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History - Kenzie (Priscilla) Bok (PhD student)

Kenzie grew up in Boston, USA, where she was very involved in local politics as a teenager.  As an undergraduate at Harvard, she interned at Obama campaign headquarters and the White House and served as student president of Harvard’s Institute of Politics.  But her academic passion was intellectual history, in which she wrote a prizewinning senior thesis.  She graduated from Harvard summa cum laude with a B.A. in History in 2011 and came to England on a Marshall Scholarship, entering St. John’s to read for the M.Phil. in Political Thought & Intellectual History.  After winning the Quentin Skinner Prize for best performance in her M.Phil., Kenzie stayed at St. John’s for her History Ph.D. on a Benefactor’s Scholarship.  She is researching the early life and work of the philosopher John Rawls.

"I came to Cambridge because it is one of the best places in the world to study political thought and intellectual history.  In my final year as an undergraduate, I had been sucked into an archival research project that I wasn’t willing to put aside, so my professors all recommended that I continue my work in the Cambridge M.Phil.  But I had no idea which college I should prefer.  Ultimately, I applied to St. John’s because my scholarship administrator suggested it, with very little knowledge of what I was getting myself into.  As it turns out, I couldn’t have made a better choice!

St. John’s is a wonderfully supportive place to be a historian.  Although my supervisor happens to be in a different college, the ‘Tutor’ St. John’s assigned to look after my welfare—Dr. Mark Nicholls, also the St. John’s librarian—is a fellow historian who has always been able to offer excellent advice on how to get the most out of the resources available at Cambridge.  At St. John’s, for example, the Learning and Research Fund provides substantial support for book purchases and travel expenses.  Since most of my archives are in the United States, this has been a welcome source of funding for research trips.  On a less pecuniary note, the large number of historians at St. John’s, Fellows and students, means that the college hosts a wealth of interesting history-oriented events.  Just this term, for example, I’ve attended a debate over Scottish independence featuring Professor Lord Peter Hennessy and Sir Richard Aikens, and another talk in which two historians compared the Arab Spring to the events of 1848 in Europe.  Neither topic is closely related to my specific area of research, but it’s wonderful to feel oneself in the midst of lively historical conversation.

Yet the college is also a particular centre for my sort of history.  A large number of my fellow Political Thought & Intellectual History (PTIH) doctoral students are also in St. John’s, making it easy for me to fall into conversations about the history of philosophy in the college bar or the Samuel Butler Room (graduate common room).  Our college library is replete with books of history and philosophy.  St. John’s hosts the biweekly PTIH “workshop” during term, an informal space in which graduate students present their work and give each other feedback.  Under the auspices of Miss Sylvana Tomaselli, a Fellow of St. John’s and an intellectual historian of the eighteenth century, a group of women scholars working in PTIH also meet for a biweekly lunchtime talk; I gave an informal presentation to that gathering this past winter.  Last year the PTIH graduate student conference took place at St. John’s; this year, the college is hosting an expanded version of that conference which will focus on non-western, global, and international lines of inquiry in our field.  That theme has the enthusiastic backing of a broad cross-section of Johnian Fellows, some of whom study the traditional Western canon of political thought and some of whom do intellectual history in other contexts, like the Arab world or China.  Their support is essential to making the graduate conference happen, and it’s great to feel that there’s such a strong intersection between the academic and residential sides of my life here at St. John’s!

Of course, it’s also lovely to have some non-historian friends, and I’ve especially appreciated St. John’s for fostering such a vibrant graduate student community.  Besides historians, I’m friends with physicists and chemists, law students and economists.  Because St. John’s is able to provide so many nearby housing options for its graduate students, the friends I made three years ago haven’t drifted apart; we still meet up practically every day in the buttery and the bar, or at one another’s houses a stone’s throw away.  Our busy academic routines are punctuated by the pageantry of college life—the Foundation Dinner, the Master’s Lodge concerts, the May Ball.  As a historian, I particularly love the Borderer’s Program, a set of events put on by Professor Pat Boyde, another Fellow of the college, which bring together Johnian graduate students and Fellows for events ranging from lectures on college portraits and architecture to performances of period music or plays in the original Greek.  When I first arrived at St. John’s, I had the typical American reaction of disbelief: the imposing surroundings and quirky traditions all seemed to have a dream-like quality to them.  But now that I’ve settled in, the place feels like a second home.

Such intangibles matter to the success of my work, especially as a graduate research student, because I am so much the master of my own time.  The spaces and rhythms of the college help to create an environment for focused study, one in which I can figure out the various elements of my doctoral project and pursue the requisite knowledge from every angle.  There’s stimulation from outside sources—regular seminars and other talks I attend, for example—but also plenty of time left for me to structure as best suits my research, whether that means studying a language, attending a set of related lectures, or embarking on a long course of reading in the library.  St. John’s enables my research in whatever shape that research takes. I was a strong student as an undergraduate, but Cambridge and St. John’s has given me the space and scope and support to become a scholar."

Kenzie Bok, May 2014