David Laven, Associate Professor
David teaches on our MA History degree, and is also course convenor.
He discusses his research specialism and what he loves most about teaching history.
Have you always had an interest in history?
"I come from a family of Italian historians!
My father, in the Second World War, found himself in the south of Italy. He fell in love with Italy, went to university later in life, and ended up doing a PhD with the great art historian Ernst Gombrich. He became a historian and got his first academic job at The University of Western Australia, so I was born in Perth.
I got taken to Italy a lot as a child by my historian father and thought, ‘That’s an interesting job!’.
I almost became a French historian when I finished my undergraduate degree, but I realised that there were at the time almost no academic jobs. I thought, if I were only to do one piece of research I’d do it on Venice, which is what my father worked on. He worked on 16th-century Venice, I worked on 19th-century Venice. Then, my little sister also became a Venetian historian, so there are three Venetian historians in my family!"
What led you to a career in academia?
"I wasn’t sure I was going to have one! When I graduated in the 80s there were very few academic jobs. I wanted to do a PhD as I thought it was my last chance to do historical research. History was then a declining subject. I thought I’d end up in the civil service, or as a schoolteacher, or even in the army. I was thinking of all sorts of careers.
I actually got a permanent academic job teaching in a field outside my own, at age 24, and before I had even finished my PhD! I thought 'Oh, they want me to teach early modern history, but I’m a modernist’. It was really good for me because I’d always done 18th-, 19th-, very early 20th-century history and I suddenly had to teach a different period.
To this day I still teach 1400 to the 20th century. I’ve always been committed to teaching incredibly widely. Otherwise there’s a temptation to get stuck in one research area, to fail to contextualise."
I always encourage people to be a bit ambitious, not to do what you already know. Not because I want to pull people out of areas they love, but if you push yourself a bit wider, you’ll get new insights into those areas you love.
What do you enjoy the most about teaching history?
"The students. I really find the insights I get from students fascinating, particularly at MA level. You get your own students who wanted to stay on, and also people coming in from other institutions who’ve had slightly different training and experiences.
It’s very easy to see education as a one-way process, in which experts tell people what they should be thinking, but very often a student will come with a different perspective and I learn from young people. I find it incredibly refreshing."
Also, I get paid to read history books! I love history and couldn’t imagine a life where I don’t read history books. It’s a treat. I find the past fascinating especially in the way the past fashions the way we are now. It’s an absolute dream.
Which modules do you teach?
"I contribute to a very wide range of MA modules. I teach on the first semester broad early modern module, I teach on 'Research Methods in History', on the 'Daily Life in Authoritarian Régimes in the Long Twentieth Century', and on 'Memory and Social Change in Modern Europe and Beyond'. I am also course convenor."
What's your current research focus?
"My current research is on the way in which, from the late 18th century through to the early 20th century, both Venetians and outsiders wrote about the history of the Venetian Republic in the thousand years before its fall in 1797.
The interesting thing about this topic is looking at the way, at the time of Italian unification, people wrote about the history of a really powerful independent Italian state that spent an awful lot of time in conflict with other Italian states. So how, when you’re trying to create a nation, do you write the history of that when actually the real enemy of Italians were other Italians? Venice was also a major imperial power, yet half its subjects spoke Greek or Slav languages; was it possible to imagine it as Italian?
So my research is on how do you deal with that in a period of so called Italian nationalism and nation building, and what does that tell us about identity in the 19th century."
Any top tips for those considering this course?
"We’ve tried to keep the course broad. Don’t be put off if you have a real passion for a particular area of history – there are plenty of pathways through if you want to focus on say medieval, or early modern – but also see it as a possibility to continue expanding your horizons.
We’re looking for people who are enthusiastic about history. Convey your enthusiasm for the subject."
Don’t be scared about showing your individual ambitions and interests. If we think someone is academically committed and capable, we’re not so worried about their background discipline, provided they’ve got the enthusiasm.
Why do you recommend the MA History at Nottingham?
"We’re a big department with very wide research interests. You can find your own little niche within the modules. We try to make sure that what we have on offer is broad modules that are full of variety. You can choose to work on the bits that fascinate you.
It’s an evolving masters, where we are responsive to the needs of the student cohort. For example the 'Research Methods' module is really important training. I think we do it well and reflectively and we’ve constantly adapted it to meet the needs of the students.
We also get a nice variety of students. There are people doing the MA for lots of different reasons."
How do you define 'success'?
"It’s doing what you value and what makes you happy, and not really compromising over that. Success isn’t about plaudits, it’s about fulfilment."