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It’s a day to update profiles. I might even have to brave facebook soon. It’s a day to change email signatures. The first days in a new job.

Not just any job, either. The Dream Job. The Holy Grail and other metaphors. The full-time, permanent academic post, in the same city as my family. No more fly-commuting (bye bye SAS gold card, I’ll miss you). No more leaving the goats. No more late nights in the office so I can spend more time with them on my home weeks. Instead it’s matpakker and preschool drop-offs and regular hours. Maybe even a dog. Just like a ‘normal’ family.

It also means teaching. I’ve missed teaching, funnily enough. Oh, I haven’t missed the random midnight emails or the marking. But I’ve missed the interaction with students. I’ve missed the challenge of presenting complex material in a way that it can be learnt by not-yet-experts. This time I have the added bonus of getting to do it all in Norwegian. Ditto syllabi, exams, assessments. It’s going to be a steep learning curve, and I am not ashamed to admit I’m nervous about that. I’m also confident the students will help me. It’s OK to not be infallible. I’ve never let the fact that I can’t sing very well stop me from singing musical examples in class, thereby showing that perfection is not a requirement and encouraging timid students to join in. The same will, I hope, prove true for my language. It’s OK to make mistakes, folks, we’re all here to help each other. Plus it’s a great excuse to teach multimodally.

But for now, the tea bowls are in place, the pink crocs too. The essential task of decorating the office door is underway. People to meet, names to learn and get muddled up, equipment to get to grips with, keys to get confused over… All the fun, messy stuff that is the first few days. The new life starts here.

Official, like.

Official, like.

‘I’m not a linguist, I’m a musicologist.’

So why did you come to this conference?’

A question I heard many times this last week. The short answer: to talk about multimodality in research communication. The longer answer: to put forward the methodology of the Idélab Fellowship Project, that of researching in the middle.

‘It’s not beginnings and endings that count, but middles. Things and thoughts advance or grow out from the middle, and that’s where you have to get to work, that’s where everything enfolds’ – Deleuze, Negotiations (trans. Joughin, 1995), 161.

Researching in the middle – a phrase that can be read in a number of ways, and intentionally so. First, we stand in the middle, between the four other projects to come out of the Idélab and the ‘outside world’. Secondly, we are in the middle: our project is now in its second year of three, we are learning all the time. Thirdly, the viewpoint from the middle offers a different perspective, but one which is rarely explored: we like to publish results, results, results. Why not publish methods? Even failures? If we want to engage audiences with our work – audiences beyond the academy – then being part of things, being in the middle of things, is the attraction. Process is something many researchers publish, in one way or another, via conference papers (that well-known stalwart of conference bingo is the phrase ‘this is very much a work in progress’), blogs, twitter… We are researchers to learn, as well as to spout the fruits of our learning.

’It’s not easy to see things in the middle, rather than looking down on them from above or up at them from below, or from left to right or right to left; try it, you’ll see that everything changes.’ Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (trans. Massumi, 2004), 25.

If you want to follow a blow-by-blow account of the conference, then the storifies of the twitter tag #IPRA2015 is a good place to start (days 1-3; days 4-6 – with big thanks to Martin Siefkes aka @stilomet for making them). If you want the short version, then below are five postcards, one for each day I was able to attend, tracing the developments, inspirations, musings. They are unedited, they are brought to you from the middle.

Introductory postcard

Introductory postcard

#IPrA2015, 26th July

Monday 27th July

Tuesday 28th July

Tuesday 28th July

Wednesday 29th July

Wednesday 29th July

Thursday 30th July

Thursday 30th July

Friday 31st July

Friday 31st July

Which part of a (Norwegian) job application do I fear the most?

The cover letter? – Nah, bring it on! I’m interdisciplinary; that means I can do ANYTHING, right?

The full academic CV? – Easy! Which version would you like? I have a choice of three, at least.

The accompanying materials? – Hah, just look at all the peer-reviewed articles/compositions I have to choose from these days!

The obligatory gender declaration? – I’m pleased that Norway is (apparently) taking the trouble to count.

Do you fulfill the requirements for special consideration as an applicant with an immigrant background? – No, because coming from the EU is not classed as ‘immigrant’ in this sense (and rightly so).

Do you fulfill the requirements for special consideration as an applicant with a disability? If so, please give details below. – Uh, um, well. Er, do I have to?

 

No, I don’t have to; it is a choice. And do you know what? For the last three years – and sometimes before then – I have chosen not to declare, even though I could (should) have done. Even though I do require some adjustments to a work environment. Even though, clear on my face for all to see, is the very fact that I have a disability (well, either that or a pretty bold sense of style and/or a love of the colour pink which makes my five-year-old daughter’s how-many-shades-can-I-possibly-wear-today? attitude seem positively reasonable).

