Two years and counting

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The end of the Long Leachas last Sunday evening was magical. The ground fell away steeply enough to bring out all the emptiness around Culra, filling with lesser and greater change, the shadow of the hill and autumn reddening. It would soon be, and now is, two years since I left academia. This is something of a landmark.

I still wonder about things. Would it have been different if I had done that extra bit of hourly paid teaching? But then, the committee whose chair was so kind as to tell me I hadn’t taught enough in that field, did not have to interview me to work that out.

Different if I had listened to the person who said that X was known to have sabotaged  projects? But then, I was fed up with cultures of backstabbing and briefing against colleagues behind their back, and wanted to think the best again, to make up my own mind.

Different if … but things are as they are. I still try to think and write, to continue the intellectual pursuit and keep in touch with personal friends made over the years. Perhaps that is why I am still thrown by news that reminds me of the fact that integrity is no match for reputation.

Stopping work in academia is as simple as handing back the key and getting on the campus bus. But if one does not, as it turns out, want to leave all of it behind, what sort of relationship is left? If one continues to publish, is one really contributing at all to a discouse whose interests and agenda are so much defined by other factors? And if one is contributing, is that not an endorsement?

No easy answers. One thing I am trying at the moment is to present not only the lines of cross-language and -literature research the article picks up, but also to respond to the uneasy relationship between the ideals of inclusivity so much a part of that research and some realities of professional selectivity. Not just the gap in the literature, in other words, but why that gap might exist. This is not necessarily easy to do without coming across as axe-grinding, which is not what any of this is about, but the attempt is worth it, I think.

Intellectual retrospect

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Relics on the floor of the editorial office

As I said in that last post, it is time for an intellectual reckoning with the Danish postdoctoral fellowship. Doubtless, I would write something a bit different if I were still trying to keep the H2020 apparatus happy, or still wondering whether a selection committee member might happen to read it sometime. But that is not my life these days.

So, what changed as a result of packing my bags with my twelve-page proposal on literary relations between medieval Germany and Scandinavia, and joining a research group concerned to adopt a pluralistic approach to the literature of medieval Europe with a strong interest in Byzantine studies and anchored in a history department?

Well, it did, truly, open up my horizons. I notice this often when I, in one sense or another, return to my disciplinary ‘home’ in Medieval German Studies. The perspective can seem limited, defined by the same old questions and themes; there is an awareness of a wider historical, cultural, geographical context, but at the same time there seem to be limits in quite how far one can go in engaging with it.

Yet I am, perhaps surprisingly, insecure in the new space in which I now also move, be that as a medievalist, Germanic philologist, Balticist, northern Europeanist, or whatever one wants to call it. I cannot, at any event, characterize my thinking as looking at the Middle Ages outside any one modern national perspective without cringing. It is a rhetoric that lends itself just a little too easily to gaining funding or making research seem politically relevant and contemporary.  I worry, too, about how its grounding in openness and inclusivity sits with the selective specialization and gatekeeping in an academy that cannot possibly support all its young scholars equally. And I know that the undertaking, which is, when one strips all that away, so exciting to me can be dismissed in an instant by scholars with whose theoretical preoccupations it does not overlap.

Perhaps for those very reasons, the endless new interests that the project spawned remain important to me, even if at some remove now that I am not working on them daily. Exploring comparative philology, trying to find ways to link the close reading of texts to wider discourses of European or world literary history, themes like geography and literature, seas, islands, lost texts … all that enriched how I think, and it is of some comfort, albeit in a bittersweet sense, that, as platforms such as Twitter tell me, I am not alone in believing that they matter.

Denmark, done?

P1160494.pngSome changes happen as if in an instant. The end of a contract, the replacement of the name on the office door, the arrival in Edinburgh on the last, late flight and realizing that this time one was not going back. Yet traces of what was, persist. Only in the past few weeks have I finally – almost 18 months after leaving – brought my official connection with Denmark to an end by getting the final tax return in and closing the bank account. It really is over, and a plastic sheet of NemID codes for accessing online portals is, I realized, the sole tangible link left.

Hindsight is dangerous, albeit educative. I would doubtless see those years very differently had my last engagement with the academic job market not ended in a pointless, miserable – and, yes, hindsight, entirely predictable – interview experience in the north-east of England. A more positive outcome would have answered that question, ‘was it worth it?’, that clings on with a small army of other mental demons.

An answer of a different nature could be found in the financial cost of the move to Odense and back: over £5,000, all paid out of personal savings or parental help. It is a disgrace that the Marie Curie programme neither offers any contribution to such costs nor mandates institutional assistance with them. But even that doesn’t really settle it, for it is more than anything else a personal matter.

