Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Good tutorial? Bad tutorial?

Socrates - the best tutor ever?
National Archaeological Museum Naples
Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen
Between March and October this year, I did not teach a single tutorial because I was on research leave. A seven month gap is enough to make you worry you’ve forgotten how to do it, but also gives you a refreshed perspective. The tutorial system – a weekly one-hour academic discussion between a tutor and 1-3 students – is always held up as the jewel in Oxford University’s crown. It’s not a lecture, it’s not simply extended and pedantic feedback on a piece of written work, but (in theory) a Socratic conversation, whereby through a skilfully chaired discussion students question their assumptions and gain brilliant new insights into the topic in hand, and maybe the world in general.

The principal thing I’d forgotten was how hard it is to know – in any given tutorial – whether it is going well or not. Although we get plenty of formal feedback from students about their experience of a term's teaching, or their degree in general, these are feedback overviews. From the tutor’s perspective – sitting back in an armchair, a discreet sheet of notes to hand, maybe a comforting cup of herbal tea nearby – it is pretty difficult  to tell whether a specific tutorial is living up to the Socratic ideal, or turning into a purgatorial experience for everyone concerned.

There are some obvious signs that light bulbs are turning on – a palpable rise in the energy level in the room; people sitting up or moving towards the edge of their seats; the  articulation of challenging and vociferous questions; students debating with each other in an animated manner as if the tutor wasn’t there at all. There are also obvious signs that a tutorial is not going well at all – if a student is staring glumly out of the window at people playing Frisbee on the quad, or picking dead skin off the soles of their feet while their tutorial partner talks about early modern Spanish armies. And then there is – much more commonly – the grey inbetween. If students are giving brief, faltering answers to your questions, with extended silences before they speak, does that mean they are ruminating on the issues at a deep and still level? Or that they are revealing a terrible lack of reading? Or that the point you just elucidated has gone right over their heads? Or, alternatively, that it was so blindingly obvious that no-one understands why you bothered to mention it at all?

So that is one of the reasons why tutorial teaching requires you to keep your wits about you. While one part of the tutor’s brain is neurotically concerned with reading body language, glances and silences for evidence of total bafflement or intellectual elation, the rest of it is trying hard to conduct a sensible conversation about the intricacies of Elizabethan court portraiture, or the economy of late 15th century Florence, or pedagogical practice in the Renaissance. But maybe that’s just me.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Zoological Nomenclature

Last week, I had to go to the Radcliffe Science Library (RSL) to consult a book about the Italian Renaissance, which had temporarily been rehoused in the RSL basement. Wandering around the RSL reminded me a wonderful journal I once came across on its shelves, The Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature. In this publication, history, antiquarianism and the natural sciences meet. In the Bulletin, zoologists deliberate, rule on and clarify the correct Latin names for the world’s species, with reference to old documents. Over the centuries, naturalists have sometimes christened the same creature many times over by different names, in error or in ignorance of each other’s work. What is apparently the same genus of termite, for example, might be called by one name in 1813, and by quite another in a paper published in a different country in 1856. The Bulletin thus consists in large part of historical research, as modern zoologists pick through the writings, plates and papers of their eighteenth-, nineteenth- and twentieth-century forebears, tracing the history of human study of the animal kingdom.

Do fish need historians?
18C Engraving of an Atlantic Salmon by M. E. Bloch
Historical research and contemporary science seem to meet in all sorts of unlikely places. The British Antarctic Survey literally drills into the past by extracting ‘ice cores’, and maps the ice’s gas content against human history, correlating changes in the gas composition with the start of the industrial revolution in ‘the early 1800s’. To make the arguments they make, they need to have an accurate grasp of human chronology. A recent BBC programme on the new Marine Census featured a New England professor who uses the logbooks of mid-19th century American fishing vessels to calculate (the apparently Biblically vast) fish stocks in the western Atlantic 150 years ago, and juxtapose them with the depleted populations in the same waters today. This kind of hybrid scientific-historical research requires archival and palaeographic (decoding old handwriting) skills, and sensitivity to the functions (and thus likely accuracy) of a 19th century maritime log book. In as similar vein, Oxford University climate scientists last week announced a new project to work through the logbooks kept by Royal Navy Battleships during World War I, which contain plenty of human observations on the weather c.1914. (If you want to have a go at this research, see www.oldweather.org/). Climate change itself is of course a historical concept through and through – the environment changing over time, through the actions of human beings – and so this kind of marriage of historical and scientific research is set to be a growing trend.