I suspect that many people reading this would not believe the number of times I’ve had to say, ‘actually, I don’t wear these glasses for fun.’ I may well have said it to you. You probably replied (as most do), with a surprised, ‘really? I thought they were just really cool!’ And yes, they are pretty funky. And yes, I do dress to match. And yes, I have a (public) personality that sits well (I hope!) with bright colours. And no, I was not offended by your comment. It takes more than that to offend me, I assure you. In turn, I did not wish to cause you offence with my well-rehearsed answer: sometimes delivered in a mock whisper; sometimes with a slight downward glance (or long blink), descending voice pitch, and shake of the head; sometimes with a jokey raising of the eyebrows, tilt of the head, and maybe the ghost of a wink; only occasionally with a warning tone.

'I don't wear these for fun, you know.'

‘I don’t wear these for fun, you know.’

I am spurred to write today by Dorothy Kim’s (@dorothyk98) excellent post on the (equally excellent) medievalist blog In the Middle, entitled ‘Divergent Bodies and Medieval Studies‘. I don’t know or mind whether Kim counted mine as a ‘non-normative’ body at IMC Leeds – it makes no difference whatsoever to her argument, which contains three points bordering on the genius. (I don’t remember whether or not we discussed The Glasses, but we certainly righted the world over a glass – hmm come to think of it bottle – of wine, as you do, regarding issues of diversity in academia more broadly.) My three takeaway points from Kim’s piece are these:

 

1. She made me realise how #Ferguson is relevant to all walks of life.

2. If anyone expresses surprise at my (or anyone’s) ability to do research then I will sock it to them – hopefully gently, firmly, and politely, but if otherwise then too bad.

3. I will tick that box on application forms from now on.

 

Let’s take each of those points in turn, in a little more detail.

1. Institutionalised discrimination is everywhere. It is not enough to treat everyone equally regardless of looks, background, ability, gender, mental and physical health, beliefs, and all the other things which make us unique; no, we have to be more proactive than that. We actually have to speak out, point out, and stamp out what Kim and others term the ‘microaggressions’ that take place on every level. It must start today. It must (re-)start every day. This is something concrete, real, and effective that we can all do in our workplaces, in our communities, in our centres of education, and in our families. Silence is not an option.

2. My grandmother always used to say to me, ‘if you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all’, because: ‘If you write something, you can erase it. But if you say something, it stays said.’ That was good advice for a loudmouthed child with a gob too often engaged before brain. But to my grandmother’s advice I will now add the following: ‘If your silence would be more hurtful to a victim of abuse than your less-than-carefully planned response, then speak up regardless.’ Silence is not an option.

3. Here’s why I stopped ticking the declaration box on application forms. In 2011 I was called to an interview for a job because my declaration meant that by law they had no choice but to interview me. What the job advertisement failed to say was that the interdisciplinary candidate they claimed to want actually had to be able to offer teaching in a certain department, one to which it was clear from my CV that I had very little to offer. That I found out at interview. An interview which was very short. An interview which cost the hiring department (in a country significantly more cash-strapped than Norway) a fair amount of money to ship me over to attend. An interview which I and one of the panel members made the best of by getting to know each other and having as in-depth a discussion about our research as we could, but which the other panel member (and department head) clearly regarded as an utter waste of time. Instead of blaming the inevitable discomfort on a poorly written job advert and a surly cash/time-strapped HoD, I blamed myself for ticking the box which forced them to call me for interview. Since then, I have not ticked the box. From now on, I will. Silence is not an option.

(As an aside: the interview I just described had a happy ending. Thanks to being called to that interview I was sent various materials beforehand, including a copy of a successful bid to a research funding body. Before I even attended the interview I had already amended the structure of that research proposal to fit one I was writing for a call for postdoctoral proposals in multimodality at the University of Agder. Of course, I was not awarded my current postdoc on the structure of my proposal alone. But I was praised for my proposal, which did everything it needed to do and more. I am always happy to send the official proposal for my postdoctoral project to anyone who may find it useful – just ask me. It is not a public or published document so I can’t just slap it on the internet, but it is by no means an official secret so I am more than happy to share it.)

 

So, back to Norway and its job policies (which I have already written about here). As I enter the last quarter of my postdoc I am on the job hunt again. I have already not ticked the disability declaration a few times. Why? Well, as I have said, I don’t want to relive the experience of that interview (and in Norwegian to boot). After all, there are people much less able-bodied than I am – this box is for ‘them’, not me, right? To tick it when I don’t desperately ‘need’ it would be morally wrong, because my application might be promoted in favour of that of someone else, which would be unfair.

That logic is well-meaning, but ultimately drivel and nonsense (and other words that I don’t want to use on my blog). First, by not ticking that box, I am disallowing – or, worse, distorting – the ‘counting’ which the Norwegian state is implementing, and which Kim points out is so important to do. Second, I am certainly not ashamed to be one of ‘them’, and this system is in place to help ‘us’ – that is, everyone; but by not ticking the box, I am not acting on my own beliefs. To counter workplace discrimination of all kinds we need to build diverse workplaces. The fact that I am more than happy to disclose my gender shows that I am well aware that positive discrimination works: the gender rule for potential employees of the Norwegian state is that if two (or more) candidates are deemed to be equal, then preference must be given to females. (For more experience and expertise on this than I am qualified to give, you can read Curt Rice’s website and follow @curtrice; Rice works tirelessly for gender equality in Norway and elsewhere, particularly in universities.) That brings me to the question of ‘need’, which is where the St-Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus-style (or, in internet speak, #facepalm) revelation comes in: this is not about my needs, it is about society’s needs and the needs of others. To tick or not to tick is my choice, but it is a choice that is not actually about me.

