Can the University Still Be an Alma Mater?

But I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here [at the luncheon party], at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that gray city.[1]

Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel of love, loss, faith, and grace, Brideshead Revisited, is justly famous for its rich invocation of 1920s Oxford, an Oxford that was “still a city of aquatint” where, “[i]n her spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman’s day.”[2] Yet the protagonist Charles Ryder confesses that, “even in the earliest days, when the whole business of living at Oxford, with rooms of my own and my own check book, was a source of excitement,” he “felt at heart that this was not all which Oxford had to offer.”[3] The luncheon party marks the first movement of a romance that commences with Charles’s friendship with the beautiful and tortured Lord Sebastian Flyte, ripples out to include the whole of the Old Catholic aristocratic Flyte family, and, by the novel’s final pages, the Catholic Church itself.

The warm nostalgia that bathes Waugh’s depiction of Oxford and of the English aristocracy exists in marked contrast to his depiction of the “uniform, clinical” modern world.[4] The contrast is not—nor is it meant to be—subtle and neither is the argument it implicitly advances: the modern world has purchased equality at the expense of humanity. Waugh’s reactionary politics can make it easy to dismiss this diagnosis, but it is worth taking seriously even if one has little sympathy with Waugh’s particular ideological response to the challenges of modernity.

I first fell in love with Charles Ryder’s Oxford in the early 2010s, when I encountered the much-beloved BBC miniseries while completing my graduate studies—thanks to which I always hear the novel’s lush descriptions in the dulcet tones of Jeremy Irons.

It was a curious romance, as my ache was for an Oxford that I could never have attended as a woman. When I first taught the book, I was surprised by how many of my students, a diverse group of college freshmen, also found themselves imaginatively at home in that space. Our affective attachment only heightened the sense of an unbridgeable gap between the realities of the modern technocratic university and the “gentleman’s education” that characterized Ryder’s Oxford. The modern university was more equitable—my presence and that of many of my students was proof of this—but it was also colder and larger.

For a long time, I accepted this as inevitable: as the university grows more open, educating a far greater number of students from a far greater diversity of backgrounds, it loses the particular warmth that characterized its smaller, more elite instantiation. The doors to a university were open to us, but the doors to the university that Newman would describe as “an Alma Mater, knowing her children one by one, not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill,” seemed permanently barred.[5] That would not—could not—be ours. And yet I still longed to find my own “low door in the wall” that would lead me out of the cold openness of the contemporary university and into something like Newman’s idea.

I have since become convinced that such doors can be found, and that they have been hiding in plain sight. Conversations and controversies about the university—including the “crisis in the humanities,” the fate of the liberal arts, and the question of whether there is any place left in the contemporary university for “truth for its own sake”—tend to focus on institutional identity and priorities. But what if, following Newman, we understood the university first and foremost as an idea rather than as an institution? In what follows, I argue that Newman’s vision can be most richly realized beyond the institutional—if not the physical—confines of the university.

What Was the University?

I protest to you, Gentlemen, that if I had to choose between a so-called University, which dispensed with residence and tutorial superintendence, and gave its degrees to any person who passed an examination in a wide range of subjects, and a University which had no professors or examinations at all, but merely brought a number of young men together for three or four years . . . if I were asked which of these two methods was the better discipline of the intellect . . . I have no hesitation in giving the preference to that University which did nothing. . . ⁠[6]

Thanks to the COVID lockdowns that shuttered campuses worldwide, we need little imagination to conjure up what was, for Newman, a far-fetched hypothetical: a university with no residents, no tutors, and nothing but exams. Despite the disappearance of campus life, the university-as-institution continued its work apace: students kept acquiring credits and receiving degrees. The logistical necessity of running most courses “asynchronously” reduced classroom education to a series of modules that could be completed by individual students at their own pace. The overwhelming verdict of both students and faculty was that “Zoom U” was no university at all. But what, exactly, had we lost?

