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Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

This is not about sympathy. It is not about sob stories. Like my last post on disability (inspired by Dorothy Kim writing for ITM), it is about counting. It is about raising awareness. To use the terminology of multimodality, it is about acknowledging the cultural practices of our times – and changing them. It is about discourse, for the current prevalent societal discourse – the sugar-coated poison which infuses popular culture with impossible ideals – does not recognise that here, now, everywhere, human beings are being abused. We probably always have been, but that doesn’t make it acceptable, anywhen.

One day I hope we will see a society where there is no such thing as ‘coming out’. A society where everyone, regardless of their position on the various spectra of gender, sexuality, disability, colour, class, can just be. And will be respected and loved for who they are. Idealist? Guilty. Inherent believer in the ultimate goodness of humanity? Ditto – despite the evidence, despite past experiences. (Could I say that even if someone had hurt my child? I would like to think that, eventually, I could. I pray I will never have to find out. And if it were your child, and you couldn’t, then I would not judge you. I would support you, give you all the time you needed, but I would not seek revenge on your behalf.)

One form of ‘coming out’ which is growing in importance is the coming out as a survivor of abuse. Putting that another way: all sorts of people in different walks of life are pointing out just how many abusers there are in the world. This, in turn, is making us count. As a woman with a happy home in one of the safest countries in the world I gaze in horror at the tales I know, the tales I have heard. Nowhere is safe. At this time of year people, particularly young people in education, are at the beginning of new journeys, new challenges. Are there predators circling, waiting to pounce on these vulnerable potential victims? Of course there are, but they are in the minority. Probably the most numerous potential abusers are themselves victims. Maybe they are also on a new journey. Many surely don’t realise how much they have to learn. It takes a brave and wise heart indeed to be able to recognise that one’s own bad experiences can generate more of the same. When your own personal boundaries have themselves been breached, how hard it may be to see that acquiescence out of fear is not the same as consent – particularly in the bold ignorance of youth. The victim of bullying is expected to resist becoming a bully when things don’t turn out like the books with happy endings promised. The child of an over-strict parent is expected to know that that is no way to treat romantic partners when they don’t submit as they do in cheesy films. The victim of assault is expected to not turn violent when they (rightly or wrongly) believe themselves threatened again. The survivor of depression and self-harm is expected to not be jealous of those who struggle to comprehend what they cannot understand.

Many years ago, a young man I used to know who had been a victim of all of the above went from friend to lover to prolonged systematic abuser of someone who had only ever wanted to help him. There, I said it. Looking back, it didn’t take my heart long to forgive him, once I had escaped to a better place. It has taken a long time for my soul to heal enough to be able to come out and be counted.

The heroes, you see, are those who break the mould. Those who channel their negative experiences into a force for change. It won’t happen the next day. It may not happen for years. But those who can suffer harm without doing harm, those who can love freely without wanting more, those who can live through incomprehensible sadness yet maintain an openness for the beauty of life; they are the survivors we should admire while we mourn, love, and respect those who, for whatever reason, could not complete the journey.

Anyone following #mybodymyhome (website here) will know that one of the world’s most talented writers, Shailja Patel (website here), has come out as having been recently sexually assaulted just days after her return to Kenya, and that campaigners all over the world have come together to support her. Anyone with a social media account, let alone half an eye on current affairs, will know that a young man miles away on the same continent is awaiting sentencing for killing someone he says he loved. One of these tales is in the full media glare. The other may not be in the spotlight, but its diffuse and disturbing light can be glimpsed virtually everywhere.

Oscar Pistorius is portrayed by said media as a villain and a victim, as a rags-to-riches playboy and a vulnerable traumatised soul, as a heroic world-class athlete and a bad liar out to save what he can of his skin. The same outlets can portray him as different versions of these extremes from one day to the next – indeed, in the same day. Due to his celebrated and celebrity status, suddenly Web 2.0 knows better than the judge what she should decide. While a detailed multimodal analysis of the media portrayals of the trial would be fascinating (anyone looking for a PhD topic in multimodalality / African studies / disability studies – if you’ve already got a supervisor in mind you can thank me in your acknowledgments), what I am focusing on here are the cultural practices involved. South Africa as a nation has been the focus of external media gaze for longer than I have been alive. First, those of us on the outside boycotted its produce. Then we watched as Mandela walked to freedom. We sang along with Jim Kerr and Simple Minds. We cheered the rise of the ANC, the elections, the presidencies, the mixed sports teams. The fractured society and rampant gun culture which simmer underneath do not fit into this fairytale. Nor does the fact that it might be OK to shoot someone if they are an intruder – because everyone knows that intruders are not human beings, are not innocent until proven guilty; more to the point, because everyone knows that any intruder is likely to be armed and will shoot to kill if not shot first.

In the same way, everybody knows that women’s bodies are public property. They sell cars and motorbikes. Open a certain UK newspaper apparently like any other and you will see full-frontal top-half female nudity (which, naturally, you won’t find on facebook, even with a baby’s head covering more than any clothing could). You won’t find women’s football reported in that newspaper, of course, or indeed in many others (Norwegian newspapers, I salute you). Women’s words are spun around their clothing and hairstyle, around someone else’s opinion of their looks. Threats can be made with impunity. Microagressions, everyday sexism, mansplaining, the works. Women are, after all, bodies with holes in. And human beings notice bodies. We are programmed to. I’m no biologist but I wouldn’t be surprised if we evolved to assess faces and bodies as part of the subconscious evolutionary drive which powers all species, not just ours. But what sets homo sapiens apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is that very ‘sapiens’ – the conscious thought. The ability to override our instincts, and to train others (and other species) to do so. We can train a dog, a horse, mebbie not a cat I grant you, but seals, bears, ferrets, ourselves. A leopard can change his shorts – if he wants to. It is a much harder task to change a society’s cultural practices.