 

Colleagues, forgive me for my silence and inertia up to now. Dorothy, thank you for your activism and for moving me to action. Curt (and others too numerous to name), thank you for all your hard work. Everyone, listen well and speak out: silence is not an option.

 

 

Here is the introductory post for my curation week @wethehumanities. Hope you can join us for a glimpse into the life of a Norwegian researcher!

We The Humanities

Week 4 four sees @wethehumanities take a Scandinavian turn with a curation from Norway.  Kate Maxwell will be taking over the account on Sunday night and early risers will get to accompany on her mammoth fortnightly commute in the small hours of Monday morning.  From the sounds of her introductory post Norway’s life-work ethic puts much of the rest of the world to shame and we suspect that we won’t be alone in googling visa applications by the end of the week.

In its fourth week of rotation-curation, @WeTheHumanities leaves the shores of the United Kingdom for the first time. So let me invite you on a journey of discovery to Norway, where I am working on a postdoctoral project on multimodality in medieval manuscripts, particularly Old and Middle French literature and music.

As a UK-passport-holder living in Norway, my adopted country sometimes seems utopic. With high social equality…

View original post 516 more words

This is a guest post written by Jessica Sage and Kristina West, the founders of We the Humanities which went live today. A fantastic initiative, and in the week commencing 17th March I will be curating the account – yay! Follow @wethehumanities on twitter to join the discussion.

 

After seven weeks of preparation, curator-sourcing and generous support, We the Humanities launches today.  It’s the first rotation-curation Twitter account for the humanities, featuring a new guest editor every week who’ll be tweeting about their work or research in the humanities and their other areas of interest.  Set up by Jessica Sage and Kristina West, who are both part-time PhD researchers and sessional lecturers at the University of Reading, the hope is that it will offer a central platform for discussion and news of the humanities in all its forms.

From humble beginnings (a lightbulb moment whilst wearing pyjamas on a Sunday afternoon) the account now has more than 650 followers and 21 brave tweeters who’ve put themselves forward to curate for us.  Today’s launch sees the account being taken over by Louise Jackson, the Head of Learning Enhancement at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.  Future guest editors include a senior lecturer in English and Cultural Studies at the University of Wolverhampton, an Assistant Curator in the Sculpture department of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and researchers from Norway, New Zealand, Australia and the USA.  We are also looking forward to adding participants from the business world, primary and secondary education and any other disciplines associated with or interested in the humanities.

The account’s set-up has been juggled with teaching and finishing a thesis (Jess) and teaching, PhD research and parenting (Krissie) and so it’s with relief as well as excitement that our first curation is underway.  It has been great fun getting to know some of our followers in the last few weeks – and we’ve been overwhelmed by people’s generosity in sharing the initiative, suggesting avenues of publicity and hosting us on their blogs – but this is a project that’s bigger than two individuals.  It’s this spirit of collaboration and the diversity of contributors that we hope will grow the account to reach more people, from those who’ve dedicated their working lives to the humanities to people with a mild curiosity in one particular area.

Although it’s a modest project, we hope that @wethehumanities will contribute to debates about the importance of the discipline and provide entertaining and informative perspectives on an ever-expanding variety of research, interests and hobbies.

You can follow @wethehumanities on Twitter here and you’ll find the blog here.  If you would like to curate for a week the details and sign-up form can be found here.  You can also get in touch with Jess and Krissie with any suggestions or comments that you may have by emailing them at wethehumanities AT gmail DOT com.

LINKS:

We the Humanities: http://www.twitter.com/wethehumanities

Jessica Sage: http://www.twitter.com/jessisreading80

Kristina West: http://www.twitter.com/krisreadsbooks

Louise Jackson: http://wethehumanities.wordpress.com/2014/02/21/2402-02032014-louise-jackson/

Blog: http://wethehumanities.wordpress.com/

For curators: http://wethehumanities.wordpress.com/for-curators-2/

Passions, post-its, pictures, presentations, problems, personalities, paintings, projects, people. This post on the Idélab is brought to you by the letter P…

Idélab 6

P is for people. Photo: Forskningsrådet

In the last week of January I dipped below the radar somewhat; for I was part of Norway’s first ‘Idélab’. North American readers may recognise the term (idea lab); UK readers may know it as a ‘sandpit’. Whatever its name, it was an idea-generation event which was intended to produce innovative research projects seeking to pave the way for a zero-emissions society.

Twenty-seven delegates, six mentors, and representatives from Forskningsrådet (Norway’s national research council, who were behind the event) were led on a journey by Liz and Tim from the UK company Know Innovation (with help from Scotty and Paula). And what a journey it was.