What I do know is that I became attached to Denmark and – however critically – Danishness, whatever that means; and that I developed a fondness for Odense beyond the unimaginative stereotype of constant wind and general not-Copenhagen-ness. There was the fascination of the language beyond the anaemic state-sponsored courses, the exploration of landscape and history in constant nearness to the sea, and the extraordinary variety of them all. And there are the friendships that developed.

I suspect it is no coincidence that this opening coincided with the end both of a long process of disillusionment with the profession and of my place in it. It is no more an answer than the little bounce at the bottom of the concrete stairs on 31 August 2017 was an answer. But I am very glad, after all the denial and silence that academia uses to keep those without a secure job in check, that I know the question is there to be asked.

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One could look at that question in so many other ways. One of the most obvious is the intellectual aspect, and I may do a separate post on that sooner or later.

 

Back in the Cairngorms (again)

P1160351.pngThe  slope by the waterfall in an evening rainshower was not the place to get one’s hopes up. It was dry when I unfolded the bag, and sun roused me the next morning, but I was off-colour: fitful sleep not helped by the end of the bedtime book, and an obvious energy deficit. And the pack was rolling around all over the place.

So I backed off, engaged the boulders and probably the highest-altitude ferns I have ever seen in this country, to gain the upper corrie, and found a way up and out from there. Unplanned explorations of this kind can bring unexpected surprises – on this occasion, one of the mysterious mossy, rocky pools of great clarity that are scattered around these parts.

By this point, it it was turning into a scorcher and I decided that to get my fix after all, I would try using the new shoes in the function for which they were  acquired: running – as much of the long loop along to the Devil’s Point and out to Glenmore as possible. With that heavy pack, this was a curiously brutal form of training; but when I left it for the out-and-back, there was a glimpse of freedom.

Is it not all a glimpse, though: a night in shadow at peace with the elements, or a clarity of air that is rare in summer heat?

I think the next time will be a fast and light out-and-back in a day; or the lochan could be reached from the plateau and the gear ditched and picked up again after scrambling back up. As if one needed an excuse to return!

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Texts in Transit: Time to Move On?

Ever since the Marie Curie ended, this blog has kept hosting the website for the ‘Medieval Texts in Transit’ conference. Being back in Berlin for a workshop recently, reminded me of that. After almost two years, I can’t help thinking that it is time to take the material down and archive it away somewhere, still accessible but now apart from what the blog has become. I just need to find some way of doing it!

It is not as easy as I thought, either. When I glance at all that material again, the emotional responses are quite strange. I still do not know, for example, what to make of the fact that my supervisor could not come to the public engagement event and that I learnt through Twitter this year that another research group represented at the conference just happened to be using a storyteller at one of its own events. As with so many other things, one is tempted to ask: what was the point?

Workshop reflections …

Wine and the rusty skyline of Berlin after a day talking about texts could almost make one nostalgic — but academia can be very different, too. Thoughts of that kind were only to be expected when I returned to the old world for the first time in eighteen months or so. It is not easy to be reminded of the dynamic of success and failure, or the way a system in which I spent most of my adult life continues to operate in parallel to the rest of life, both in the aspects I loved and in the aspects that came to do more and more harm.

But it does not have to define me; and the very straightforward reactions when I mentioned that I have given up on the profession helped a great deal in that. One hears a lot about prejudice and insinuations of failure and what not, but there was none of that, no difference in how my contributions or presence figured, and that helped a great deal.

The framework helped a great deal, too. This is a group with which I had been associated from the very first postdoc, and in which a plurality of approaches has always been represented. One of the highlights for me was a presentation on Church Slavonic philology; yet we also had contributions on Heidegger and Agamben and the animal. That these very different kinds of scholarship can co-exist in a setting of tolerance and mutual respect, and a readiness for honest engagement, is a cause for hope. The questions asked about my own piece were intelligent, varied, genuine, and helpful. I am very glad I went.

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my final slide

What one does not miss

It’s the usual lunchtime get-together, and one of my colleagues seems to be dressed a little smarter than usual. But, as everyone is just sharing the usual friendly chat, I think nothing of it, beyond sensing a concern in the air to wind up the conversation a little more promptly than we might otherwise do. A few hours later, an email comes round congratulating said colleague on appointment to a permanent job. Clearly, the room had to be vacated for the interview …

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I have tried to present this little anecdote in such a way that the where and when are not obvious. That is because I genuinely have no personal axe to grind, and because the issues reflected here are ones that I believe need addressing in academia as a whole. My career since starting my doctorate spanned four institutions in three countries, three postdoctoral fellowships, and various teaching jobs. So I think I am at, least to some extent, in a position to generalize in that respect.

