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

Monday, 6 December 2010

Lecturing for High Stakes

William Stubbs, Oxford Regius Professor of History (d.1901)
Photograph by Hubert von Herkomer.

Over the past two weeks, the Oxford History Faculty has been busy choosing its new Regius Professor of Modern History, someone to follow in the (all male) footsteps of William Stubbs, Maurice Powicke, Hugh Trevor Roper, J.H. Elliott and our current much esteemed Robert Evans. In a democratic innovation, this time round all the postholders (i.e. tenured members) of the Faculty were invited to spend a long afternoon on very hard seats in our George Street lecture theatre, listening to each of the shortlisted candidates deliver a lecture. The candidates’ brief was to talk for 30 minutes about their vision for the Regius Chair, and how their research related to it (although that description makes it sound a bit like a Radio 4 game show….). Our brief was to fill out forms explaining what we thought of each performance (which makes it sound like an exercise in market research).

The mock-lecture has been part of the process of selecting candidates for academic jobs in Oxford for some time, and it was curious (and something of a leveller) to see it applied to even this most coveted and prestigious of history posts. Many a time I’ve turned up at a college for interview, to be promptly shown into a large lecture room, with a sparse audience consisting of the appointing panel and a handful of history undergraduates rounded up for the occasion. A lot can go wrong in that scenario. At my first mock lecture, at Lincoln College, I trotted up onto the stage they had prepared, turned on the stunningly bright overhead projector, and blinded myself for a good 30 seconds. If you get through the talk itself, keep going despite the rows of stony faces, and manage to deliver a coherent argument in 10 very compressed minutes, the undergraduate audience get to test their erudition by publicly grilling their hopeful would-be tutors.

With the Regius presentations, it felt as if this process had been transposed up a level. The people in the back row asking daring/cheeky questions were not 19 year old undergraduates, but long-standing Oxford dons. The subject in hand was not just the importance of an applicant’s latest piece of research, but the significance of history itself. The prize on offer was not a fixed term lectureship, but one of the most famous history posts in the world. From my vantage point, somewhere in row 9, the Regius mock-lectures were an unexpectedly uplifting experience. In what we are so often told are gloomy times, it was energising to hear heavyweight academics from an international shortlist talk passionately and eloquently about why history, as an academic discipline, matters and why Oxford is a good place to pursue it. Certainly the most momentous, high-stakes, high-wire lecturing act many of us will get to hear. As for the result, we’ll all have to wait a bit longer for that… look out for a University press release, I think.

1 comment:

  1. Apologies for the mysterious brief appearance and subsequent disappearance of this post last week - I decided I should double-check that it wasn't going to compromise a very delicate selection process...