Five days. Two days of defining and brainstorming the problem: what might a zero-emission society look like, and how might we achieve it? Two days of hashing out projects which could take us there. One day of presenting those projects to the panel and hearing their thoughts. Sounds simple?

Idélab 5

P is for posters

Idélab 3

P is for painting. A relaxing way to spend an evening getting creative juices flowing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In some ways it was. Looking back, all we delegates had to do was relax and let ourselves go with the flow. That is not as easy as it sounds, for we had to place all of our trust in the leaders and mentors. Forskningsrådet, too, had to relax and let the week unfold at its pace. If that pace seemed gentle on the first day, by the Thursday the hours were flying by.

The week was a success. I say that unequivocally for one simple reason: we all cared. Leaders, mentors, delegates, organisers: we all worked together, warmly (sounds obvious? Then you’ve never lived in Scandi-land), respectfully, on equal terms.

Idélab 7

P is for personalities – questionnaire responses showed that more delegates were creative thinkers than any other category.

There was a cloud on the horizon, however. Following two days of encouraging all of us – perhaps particularly the so-called ‘hard’ scientists – to fully engage the social scientists and humanities in ideas for projects, then one day of thrashing out possible projects, the clanger was dropped: to be successful of funding in this round, projects had to advance research in two of the three areas funding the event – nanotechnology, biotechnology, ICT. This was, after all, what we had all signed up to some three months previously. It was not ‘news’ per se. But it had gone against the intense working we had been doing thus far. In short, the reminder, while not unnecessary, came too late in the game. Hopes for 50/50 social/hard science collaborations were dashed. Projects had to be abandoned, as those who (for whatever reason) needed funding had to divert their energies elsewhere.

One delegate from the social sciences summed up the frustration brilliantly: in Norway, all subjects are well funded by the research council. The ‘soft’ sciences don’t have to go cap in hand to team up with the ‘hard’ sciences in order to get funding for research. This could have been a real platform for engaging across the disciplines on equal terms, but instead – more importantly, at the last minute – the hard sciences were promoted. In practice, with soft-science-heavy projects abandoned, there were ‘floating’ delegates who found the remaining projects too far advanced to be able to accommodate them. The sage advice of the mentors (whom I do not think were entirely happy with the development, even if their professionalism gave nothing away) was to enjoy the last evening of working with wonderful people. But that is hard to do when just a few hours ago you thought you could save the world.

However, Forskningsrådet had two rabbits in their hat, and the first was pulled out at the end of day four: they would fund a ‘networking project’ to keep the contacts going from the idélab and to assess the projects and they unfold. This project had to have a PI from the social sciences or arts and humanities.

Day five was the big presentation day, and the presentations were fantastic. There were five projects which went to the final round. Of these, four received funding, for Forskningsrådet pulled their final bunny out of their hat – they’d found another 10M nok behind the sofa cushions. (As you do.)

Idélab 1

P is for projects. Delegates listening to the blurb from the leader as he prepares to announce which projects will receive financing from Forskningsrådet. (Comedy caption: ‘Get on with it, James!’)

So idélab had its ups and a down, and then more ups. The journey is not over. As a volunteer to co-PI the networking project it has not escaped my notice that we have gone entirely unmentioned by Forskningsrådet (and thus by the press) in their reports on the event. That is not to say that it is a dirty secret; indeed, for some of us it is the most important outcome of the event. Not because of the money, but because our research may show what so many delegates and mentors felt so strongly: that for real collaboration, and real change, support is needed from across the spectrum of disciplines.

Forskningsrådet, the leaders and mentors, not to mention the delegates, can congratulate themselves on a phenomenal week, and on some excellent projects. There is no shame whatsoever in seeking to improve on this success, and I hope the so-called ‘networking project’ can contribute to that, despite Forskninsrådet’s silence on it thus far. As well as excellent technological projects, what idélab showed is that Norwegian-based researchers are keen to work across disciplinary boundaries, that they understand that technology is meaningless without social change, and that they are keen to put this into practice. It is my hope that the ‘networking project’ can help to drive this change, already in the hearts of researchers, into the practice of research policy and funding.

—————–

Footnote: This review has taken me longer to write than any blogpost so far. I think this is partly because the roller-coaster journey is so difficult to capture in words. A pathetic excuse, but it is the truth. If you ever get the chance to attend one of these events, then grab it. It might just change your life.

——————

*Update: I have now seen the following pages from the Norwegian Research Council, which clearly mentions the networking project: click here for English; click here for Norwegian (contains more details). And thanks to all for the emails sent – most reassuring. Let the change begin.

Two more blogs on Idélab (both in Norwegian):

Anja Røyne – Fysikk og Fascinasjon

André Fossen Mlonyeni on Forskningsrådet’s Idélab-blogg

Any others out there, then let me know!

Idélab 2

P is for post-its. Oh yes it is. Perhaps Idélab should have been entitled ‘101 ways to inspire ideas with post-its’. I jest, of course, but those things were useful…

Exile is never far from the news. It is never far from the scholarly press, either. Exiles, immigrants, refugees – call us what you will, we are everywhere. We always have been.