Seven months before the lockdowns began, I left a job teaching academic writing in New Orleans to begin a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of St. Michael’s College, federated with the University of Toronto. As part of my fellowship duties, I assisted with a small, selective first-year course, “The Gilson Seminar in Faith and Ideas,” that focused on the Catholic intellectual tradition and was loosely affiliated with St. Michael’s Christianity and Culture Program. I was also involved with several less formal gatherings of faculty and students. As much as I loved being in the classroom, I sensed that these informal spaces offered something it could not. Only after their sudden disappearance did I realized that in those spaces I had at last laid my hands on that low door in the wall.

A day before the University of Toronto shifted all classes to remote delivery, the school announced the cancellation of “discretionary events that are not required as part of courses and academic requirements.” The announcement came just before a weekly social hour organized by students in the Christianity and Culture Program. That evening brought notice of the suspension of another extracurricular activity that had become a staple of my week and which had traditionally convened in the same room. The Dante Reading Group was led by a junior faculty member and composed of a small but intensely dedicated group of students, mainly undergraduates. Each meeting commenced with two cantos of The Divine Comedy being read aloud in the round; this was followed by an unstructured, wide-ranging discussion. By meeting’s end, it was not unusual for us to have drifted far afield from the source text: to a finer point of canon law, a discussion of literary theory, or to students’ experiences in a recent class. And always, there was pizza. While the official university business of coursework quickly migrated online, these “discretionary activities” did not.

My spring teaching responsibilities had centered on preparing students for an academic trip to Rome—with that trip indefinitely suspended, the class abruptly concluded. While my colleagues desperately scrambled to shift to remote delivery of their classes, my own lockdown life was marked by a disconcerting absence of activity. I knew this sudden idleness was a privilege, and I tried to avoid talking about how much I missed interacting with students. I watched from a distance as my friends and colleagues struggled to navigate ever-evolving institutional directives about how to adjust grading policies, handle privacy concerns around video calls, and rework assignments so that they could be completed with no library access—and to communicate these bureaucratic directives to their increasingly bewildered students. That was decidedly not the interaction whose loss I was mourning. What I had lost I could now name, but only by its absence: I was homesick.

My mind wandered back to Charles Ryder’s Oxford, an Oxford defined first and foremost by all those things that are “not required as part of courses and academic requirements,” by a genius loci that could never migrate to the no-place of Zoom. I reached out to present and former students associated with the Gilson seminar to gauge interest in a slow burn read of Brideshead Revisited. Our reading group was, of course, on Zoom; the first few meetings included students that I had only known in a classroom context, but the small group of regulars was almost exclusively drawn from the social hour or the Dante Reading Group. The friendships forged in those spaces could survive outside them—but they could only first take shape within those places of serendipity, spontaneity, and ease that spring up and flourish beside the university’s more formal theatres of instruction.

The marked contrast between our virtual meetings and the lush physical world of Brideshead informed our ongoing discussions of campus life, community, and faith. It took two months of weekly meetings to finish the novel; each meeting was scheduled for an hour but routinely stretched to three. Free from the teacherly duty of keeping discussion focused on the text at hand, I fully indulged my penchant—and that of the other participants—for digression. Yet the conversations that emerged were sustained, rigorous, and honest, their richness enabled by our ability to treat the pandemic’s radical disruption of our lives not as a distraction from the “real work” of intellectual labor but instead as an occasion for mutual vulnerability.

In my teaching and mentoring, the weight of my own experience and expertise tends to serve as a ballast for my relationship with students but also an abiding inequality within it. But the pandemic and its attendant deprivations were as novel to me as they were to the students. There was no one who could stand outside of what was happening to us, no one to swoop in and guide us—there was only us and our ability to sustain and support one another. As a result, the community of care that emerged within our group was radically reciprocal.

