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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.

 

 

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Sat down and wrote this today. Anyone with anything to add to this list, please do so in the comments!

You know you’ve been living in (north) Norway too long when…

1. Everyone in your house owns a viking jumper. More than one, even.

2. You buy viking jumpers for all your friends/family, irrespective of where they live, because you think they’re so great.

3. You consider learning to knit (particularly a viking jumper) even though you don’t know which end of a knitting needle is which.

4. You look at the thermometer and think ‘it’s over -5; I won’t need a coat, just my viking jumper’

5. When someone says they’re vegetarian you assume that they eat fish.

6. You think lunch at 11.30 is a bit late.

7. You think going home at 16.00 is working late.

8. You think ketchup is a perfectly acceptable accompaniment to macaroni cheese.

9. You get out the barbeque in -8 because the sun’s out, and even though you have nothing to put on it except sausages. (After all, what else can one grill?)

10. You get excited when exotic items such as dried chick peas are available in the supermarket – or anywhere.

11. You no longer spend Saturday afternoons and Sundays wondering why all the shops are shut.

12. You wonder why anyone would want to travel by plane on a Saturday.

13. You realise that everyone in your house owns a pair of skis, and you take yours with you on domestic business trips between January and March.

14. You assume that winter lasts until May – any sign of life before then is ‘early this year’.

15. You get wildly excited at the sight of the sun, but also think it’s normal not to have night for four months of the year.

16. You think nothing of paying 100 nok (£10/€12/$16) for a bottle of wine in the shop, nor of paying 3-4 times that in a restaurant. In fact, you are so used to the high price of everything that you don’t even bother to look any more.

17. Post takes over a week to get to you from Oslo, and you think this is OK because ‘ting tar tid’ (things take time).

18. Customs will hold on to your parcels for several weeks without explanation, then charge you lots of money for the privilege, and you just shrug and pay up.

19. You dream of holidaying on the Hurtigrute (coastal ‘express’ which takes 11 days to get from Kirkenes to Bergen).

20. You agree that watching a fire burn is an evening’s entertainment.

21. You spend your free time either outside, or planning what you will do once you get outside.

22. Your kids’ friend gets dropped off at preschool in the snowplough.

23. You do the school run on a spark (kick sledge).

24. You have multiple items of woollen underwear, all of which you wear regularly.

25. You consider elk (moose) to be your biggest driving hazard.

Goats major and minor demonstrating points 1, 4, 9, 15, 21, and 24

Goats major and minor demonstrating points 1, 4, 9, 15, 21, and 24

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…

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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.

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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