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Profile: Professor Joe Moshenska

Profile Joe Moshenska

Professor Joe Moshenska, Beaverbrook and Bouverie Fellow

Professor Joe Moshenska’s, Beaverbrook and Bouverie Fellow and Praelector in English, research is mostly located in the period between 1500 and 1700. He arrived at Univ in April 2018 after teaching in Cambridge for eight years. He published his first book, Feeling Pleasures, in 2014 and his second book, A Stain in the Blood, in 2016. His third book, published in 2019, Iconoclasm as Child’s Play, examines the practice of giving holy things taken from churches during the Reformation to children as toys.

Why did you become an academic?
The simple answer to why I became an academic is that I had the good fortune to have a series of excellent teachers. I always loved reading when I was younger but didn’t enjoy English at school until I moved to a sixth form college where an inspirational teacher showed me that studying the details of poems and plays could make them richer and more complex rather than squeezing the joy out of them. When I graduated from university I went to the United States to study for what was supposed to be just a year, and still wasn’t set on becoming an academic. I decided to stay on in the States thanks in part to a series of other wonderful teachers, who showed me that there isn’t one “academic” way of teaching and writing; rather, at its best, academia provides the opportunity to experiment continually with what it means to read and write. I try to live up to the example that these teachers set.

How has your research and teaching changed during lockdown?
The main change has been juggling my work with prolonged periods of home-schooling my children. I’m much more fortunate than most parents in a similar position since my timetable is very flexible, but it’s been challenging to find the head-space in which to think. I was fortunate in that for my current project — a book on John Milton — I’d already largely completed the parts of the work based on library visits and research trips, which were suddenly impossible. I’ve ended up writing late at night, which is weirdly enjoyable — the sense of quiet solitude, and emails slowing to a trickle — but also immensely draining.

Joe Moshenska with his book "A Stain in the Blood"Do you approach writing “accessible” non-fiction and academic writing differently? Do you have any writing tips?
I definitely don’t see these kinds of writing as entirely distinct. My “academic” writing has often discussed topics that seem frivolous on the surface — tickling and toys, for example — and tried to make them seem, not more serious, but full of complexity that’s worth exploring. Writing for a general readership often requires a clearer hook and a stronger sense of narrative, but ultimately I feel that the way something is written should be driven by the ideas that it contains: different ideas require different expression. So I try to ask myself, “What’s the most interesting way to express this?”, not “Is this academic or popular?”

Each person’s writing process is so different that I’m reluctant to offer practical tips for writer’s block, but I do have one that I’ll share. It can be tempting when writing to think “I’ll get to the end of this section and then stop.” But this can often be a mistake: if we end at what feels like a satisfying moment it can be much harder to start again, because the point at which we stopped is too neat and too final. Instead, try stopping mid-thought, even mid-sentence: the frustration will itch away at you until you can sit down again and resume, but you may find it much easier to then do so.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of being an academic?
Most academics I know seem to agree that the main — perhaps only — positive outcome of the pandemic has been the widespread availability of online seminars and discussion groups, which have allowed people from across the world to gather around common interests. When these go well they crystallise the most rewarding aspects of being an academic: sharing ideas and enthusiasms, finding out what one really thinks by putting one’s ideas into contact with others’. For me this characterises both teaching and research at its best. I have no idea what my work will look like in a few years’ time: what I’ll be writing about, what and how I’ll be teaching. This sense of open possibilities and lack of a prescribed future is for me the most rewarding part of academic life.

Professor Joe MoshenskaDo you have any funny/favourite moments from your time at Univ?
When I arrived at Univ I enjoyed learning about some of the more weird and wonderful aspects of the College’s history. My colleague Nick Halmi told me that the room in which I’d been interviewed for my job was the same room in which Percy Shelley had been interrogated for evidence of his atheism and expelled; he also told me that John Ruskin’s mother apparently stayed in what is now my office when she came to Oxford in order to follow her son around and make sure he wasn’t getting up to no good, a pioneering piece of helicopter parenting. Teaching and studying in Oxford means being surrounded by various layers and kinds of history, and I enjoy exploring these with my students in ways that aren’t so much about fixating upon the past as glimpsing new possibilities for the future, ways that the place can be reimagined by those who inhabit it.

Describe Univ in three words.
I’m going to cheat a bit here with hyphens: open-minded; forward-looking; unpretentious.

Published: 15 February 2021

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