Career Profile: Being an Academic

This week, in our series on career profiles, we’re speaking to Gemma Tidman, who studied French at Worcester College and graduated in 2011. Having attended a big comprehensive school in a small village in Somerset, Gemma now researches and teaches French literature, at St John’s College, Oxford. She tells us a bit about her route into an academic job…

During my degree, I figured out that I wanted a number of things from a career: the ability to use my language skills on a regular basis, to travel, to meet interesting people and to continue learning new things. I also knew that I loved my degree, that I enjoyed academic writing, and during my year abroad I learned that I really liked teaching (I was an English-language teaching assistant in a lycée in South-West France). I wasn’t sure what all this meant in terms of a career, but it sounded like these were things I could keep doing during a Master’s, so that’s where I started. I did the Oxford Master’s course in the European Enlightenment (2011-12), and had some brilliant tutors who inspired in me a love of eighteenth-century French literature and cultural history.

After the Master’s, I still wasn’t sure what to do next. I applied for a PhD, but in the end decided that I needed to try something beyond university. So, I took a job at the Wallace Collection, in London – a national museum that specialises in eighteenth-century French visual and decorative arts, among other things. I worked with a great team of people, on projects involving marketing, public engagement, and fundraising. I loved the job! I got to use my French skills now and then, and to pursue my interest in eighteenth-century France. But, after six months or so, I realised that I missed teaching and research. So, in 2013 I decided to go back to university… and I began a PhD in French, back in Oxford.

‘Large Drawing Room: The Wallace Collection, London’ (M.chohan. Wikimedia creative commons)

My PhD looked at the history of how literature was taught in France, during the second half of the eighteenth century (If you’re interested, you can read more about it here). But a PhD is more than just the 80,000 words you produce at the end of four years: it’s also four years of great experiences. During the PhD I spent a year living in Paris, where I taught at a French university. I spent afternoons conducting research on 250-year-old handwritten papers, held in archives in a castle. I had a month as a visiting student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, working with wonderful academics and students. And I got the chance to do more teaching, which I loved. I also had the time to pursue other projects I cared about: I became involved in university widening participation and outreach work, and I took up triathlon!

After my PhD, I managed to land a one-year research and teaching post at Worcester College: back where I started as an undergraduate. If you had told me, when I began my BA in 2007, that I would be working there as an academic a decade later, I never would have believed you. After that, I moved to my current post at St John’s College. In spite of (or perhaps because of?) some long, hard days of reading, thinking, writing…and sometimes deleting it all and starting again… I love what I do. I’m lucky to work with great colleagues and students, on a subject that I’m passionate about, and to get to contribute to the way we think about, and teach, French literature and cultural history.

Chateau de Vincennes (Image from Wikipedia)

I’d say to anyone wondering whether they have ‘the right’ profile for academia that there is no ‘right profile’. I’m from a first-generation, comprehensive school background; I didn’t always know I wanted to be an academic; I didn’t go straight through from undergraduate to PhD: and I’ve made it this far. If you enjoy reading and writing about your subject, and if you’re up for some hard work, they are probably the key skills you need. To all budding academics: go for it!

Languages at University – not just for specialists

This post was written by Marion Sadoux, Head of Modern Language Programmes at the University of Oxford Language Centre. Here, Marion explains what the Language Centre does, and interviews a current student, Hannah, who is studying History of Art.

Most universities have a Language Centre – this is where you will find the largest body of language learning taking place in the UK; this is also where many make up for lost time and opportunities. Here at Oxford, the Language Centre works closely with divisions, faculties, or departments to develop courses that specifically support, widen or enhance a specific field of study – whilst also offering general courses that support employability and international mobility. Students know that these courses offer a precious boost to their studies and future careers.

Marion Sadoux, Head of Modern Language Programmes for the Language Centre at Oxford University met up with Hannah Healey, a secondyear student on a BA History of Art course and an avid language learner who is keen to make the most of these opportunities to widen her horizons.  In her first year, Hannah joined the Language Centre on a compulsory course in Italian for Art Historians (French is also available, and German will soon be an option too).

Hannah hard at work

In your first year, a specialist reading course was compulsory. How did you feel about that?

I think this is a wonderful opportunity and it has an enormous appeal to others too.  When I work as a student ambassador on the University Open Days, I get a lot of questions by prospective students about whether or not they will be able to continue with their language study when they come here and they are really happy to hear about this course and about the other opportunities through the Language Centre.  Thinking back on the course itself, I remember how at the beginning we all thought it was impossible that we would be able to read specialist texts and sources from the Renaissance by the end of the year… but we did it.  It was amazing and so good to build confidence.

Why do you think that learning languages is so important alongside a subject like History of Art?

For a start, if you look at any kind of job description for a curator or a researcher you will see that you need at least another European language.  In America for all the postgraduate courses in this field, you need German; you need to be able to read German.  Art History as a discipline has really important foundations in 1840’s Germany, a lot of core texts are in German and still today as much as is published in English is also published in German. There is a lot that you cannot access without reading German, because not all of it is available in translation, so there are huge areas that you cannot access if you can’t at least read the language.

You are now continuing with French which you studied at A Level, taking a Historian’s specialist course, in addition to a beginner’s course in German.  For German, you chose a comprehensive course rather than an academic reading course, why?

I do like to speak and write a language as well, I find it really interesting, so I like to do a bit of everything.  For German, I did learn it a little bit at school for two years. They stopped doing German at my school at this point but I didn’t actually like it at the time, I didn’t remember much of it because I didn’t actually enjoy it, nothing of it has stuck with me at all so that is why I have had to start with it right from the beginning again.  Now that I am older, I have been to Berlin and my husband would like to live there one day as well. I would really like to be able to speak it as well although it is primarily for an academic reason.   

