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

Friday, 30 August 2013

Splitting Down the Middle

Sliced in half... Photo by Anan Zeevy
        Over summer, while sitting in a 19C cognac-estate manager’s house on holiday, I casually checked my email and found that a major research project on the Jagiellonian dynasty which I had proposed to the European Research Council had been selected for funding. This happy news stunned me even more than the French sunshine, and the local liqueur, Pineau des Charentes.

            The grant agreement paperwork is still being prepared in Brussels, but the most immediate effect of the ERC grant offer is that I need to calculate how to chop my Oxford History tutor & lecturer job in half, right down the middle. It is a condition of ERC Starting Grants that Principal Investigators (i.e. project leaders) spend at least 50% of their working time conducting research towards and leading the project. This means that the college and university will appoint a historian to a 0.5 post, and that – for the next 3 years - I will be sharing the job I’ve done for the past 6 years with somebody else.

            An Oxford tutorial fellowship is a strangely diffuse thing, once you start to look at it closely. Beyond the formal duties – tutorial teaching, lecturing, examining, pastoral work, sitting on committees, research – there is a penumbra of activity which builds up slowly and organically around the postholder, some of which shades into the voluntary… meeting with school groups of prospective undergraduates, talking with alumnae when they return to Somerville, attending development events in London. It’s been useful to step back and appreciate how diverse, multi-faceted and constantly surprising academic life in a college environment can be; how hard it is to write down a complete list of what we do.

            The idea of acquiring a professional partner in this job, a surrogate, is strange but appealing. Academic posts are in some ways pretty solitary, and come with a lot of de facto autonomy, so doing the job collaboratively will surely offer fresh perspectives; watching someone else do parts of this role, articulating what it involves, discussing its parameters and the execution of tasks, hearing someone else’s perspective day to day, will I suspect teach me a lot I didn’t know, or hadn’t thought of, about teaching and administration in Oxford.  Job shares are common in many other professions (and indeed in academic administration), but still very rare among Oxford humanities academics, so we will all have to learn as we go along. Innovations like this can, I suspect and hope, bring all sorts of unanticipated benefits to individuals and institutions. So, if you are a historian of early modern Europe or Britain, and would be interested in sharing my job for the next three years (entering the world behind the blog, like Alice through the Looking Glass!) do get in touch... 

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Holiday Reading

Sintra - a 15C Portuguese castle, a 19C Portuguese myth?
Photo by Antonio Garcia
            Another holiday-related blog for high summer. The very first lecture I attended as an undergraduate was given by the Regius Professor, J.H.Elliot, on ‘Studying history at Oxford’. His main message, as he stood in his gown in front of an audience of 300 nervous teenagers, was that a historian simply had to travel, and see as much as possible.

        Nearly 20 years on, that advice seems ever more sensible. And one of the reasons why those interested in history should travel is not just because of all the out-of-the-way, below-the-radar, off-the-beaten-track historic sites waiting to be found, but also because of the bookshops usually attached to them. Behind the postcards and nick-knacks in the shops of very minor French chateaux, or Maltese Roman villas, or Polish archdiocesan museums, there are usually obscure local history books for sale – some dusty, some glossy – which, as my husband has impressed on me, you will probably never see again. 

            I buy these books because it’s useful to read about a place after you’ve visited it (enhancing the experience retrospectively), and because they are packed with pictures of unusual Renaissance sites and sights which I might use in teaching and lecturing. However, some of them are works of inspirational scholarship by local historians, illuminating the history of a wider region, or period, in brilliant microcosm. If you happen to be near Lisbon this summer, I’d recommend the official guide to the late medieval royal palace at Sintra by Jose Custodio Viera da Silva – a thoughtful, evocative essay on the methodological difficulties of working out the form of the original castle, and the changing popular perceptions of Sintra, as it inspired Portuguese myth-making in the 19C. And if you’re in Frejus, in Provence, and read French, a must-read is the little book L’imagier de Frejus by Georges Puchal and Colette Dumas. A study of the 14C paintings in the city’s cathedral cloister, it is a marvellous piece of detective work, a case-study in how visual and literary motifs could be transmitted across Europe, to produce such striking, peculiar works of art in a given locality. These are portable, worthy holiday souvenirs which score high on historical imagination. And you'll also get a big smile from the gift-shop staff if you buy them.

Frejus - how did those monsters get on the ceiling?
Cathedral cloister, photo by Guido Agostini