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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.

—————–

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…

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…).

ssm

KMH logo 2011

 

Musikforskning idag 2013, Kungliga Musikhögskolan, Stockholm, 12-14 June

It is four years now since I first attended the annual conference of the Swedish Musicological Society, ‘Musikforskning idag’. (Four years is not long compared to the track records of some of the delegates, I must add, but then, I only arrived in Sweden in 2008, leaving for Norway in 2012.) Nevertheless, this is the first time I have decided to write a review of the conference.*

The conference is a relatively close-knit affair, with most of the delegates already known to each other. It has two keynote speakers, usually one from abroad (nevertheless with some connection to Sweden) and one from ‘home’. It does not particularly aim to attract international delegates (though they are of course welcome); rather it is a chance for Swedish-speaking musicologists to gather together to discuss their year’s work, to share ideas, and, importantly for some, to be able to present and talk about their research in their mother tongue. For while there are isolated papers in English, which is the conference’s second language, the principal language of the conference is of course Swedish.

So much for the background; what about Musikforskning idag 2013? Well, for a start it was the smallest of these conferences which I have attended, despite being held in the capital. Nevertheless, the conference was still large enough to require parallel sessions, so of course I was not able to attend every paper. This, then, is a personal overview of the sessions I attended, with the papers which stood out as being particularly inspiring.

It was a delight that the first paper I heard in full was actually about multimodality. Annika Falthin’s ‘Musikens mening i ständig förändring’ succeeded in being itself a multimodal presentation, with thoughtful and affective use of sound and image within her twenty-minute slot. She discussed the musical meaning in a performance by a group of high-school students. Highlights for me included the idea of youtube as a meaning-maker in itself, the idea of a ‘pojk’ (young male) community on display, that their choice of music might actually have been irritating for the audience, and the social semiotic meaning of body language, song, and music in school.

The session in which I took part was the characteristic mish-mash of ‘old stuff’ in a conference with lots of – to be similarly generalising – ‘new stuff’. Mattias Lundberg was inspiring as ever, with an intelligent and sensitive analysis of recurring melodies in Swedish church music from printed books over three centuries (‘Accentus-sången i den svenska högmässan under 300 år: två av de mest frekvent melodierna i Sverige någonsin’). Johanna Ethernersson Pontara spoke in the same session about the ‘Neobarack i Lars Johan Werles tidliga operor’, in an interesting paper which the discussion showed I was not alone in thinking would benefit from some acknowledgement of the multimodality of opera.

There were two medieval papers in the session. Karin Stronnholm Lagergren introduced us to the manuscript which is the object of her research at KU Leuven: the Torstunamissalet (‘Missalet från Torstuna: En fransk medeltids.handskrifts väg till och användning i en uppländsk sockenkyrka’). She brought to life the use of this medium-sized missal with music, which contains some 150 songs in the Dominican tradition. The other medieval paper was my own, which predictably focused on the multimodality of the manuscripts of Guillaume de Machaut, and I was thankful for the interest shown in the discussion afterwards. It is always a challenge to present the medieval period to those immersed in music of other times, and I was sorry that the lack of internet access meant that I was unable to actually play any music. (Serves me right for relying on youtube, I admit.)

The ‘efter-lunsj koma’, as session chair Karin Eriksson so aptly described it, was saved by Toivo Burlin’s paper ‘Tukkipoika: Some Comments on Recordings of North Swedish Folk Music’. In it, he played us a magical array of recordings, and opened up a world previously unknown to me, but one which I would now like to explore further. Some session-hopping took place for me in the last session of the day, since I was keen to hear Mårten Nerhfors again, and he didn’t disappoint. His paper ‘Shaping the Community Through Song – Idealogy in the Song Collections of Johann Friedrich Reichardt’ was a fascinating overview of Reichardt’s aims with his compositions aimed at breastfeeding mothers, their babies, and at children. Coupled with the ideals of the Enlightenment – Reichardt was a fervent supporter of the French Revolution – the re-reading of his works in the light of his ideology was fascinating indeed. The day ended with Erik Wallrup’s sage discussion on ‘Lyssningsakten i stämdhetens historia’, a philosophical paper which combined Heidegger, Stimmung, mood, and Wallrup’s own term ‘attunement’.