Recently, a poignant, multimodal depiction of the fate of exiles has been doing the rounds on social media. Because it is set in Norway, the country in which I am also an exile, it is particularly relevant. Somalis in Norway wants us to think it a true story, ‘told to journalist Benjamin Dix and drawn by artist Lindsay Pollock’, as stated by the BBC on the link. It may well have its origins in truth – that I do not dispute. But how true is a story told to one person and drawn by another? Told in cartoon form – that medium more often associated with Tom and Jerry or Garfield, the medium in which characters pop back into life no matter what happens – the appearance is more of a fable. We, the readers, are distanced from the characters; we do not engage with them in their two-dimentional, colourless form. That is not to say it is not based on reality, or that is not believable. Rather, that through her choice of medium, the artist has chosen to distance readers from the realities of the situation. We do not dwell on the horrors of war, we scorn the brat-like children without emphasising with them, we expect the happy ending. Any details we wish to add – the feelings of the mother, the colour of the family’s skin – we have to imagine. With reader imagination providing so many of the details, then, how can the story be ‘true’? What is ‘truth’ in an age of photoshop and spin?

The border between fact and fiction is permeable; it always has been. Not long ago I copy-edited a fantastic book on exile in twentieth-century literature: Languages of Exile, eds Axel Englund and Anders Olsson. (You can view its contents and purchase it here.) A scholarly book, yes, but a very accessible one. Some of its contributors are exiles, and all discuss the experience of writing in exile. Sometimes that exile is voluntary, sometimes it is forced. Sometimes it is a mixture of the two – a choice not to return home. The power of Nelly Sachs’ poetry (A. Olsson) or W.G. Sebald’s pictorial prose (A. Englund, K. Båth) is precisely its believability; the emotions conveyed are real beyond doubt, at least in this reader. The editors were not adverse to contributors’ own opinions creeping in, bringing the scholarly prose to life. Let me give just one example. I do not know, but I suspect that L. Miočević’s description of the BCMS region may be based on personal experience. What leads me to this suspicion? A vivid description with few references. The author’s name and ability in the language(s). Does it matter to the merit of her work? Not at all. Does it influence her work? Perhaps. It is tempting to see, or to look for, passion behind the professional, academic prose. Certainly, her prose, like much of that in the volume, is suffused with an energy that is rarely found in scholarly writing, and this without doubt contributes to reader enjoyment of the whole book.

Exile is not new, nor is it going away. As borders become ever-more ephemeral, as Romantic notions of nationhood become ever more outmoded, exile will continue. The notion of the ‘other’ is as old as humanity itself, indeed it is much older, even if it has taken homo sapiens to give it a name (think of the geological term ‘erratic boulders’, for example). The literature on the monstrous in medieval art and literature, for example, is vast and growing. The monster can signify internal or external struggle (Beowulf, Crusades, knights’ quests). The other is not always debarred, but the visionary, the saint, treads a difficult path and is often misunderstood.

Hildegard receives and dictates a vision. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

Hildegard receives and dictates a vision. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

When we left the UK in 2007, we intended to return. We left because we could; because there was an opportunity to do so, and we wanted to taste life outside of ‘home’ before we became so tied to ‘home’ that we would never leave. Putting that another way, we saw disgruntled Glaswegians (principally – we were in Glasgow, after all) grumbling, and we decided to see life elsewhere before settling down, before our careers took off. We were not unhappy in Glasgow – far from it! – and it remains one of our favourite places. But I don’t know if we could ever live there again.

So much is learnt about a place only by living there. Did you know that Swedes don’t hold doors open, and will only rarely offer to help a person struggling with a large bag? And do you know why? (Clue: the Jante law.) Did you know that in Paris you will receive abuse if your dog does his business on the pavement even if you have a bag in your hand ready to clean it up? Did you know that Norway displays original art in high schools because of the belief that doing so inspires young minds to learn, and teaches them to interpret the world around them?

Shall I say that last one again? Original art, in schools. On the walls, unprotected, undamaged. For the benefit of young minds. In Norway. A recent article in leading newspaper Aftenposten called for more.

Jay Defeo: The Wise and Foolish Virgins. Kristiansand Katedralskolen

Jay Defeo: The Wise and Foolish Virgins. Kristiansand Katedralskolen

 The photo above is of two items in the collection of Beat art paintings donated to Kristiansand Katedralskole, and the neighbouring university, by the collector (and alumnus) Reidar Wennesland. While such generousity is relatively rare, the culture that fosters it, and still encourages it, is all around.

This week, Norway was ranked as number 1 in the world, for the fifth year in a row, in the Legatum Prosperity Index. Coincidence? Maybe. This week I, a junior academic, have been invited to take part in a national meeting for postdocs in Oslo (I hope to attend), and invited to apply for 30,000 kroner from the research council in order to attend an ’emerging leaders’ seminar (which sadly I have to let pass for family reasons).

Meanwhile, the country where I was born, whose passport I hold, and in whose general elections I can vote, brings in bedroom tax and dubious education policies, and tries to run on everything on a business model at a time when the dangerous self-seeking incompetence of big business has brought so much of the world to its knees.