The institutional university has become increasingly aware of—and responsive to—the danger of bad actors exploiting spaces designed to cultivate relationships of trust. There are risks inherent in any space that encourages vulnerability, and faculty and students should always approach the formation and maintenance of these spaces with great care. But we must not allow an awareness of these dangers to blind us to the serious risks that attend the absence of such spaces and the relationships of intellectual friendship they enable. Indeed, it is periods of crisis that most dramatically reveal their necessity. We would do well to remember Mother Theresa’s famous exhortation that, despite the risks inherent in the gestures that reveal our deepest humanity, we must “do them anyway.” If the university is to remain an alma mater—a “nourishing mother“—then we must be willing to push beyond the narrow confines of the “professional” to recognize that there is a distinctively domestic aspect to the university: the university can only fulfill its mission if faculty and students can make themselves at home within it.

I refer to those spaces in the university that allow us to make ourselves at home—spaces that emerge within the university but exist outside of its credit-bearing requirements—as “academic-adjacent.” As with similar projects dedicated to strengthening parish or family life, the work of building academic-adjacent spaces requires an awareness of the value of stability, of commitment, and of participation. The modern university, in its openness, draws students and faculty into a proximity that would not exist outside of the university as institution; what it cannot do is transform that proximity into circles of intellectual friendship that are small, warm, and non-bureaucratic. That labor necessarily remains individual and extracurricular: we have to build the old university in the shell of the new.

An Arctic Winter

The personal influence of the teacher is able in some sort to dispense with an academical system, but . . . the system cannot in any sort dispense with personal influence. With influence there is life, without it there is none; if influence is deprived of its due position, it will not by any means be got rid of, it will only break out irregularly, dangerously. An academical system without the personal influence of teachers upon pupils, is an arctic winter; it will create an ice-bound, petrified, cast-iron University, and nothing else.⁠[7]

A year to the day after the initial cancellation of “discretionary activities” at the University of Toronto, I braved a windy but bearable March day to share a pizza with three students I had first met through the social hour and the faculty member that had led the Dante Reading Group. We had decided to take advantage of a recent relaxing of provincial restrictions on outdoor gatherings to meet face-to-face. As we talked and ate, surrounded by entirely empty classrooms and largely empty dorms, the university, smaller and warmer, stirred to life.  

It will not take a conscious effort on the part of faculty or students for the “required” components of university life—be that class meetings and dissertation defenses or faculty meetings and academic integrity hearings—to slowly return to their physical, embodied existence. On the other hand, those “discretionary activities that are not required as part of academic and course requirements” will not return by default; only through deliberate acts of revivification will they, and the intellectual friendships and communities of care that they support, make their return.

Such acts need not be elaborate, they can be as mundane as a shared pizza, but they must be conscious and ongoing. For me, that meant a summer full of coffee meetings to reconnect with students and of small gatherings of faculty and students to facilitate sustained, informal conversations—encounters as essential to the university’s return as the more familiar summer work of refreshing syllabi, revising lesson plans, and completing research.

Asking precariously positioned academics to take on more labor, particularly emotional labor unlikely to be institutionally recognized, may seem misguided at best and cruel at worst. Yet graduate students and contingent faculty—who at many institutions are responsible for the lion’s share of undergraduate instruction—are often the most adversely affected by what Newman terms a “reign of Law without Influence, System without Personality.” For the paradox of the university’s cold openness is nowhere more apparent than within the space of the classroom and the navigation of that paradox can be exhausting for both instructors and students, particularly when it seems there is no escape from its “arctic winter.” The cultivation and maintenance of spaces defined by “personal influence” is as vital for the well-being of those of us who work in the university as it is for the students who attend it, and those spaces will often have “in some sort to dispense with an academical system.”[8]

This is not to say that personal influence cannot exist at all within the classroom—only to recognize that attempts to “warm” that space will inevitably be limited by institutional dynamics that lock openness and warmth in a zero-sum game, one that instructors are routinely forced to play when they construct their syllabi. When I taught first-year composition in New Orleans, my syllabi had to include a statement of standardized policies for all courses offered under the catalog designation “Writing 100,” a statement of university-wide policies regarding academic integrity violations and disability accommodations, a statement of my own course policies, a list of campus resources related to mental health and sexual assault, the grading rubrics for all major assignments, a statement of learning objectives and a separate statement of learning outcomes (I have long forgotten the fine-grained difference between the two).

