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

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Changing Gear

One of the very peculiar things about being an Oxford academic are the abrupt and often painful changes of gear which occur throughout the year, year in and year out. Oxford academics (at least in humanities) seem to have two modes of work. There is Term-time, a merciless frenzy of committee meetings, tutorials, essay marking, graduate examining, lecture writing, seminars, urgent emails, administrative tasks, pastoral issues, and walking at speed through Oxford between these different engagements. Then there is the seriously misnamed Vacation, when we enter a form of scholarly research retreat, with long unbroken spells in libraries, the chance to immerse oneself in 16C tracts and prints, follow threads of evidence, and write articles or (if you’re lucky) books.

The transitions between Term and Vacation – such as the one we are in at present - are always difficult. The end of Term is often a little bewildering, as the college empties literally overnight, as undergraduates go home, and colleagues fly off to international conferences, or return to their labs, or travel to research libraries beyond Oxford. Much worse, though, is the change-over from Vacation to Term, which is like innocently opening a door only to be hit full in the face by a blizzard. This change-over inevitably happens not at a natural break in your research, but at the worst possible moment, just as you are tantalisingly on the cusp of finishing an article, or have hit upon a big new idea you want to urgently explore & write down, or as you feel you’ve finally up-loaded all the threads in your research project into your brain, and are just about holding them there. The end of Vacation is like travelling very fast in a powerful car, and suddenly applying the breaks. Medieval and Renaissance elites often debated the relative merits of the vita activa and the vita contemplativa; none of them, I think, recommended switching between them every two months.


  1. Another option is to sneak in time at night and on the weekends during term. Work, sleep, social life: choose 2.

  2. I wasn't commenting so much on the impossibility of doing research during term per se (which, as you say, is possible by hook or by crook)... The problem is that most people find they need long unbroken stretches of time to make inroads into their research, and that is not something which the Oxford term allows.