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

Monday, 29 October 2012

A Noisy Room


Disco party in the Hague, photo by David Domingo
It’s no secret that one of the big stories in the careers of historians of my generation is going to be the impact of new technologies on our professional activities, as researchers, authors and teachers. Over the past couple of weeks, in the spirit of exploration and discovery, I’ve tentatively dipped my toes into two forms of social media which are new to me.

The first is academia.edu, best described as 'Linked In' for academics, which I recently became aware of by accident, although some of my Oxford colleagues have been using it for a while. Academia.edu is a global database on which academics register themselves, and it enables you to search for specialists in specific research areas, e.g. ‘Polish history’, ‘Crusades’. You can opt to ‘follow’ the work of people whose research or careers interest you (e.g. receive updates), and they can opt to follow you. Within 3 hours of creating my page on academia.edu, dozens of late medievalists, early modernists and historians of the book had registered as ‘followers’ – early career and senior scholars from Uruguay to Russia, via western Europe and North America. I was initially bemused, then amazed, and finally slightly panic-stricken. Here was a cluster of historians whose work I had in 90% of cases not previously been aware of, but which was directly relevant to my own past, present and future research. After just a few hours on academic.edu, my already daunting mental ‘to read’ list grew three-fold.

A few days ago, I attended an Oxford University training session on ‘Twitter for Academia’, after which I signing up incognito (for now!) to follow university presses, major libraries, museums and leading history departments on Twitter. Within 90 minutes of doing so, my screen had been flooded with c. 60 tweets, a blizzard of incoming messages, some 40% of which consisted of nuggets of genuinely valuable information – about new history books, exhibitions, publishing technologies. It was like briefly popping your head, unsuspecting, into a room where an incredibly loud party is taking place.

In the past - or, in my professional past, until last week – academics learnt about relevant events, or publications, or about scholars working on similar areas in different cities or countries, through email mailing lists or by word of mouth. Word of mouth is a highly haphazard communication system, but at least it limits the stream of information; it is like listening for occasional echoes from afar. But academia.edu and Twitter amplify and accelerate word of mouth in the academic community, in a way which is hugely energising, sometimes inspiring, but which also threatens to be unmanageable. We’ll all have to develop sophisticated listening strategies, and a finely-tuned sense of judgement about which leads to follow, if we’re not going to just flounder pleasantly but helplessly in a sea of stimulating, psychedelic noise. 

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Take Your Seats

The canons' favourite house - the Erazm Ciolek Palace, Cracow
Photo by Ansomia

As the new academic year gets under way, and Somerville welcomes a number of new Fellows and lecturers, members of the Senior Common Room (i.e. academic staff of the college) have been sent an email explaining the etiquette of seating at lunchtimes, when we eat together in our 19C, high-ceilinged, wood-panelled hall. SCR seating conventions vary between colleges, but at Somerville good manners consist of early lunchers taking a seat on the left-hand side of High Table, and of later arrivals sitting in the next free place thereafter. If you’re reserving places for guests or colleagues with whom you’re having a working lunch, you normally head for the ‘lower high’ tables (i.e. the overflow area).

When I first worked in the archives of the Cracow diocese, as a graduate student, I spent several weeks reading the minutes of the Cracow cathedral chapter from the late 15th-century (in an archive located in a gatehouse on the Wawel hill, which scores of tourists passed beneath every hour). I was surprised, and slightly disappointed, to find that these very senior and educated clergymen – who assisted the bishop in the running of the cathedral and diocese – did not spend much time at their meetings discussing what we would think of as religion. Instead, they were much preoccupied with regulating and organising their collective collegiate life. They argued about which canon got to occupy the best houses in Canons’ Street, at the foot of the castle, about who should be excluded from their common table/shared meal-times for bad behaviour, and in particular who should sit and stand where… in cathedral chapter meetings, in public processions, and during church services. Behind the finely tuned conventions, the oft-reiterated rules and the occasional squabbles, one could detect a clear vision of how the shared, communal life of a late medieval cathedral chapter should look, and a strong belief in that ideal.

Somerville may be a 19C foundation, but like all Oxford colleges it has inherited certain medieval social conventions. It is a secular institution, with a high percentage of female academics, with scholars working on everything from the influenza virus to 19C discourses about democracy. In all this, Somerville as a collegiate body would have been scarcely imaginable to the 15C canons of Cracow, except perhaps in some apocalyptic vision of their late medieval world turned anarchically upside down. But the SCR email about high table seating is something they would instantly have understood. 

Friday, 5 October 2012

Short Histories, or 500 Words

Blank pages , and a word limit...
Photo by  Bobby Dimitrov

The conventional wisdom in our current academic culture is that your published work is what matters – that printed output will determine one’s chancing of securing a university post (permanent or otherwise), and is where one’s contribution to knowledge is ultimately made, and most publically, formally stated.

Having spent a lot of time this autumn writing a large grant application for a putative future project, I’ve begun to wonder, however, whether some of the most important bits of prose historians write might in fact be the unpublished, private ones, which circulate very narrowly behind closed doors. Applications for academic jobs, for a graduate place, a post-doctoral research fellowship or a big research grant/award all require the supplicant to explain their professional life to date, and the importance of their actual and/or proposed historical research. Arguably the UCAS form personal statement (part of the UK’s national higher education entrance scheme) is the simply first of these exercises.

These bits of application writing typically have alarmingly low word limits. In a world where a humanities academic journal article usually runs to 8000-10000 words, and a monograph to c.100,000 words, on job/grant applications the limit is usually 500 words, 2000 characters, perhaps 2 pages of A4. An awful lot rests on those few paragraphs, in which you try to explain what you do as a historian, and why you do it – they can be life-changing if you get them right, or wrong. And, unlike published academic work, these crystallised, distilled prose articulations of who we are as historians rarely see the light of day. An appointment committee or grant board will scrutinise them for a few weeks only, and then discard them; at most a snippet from a successful application might appear on a funding body’s website. I’d take a guess and say some of the clearest (and best?) thinking and writing which historians have to produce takes place in the context of such applications. At my first medieval history lecture as an Oxford undergraduate, the celebrated Professor Maurice Keen, who died last month, quoted (anonymously) from a recent application he had seen for a Chair in Medieval History – the applicant had written that the Middle Ages were worth studying “because it is easier to navigate by a more distant star.” That line has stuck with me, perhaps more than any other from my undergraduate lectures. The super-focused, fine-tuned, lucid bits of prose which applications require and inspire may go on to influence and inform the supplicant’s wider work as a historian, but these crucial texts are themselves semi-confidential, and strangely ephemeral.