Much is made of the fundamental, allegedly unbridgeable divide between scholarship in the sciences and humanities. But concepts like time and the past obviously sit in the consciousness of all these disciplines. All scholars need to have some grasp of the history of their subject, to give their own research a meaningful context. So apparently radically different intellectual pursuits (like history and science) can turn out to have surprisingly porous boundaries, shared problems and rich interfaces.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Doctor Copernicus and Q

The Death of Copernicus, A. Lesser (d.1884)

A couple of weeks ago, the History Faculty put online the new undergraduate reading lists which tutors had valiantly revised and updated over the long vacation. My own contribution was an overhauled bibliography for the European history course ‘General VIII’, which covers the action-packed years 1517-1618. At the end, in an experimental flourish, I added a new appendix – a list of fairly high-brow historical novels set in Europe, Asia and the Americas in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. To my surprise, none of the colleagues who have seen the document have yet remarked, or protested, or thrown their hands up in dismay at this unorthodox fictional ending to an Oxford reading list otherwise consisting of heavy-weight research publications.

The list includes one of my favourite twentieth-century novels, Doctor Copernicus (1976) by John Banville. Banville – in his trademark luminous prose - offers a poignant rendition of the master astronomer, with perceptive and I think unmatched descriptions of the splendid seediness of papal Rome in 1500, the backwater life led by Copernicus and his fellow cathedral canons in Frombork/Frauenburg on the Baltic lagoon in Polish Prussia, of dangerous odysseys across the continent. The only other novel I know which treats sixteenth-century Europe with quite the same panoramic sweep is Q (1999), by an Italian collective writing under the name of Luther Blissett. Q is an epic imagining of the Reformation, told as a cat and mouse story of a papal agent pursuing a reformer across Christendom over four decades – there are wonderfully memorable descriptions of the ‘court’ of King Jan of Munster during the apocalyptic siege of that Anabaptist city in 1534-5, of the cosmopolitan chaos of Renaissance Venice, of heretical books smuggled through reed beds on the Italian coast.

Historians are often assumed to look down on historical fiction as something cheap, trashy, populist and misleading. It is certainly annoying when novels misrepresent the past in a cavalier fashion, or when they treat their human subjects in a glib, trivial or voyeuristic way. But there are plenty of serious, seriously thoughtful, novels about the early modern period which I know my colleagues read, and which I wholeheartedly feel our students should read too. Novelists like Banville and Blissett show that the events we study can inspire highly talented people other than students and professional historians to engage passionately and provocatively with the past; it does not belong exclusively to us as historians, but enjoys a broader cultural ownership. These novels also let us see a period we thought we knew well in a different way – they are not textbooks, which have to follow a more or less prescribed path through the sixteenth century, but freewheeling and left-field (sometimes radical) reinterpretations of the period. In Luther Blissett’s aptly zeitgeist reading, for example, the principal historical force in sixteenth century Europe is not princely power, or the ideas of great intellectuals, or the bubbling anger of lower social orders, but the schemes of clever bankers. Serious historical fiction and serious historical scholarship share many of the same questions, methods and ambitions; we’re all trying to say something perceptive, and new, about the period. Renaissance scholars themselves would, I think, have found the current frequent handwringing about the proper boundaries of historical fact/fiction bemusing – they knew there was a truth in poetry, and a truth in rhetoric.

Friday, 8 October 2010


So this is Freshers’ Week, and it’s always a real pleasure as a tutor to see again the students who shone at interview in those frenetic few days in December last year, to welcome them to the college and academic life in Oxford, and to begin a 3-year journey with them.

