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

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Cashing in?

I was at the British Library earlier this week, and found sheets of official paper neatly laid out on each desk in the Humanities I Reading room. This sight makes me slightly nervous, as it can indicate an announcement of imminent industrial action, or a broken book-retrieving machine in the stacks, but in this case the papers turned out to be a questionnaire, an exercise by the private research consultancy Oxford Economics. As the Chief Executive of the BL explains in her covering letter, the aim of this research is to ‘quantify the impact of the Library on the UK economy’, with a view to lobbying the government more effectively.

Some of the questions were simple enough, to capture economic activity associated with coming to the BL – how much do you spend on public transport to get here, how much do you spend on food in our cafe? But the two questions which gave me most food for thought were ones which conjured up an alternative world, in which access to a research library becomes (just?) a commodity, which can be purchased for the right price. What would be the maximum amount you would be willing to pay per month as a donation or subscription…? – how much would you fork out for the right to sit in these beautiful spaces and read Władysław Pociecha’s account of the 1519-21 Polish-Prussian war? Rather sheepishly, I wrote in pencil £25, because that’s slightly more than the sum you might pay for membership of a big scholarly association, like the Renaissance Society of America. Then, a question which made my eyes widen at my desk: Imagine the BL… allowed existing Readers to sell their Pass. What is the minimum amount you would be willing to accept? What is that piece of green plastic worth to you?

What's it worth to you?
In this hypothetical scenario, you can imagine BL cards traded furiously on e-bay, or exchanged for cash on seedy street corners behind King’s Cross station. I conjured up some fantastical sums in my head (£5K, £10K?), before putting my pen down because, cheesy though it sounds, to an academic a BL pass is probably priceless. Even scholars live in a material world, and function within a wider economy, whether they like it or not, so there’s no point in putting one’s head totally in the sand. The BL has to make a loud case for public funding, and it is of course regrettable that education and research (the pursuit of better understanding of the world) increasingly have to be justified in purely economic terms. But even in this climate, the hypothetical act of putting a price on an individual's lifetime access to ‘the world’s knowledge’ (to quote the BL’s slogan), to the national research collection, still has a rather dystopian chill to it. So I’m still carrying the questionnaire around in my bag, unsure whether to hand it over to Oxford Economics or not.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Peering into a black box?

A new experiment

This spring, a very exciting little email pinged into my inbox, informing me that my current project on the early Reformation in the kingdom of Poland (a rather under-studied and contentious field!) had been awarded a British Academy MidCareer Fellowship for the academic year 2011-12. This grant in effect pays for Somerville and the History Faculty to hire a replacement lecturer to cover my teaching, pastoral and administrative duties for a year, so that I can have a clear run at finishing the book.

While I’m on research leave here in Oxford (and occasionally Poland) for the next 16 months or so, this blog will continue in its usual way. As part of the British Academy award, however, I’ll be writing in parallel an on-line log (or diary) about progress on the book, called History Monograph. The aim of the History Monograph site is certainly not to bombard people with the minutiae of the early Polish Reformation as I unearth them. Rather, the purpose of the book log is to (take a risk!) and make visible the traditionally invisible process of how academics in the Humanities go about producing a 100,000 research monograph single-handedly. So for anyone writing, or who has ever written, a big chunk of non-fiction prose, this website aims to provide a space to share thoughts, experiences and tactics – not just about the hard-core intellectual problem of how best to structure an argument, or ways of maintaining some clarity of vision, but also about the everyday human challenges of spending months on a major writing exercise, with a looming deadline. I hope the website will come to function as a collective virtual workshop (or even self-help group!) on academic writing, and a further window into the world of a research historian.

The idea for the History Monograph log came in part following a conversation I had in Somerville SCR with Dr. Frank Prochaska – historian of 19C England, and husband of our Principal – about how he tackles the writing of a chapter, or a paragraph. As tutors, we continually give our students pointers on how to write a better introduction, essay or presentation. After speaking with Frank, however, it struck me that I had never had such a conversation with fellow academic. It is as if our personal approaches to academic/history writing are a private, closely-guarded and mysterious dark art – you lock an academic in a study for a year, and a book emerges, abracadabra! Book/article/thesis writing is surely an area where not only can our students learn from us, but where all writers can learn from each other. I have no idea how my personal approach to book-writing compares with that of colleagues, graduates or other professionals, but I look forward to finding out in the coming months...