The final day opened with a paper from Lars Berglund which offered an overview of ‘Musikvetenskap och cultural history’. In it, he combined the Anglophone, Francophone and Germanic approaches to ‘cultural history’, and applied them to musicology, particularly as it is practised in Sweden. Following him was Christina Tobeck, whose paper traced the lives and work of two female Swedish pioneers in music and in medicine: Helena Munktell and Karolina Widerström. The final keynote by Cecilia K. Hultberg was symptomatic of one of the strengths in Swedish music research, that of music pedagogy. In her presentation ‘Musikalisk kunskapsbildning ur ett övergripande kulturpsykologiskt perspektiv’ she combined pedagogical, psychological and cultural theories to analyse specific cases of musical learning.

This has been a necessarily brief and personal overview of a conference rich in ideas and fellowship, where works-in-progress stood alongside work of international quality. As one who has not ‘grown up’ in the Swedish system, I am always entranced at how the so-called ‘Jantelov’ works in society, here to good effect. Even more so than in other conferences, there is a strong emphasis on open discussion, with strict timekeeping in order to respect the sanctity of the discussion period. It is a small community in which scholars of all levels are equally welcome, and which seeks to advance knowledge and encourage scholarship at all career stages. I’m looking forward to next year already.

* I would have also live tweeted the conference, were it not for the fact that the internet access for delegates at the venue just did not work. Such is (smartphone-less) life.

The miracle is not that we are here, it is that we are here together.
That the seasons turn about us, and we watch it all.
That the moon waxes and wanes but love endures,
That life springs eternal, when death is but a breath away.

I come to you with unseeing eyes, broken bones, wounds of pride.
I come to you with hope and dread, fear and pain, guilt and prayer.
You come to me with commanding presence, broken shackles, assured faith:
Lay your hands on me, remove my bonds, let me be free.

They are the wanderers, the lost, the forgetful,
They need your power, your storm-fraught words, your lust for grace
Your certainty sweeps me in its wake. We must not fail them.
They believe so hard, their blindness leaves no room for doubt.

Written in response to Tope Folarin’s short story ‘Miracle’, nominated for the Caine Prize and available for download here.

This post is part of the Caine prize carnival, organised by Aaron Bady at the New Inquiry. It’s not Machaut, it’s not medieval, it’s only vaguely multimodal (so far), so why am I writing about it?

St Francis

St Francis receiving the stemmata. Found through a creative commons search (Wikimedia commons).

One of my goals this summer is to develop my creative side. Back in my undergraduate days I specialised in composition and dreamed of having my work performed at the Proms (who says I don’t still? Doesn’t everyone?). I’ve had the occasional piece published or professionally performed, but most are sitting in a rather battered file by my desk, trying their best to keep out of the way of small, clumsy feet. I have always enjoyed creative writing and have great plans which may or may not ever be realised. So far, so banal.

If you’re still reading, then you can be let into a realisation that I am still coming to terms with. I intend to write a monograph. An academic one about my research, aye, but not an inaccessible one. (Impenetrability is not my style.) It has a plan, it has support from my institution, and senior colleagues are all encouragement. All it requires is for me to sit down and do the dirty. And that is daunting. Very daunting. This summer, then, is my preparation time. The more I write, the more I will be able to write. The more confident I feel in my output, the better the product will be. The more at home I am with my creative leanings, the more multimodal my finished book. The more peaceful my soul.

One of the biggest things my journey into multimodality so far has taught me is the limits of my knowledge. I might be pretty hot on Machaut and medieval stuff, but multimodality spans such a broad range of topics that I am in awe of my colleagues who are able to meaningfully link them together. And so I am Branching Out. For the next few weeks, as part of the Caine prize carnival for which I have volunteered myself, I am going to let the stories take me on a journey to – broadly speaking – Africa. A continent I have never visited. Every week until July I will read a short-listed story, and blog my response. (For a list of the co-participants, see below.)

The first story in fact takes Nigeria to the United States. Already I can hear resonances in my readings. I am lucky enough to be working with the editors of a collected edition of essays on exile literature (Axel Englund and Anders Olsson), and thus have recently been on two journeys from Algeria to France (through the contribution by Gabriela Seccardini), as well as one from the New World ‘back’ to the Old, via north Africa (that of William Bamberger). There are, of course, more contributions which deal with exile writers (or those writing about exiles) in the United States. (I think I will have to devote a blog post to this entire fascinating volume in due course.) At the recent Multimodal Research Seminar in Lesbos (which I blogged about here) Tormod W. Anundsen gave a presentation on his work with expatriot musicians (the group ‘Afrisa’) from the Côte d’Ivoire presenting ‘Africa’ to schoolchildren in Norway. Interestingly, Anundsen questioned whether postcolonialism is a wholly useful way of thinking when professionals choose to exploit their ‘otherness’, whether for educational, profitable, or other purposes.