It should not take much imagination to work out the message that this way of doing things sends. This position had evidently been created, advertised, and – as the recipient openly admitted – allocated to one of our number, without any effort to inform us about this collectively; whether specific individuals were being excluded, I cannot know, so that seems the fairest way to put it.

The episode is indicative of problems the profession needs to face up to regarding trust and power, collegiality, career sustainability, and various others – and it also became part of a pattern that made me feel deeply uncomfortable in academia. It is also entirely unnecessary: a few words acknowledging the effect decisions like this make on people’s lives and careers, and explaining why an open competition was not being run – would have gone a long way.

I am not sure why I feel the need to get this off my chest at this particular point in time. I suppose old wounds are re-opened by returning to some proper research for a presentation in a few weeks; and there is that nagging wish that I had listened to what my instinct told me at times like this. Please listen to yours, if you ever find yourselves in a similar situation.

Intellectual haunts

In the gap between editing jobs, I went last Friday to a small café in the retail park near us. I went for a change of scene, with a book and a notepad, to put in an afternoon on the paper I’m giving in Berlin at the end of June. Reading placenames, names of scholars cited, titles of their work, I slipped back.

To the little bakery with a few stools that did coffee round the corner from us on Gilesgate, where I brought the Old Norse readers sometimes – for a change of scene – before starting off for Denmark. To places like Nelles or Baresso or Brød in Odense, filled with intonation that came alive again through the Scandinavian wordforms.

This was not there, I worked out, counting off all that was different – no candles, the grime on the floor, the absence of interior black – but that hardly mattered because the sense of being enveloped by the ideas was just the same as it was. Book, and notepad, and coffee.

I spent a lot of time in those spots before the contract, and after it ended, especially; and, curiously, I missed that genuinely. I could imagine them all; and I thought of an office, the real place of work, that was stacked with books and notepads but never my own, just a space with a name by the door to be replaced with the same efficiency as that with which the keys were demanded back. Imagination stopped, then.

Late snow in the Cairngorms

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I woke to a light of thin violet . A heaviness on the bag indicated snow, and an inquiring look disovered that a loop was all that remained visible of the pack. Hands felt a miserably clammy interior, and I resolved once again to replace this product. It was nasty, and very familiar. Might as well get moving … progress would be slowed by the snow, by the restless night, by the cold I was carrying around … might as well get moving. But wasn’t it actually quite warm in here? Very familiar.

At least it was not the real bitterness of winter outside. There was the same sudden, slightly nauseating drop in body temperature and scrabble to get everything packed up before fingers became impossibly clumsy; but the body regenerated its warmth quickly, and it was even possible to sit for a moment before setting off. Even the showers seemed half-hearted. Might as well get moving …

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I had begun walking at Glenmore at 1.30 pm on Sunday and was to be back there at 5 pm on Monday. It is always hard to grasp how time changes on such excursions. It was not even thirty-six hours in this case, yet so full of light and colour and being. There was the revelation of the region around the Fords of Avon, properly remote and elemental, and, I felt best appreciated from the hills around it, not just on the paths in and out. There was the understanding of landform that came from using the extra daylight to march on, away from the bank-holiday tent village, and suddenly being aware that it was a relatively short tramp to the Linn of Dee … a pick-up and a warm bed, the wandering mind imagined … . And there was the night, grey through an ineffective opening in the bag overspun with moving grey as the squalls came through, when simple peace slid uneasily in and out of dark reflections about finally having chosen to be closer to places such as this. They ought not be an alternative to anything.

The conundrum of forward motion …

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Retrospect.

That goes for the efforts of Scotrail down below as much as it did for the wind at height on this trip. There was a certain perverse enjoyment in being there at all, in the latter case at least … the sensation of involuntary movement, yelling as hard as one can and hearing nothing, discovering life on all fours. A satisfaction, too, in following contours through the maelstrom – and working out when enough is enough.

Dropping from the cloud into a sudden spaciousness, it occurred to me that I had a sporting chance of making the last train south … a half-hearted realization, but what would be gained by spending another night to wait for the deluge when I could pack up and walk out in the dry? The state of the tent, which the air was in the process of parting from the earth when I reached it, settled the matter.

Yet it was still true regret that I left the vast roughness of the west and jogged the last downhill stretch to make that train in the softest of evenings. And a little bit of regret, too, much later when the plot of a pleasant night in my own bed was thwarted by ScotRail’s miserable rail-replacement bus tour of the backroads of Fife … the house, when it finally came, was so silent. No wind. No water. No stars.