Yet I was born and educated in the United Kingdom. My MA and PhD were state-funded. Do I not owe it to my country – and my fellow citizens – to give something back? Believe me, I have asked myself that question repeatedly. In my time living in the UK I did give quite a lot back. I worked throughout my MA to support myself, since ‘state funded’ meant simply ‘no fees, crippling loans’. As of this year, 16 years on, I am now finally earning enough to be paying back those five crippling loans, which are from the ‘old scheme’ (that is, the one without any tax benefits and where repayment is at a set rate) and have thus accumulated plenty of interest for whomever now owns them. During my self-funded MPhil I worked no fewer than four jobs concurrently, mostly in order to pay the council tax which, for a north-facing pokey flat in the East End of Glasgow occupied by two part-time students, was more than a family member paid for a four-bedroom detached house on the banks of the Thames. I spent a year as a professional musician in the armed forces, and though it was not for me, I have the deepest respect for those who choose such service as part of their career. I have now worn the poppy in remembrance day concerts in four countries.

At the start of this post I spoke about the exilic status using the first-person plural. That was deliberate. I do not feel that I am able to return to my ‘home’ country. I was not forced to leave, nor am I debarred from returning. But, having viewed that land from abroad, and experienced how things can be otherwise in societies which reap the fruits of fair taxes, I have no desire to return. This ‘voluntary exile’ status is very different from that of those who have had no choice but to leave their homelands. In many ways, it is a question of principle. In others, it is a question of doing what is best for my children – something to which most exiles can relate. I bear no ill-will towards the UK, and I will always be grateful for all that it has done for me, and to all those who made it the country it should be.

But right now, and for the foreseeable future, the United Kingdom is not a place that I could call home. That means that my Swedish-born children will likely grow up ‘Norwegian’, but I don’t see what is wrong with that. We fly the saltire, we celebrate Christmas on the 25th December and Rabbie Burns a month later. But we also fly the Norwegian flag on the 17th May and we speak four languages at home. Let the children make of that what they will.

Norwegian vimpel

Norwegian vimpel

Raising the Scottish vimpel

Raising the Scottish vimpel

There’s one thing I regret about my PhD: handing in the day after my first baby’s due date. (Baby was conveniently late.) The fact that things worked out that way due to circumstances beyond my control – together with my determination to get one baby out of the way before the other one arrived – does not help. It was stupid to risk my (and potentially the baby’s) physical and mental health in such a way, and I suffered as a result.

This is not intended to sound negative. There is a happy ending. The baby was fine, the PhD was fine, and I recovered. But I view it now as a harsh introduction to, and as a symbol of, the struggle faced by so many academic parents, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, partnership situation, background, disability status, and all of the other factors which make up a person. How on earth is it possible to combine the demands of a life with children with the demands of an academic life, particularly in the delicate post-PhD stages?

Obviously, there is no simple answer. Every situation is different, and I am sure that a great deal depends on the age of the child(ren) at the time of hand-in (though they do say that the grass is always greener…). Yet one thing I do know: becoming a parent changes your view of life.

The ‘baby’ metaphor was no joke. I really did think of my PhD – and my dog, for that matter – as my ‘baby’. Then I became a parent, and realised that such metaphors are comical not just because they are amusing, but because they are so woefully inaccurate. I do not wish to wax lyrical about the joys and tribulations of parenthood, for there are plenty of other blogs for that I’m sure. No, what struck me was this: having become a parent, my family became more than the most important thing in my life. They became my life. The PhD, the research, the professional life that had mattered so much to me became just a job. A job I loved, that’s true, but nevertheless just a job. It was a radical shift of perspective, and one that didn’t happen immediately. After the arrival of my first child (though for many parents they don’t come one by one), the first weeks (months, even) were consumed first by the needs of the child, and then of the parents. Basic needs: health, nourishment, sleep, fresh air, and, where possible, sanity. At some point during that time I had my viva. It took place the morning after a night of very little sleep (babies have an instinct for these things), and I remember frantically re-reading bits of my thesis on the train as I made my way to the university. What on earth had I written about? Two hours of intellectual discourse later, I realised that it was not only perfectly possible to switch mental gears, but that I really did know my stuff. Later, lunching and chatting with colleagues while breastfeeding, I felt everything was possible.

Indeed, most things are possible, though they might take longer than they would for non-parents post-PhD. My PhD corrections only took a week, but that week had to be booked in advance in order to ensure childcare with breastfeeding breaks. After weaning (and graduation) I took up a part-time teaching fellowship. While switching the brain back into ‘work mode’ was easy enough, it took me much longer to learn to quickly return to ‘parenting mode’, to move from intellectual debates back to spending a day with someone whose only word was ‘buh’ (and enjoy it too). Then baby no. 2 came along, and we did several conferences together: baby in the sling, grinning, sleeping, feeding (even while I gave a paper). I kept up the part-time work, researched alongside, and made ends meet.

