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

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Going for Gold

Will she make it?
Photo from Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games

Earlier in the week, BBC 3 broadcast a programme called Girl Power: Going forGold, which over 9 months followed three athletes as they fought to get selected for Team GB’s Olympic Women’s Weightlifting squad. Weightlifting is not a world I’m particularly familiar with, but it was compelling watching Zoe from London, Helen from Devon and Hannah from Birmingham settling into life at the national training camp in Leeds. It was interestingly difficult to predict who would win those coveted Team GB places – whether natural talent, ability to perform under pressure, single-mindedness or simple number of hours spent in the gym would win out. But what I kept muttering to myself as I sat in front of the TV was: “why an earth are you doing this?” Why would you sacrifice everything else (e.g. your A-levels), move far from home, devote 3/5/10 years of your life and train 6-10 hours a day, when the odds of getting an Olympic team place are poor? Six contenders, two places.

But, of course, academia is exactly the same, and in some respects worse. You invest 4-5 years of your life doing a Masters and a Phd/D.Phil, possibly struggling to find the money to pay for this, working long hours, often abroad and far from home… and when the thesis is done, you hope to be selected for a postdoctoral position. The classic, coveted Oxbridge post-doc is the JRF (Junior Research Fellowship), and these can easily attract 300 applicants for each advertised post. For even a one-year temporary History lectureship, you’re typically looking at 1 winner out of 60+ applicants. Like trying to break into top-level international sport, academia is high risk and high reward. Up-and-coming weightlifters and historians alike do it because they are passionate about their work, and believe (rightly or wrongly) they are talented enough, or lucky enough, to get the chance to compete at London 2012, or to join the Senior Common Room of an Oxford college. Winner takes all – it’s a great system if you’re one of the winners, a pitiless one if you’re not.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Class List

Ready for your results?
Photo by aprilskiver

Today, we’re expecting the results of the Oxford first-year History exams, Prelims, to be published; Finals results came out at the end of June. The publishing of the so-called class lists is a major Oxford ritual (and rite of passage), but one which has changed substantially in the past five years or so.

For generations, it was the case that results were printed out on a stark white sheet and one master copy pinned up in the Examination Schools, looking much like a legal notice in a UK polling station. To find out how you had done, you had to make a trip to the cavernous entrance hall of the Schools, and identify which of the scores of giant sheets on the walls related to History. This was all very well if you were still in Oxford when your results came out (which most students were not). I received my Prelims results over a pay phone on a cross-channel ferry, desperately trying to hear what the man in the Exam Schools was saying, over the din of engines, slot machines and the duty free shop. I learnt my Finals results standing in my future mother-in-law’s kitchen in Scotland, calling the JCR President of Magdalen on his mobile, the only person I knew still with a college room in Oxford, who had nipped across the road to look at the lists for me.

That ritual has now gone – for a while the class lists were published on-line in PDF form, so you could scan the grainy image on your screen to see how your students had fared. Now, as a tutor, I don’t see a class list at all. Instead, I log onto the university’s massive student database, OSS, and search for results by individual student’s surname – it may be less glamorous, traditional and heart-stopping than standing in front of an A3 sheet of paper in a Victorian lobby, but I can at least see for the first time what all students (including those I taught from other colleges) scored on individual papers, without having to ask their college tutors. I do nonetheless miss my annual pilgrimage to the Exam Schools, which added a sense of occasion and solemnity to the whole process. But the thrill, satisfaction, pride (and, sometimes, relief) you feel when students whom you taught get Firsts or Distinctions is still the same. 

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Francis Xavier’s Giant Seaweed

Fit for a saint? Kelp off the Californian coast.
Photo by richard ling.

I’ve just returned from a two-week holiday in Portugal, spent mostly in Sagres, a small town on the extreme south-western tip of Europe, a windswept area of wild heathland and dramatic sea views. One of the most intriguing documents I saw on holiday was a menu left out on the kitchen worktop of our villa, listing the treatments available at the resort’s Finisterra spa. Spa menus often contain a lot of Asian treatments and references – I’m never sure how far these massages etc. genuinely originate in Thailand or India, and how much spas simply are adding an orientalising flavour to draw people in.

The Finisterra brochure rather took me aback, because its core ‘rituals’ (2 hour treatments, costing 160 Euros) are inspired not by ancient Siamese healing practices, but by fifteenth and early sixteenth century Portuguese history. There is a Henry the Navigator ritual, a ‘relaxing and calming treatment’ which involves a lavender body scrub, a seaweed wrap and a compress of chamomile. There are rituals inspired by Gil Eanes, the Portuguese mariner who first rounded the western bulge of Africa, Cape Bojador, and a Vasco da Gama ritual, which uses aromatic oils, heated jasper and semi-precious stones in reference to his discovery of a sea passage to India. When I saw this, I laughed (of course), but I wasn’t really quite sure what to make of the fact that the great modern scholarship on the Age of Discovery which I read with my General VII (15C European history) students has here been reduced to a very expensive set of massages.

On the one hand, it’s rather encouraging that a spa in the western Algarve, catering almost exclusively to British tourists, is keen to share its national and local history, and takes pride in it – Henry the Navigator’s fort in Sagres is a (heated) stone’s throw from Finisterra. In a way, as a late medievalist I find it flattering that 15C history is seen as relevant, exotic and marketable enough to use in this way. Then again, the rituals do seem to trivialise Iberia’s dramatic late medieval history just a little bit. It wasn’t all brave men in caravels – what about the attempted invasions of North Africa, or Portuguese explorers’ role in the West African slave trade? And some of the rituals might simply be in bad taste. The ‘Japan Francisco Xavier’ ritual, for example (a body wrap in a giant seaweed) is inspired by the priests who travelled across the sea to spread Catholicism  –  but a lot of Xavier’s fellow missionaries to Japan, and their local converts (such as the Martyrs of Nagasaki), came to horribly grisly ends. A giant seaweed wrap doesn’t quite seem an appropriate response to that. I’m unlikely ever again to be offered spa rituals based on topics I teach in tutorial, but I didn’t try them. If someone lends me 160 Euros, maybe next time…