A Medievalist in the Chair

To me, as a medieval historian, Oxford is rather like the Holy Roman Empire.  The vice-chancellor, pro-vice-chancellors and divisional heads are like the emperor and the electors – full of honour and prestige, and able to bear down rhetorically, but often more effective externally than internally.  The faculties and departments are like the imperial free cities – members of the Empire, and keen to enjoy the shelter of its laws and protection, but determined to resist any central encroachment on their resources and liberties.  The colleges are like the principalities, centres of private resource, but reliant on imperial recognition for status, and obliged to consult and negotiate in order to maintain their sway.  Academic staff are nobles and prelates, sworn to multiple masters and forming multiple alliances to protect what we can of our liberties.  And students are Untertanen – in one sense, subjects, but also the community for whom the whole edifice exists, and whose good should lie at its heart.  Institutionally, the Empire was fantastically complicated, and historians used to be very critical of its failure to operate in the top-down, monistic manner of a typical nation-state; but these days, there is more recognition of its positive features – the emphasis on consultation and association-building, the relative freedom from domination enjoyed by its constituents.  So it is with Oxford – still the object of criticism for its failure to run like a ‘normal’ university, its ‘lattice’ structure (where there are few bosses, multiple ties, copious autonomy and role flexibility) is now much praised by business gurus.  While my colleagues and I find much to complain about, I think we appreciate the freedom, and the opportunities for comradeship, that our ancient institution provides.  Most of us want to change things, and sometimes we feel impatient at the pace of progress, but – like any fifteenth-century person – we also understand how change has to be discussed and agreed, and usually by multiple parties, across numerous venues.

This idea that there could be something to learn from the middle ages is one that appeals to me.  I work mainly on later medieval England, between the thirteenth and the sixteenth centuries, but I’m also interested in Europe, and increasingly – like everyone else – the rest of the world.  My particular interest is politics, and the frameworks in which it takes place, whether these are ideological, cultural, social or institutional.  I’ve written two single-authored books – one on Henry VI and the Politics of Kingship (1996) and another on The Making of Polities: Europe, 1300-1500 (2009); I’m currently working on a third – a volume for the New Oxford History of England series called Renaissance England, 1461-1547 (don’t hold your breath).  For me, it is the interplay of pressures, trends, norms with the never-fully-explicable course of events that is so interesting about history.  The world of medieval politics offers plenty of material for thinking in this way: authority was typically weak and widely-distributed, so negotiation and performance were integral parts of the working of power.  Medieval sources are full of normative statements, but between the lines they reveal extensive patterns of contestation and negotiation: pork barrel politics, of course, but shaped by contemporary expectations and possibilities.  As in any kind of history, if we want to understand what people were up to, and why things happened as they did, we need to know the rules of the games they were playing.

I hope I’ll be able to bring some of these insights to the task of chairing the Faculty Board, which I shall start in October– not, I hasten to say, fighting long wars, reforming the church, or murdering one’s nephews (which are the kinds of things the people I study got up to); but recognising the importance of listening and looking for common agreement, trying to uphold the common weal, and helping people work together and achieve their goals.  These have certainly been hallmarks of Martin Conway’s time as chair (this time under the guidance of a research career that has spun out out from the study of twentieth-century Belgium – another locale for learning about negotiation!).  If I can do half as good a job, the Faculty will be fortunate indeed.

What more tangibly might we look to do in the next few years?  We shall continue fund-raising for graduate scholarships – the generosity of old members has already begun to make a difference here, and, as state-funding for graduate students dries to a trickle, we’ll be all the more dependent on what we can raise.  There’s also our bid for Athena Swan accreditation – recognition that the Faculty is alert to the question of gender equality, and that we are taking effective action to tackle the unfairnesses and obstacles that stand in the way of women students and colleagues.  We’ll also continue to explore questions of race, diversity and the legacies of colonialism: our Race Equality Working Group has led a series of interesting workshops, and we shall want to maintain momentum, both in building understanding and supporting critical reflection, and in creating an inclusive and equal environment.

New initiatives will be for the Board to consider, but two areas I’d like to see us address are workload and communications.  It’s a real privilege to work in Oxford, but there is no question in my mind that most of us – academics and administrative staff alike – are working too hard.  That isn’t a problem unique to academia, of course, but I do think it’s one we should try to address.  In Oxford, we desperately need to find ways of ensuring that the time put into graduate teaching and supervision is properly recognised; we also need to find ways of limiting our other teaching, administrative and research commitments, so that we have time to read and think and also to re-balance our lives a little.  The Humanities Division is currently trying to develop a workload model, and History has been supportive of that, but we’re mindful of the tendency for Oxford reforms to result in extra work for people who are already over-stretched.

And communications, finally?  We’ve got to do something about email!  If any of you out there have advice on how we can improve internal dialogue and consultation and reduce the time spent on email, I’d be glad to hear it!

- John Watts