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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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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.

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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…

I remember my heart sinking when I first discovered the Tag Journal site (here) and read the following words:

‘We don’t accept submissions. The game is tag. You should hide and we’ll seek you out.’

Tag Journal is of the same ilk as Punctum Books, Object Lessons and Babel Working Group. It is part of a movement which is taking root in scholarship – or so I think, anyway – which challenges scholars to be innovative, to make their work accessible, to explore different dissemination channels.

But no volunteers, Tag? What chance did I stand? I gawped a bit longer, then shut the browser with a sigh. That was… ooh, about August I think.

In November an invitation came. I was more excited about being ‘sought out’ by Tag than by anyone else. Really. (Yes, I’m that easy to please.) I had despaired that Babel was too far to travel to; now I at last had a chance to join the movement. I didn’t so much jump as leap.

And that, my friends, is where my banner piece has found a home. And I can’t think of a better home for it. Have fun with Tag, and I look forward to being involved more in the future.

Multimodality and Medieval Music (Tag Journal, December 2013)

Multimodality and Medieval Music (Tag Journal, December 2013)

I created this when I first started to work on multimodality. It seems crazy that a field explicitly devoted to analysing how different modes work together should be so dependent on a single mode for its dissemination. Add music – medieval music, at that – into the picture, and, well, I drew this to stop my brain boiling, and to try and visually articulate – if not answer – some of the questions which haunt the field.

You can get to a link to a zoomable image by clicking here.

Yes, it’s full of resonances. Have fun finding them – my little holiday teaser.

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.

Great news – the following has now been published: Manuscripts and Printed Books in Europe 1350-1550: Packaging, Presentation and Consumption edited by Emma Cayley and Susan Powell, Liverpool University Press, 2013.

Look, isn’t it pretty? Seriously though, there are some great articles. Mine is on the order of the lays in manuscript Paris, BnF fr 9221 (Machaut E), and it’s in very good company. Can’t wait for the hard copy to be in my hands.

Exeter book

I’ve been edited a few times, and this was certainly one of the most painless. The editors were helpful, courteous, efficient, and above all their work improved my article. (Sadly, that is not always the case; so it is doubly appreciated here.)

And of course, if you want to buy the book, you can get it here.

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…).