There are, however, only so many hours in a day. I did not have the time (or, truth be told, the inclination) to bombard the job market as a working parent to two young children. Any jobseeker will tell you that jobhunting is in itself (virtually) a full-time job; any parent will say the same. So I took my time, and I became extremely picky about what I applied for. After all, being part of my children’s early years seemed far more important than jumping straight onto the academic job ladder and all it entails, despite the hopes, ambitions, and expectations I’d harboured as a student. Whereas I once would have taken virtually anything and made it work, I took an honest look at myself so that I didn’t waste my efforts on jobs that were either above or below my skills and needs. I only applied for those for which I had a reasonable chance of success and were close enough to perfect to justify the effort and potential upheaval. My patience paid off: when my children were four and two I began my dream post-doc, returning to full-time research with eyes very much open both to life outside the academy and within a family. The fact that it is a two-year contract is actually an advantage: it gives everyone involved a chance to assess how things are and work out what will happen next.

Throughout those years ‘on the sidelines’ I continued reading, got some publications, attended carefully selected conferences, and kept an eye on job listings. I also spoke to other academics who were parents, particularly those who had been parents for longer than me. Their advice was unanimous: take your time, things will work out in the end. They were right. The journey of parenthood is long, and learning to balance everyone’s needs takes time. So I shall finish by repeating and reiterating the advice I heard: let the rat race rush by you for a while, put aside the anxiety, and try to embrace any uncertainty as life’s way of telling you to enjoy your kids.

The future is theirs

The future is theirs

This is a post I wrote for the RMA (Royal Musical Association) blog, which you can view here (without the photo): http://www.rma.ac.uk/students/?p=1152 (published 1st October 2013).

Out of the Shadows conference poster

Out of the Shadows conference poster

Out of the shadows came beats from a drum,
Calling the dreamers, the lost and the just.
Promising freedom, promiscuous lust,
Wordsmiths and painters, musicians and fun.

Into the shadows went children and wives.
Broken, neglected, abandoned like fools
Sacrificed over the altar of cool;
Prey to the men who had ruined their lives.

There in the shadows they too found their art,
Glimmers of light in the benzedine haze.
Nightmares, depression, mistakes, the male gaze,
Motherhood, marriage: the price was their hearts.

Still now, the shadows stretch long over them:
Women, great artists, eclipsed by their men.

The last few days at the University of Agder have seen scholars of the beat world head through our doors. It is not at all incongruous that Norway’s ‘summer town’ should host a conference on beat art, literature and music: the University of Agder, together with the neighbouring Katedralskolen, is home to the world’s largest collection of beat art outside of the USA. Conference organiser and art historian Frida Forsgren gave not one but two tours of some of the highlights of this collection which includes Jay DeFeo’s ‘The Wise Virgin’ and ‘The Foolish Virgin’; the viewing of which was surely the high point of the conference. (For the Norwegian paper Aftenposten’s article on these paintings – including pictures – see here)

But when not looking at art (or taking a boat to an island for the conference dinner, or swimming), delegates were treated to a range of international scholarly papers. Keynote speaker Polina Mackay started with an assessment of Keatsian influences in Diane di Prima’s early poetry. Di Prima was also the subject of Lisa Chinn’s paper which also covered LeRoi Jones, and both Jones partners (Hettie and LeRoi) came under scrutiny from Raven See. The first day also saw papers from Jaap van der Bent on the women in John Clellon Holmes’s Go (which included a striking comparison to Jane Eyre), and Miryam Sivan on Jane Bowles as ‘proto-beat’. Finally, Anna Solonina and Estíbaliz Encarnación Pinedo investigated the genre of ‘memoir’ among female beat authors. The first day ended with a moving reading from Jan Kerouac’s memoir ‘Baby Driver’ by Rebecca Evans.

Day 2 returned to Hettie Jones, this time with Chelsea Stripe’s discussion of her editorship of the little magazine Yugen. Anette Irene Nyhagen challenged us to rethink the life, death, and work of Joan Vollmer Adams, and Eric Mortenson offered a fascinating comparison of the women beats to Turkish female underground writers of the 1990s. The day continued with Simon Warner’s location of Patti Smith within a post-beat tradition, Franca Bellarsi’s eco-poetic analysis of women beat writers, and Estíbaliz Encarnación Pinedo’s trip to travel writing, particularly that of Janine Pommy Vega.

The final day began and ended with Mary Kerr, first in a keynote, and then with the showing of her film ‘SF Wild History Groove’. This docu-film uses no voiceover, only interviews with beat artists and poets  together with a jazz soundtrack. The University of Agder’s very own Michael Prince gave an far-reaching paper on the use of Proust citations in the film version (Salles and Rivera) of On the Road, and in the final keynote A. Robert Lee combined poetry and decades of scholarship to make the valid point that women beat artists are now, thankfully, out of the shadows indeed.

It may have taken almost fifty years, but it is heartening that these women of the 1950s are now recognised for their work, and take their place in the ‘imaginary museum’ (to borrow Lydia Gehr’s term) of literary, musical and artistic talents.