This year’s History Freshers have rightly commented on how much information they have to assimilate in just a few days – so many new terminologies to learn, pieces of paper to file away, computer systems/catalogues to master, a new city geography to become familiar with. I don’t know if the History Freshers would feel more or less daunted if they knew, after 15 years in Oxford, how much I still don’t know about how things in the University function, where they are, and why they happen. I don’t know where the Oriental Studies Institute is; I don’t know how to use the Bodleian’s new photocopying system; I don’t know where all the useful reference books on the medieval church which used to be on the shelves of the Duke Humphreys Library have suddenly gone. I don’t really know what a Proctor does in their 12 month term of office. I am a member of Congregation, the ‘dons’ parliament’, but I have not yet attended a meeting because I don’t know where these are advertised, or what to wear if I did go, or if I would have a right to speak. At my Oxford graduation ceremony in the Sheldonian Theatre in 2000, I did not know where to stand if you were claiming both a BA and an M.St., and ended up embarrassing myself in front of several hundred people. I know the Somerville gardens have rare botanical specimens growing in them, but I don’t know where or what they are. I know the University’s top executive Committee is the Council (and I receive pleasant email updates from them), but I don’t know who sits on it, or how they got there.

In Tobias Jones’ brilliant book about the rise of Silvio Berlusconi, The Dark Heart of Italy, he explains that one of the great post-war myths in that country is of the grande vecchio – a grand old man, in some secret location, who alone knows how the apparent chaos of post-1945 Italy fits together, the prime mover who behind the scenes understands and orchestrates everything. It is surprising that an institution/community as multilayered, kaleidoscopic and confusing (not to say confused?) as Oxford has not yet generated a similar myth.

Monday, 4 October 2010

The Crane

The College has gained a magnificent and striking new feature in recent weeks, which is set to remain with us for many months – a giant construction crane. Even with the panoramic view of the main quad I have from my room, the crane is too high to see directly from my desk. But every so often, when its main arm swings around suddenly, it is reflected in my glass coffee table in a rather ethereal way, a hint of activity in the sky. The crane dominates, and dwarfs, what had always seemed a spacious north Oxford college site and holds great blocks of concrete suspended over the library roof. It is there to construct the Somerville ROQ building – an abbreviation of ‘Radcliffe Observatory Quarter’, rather than a reference to the mythical giant bird in the Tales of Sinbad.

Renaissance writers were very excited by construction sites, a sentiment I am finally beginning to understand. The Florentine apothecary Luca Landucci, who lived at the height of Medicean rule in the late 15th-century and wrote a meticulous diary, kept a careful note of new building projects. When the banker Filippo Strozzi started a multi-decade palace construction project on Landucci’s doorstep, the apothecary was sometimes put out by the dust and noise, but he was more often than not gripped by crane-enthusiasm. “Princely things!”, he wrote, “Men were crazy for building at this time.” For Landucci, the rash of palace-building by bankers was a source of immense civic pride, proof positive that his city was experiencing a golden age, and that he lived in a historically and culturally significant place. In Poland, the chronicler Maciej of Miechów had similar assumptions. Summarising the reign of King Aleksander Jagiellon (d.1506) in his Chronica Polonorum, Maciej listed the monarch’s political achievements and personal virtues, but concluded his eulogy with an observation which rings with disappointment: “But because his treasury was empty, he did not build anything.” Construction projects – as fantastically expensive in the Renaissance as now – were a game for princes, but they also brought glory to the wider community.

The Somerville crane is not, I think, there to stake a claim to political power through princely splendour or to impress our neighbours with our unlimited wealth (as Strozzi’s was!). But it might well become a source of pride for the college community and, in a rather unlikely way, it’s a symbol of optimism and hope. With the UK government’s imminent Comprehensive Spending Review hanging over all British universities like a Damoclean sword, the crane says that we look forward to welcoming many generations of students to study and live in the new building, that we plan boldly for future teaching and research, and above all that we have faith in what we do as an Oxford college.