I took the advice of a scholar in writing studies and inserted a table of contents to aid students in navigating the resulting 20-page document. Following the lead of many of my fellow instructors, I had students complete an open book “syllabus quiz” to try and stave off the inevitable torrent of inquiries about attendance policies and essay due dates that have turned “it’s on the syllabus” into an evergreen meme among faculty.

The ever-expanding syllabus is a widely (and rightly) derided phenomenon. As absurd as the final product is, the steps that led to it represent a rational response to the challenge of a larger, more open university. The pile of rubrics ensures that students encounter roughly the same expectations across innumerable sections of a required class. Standardized disability accommodation policies allow each individual student equal access to educational resources. Yet the limits of the institution’s ability to meaningfully address the needs of students is painfully on display in the list of mental health and sexual assault resources. The impulse for its inclusion is a warm one—a desire to let students in distress know how to access resources that can help them—but this impulse is alchemized into the coldness of boilerplate language in a document that is boilerplate all the way down. There is as much warmth here as in the robovoice that repeatedly assures you that “your call is important to us” during a 45-minute hold with your cable company.

In spite of all this, first-year composition remains one of the only small courses that many students will encounter in the early part of their undergraduate career—or at all. I was routinely told by students that I was the only instructor who knew their name, and anyone who has taught freshman comp quickly becomes accustomed to receiving rec letter requests from students from far-flung disciplinary backgrounds, a year or even two after they finished the course. Those requests are typically accompanied by the apologetic confession: “You’re the only instructor who knows me well enough to write one.”

I knew my students’ names—and they knew mine. But even this became a site of tense negotiation between “warmth” and “openness.” The year I graduated from my doctoral program, many early career female academics appended “Dr.” to their name on social media accounts and added language to their syllabi stating their expectation that students would address them as “Professor” or “Doctor” instead of by their first name. The trend was the combined result of several incidents of female academics being criticized on social media for using their honorifics and a number of widely-reported studies on the persistence of gender bias in student evaluations. I was briefly “Dr. Bernadette Guthrie” on Twitter in solidarity with many of my female colleagues, but I could never bring myself to insist that students refer to me by an honorific—most of them did anyway, even when I explicitly gave them permission to refer to me by my first name. For me, the value of warm spaces was so great that it was worth pursuing even if my embrace of a more “feminine” mode of relationality cost me more as a woman.

But it did not matter which choice I or any of my female colleagues made on this front. If the only way to construct a gender-equitable space was to make it a colder and more “professional” one, then either equity (openness) or warmth had to be sacrificed. The seeming inevitability of this tradeoff was driven home by the high stakes of grades for students and of student evaluations for instructors: those stakes exacerbated issues of gender and authority by emphasizing power dynamics, breeding suspicion, and discouraging risk-taking. Regardless of how I navigated that space as a woman, there seemed no escape either from the consciousness of that navigation or from the demands—internal as well as external—to constantly defend the course I took.

Academic-adjacent spaces have offered me a significant respite from this. Voluntary and collaborative, productive of and sustained by friendships, largely removed from concerns with what constitutes a “professional” environment, they have allowed me to make something alongside other faculty and students that feels like home without the exhausting calculation of whether this taste for “homemaking” might make students more likely to launch grade challenges and without wondering whether mentioning it in my teaching philosophy would prove an asset or a liability the next time I applied for a job.

Nothing that happens in these spaces counts, institutionally speaking, as teaching. None of it is codified enough to be legible as “mentorship” for the sake of adding a line to my CV. It was our professional affiliation with the university-as-institution that allowed all of us—students, faculty, and staff—to find each other but what we built was institutionally irrelevant if not out-and-out invisible. And it was this quality that allowed it to be that “enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that gray city.”

