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

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...

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