I am writing this on the island of Lesbos, from a monastery owned by the Greek Orthodox Church. It is where my research team from the University of Agder are currently engaged in a ‘research seminar’ at the university’s Methóchi Study Centre. To me, it is more like a research retreat.
The building’s history dates back to the 14th century. New this year: outdoor showers. The seminar room has a chapel off it, with the expected icons and gild. There is a more ornate chapel as part of the structure proper. There is an emphasis on simplicity – rooms are shared and sparsely furnished, swifts are nesting just above the doors, escape is only by rickety bicycle on the dirt roads, the local farmer’s donkey keeps us entertained with his commentary on the work being presented – and on fellowship – meals are eaten together outdoors at one long wooden table, prepared from local organic ingredients by a cook whose recipes are remembered fondly in the university staffroom, the evenings are spent in song.
As a medievalist, I find a connection with the past that I didn’t expect. As a researcher from outside Norway, I find an awe that we are all here, and at the university’s expense (yes, even those who are in the research group but not at my institution have their costs covered). Here I have found a deep respect not only for my colleagues – that much I had hoped for and expected – but also for my institution. For the University of Agder runs this place, and a sister centre a kilometre or so away, which is apparently even more basic and secluded. In other words, the University of Agder has invested in a research environment in inspirational surroundings where its scholars can come to work collectively, or to which its scholars can literally retreat to work individually. (One of our number is on a two-week retreat to finish writing up his PhD.) As one who was nurtured in the British academic system, such an investment in quality research time was hitherto unimaginable.
It is not my intention here to write a ‘review’ of the papers and the discussions. All of them are works in progress, and each has at least one tweet from me with the hashtag #MMfsem . All participants circulated a research paper to the team a few weeks ago; each paper was assigned two opponents. The format therefore runs as such: brief presentation from author(s) – 1st opponent’s comments – 2nd opponent’s comments – author response and discussion. This means that I have had to read some 25 research papers on everything from hip hop to nursing techniques to climbing manuals to engineers’ writing skills. Guillaume de Machaut has found himself in eclectic company. Yet it is also living, breathing evidence of the breadth and vitality of multimodal studies – not just at my institution, but among those working under the broad umbrella of ‘multimodality and cultural change’ (or Multikul).
As pale Nordic skins get gradually more tanned over the week, so too do we feel more of a bond between ourselves as people, and – of course – between our work. Already for me, plans have been made for a joint research article and (eek) perhaps even for a monograph. The support from senior colleagues has been overwhelming – not just for my work, but for that of the other early career researchers here. The so-called ‘Jantelov’ has been rightly criticised, but its plus points include equality and respect for all. With participants ranging from a Master’s student to an Emeritus professor, we are a mixed bunch, but it does not show.
Perhaps most of all, though, I have been able to experience the value of a ‘retreat’: a chance to refresh the mind and the soul in simple surroundings and fellowship.