Yet it can happen. It has to. Psychologists, sociologists, historians, and anyone who has read any Orwell knows that what stands between research and government policy to drive change is the people, the sheep. The masses are made up of individuals. Indeed, because of this linking position, there is great power in the hands of those seeking change. Campaigning works. (Eventually.) You see, cultural practices are not, thank all you consider holy, set in stone. Every single one of us can be a hero and change things for the better, whatever our status, background, or culture. Every victim you believe. Every judgment you don’t make. Every gentle gesture. Every time you double-check ‘is this OK for you?’. Every time you ask a child’s permission for a hug. Every time you use your own hurt to help someone else.

This post is dedicated to the heroes. You know who you are.

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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.

 

 

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.

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*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.

Today is an important day for me. It marks the end of my postdoc’s six-month ‘probation’ period at the University of Agder, Norway. In other words, it is now quite difficult for my employer to get rid of me before the end of my contract. It is also harder for me to leave them until that date. Until today, either of the parties named on the contract – that is, me or them – could break the contract without giving reasons and with (more-or-less) immediate effect. As of today, much more stringent rules apply.

Berry mars

Les Très riches heures du duc de Berry – mars. Used with creative commons lisence. View here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Les_Très_Riches_Heures_du_duc_de_Berry_mars.jpg

Let’s look at the positives first, for there are many, though I will name only a few here. First of all, it is a vote of confidence in me, and in the project. Secondly, it gives me a chance to really knuckle down and plan for the rest of my postdoc term, without the nagging feeling at the back of my mind that I might have to terminate after six months. (More on those plans in another post soon.) Thirdly, it puts me in a stronger bargaining position. I don’t feel I have a lot that I need to bargain for with my university, for they are very supportive, but it means that, should I wish to do so, I have a firmer ground on which to stand.

The other side of the coin, of course, is that I am on a limited-duration contract. This project is for two years, then that’s it. I can either apply for external funding to continue the project for one year (another short-term contract), I can look for another job, or I can return to running my own business (skatemaxwell.net). All three options have their ups and downs. My business was successful, and I have had to turn away (pass on) quite a bit of work since starting my postdoc. There is a lot of talk about alternative academic (‘altac’) careers at the moment, and I am one who moved from one such career back into academia. (Again, more on that in another post.) The applying for money for another short-term contract would have the advantage of maintaining the status quo, and giving me time to finish up anything that I don’t get done before January 2015, but it does mean (yet) another limited-time contract, and thus continues the uncertainty (or perhaps prolongs the agony, if we want to add a little melodrama).

Of course, the permanent academic post is the holy grail. Particularly one which is in the same country (yes, you read that right) as my partner and co-parent. Right now I have an 1800km commute, each way. I do it fortnightly. Two flights each way. It costs around 20% of my take-home salary for the flights alone, and even more when accommodation and other travel costs are taken into account. I’m happy with this for now. For the first time we are working for employers in the same country (believe me, this commute is far better than my international commute was, and to be paid in the same currency and taxed by the same system is a big improvement). I am a full-time researcher and part of an exciting project at a supportive institution, and, crucially, I can work from home one week in two. But were I to take on a position, anywhere, with a teaching component, working from home such a large amount of the time would be much more difficult, indeed, almost certainly untenable.

I live in Norway. Here, the academic hiring process is quite different from many other countries (see my post for The Professor Is In here, and the response from Jill Walker Rettberg, a professor at the University of Bergen, here). It is far from unusual for the Norwegian hiring process, with its independent committees and large applications, to take over a year. This puts me in a tricky position. On the one hand, from timing alone, I should be looking for post-postdoc jobs now. On the other hand, after only six months, my postdoc hasn’t (yet) produced the publication fruits I will need to display in the applications for jobs on the next stage of the ladder. Those fruits are ripening – I’ve been to conferences, I’ve started working on articles, I have a clear plan of outputs – but they are not yet at a stage where I can bundle them up and say ‘here you are, that’s what I did during my postdoc’. Of course they’re not, I’m only a quarter of the way through. Yet the hiring process takes a year… Yes, it’s a difficult circle.

It’s a circle that is somewhat different from that faced by many which I consider to be my peers on the early career research ladder. One very timely blog post from someone at the other end of the postdoc contract appeared just this week: Katie Wheat is contemplating her next move with six months left to run on her postdoc – Katie’s countdown. The fortnightly ECR chats on twitter regularly discuss life after the short-term contract, and feature participants who have already leapt over that precipice. Blogs such as Leaving Academia and Thesis Whisperer give a no-nonsense view of Life As It Is. I know both from sources such as these, and from my own experiences in other countries, that Scandinavia is a very good place to live and work as an academic. But that does not mean it is easy. However, I didn’t sign up for easy.

My postdoc ‘Multimodal Machaut’ is now six months in, and secure for the next eighteen, which will fly by. In that time I have to justify my institution’s faith in me, my own faith in my project, and decide what to do next and put it into action, all while maintaining that balance between work and family which is so perilous. The probation period may be over, but so too is the honeymoon. Now, back to work – for somewhere a clock is ticking (I could do most anything…).