I live-tweeted the conference. To see the tweets, search using the hashtag #OutShad. My twitter name is @skatemaxwell.

Not the tidiest, huh?

Not the tidiest, huh?

Because let’s face it: for those of us lower down the academic ladder, reviewing books is scary.

There are pros and cons. Of course there is the free book. That said, I have reviewed a book for which I’d already forked out a considerable amount of money, because the review request just came too late for me. But I said yes anyway. Why? Well, it is actually satisfying to give back to the academic community. I don’t intend that to sound trite. And yes, putting your name alongside your review gets your name known.

And the cons? It’s hard work. A wholly positive review is rarely good, or even justified. There is (almost) always room for improvement in (virtually) every book. Therefore, in agreeing to write a review, you also agree to make fair criticisms. There is a difference between a fair criticism and an enraged response. While differences in opinion are reasonably easy to justify, it can be very difficult to respectfully state why you simply did not enjoy a piece of writing. We all know that not every reader will enjoy every writing style. We all know that the writing style should not mask the message of the text, even for a reader who does not enjoy it. But sometimes, the writing style can be so against what I find pleasurable to read that the message of the text is lost. How much that is to do with a text being poorly written or with me being a poor reader is difficult to judge, and even harder to write about. Finally, you cannot write a review without reading the book thoroughly, every word. That means that you can’t just skip a boring paragraph. You can’t decide that one essay out of collection is so bad by the third page that you need to give up and move on to the next. No, you have to stick it out. And, if you’re going to be a purist (which I am), you need to read it in order. So no reading the most relevant or interesting sections first (because, when I do that, I don’t always read the rest). Start to finish, just as nature – or the editor, or author – intended. For this reason, I would be unwilling to review a book that I did not already intend to read cover to cover.

The books I have reviewed I have done so for a similar reason that I review conferences, or live-tweet conferences: it helps distill my thoughts. My book reviews have three versions on my hard drive. The first is my raw thoughts, a record of what I thought in the moment, before knowing what comes next. Then there is the first review, which is more than a first draft. In that, I make a first distillation of the raw thoughts, yet still allow some emotion through, because that is what gives the review a personal voice, honesty. Yet that first review is not suitable for publication. No, the first review is for sharing with close colleagues, those who might actually want to know your untempered thoughts on the book, yet who deserve the structure of a polished review (i.e. without the drivel of the raw-thoughts version). These same colleagues, if willing, are very helpful for the second review, the review for publication. They can help tone down severe criticism or effusive praise, and, if they have also read the book, can offer viewpoints which may or may not be incorporated into the final published version, but which are nevertheless interesting and useful to know about. (Here I would like to thank Peter Davies and Anna Zayaruznaya who have both filled this role at various points.) The second review, then, is for the journal. It is metered in both criticism and praise, it covers all the major chapters in the book within the word limit (no mean feat), it situates the book in relation to past, present and future scholarship, and it should be understandable to readers outside of the field.

The structure of the review will vary as to its destination. If you have been asked to review for a publication which is dedicated to book reviews, that review will be longer, more detailed, and more thorough than a review for a publication in which reviews are the mint sauce to the meaty scholarly articles. Additionally, if the book you have been asked to review is entitled Intricacies of Baroque Parasol Craftmanship your piece will be different if it is for Historical Umbrella Quarterly than it would be for Perspectives on History. (Yes, I made up those names.) Indeed, when I read a book for review, I actually read it with the future review audience in mind, and their invisible presence shapes the review in all of its various stages, from raw thoughts to polished version.

Finally, I try not to forget the virtue of silence. My grandmother always used to say ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’. Following that to the letter might make for a very short book review. Putting it in a more scholarly perspective, the ‘feedback sandwich’ was drilled into me both in teacher training and in research training: whatever may need to be said in the middle, buffer it with two slices of good, positive bread. Here, dwell on the contribution the book makes for future scholarship – generating debate is a good thing, after all, even if that debate might be against the book (in the reviewer’s opinion). However piquant or pleasing your sandwich filling, the bread can cleanse the palate.

Two final nods. First, Pat Thomson’s blog post on writing a book review is a must-read: patter, 22 July 2011. Secondly, Elizabeth Eva Leach, professor of music at Oxford and winner of the 2013 Dent medal, recently tweeted (6 Aug 2013): ‘Really wish I were more often sent MSS before publication. I’d far rather be helpful than moan in post-publication reviews. #academiclife’ (@eeleach). Both of these got me thinking. One for being such a great tool (thanks Pat), the other about the (relative) finality of publication, and of the pre-publication process. Lengthy and stringent as it is, it is not infallible.

Reviewing a book is an opportunity to closely read a text, and to interact with it in a way not otherwise possible. It is not a competition; it is an engagement, a critique, a discourse (with all that entails). There is some room for creativity, and personality too. But you don’t have to accept every request. It is my opinion (and practice) that a few, well-thought-out reviews are better than a greater number with potentially lower quality thought and judgment, though I admit that there are doubtless many who are better – and faster – at reviewing books than I am. So feel the fear and have a go – and don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.