelled college room where I was told that the chairs had been selected by the college ‘Committee for the Antiquities’. Beautiful, magical Oxford. There is a terribly romantic, and quite absurd, part that I shall miss.

I will be reflecting on my time at Oxford for a while yet. Whilst there is an enchanting side to the University, it is indeed 800 years old and this does not come without its challenges. There are steeped traditions and silos, glass ceilings and hierarchies, silencing. The demographics of OxBridge, in terms of admissions, are often discussed by the media, sometimes fairly, sometimes not. What isn’t discussed as much is equity of opportunity for staff, both academic and professional, in terms of race, gender, age, social class, contract type, education. The University is starting to engage with this more, and I’m glad I have been a voice amongst many in pressing for change. It was at the meeting of Congregation with the infamous walkout of members, on the blocking of debate on pension reform, that really drove it home. Before we got onto the matter in hand, being Oxford we first we had to agree that the Sermons on the Grace of Humility and on the Sin of Pride need not be preached only on Quinquagesima Sunday and the last Sunday before Advent. No one really knew what that meant. Holding a role which requires me to take an institution forwards whilst being surrounded by the past and cultures and structures that reinforce it is something that I’ll need to spend some time unpicking.

More than Dodo‘ is a HT (Twitter abbrev. for ‘Hat tip’) to a wonderful, engaging, and literally my favorite Twitter account belonging to Oxford’s Museum of Natural History. Between 2011-2014 I ran Twitter for Academia workshops at the University – I had 100 people attending each term, the workshops covered teaching, research and public engagement (a big passion of mine). Tweeting museum objects are my favorite use of Twitter. So creative. I used the whale in New York’s Natural History Museum as a case study, and now Oxford have a tweeting dodo in reference to the unique remains of the dodo in it’s own museum, a bird which became extinct in the 17th Century. Oxford’s dodo specimen is the only one in existence from which DNA can be extracted for molecular analysis to work out relationships and potentially to reconstruct the genome of dodos. Recent research has also revealed that the bird was in fact the victim of a murder most fowl – shot in the head as opposed to dying of natural causes after being transported from Mauritius to the UK as a public spectacle. There are now a whole heap of questions as to what people in the 17th century knew about preserving remains and understanding why the bird became extinct.

In a sense Oxford has been my dodo. It was at the beginning – the UK’s first University, my first employment in higher education. But there is more than dodo,. Like Lewis Carol, who visited Oxford’s dodo regularly at the museum and used it for inspiration for Alice in Wonderland, I have become curiouser and curiouser. I’m eager to extract my own analysis’ of my time at Oxford and build new, informed, relationships with the sector, to build upon my professional experience and knowledge. Oxford is not my end goal, it is the door to a greater overall understanding and becoming. I very much doubt Oxford is in threat of becoming extinct, but there are a lot of other educational models one needs to understand to engage with the sector authentically and openly.

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