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

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Over the Garden Wall

Yesterday, on a balmy Oxford evening, I spent an hour in the pretty gardens of the Rector’s Lodgings at Exeter College. Oxford is full of secret, semi-private and extremely private gardens hidden behind medieval walls, and I’d gained entry to this one because I was attending a reception organised by Andrew Hamilton, the Vice Chancellor, intended to bring together people from across the University who attempt to engage a wider community with their research.

Anthony Gormley sculpture, roof of Exeter College
Photo by failing angel
I think I was invited because of this blog, so the reception gave me an opportunity to raise a small and appreciative glass of white wine to its many loyal readers around the globe – thank you! It also gave me the chance to talk to people in this enormous and highly devolved (or fragmented, delete as appropriate) university whom I wouldn’t normally meet. There was a leading professor of psychiatry, whose podcasts for laypeople on the ‘New Psychology of Depression’ have attracted an astonishing number of hits. I heard about the Young Lives research project at the Department of International Development, which follows the childhood of 12,000 children in 4 developing countries, and makes its considerable body of data publically accessible via its website. And I got to chat to my History colleague Steve Gunn, whose project on Tudor accidents has unearthed all sorts of remarkable stories (e.g. a possible inspiration for Shakespeare’s Ophelia), which have been widely reported on the BBC and beyond.

Academics still party and celebrate behind high walls, in secret gardens (I remember the open-mouthed wonder of a Little Clarendon Street shopkeeper when he entered Somerville's garden quad, just behind his shop, for the very first time…). It’s become a truism that social media and the internet are transforming academic research. Last night’s gathering brought home to me, however, just how porous the walls of the university have become (and will yet become) as a result of new technologies – that brings great opportunities, considerable risks, and arguably a whole new arena of moral, professional and institutional responsibility.

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