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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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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…).

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.