For Its Own Sake

I am asked what is the end of University Education, and of the Liberal or Philosophical Knowledge which I conceive it to impart: I answer, that what I have already said has been sufficient to show that it has a very tangible, real, and sufficient end, though the end cannot be divided from that knowledge itself. Knowledge is capable of being its own end . . . What the worth of such an acquirement is, compared with other objects which we seek,—wealth or power or honour or the conveniences and comforts of life, I do not profess here to discuss; but I would maintain . . . that it is an object, in its own nature so really and undeniably good, as to be the compensation of a great deal of thought in the compassing, and a great deal of trouble in the attaining.[9]

The fundamental “uselessness” of academic-adjacent spaces was made particularly apparent to me when I was helping a student, who I had known for almost two years, figure out whether I could write him a reference letter. I first met him at the Christianity and Culture social; he had never taken a course in the program but had been invited to the social by friends who were majors. He was among the Dante Reading Group contingent that came along to the Gilson Book Club in the early days of COVID. He had not missed a single meeting of the book club, even as Brideshead had given way to Shūsaku Endō’s Silence, then Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, and then Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. He had given papers at the two undergraduate research colloquia I had organized in my capacity as a postdoc.

But he had never been my student. How would I answer that familiar recommendation query: “In what capacity have you known this student?” The only thing that might reasonably be legible as “real” academic work was the research colloquium. The rest of it—which is to say, the vast majority of it—was not anything, institutionally speaking. While I was disappointed that I could not help further the career of a promising student, I was relieved to discover how useless all of my work in academic-adjacent spaces had been.

The life of the university has always been, in some ways, a hidden one. One still catches a glimpse of the university’s monastic roots in the common sight of undergraduates deep in their studies in a library carrel or in the long, solitary labor of reading and writing that still characterizes the research of most humanities scholars. When universities are decried as “ivory towers,” the appellation recognizes that academia remains set apart from the world, even if it only sees the downsides of such separation.

But this type of “hiddenness” can exist quite comfortably alongside an aspirational ethos that consistently subjects the intrinsic goods of academic work to the extrinsic goods represented by the accumulation of prestige and the pursuit of professional success. Graduate studies, the primary means by which would-be academics are socialized into the professional world of academia, can foreground these extrinsic goods in particularly toxic ways. Zena Hitz vividly describes the dehumanizing effects of her own graduate education: 

We observed and cultivated . . . the thrill of the academic takedown, a ritual act of humiliation that usually took place in public. A cutting book review, a devastating objection from the back of the lecture hall: these were currency of success, not despite but because of their cruelty. We viewed such events with awe, as if to tacitly recognize their inhuman character. Our embrace of public acts of humiliation mixed in a sickly way with our perception of the real loftiness of learning.

She concludes:

The victors in these gladiatorial contests thus took on a certain grandeur that inspired fascination and idolatry. And this idolatry, elsewhere recognized as celebrity, was what we wanted for ourselves. That was what simply mattered to us—or rather, to those of us, like myself, who lacked a sufficient inner core of humanity to defend against it.[10]

It is remarkably difficult to renew your relationship to knowledge as something good for its own sake when you are in an environment that constantly foregrounds its use for other ends. And this is why my discovery of spaces that were completely professionally useless—spaces invisible to the university-as-institution—came as such a revelation: only in the truly hidden life of the university could I reclaim the relationship I had once had to intellectual inquiry. And undergraduate students who are going to pursue graduate studies, such as the student I was trying to write a reference letter for, must have deeply absorbed an awareness of that intrinsic value if they are to have any hope of resisting the allure of the pomps and works of the academic world. They need, in short, to have graduated from an alma mater.

[1] Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited (New York: Penguin Classics, 2016), 26.

[2] Ibid., 17.

[3] Ibid., 23.

[4] Ibid., 144.

[5] John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (Notre Dame: UNDP, 1982), 109.

[6] Newman, op. cit., 109-10.

[7] Newman, Historical Sketches, Vol. 3 (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1887), 74.

[8] Newman, Historical Sketches, 75.

[9] Newman, The Idea of a University, 77-8.

[10] Zena Hitz, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, 18

Featured Image: John Ruskin, Christ Church from St Aldate's, 1842; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Bernadette Guthrie

Bernadette Guthrie is an Étienne Gilson Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on how Romantic and Victorian literature responded to the challenges of secularization.  

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