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

Monday, 17 February 2014

Teaching-led research?

Not just the students who are learning...
This term, I’ve been teaching courses and giving lectures which I’ve not offered for a couple of years – a lecture series on ‘Renaissance and Reformation in Central Europe’, and first-year introductory papers on art history and historical anthropology. After even a brief interval, it is always disorientating how unfamiliar once familiar material can seem; and also how different it can start to look, in light of one’s own on-going reading and research.

I’m coming to realise how deeply courses which I’ve taught in the past have shaped my current thinking and research – especially those which were not in my own core areas of expertise, and (it must be said) those which I least enjoyed teaching when I first came to Somerville. These papers have powerfully insinuated themselves into something like an intellectual subconscious, and exerted a real influence even while seemingly lying dormant.

In particular, I’m now aware of just how deeply indebted my new European Research Council Research project is to the courses I teach in a typical Oxford Hilary term. In the ‘Renaissance and Reformation’ lectures, I’ve found very early versions of the questions which frame the project, about Renaissance dynasticism, elective monarchy, etc. – reading the original lecture notes is a form of intellectual archaeology. The ‘Approaches to History’ course, which is meant to showcase interdisciplinary ways of studying the past, has shaped the ERC project just as much. Many colleges make ‘Approaches’ compulsory for first years, so that students get a panoramic sense of how art history, anthropology, gender studies and sociology have influenced historical research. The project applies these all at once to an early modern dynasty, to see what emerges.


At Oxford, as the University continues to defend its tutorial teaching model, one often hears of the virtues of ‘research-led teaching’: the idea that students benefit from being taught by scholars at the cutting edge of their fields. However, the reverse is also surely true – that the experience of teaching a broad range of Oxford undergraduate courses can inform and shape our research agendas in surprising and fruitful ways. It forces you to look for the bigger picture. When I first started (with a certain trepidation) to teach historical anthropology, the then Regius Professor Robert Evans said: ‘It will be good for you’. More recently, I heard an eminent Oxford historian say that nothing you do in your career – no task, no matter how frustrating or seemingly fruitless at the time - is ever wasted. This term has been about realising how right they were.