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

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.


  1. Don't be scared of the Bod's new photocopy system - it's easy. Ask the staff, they'll show you :)

  2. I think I was shaken by my first attempt to use it - when something went terribly wrong with my debit card, triggering a 2.5 month banking saga. But that of course was the fault of a major retail bank, and not the Bod...