I think it is really nice learning later in life because everyone who is there is really interested so the atmosphere of the class is really great.  In the French class (for Historians) I get to meet people on a similar course but in different colleges that I would not meet otherwise and in the German class it is great to have people doing PhDs in Chemistry – it makes it a nice break from your coursework.

Hannah has much to say about the importance of learning languages for global citizenship – what it means for her future. She also knows that any language learning she may need to do after she leaves University might be very expensive and time consuming – so for next year in Oxford she plans to make the most of the Language Centre and learn Spanish. 

À la Dérive: Paris in 3 Months & 5 Quarters – Part 2

Last week, we heard from Hector, one of our undergraduates in French and Spanish. Hector spent his year abroad last year in Chile and Paris. You can read about his Chilean adventures here and here. When we left off last week, Hector was telling us about his stay in Paris, where he lived in five very different areas of the city. Today, we bring you the final instalment in his year abroad adventure.

My stay in Paris was nothing if not diverse: next stop, the 10th arrondissement* A.K.A. l’Entrepôt (‘The Warehouse’). Famous for containing the tranquil Canal Saint-Martin and two of the busiest train stations in Europe, Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est, I could feel the vibrations of the trains through the floor of the ground-floor studio apartment I was renting from an out-of-town colleague. There is a significant Hindu diaspora in the 10th, which celebrated the birth of Ganesha in magnificent style with the Ganesh Caturthi festival and street procession in August.

For the month of September, I rented an attic room in a coloc (‘flat-share’) on rue d’Aboukir, named after Napoleon’s victory over the Turks during the Egyptian Campaign. The 2nd arrondissement is one of the most typical of Haussmann’s 19th-century renovation of Paris, featuring wide boulevards, small parks, and neoclassical façades. My French-Portuguese housemate, an investment banker by profession, was sports mad and introduced me to the delights of the Top 14 French rugby union league, on the condition that I support his team which, being from the Gironde, was Bordeaux-Bègles.

There’s a reason Paris is the most popular tourist destination in the world, but it’s not the picture-postcard clichés of the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, or Louvre. Rather, it is joie de vivre. Far from the stereotype of being blasé, Parisians know what matters: they eat well, drink well, and invest their time in worthwhile pleasures – be they higher or lower. Although I did experience a good number of quartiers, they were all rive droite (on the right bank of the river). Hopefully it won’t be long before the rive gauche (the left bank) is on the itinerary.

À la Dérive: Paris in 3 Months & 5 Quarters – Part 1

Last year on Adventures on the Bookshelf, we heard from one of our students, Hector, who was on his year abroad in Chile. Because he studies both French and Spanish, Hector split his year abroad between French- and Spanish-speaking countries. Over the next two weeks, Hector tells us more about the French part of his year abroad, spent in Paris…

It was not by design that I ended up living in five different Paris quartiers* over the summer of my third year abroad. But it gave me an insight into the City of Light which I wouldn’t otherwise have had, even with my excursions by day as a runner-people-watcher, and by night as a keen flâneur**. After a year teaching English in Chile for the Spanish half of my degree, the French half was immediately indispensable as I navigated my way from Charles de Gaulle airport to my first digs.

These were a single room on the fourth floor of a hostel on Boulevard Barbès, in the 18th of the 20 Parisian arrondissements***. My colleagues at the production company at which I was interning, HENRY TV on Place de la République, were somewhat shocked when I told them where I was living, since the area can be ‘chaud’**** come nightfall. Sure, I saw (and heard) a certain amount of that from my window on Friday evenings, but variety is the spice of life in the 18th: the African markets of the Goutte d’Or are cheek by jowl with such iconic sights as Montmartre, the Sacré Cœur, and the Moulin Rouge.

The African theme continued at my next residence: flat-sitting for friends in the Grandes-Carrières quarter, also in the northern 18th arrondissement, where there is a significant population of Senegalese origin. It was in a Senegalese restaurant when my parents were visiting that we enjoyed our best ever dining experience. Instead of just talking amongst ourselves, as is the norm when going out for an average meal in the UK, we were engaged in conversation and banter over delicious fare by other diners keen to share their culture with us, an unusual addition to the clientele.

As well as flat-sitting, my third pied à terre involved cat-sitting and plant-sitting for friends on holiday in Italy. The Parisian-born cats, Attila and Maurice, though initially somewhat sceptical of me on arrival – as were their human counterparts – warmed to me, and Attila even became quite affectionate despite his war-like name. The flat’s central location in Le Marais (‘The Marsh’) of the 3rd arrondissement, offers far more than its name might suggest. One of the most historic and traditionally aristocratic parts of Paris, the Marais now boasts vibrant LGBTQ+, Jewish, and East Asian communities, as well as plenty of trendy bars and some of the only remaining medieval architecture in the city.

Check back next week to hear about the rest of Hector’s Parisian adventures….

Explanation of vocabulary
* quartier: Each arrondissement (see below) is split into quarters, or ‘quartiers’. There are also historical ‘quartiers’, which often do not map onto the administrative ‘quartiers’ – it all adds to the fun of navigating the city!

** flâneur: a stroller or walker. This comes from the verb ‘flâner’, meaning to stroll or saunter. The ‘flâneur’ became a famous figure in the nineteenth century, associated with people watching and urban exploration.

*** arrondissement: Paris is split into twenty administrative districts, called ‘arrondissements’

**** chaud: this can have several meanings in French, but in this context it means that the area can be a bit risky