Alumni Spotlight: Kevin Fogg (’01)
Dr. Kevin Fogg (Class of 2001) was a member of the last GSGIS class to spend all four years in the school’s original home in Thomas Jefferson High School. Without question, it was a different experience than students have in the new Maggie Walker building. He remembers, “overcrowded rooms, shots fired in the building, bomb threats, TJ marching band practice outside the window throughout an entire semester of Trigonometry, and — perhaps most memorably — an announcement that the school could no longer afford to provide toilet paper and everyone should start bringing their own supply from home.” He is not alone in recalling the good spirits among the Governor’s School pioneers, in spite or because of the surroundings. “We were still able to study to the highest levels despite the distractions (or, some argued at the time, because we didn’t have the alternate distractions associated with trying to be institutionally shiny and entirely functional). The mild chaos and liminal feeling of the building was perfectly fitting for one’s high school years.” He fondly remembers being a player in and later a coach of the improv troupe, as well as his senior year Language Bowl team.
Kevin majored in History and Asian and African Languages and Literatures and minored in Religion at Duke. After college graduation, he took a one-year Fulbright grant to Indonesia in order to try out full-time fieldwork. “I did pretty well in the field, although many of the skills are ones that no one tells you about,” he says. “The ability to eat most anything, a high tolerance for heat and humidity, and being accustomed to normatively religious society are exceedingly helpful for fieldwork in Indonesia (all cultivated by my Richmond upbringing), but no one would ever list them on a checklist to enter the field of Southeast Asian history.”
Kevin advises undergraduates against pursuing graduate studies “unless they cannot stand to do anything else.” He adds, “Getting a masters, doctorate, or professional degree is lovely, but getting practical experience is just as important. Even if you want to pursue a graduate degree, the folks I know who were most successful in graduate school spent time working for a bit first and then were much more focused when they returned to studying.”
Kevin’s course of study at Yale included more than two years of fieldwork in Indonesia, as well as the completion of three degrees over the course of six years. He accepted an appointment at Oxford in 2012. He is currently looking forward to finishing a book he is writing on Islam in the Indonesian Revolution.
Kevin answered our questions about Oxford below:
What do you teach currently?
In Oxford, history is still divided broadly into the history of Britain and the history of everywhere else, so I teach in the latter category. Most subjects are defined by a time period, like 1750-1930 or 1930-2003, but I also teach a targeted subject for undergraduates on the history of Southeast Asia through imperialism and nationalism, and a graduate subject on modern Islamic history.
For the undergraduates, it is worth remembering that most teaching is delivered through one-on-one or one-on-two tutorials. The student receives a question and a list of books from me, goes home to read the books and write an essay to answer the question, and sends me the essay via email. I read the essay, and then we discuss the topic for an hour in my office. At the end of the hour, I give the students a new question and new list of readings, and so on.
What is your favorite Oxford tradition? What is the strangest?
My college here, Brasenose, sits back-to-back with its rival college, Lincoln. Several centuries ago, a couple of Lincoln boys and one Brasenose man (this was when all Oxford students had to be male and unmarried) got themselves into some trouble in town and found themselves being chased by an angry mob as they ran back to their colleges. This is why old colleges have huge, sturdy gates. The group reached Lincoln first, and that college let in its own students but not the one Brasenosian. Our student tried to outrun the mob down the additional lane to reach the safety of college, but he was caught and killed on the spot by the townsfolk.
The fellowship of Lincoln repented for its lack of hospitality in leaving the Brasenose man to the hands of the mob, and in penance they agreed that once a year we would open the one internal door between our two colleges for all fellows and students of Brasenose to pass through and drink our fill of beer at Lincoln’s expense. Pretty quick, though, Lincoln realized that Brasenose folks can put away a lot of beer, so they started to lace the beer with ivy, which makes it toxic if consumed in large quantities and especially bitter in any quantity. We still pass through the internal door on Ascension Day every year to drink this peculiar bitter beer.
What is the best part of your job?
High table at Brasenose. (Imagine the dining hall from Harry Potter, but the food on the elevated [‘high’] table where the professors sit is significantly better than the quality that the undergraduates are served. Plus, we get a second dessert with snuff.)
I also get to meet lots of visiting dignitaries because my position is at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. Sometimes this is great, sometimes it is super awkward, but it does feel very prestigious.
What is the hardest part of your job?
I really enjoy my fieldwork in Indonesia, so much so that I could probably also list it among the best parts of my job, but it can also be very difficult. When you have to ride out for two hours on the back of a motorcycle to conduct interviews despite feeling incredibly ill, it’s a challenge.
What would you tell someone visiting Oxford not to miss?
All the things on the beaten path are interesting and worth a visit. Folks who come on a day trip rarely go to the Pitt Rivers Museum, but it is fascinating. Sometimes called the store-room of empire, this anthropological museum was one of the first of its kind. Oxford graduates posted around the world would send back peculiar or interesting items, but they were categorized by type rather than geographically. This means that one case will have all the masks from around the world, or all the plucked musical instruments from around the world, or all the knuckle-dusters from around the world, rather than one case holding the whole collection from Burma, for example.
What would you tell a Maggie Walker senior considering applying to Oxford?
The Oxford system requires students to study only one subject, or in rare cases two related subjects (like religion and philosophy). There is no real opportunity for interdisciplinary study, unlike the American liberal arts system. A student studying chemistry will never have the opportunity to take a history class, and vice versa. Consider carefully whether you are ready to study only one subject before applying.