Last week, I sat down with senior English major Jacob Isaacs to talk about his Off Campus Studies experience. Jacob was part of Carleton’s 2018 English Literature and Theater in London program, led by Beth McKinsey. I hope that his interview will be helpful to other students considering going abroad during their time at Carleton.
What program did you go on and why did you choose it?
I went on the English and Theater program in London, and I chose it partly because I’m an English major and it felt like the most natural choice. I could have gone on the California program too, for my major, but I’m from California, so I was really wanting to get a different kind of experience.
I also think that I struggled with it for a while because I was worried about the Eurocentrism of a lot of our education, in general and in the canon—it’s so focused on Europe and specifically on England. I didn’t want to just be getting the same kinds of narratives that I’ve already gotten, but I also think it’s important to acknowledge that. And the term before going abroad, I’d taken a class on postcolonial studies. And so I thought that understanding London and going there might help me better understand empire and the relationship of the texts that I study to the political landscape of the modern world.
Did you know before you went on the program that you were going to be an English major?
I went through a lot of struggles in my freshman year about what I wanted to major in, but more or less by the end of my first year, I decided I was pretty set on English. I’d taken one and a half-ish English classes—one was in American Studies, but I’d effectively taken two English classes. I wasn’t 100% set on English yet, but I was sold enough that the English OCS programs seem compelling.
Did being on the London program, or choosing to go on it, change your mind about your major at all?
I don’t think so. I mean, we definitely studied a different time period and a different set of topics there than what I’m used to. I don’t specialize in 19th century literature or British literature or theater. So I think that was part of why I wanted to go—these were things that are related to English and a part of the department that I don’t normally explore. So I think that it helped fill some gaps in my English education, but I wouldn’t say it drastically changed what I was thinking.
Did it change any of your interests? Academically or otherwise?
Oh, totally. James Smith (‘19) and I collaborated for our independent study on place-based education. It originally started as being more focused on pedagogy, but it kind of evolved into being a combination of educational pedagogy and theory—more like literary theory—and discussions of what it means to be in a place. What are places? And how can you really belong to a place?
Some of the texts that I read on the program are probably going to end up in my comps, and I had no idea at the time. Probably the most—one of the most influential single articles that I’ve read at Carleton, I read from the reading list that James had made at the beginning. It’s a Foucault lecture called “Of Other Spaces” and it’s where the idea of heterotopia comes from. I used it in my English 395 essay too.
So there were definitely things that I started thinking about, like my relationship to being abroad in London, but also more generally, what does it mean to belong to a city, to be from a city, and how does identity relate to place, which is what I’m doing my comps on. And it really did come from a very different place than I had expected.
Did your time or coursework in London affect any classes or extracurriculars, anything you’ve done at Carleton since returning?
This isn’t an extracurricular, but I got really good at two things: navigating cities and meal prep. Meal prep has come in very handy. I’m the house manager at Wellstone House now, so we have to be organized with the entirety of chores. And honestly, when I was in London, for most of the time there, I was really bad about meal prep. But it got me thinking about meal prep and it got me exposed to those kinds of processes in a way that I wouldn’t be at Carleton or at home. So I’ve gotten a lot better about making meals for myself, which really goes back to the program.
The other thing is navigating cities, which is something I was pretty bad at. I mean, I’ve always had a good sense of geography, but I never really needed to navigate because in San Jose you drive everywhere. But this summer I was working in San Francisco, so it really came in handy to have an idea of how to get around a city on foot. And London is so disorienting that I think if you can get around there, you can probably get around most other cities.
Were there any cultural differences or challenges you faced while you were in London?
London was pretty easy to adapt to in the abstract because it’s a pluralistic metropolitan city and they speak English. And so in a lot of ways, good and bad, it reminded me of the Bay Area. I think the weather was probably the hardest thing to adapt to because California is just so sunny all the time. And even in Minnesota it’s sunny in the winter. But in London, I mean, there was a period of three weeks when the sun did not come out. And I really don’t remember what happened for those three weeks. My mood was so low. I wasn’t dangerously depressed, but I was exhausted all the time by the weather. And I think that I understand better why people in England gripe about the weather all the time, because there’s a lot to gripe about.
Were there any other big challenges that you faced while you were on your OCS program?
Time management—both in the sense of having too many things to do and in the sense of having not enough things to do. First of all, it was definitely a rigorous program. Like we were reading as much as I read for any Carleton term. The workload was a little lighter, like in terms of concrete things, but we were also seeing lots of plays and so I think it evened out. There’s that on the one hand. On the other hand, we had a lot of unstructured time to get that work done, and we were also supposed to be learning outside the classroom, like going to museums and things. So I did that a lot, but it got to the point where I had choice paralysis.
You have an entire city to yourself when you have a day off. And you don’t have those extracurriculars that you normally have, like in a Carleton term, so what do you do with that time? And I just really wasn’t used to having that. And I read a ton on my own. I went on walks, I did a lot of exploring. There’s so many things that I didn’t do because how are you ever supposed to explore an entire city?
There are eight million people in London and yeah, I think that was hard, just knowing that I could want to do any number of things, but I wouldn’t get to do everything that I wanted. And just accepting that and accepting that I’ll never really have closure on a city because cities are always changing completely. They’re dynamic and obviously larger-than-life entities. Nothing to be done, as they say in Waiting for Godot.
Did you travel around the UK or elsewhere?
I went to Cambridge with some friends. One of them has family friends who live in Cambridge who we stayed with. And we went to Oxford and Stratford and Bath as a group. But mostly I was in London. I’m very much a cosmopolitan. Oh, what do they say—like a rootless cosmopolitan? But I didn’t ever really feel like I needed to get outside London. I’ve really come to appreciate cities and the energy that they have, and I think London is a big part of why I appreciate that.
What advice would you give to other people going on the London program?
Museums are your best friend. Maybe that’s a little too common sense because you’d be going to museums already, but seriously, there’s so many museums that you don’t get to visit on the program. And even for the ones you go to on the program, you won’t see everything in one visit.
I went to the British Museum five or six times, and every time I couldn’t be there more than an hour or two because it’s so overwhelming. And I have negative feelings about its existence, but if you’re there, you might as well see museums and understand them. And I went to the Tate Modern, Tate Britain, V&A, the National Gallery. I went to so many museums and they’re all free. It gets you out, you go on walks.
Anything else you want to add?
I just want to say that I was so nervous before the program started if I’d made the right choice or if I was doing something that I’d regret. Maybe that there’d be classes that I’d miss here or things that I wouldn’t get to do. I know I’m going to sound like a shill for studying abroad, but I really think that it was completely worth it.
In every sense—academically, I learned so much, I learned a lot about myself. I am a more responsible person because I went, I understand things like global politics in a way that I didn’t before. I made lots of cool friends who I’m still really close with. I think that there aren’t too many opportunities in your life to get to study not just what you want to learn, but also the whole context surrounding it. And I think that this was a really great chance for that.
If you are interested in applying for the Winter 2021 English Literature and Theater program, check out the info page. For information on other abroad programs, including Irish Literature in Ireland (Summer 2020) and Visions of California (Winter 2021), you can visit the Carleton Off Campus Studies website.