And so postcolonialism raises its head. I might as well deal with it now, lay my cards on the table, and admit that one of the reasons why I have never studied non-European literature at a professional level is because I have no inclination to delve any deeper into postcolonialism than I need to. Perhaps, when faced with this huge mound of critical thought, I feel the fear of the unknown, the other – yes, I am well aware of the paradox, thank you. But, for me, what my feelings boil down to is this: people are people, whoever they are, whenever they are, wherever they are. They are capable of supreme wit, of bringing great joy and sadness, of moving me to tears through their works, their images, their stories, their arts. People are also capable of unspeakable cruelty to their fellows and to the world around them, and the world is just as capable of inducing suffering on its occupants. ‘Twas ever thus, as a delve into history (or, for that matter, the Bible) confirms.

Let me put that another way: the fact that the Caine prize is for African literature, and is immersed in and surrounded by the politics of that fascinating and vast space, is not what I will focus on in my contribution to the carnival. Others, vastly more knowledgeable and capable than me, are already doing that. What I hope to offer is a series of personal responses, as a human being, a reader, a writer. If I hadn’t already been enriched by the first offering I wouldn’t be writing this; it is my hope that I may pass on some of that richness in my turn. That is all.

List of other participants in the Caine prize carnival, with links to their responses:

The entrance to our retreat

The entrance to our retreat

I am writing this on the island of Lesbos, from a monastery owned by the Greek Orthodox Church. It is where my research team from the University of Agder are currently engaged in a ‘research seminar’ at the university’s Methóchi Study Centre. To me, it is more like a research retreat.

View of the sleeping quarters

View of the sleeping quarters

The work/relaxation space outside the bedrooms.

The work/relaxation space outside the bedrooms.

The building’s history dates back to the 14th century. New this year: outdoor showers. The seminar room has a chapel off it, with the expected icons and gild. There is a more ornate chapel as part of the structure proper. There is an emphasis on simplicity – rooms are shared and sparsely furnished, swifts are nesting just above the doors, escape is only by rickety bicycle on the dirt roads, the local farmer’s donkey keeps us entertained with his commentary on the work being presented – and on fellowship – meals are eaten together outdoors at one long wooden table, prepared from local organic ingredients by a cook whose recipes are remembered fondly in the university staffroom, the evenings are spent in song.

The veranda to the seminar room, which doubles as a performance space in the eveings

The veranda to the seminar room, which doubles as a performance space in the evenings

As a medievalist, I find a connection with the past that I didn’t expect. As a researcher from outside Norway, I find an awe that we are all here, and at the university’s expense (yes, even those who are in the research group but not at my institution have their costs covered). Here I have found a deep respect not only for my colleagues – that much I had hoped for and expected – but also for my institution. For the University of Agder runs this place, and a sister centre a kilometre or so away, which is apparently even more basic and secluded. In other words, the University of Agder has invested in a research environment in inspirational surroundings where its scholars can come to work collectively, or to which its scholars can literally retreat to work individually. (One of our number is on a two-week retreat to finish writing up his PhD.) As one who was nurtured in the British academic system, such an investment in quality research time was hitherto unimaginable.

At work in the seminar room.

At work in the seminar room.

It is not my intention here to write a ‘review’ of the papers and the discussions. All of them are works in progress, and each has at least one tweet from me with the hashtag #MMfsem . All participants circulated a research paper to the team a few weeks ago; each paper was assigned two opponents. The format therefore runs as such: brief presentation from author(s) – 1st opponent’s comments – 2nd opponent’s comments – author response and discussion. This means that I have had to read some 25 research papers on everything from hip hop to nursing techniques to climbing manuals to engineers’ writing skills. Guillaume de Machaut has found himself in eclectic company. Yet it is also living, breathing evidence of the breadth and vitality of multimodal studies – not just at my institution, but among those working under the broad umbrella of ‘multimodality and cultural change’ (or Multikul).

One of the views from the monastery.

One of the views from the monastery.

As pale Nordic skins get gradually more tanned over the week, so too do we feel more of a bond between ourselves as people, and – of course – between our work. Already for me, plans have been made for a joint research article and (eek) perhaps even for a monograph. The support from senior colleagues has been overwhelming – not just for my work, but for that of the other early career researchers here. The so-called ‘Jantelov’ has been rightly criticised, but its plus points include equality and respect for all. With participants ranging from a Master’s student to an Emeritus professor, we are a mixed bunch, but it does not show.

Perhaps most of all, though, I have been able to experience the value of a ‘retreat’: a chance to refresh the mind and the soul in simple surroundings and fellowship.

One of the locals takes a snooze.

One of the locals takes a snooze.