Sarah Hertz: From Calgary to Cambridge

[Editor’s Note: For a complete collection of images, see A Cambridge Gallery, by Sarah Hertz.]

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Dear University of Calgary colleagues:

I write this sitting in the loft of my favourite coffee shop in Cambridge: a secular and sacred space, where espresso drinkers congregate below rose windows to chat and read the morning paper. Every day, rain or shine, begins this way: walking down the Avenue to Clare Bridge, past the gothic spires of King’s and the river, towards Great St. Mary’s Church which is the beating heart of this medieval city. And every day (even when it’s raining) I marvel at the beauty of this place and wonder how I got here.

There is no substitute for internationalizing one’s degree. What does it bring, you ask? A sense of self and culture. Canadian culture, like language, is defined by what it’s not. So too is Canadian scholarship. I have found out what it means to be a Canadian, and what it means to be a Canadian scholar. Cultural difference is how I account for being the only one in graduate seminars with a Macbook; why my peers look on in awe and horror at my searchable databases and revolving desktops. And one comes to value these differences in methodology, these alternate perspectives.

1382206_733756896649744_1661669357_nMy University of Calgary education was alternative. That is, it began with me scanning the contents of an entire filing cabinet in five days. This progressed to designing a first-year Shakespeare course where students analyzed Hamlet using online text-analysis tools, culminating in a digital honours thesis and a PURE summer research project, both supervised by Michael Ullyot. To me, this was all part of a ‘normal’ humanities education. Yet only by leaving my university have I come to realise my own values and critical tendencies.

The skills I developed at the University of Calgary—those which I have come to appreciate most—are those which distinguish me from my Oxbridge peers. My digital humanities training gives me a unique perspective on my M.Phil, the bases of which are palaeography and bibliography, making it one of the more traditional programmes in my period. Despite my propensity for digitizing every scrap of paper I receive, I have deepened my love for the smell of old books, the unique experience of holding a textual artifact.

1463376_757881824237251_1620743909_nThough I secured my place at the University of Cambridge over the course of many long and sleepless nights, I would not have pursued it without the support and encouragement of the U of C faculty. Indeed, the close-knit community of students and staff is just one of its many strengths—that and the faculty’s liberal approach to education which allows students to pursue creative projects that push the boundaries of the field, in the spirit of what I like to call “informed irreverence of traditional methods”.

Studying at Cambridge, however, has given me other liberties, such as the privilege of calling up first editions of early printed books. Just now, I am working on an embroidered Bible bound in the 1630s, said to have belonged to princess Elizabeth, daughter of George III, and containing the earliest extant bookmark in the world. My dissertation affords me opportunities to work in the British and Bodleian Libraries, which I can access in one or two hours by train, respectively. I have developed a weekly playgoing ritual, attending productions as typical as Two Gentleman of Verona to operatic versions of Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage. I have ambulated round the Tudor Gallery, witnessed the sleeves of Katherine Parr (each worth the annual income of a Baron) and the only life-portrait of Shakespeare.

1011785_10151841385055868_1469006292_nAll this, topped off with stimulating conversations over glasses of port and sherry has made Cambridge more than just an educational experience. Indeed, my experience here disproves any theories I had about education or what it means to be educated. It has broadened my conception of learning beyond books and archival holdings, over and above grades obtained, institutions attended, papers published, and scholarships received. Fundamentally, education is about bringing all of these things to bear on real life; it’s about the people one meets and surrounds oneself with—the person one subsequently becomes. I would not be the person I am today, had it not been for the U of C faculty.

Like most students my age, I have no idea where this education will lead me. Some days, it’s an academic publishing house or an unfinished novel in a box. Increasingly, it’s the palm-treed lanes of Stanford University. If I could finish this story, I would — but I haven’t written the end of my autobiography. I’ll finish it with a Whitman quotation then, in the true literary-critical spirit:

Beginning my studies the first step pleas’d me so much,
The mere fact, consciousness, these forms, the power of motion,
The least insect or animal, the senses, eyesight, love,
The first step I say awed me and pleas’d me so much,
I have hardly gone and hardly wish’d to go any farther,
But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs.

This is my ecstatic song. Thank you, U of C!

Sarah Hertz, alias Melancholic Poet