15 Minutes with … the Jerome Roche Prize Winner (interview with Bettina Varwig)

Following on from our interview with the 2013 recipient of the Dent Medal, Professor Elizabeth Eva Leach, we interviewed the 2013 Jerome Roche Prize Winner, Bettina Varwig, after her keynote at the RMA Research Students’ Conference in January at the University of Bristol. Originally from Germany, Bettina Varwig is a Senior Lecturer at King’s College London, where she was also an undergraduate. She gained her PhD from Harvard in 2006, followed by postdoctoral fellowships at Magdalen College Oxford and the University of Cambridge.

Many thanks to Dr Varwig for taking part!


What is your favourite and least favourite aspect of your job?

Favourite is easy: it’s teaching, especially graduate students. Graduate teaching is really the place where it feels like the things you’re doing actually become useful and potentially really energising and exciting. Although, actually, spending a whole day at the library, having nothing else on, just going to the library for a whole day and being able to read what you want, that’s really nice too.

Least favourite: probably pointless admin, of which there is increasingly more to do…

What impact does you research have on your teaching and your teaching on your research? 

I have to say I’m slightly allergic to that catchphrase ‘research-led teaching’, because there are many circumstances where it doesn’t make that much sense, especially for undergraduate teaching. Certainly with some of the undergraduates we see coming in now, there tends to be the need for some fairly basic introductory courses, and you don’t need to bother them with the particular thing you’re doing. But in graduate teaching it can be one of the ways in which everything comes together nicely. I teach most of my graduate courses on topics I’m currently interested in and want to talk to people about. It can be very helpful to have your students read a draft of an article or discuss the literature that you’re currently grappling with.

Having undertaken your PhD in the US, do you have any advice to UK grad students who might be considering studying there?

I think the basic advice is go. Go if you can; if your personal circumstances allow. In the right places, there is more money, more time, potentially more intellectual stimulation. Certainly at a place like Harvard, where I went, there was the music department, the library, the offices, all together in this wonderful space, and you felt entering that space that there was stuff going on; there was a buzz in the air. It was very integrated, and very motivating being in such close contact with the people and ideas around you.

What would be the one most important piece of advice you’d give to doctoral students aspiring to a career in academia?

Initially, I might suggest you think very carefully about whether you actually want to do this – to spend the time and money – because it is a substantial investment, and unfortunately in the current climate the outcome is not guaranteed. Once you’re in it, I would probably advise to try and publish something – not prematurely, of course, but if you have something that could work then it’ll definitely help you along if you’ve got it out in print.

Have you had any mentors or people who have inspired you during your career so far?

Certainly in the field of Bach studies there are particular individuals that have been very inspiring – initially, Laurence Dreyfus, who I studied with as an undergraduate at King’s, and who sent me to Harvard in the first place. But I should also mention my wonderful colleagues now. The King’s department is a fantastic place to work right now, and I have had a lot of support and inspiration from various colleagues in different forms.

How did you make the transition from doctoral student to university lecturer, and what difficulties did you experience in making this transition?

The main difficulty I encountered was a feeling of being cast adrift. After a period of being more or less closely supervised and having people engaged in your work, you might get the sense that nobody actually pays much attention to what you do and there is very little guidance, which in some ways is very liberating, but can also be quite daunting. Then, starting the lectureship, perhaps the main difficulty was a lack of certain types of expertise. We’re all trained to be expert researchers, but regarding some of the teaching and admin tasks, you just have to work your way into it – planning whole courses, that kind of thing.

Do you think once you’ve gone through that stage it become easier after that?

Coming back after the summer break, I still sometimes think ‘teaching – can I still do it?!’, but it’s usually fine.

Having achieved a fellowship at Oxford and a British Academy Fellowship, what, would you say, is the most important factor in obtaining a postdoctoral fellowship? 

I’m afraid to say it’s luck, probably. Obviously you have to attain a certain level of quality in your work, but once you are in that bracket there just aren’t enough posts to go around, and so it depends on who’s on the panel and what their interests are, your form on the day, and so on.

What drew you specifically to the study of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century music?

It’s perhaps the answer that a lot of people would give, which is the music, initially. I thought Bach was pretty cool. Once you become a proper musicologist, you don’t really talk about that any more; you talk about cultural history and all the rest, but the starting point was the musical enjoyment. But, also, you then get stuck with your initial choice. You make this decision at the beginning that this is what you’re going to do, and then usually, for years and years, that is what you do, what people keep asking you to talk and write about.

What motivates you professionally?

Apart from fame and fortune(!), it would be the interaction with interesting people and interesting ideas – the sense that you’re participating in a continuing intellectual dialogue.

If you weren’t a musicologist or academic, are there any other avenues you might have pursued?

My plan B was always to have a German bakery! In a way, academics are the one species of working people who have never had to make a decision about what they’re going to do in the real world. You go into it and you study, you do your PhD, you do your post-doc, you take all the steps, and if you keep going you end up as an academic, and you’ve never had to think ‘I’m going to be brave and step out of that familiar environment’.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

While I was doing my PhD, one of the faculty members told me that the main thing about the PhD is to finish it. It’s a stepping stone. It’s obviously important that it is of a certain standard and does the right things, but there’s no point labouring over it excessively, because probably very few people will read it, and you will develop other things from it that will enter the public domain much more visibly.

So you would recommend not spending months and months extra at the end of your PhD making sure it’s ever better and better?

Any project like that is never finished. With a book you probably want to push the moment of completion that bit further to make sure everything is in place as far as possible, but with the PhD I think it’s especially important to find the right time to decide that it is finished now – because that is its main function: to be finished, to be attained.

In what directions do you hope to take your future research?

For the moment, I will continue, in various ways, to try to get early music out of its ghetto, so to speak, to bring the repertoires I’ve been working on more into the musicological fray – the kinds of current debates that haven’t really had an impact on Bach scholarship, for instance – but also to bring them to wider readerships and wider circles of listeners.

Given recent developments – notably the publication of the results of the REF – how important do you think the notion of ‘impact’ is to your own work and more generally?

As I just mentioned, I think that wider readerships and circles of listeners are definitely important for us to consider, and the impact our work has is a serious factor to take into account when planning projects, publications and so on. However, the way in which impact has been talked about – the attempt to make it measurable in order to allocate money or resources – that takes some of the spirit out of it, which is a real problem. The manner in which it has been discussed and politicised makes the idea of impact unappealing in a way that’s really unfortunate.


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