Back to old haunts already …

I had reason to go back into SDU yesterday – to pick up a journal article on the early Germanic sound laws, and to have a chat with my new Marie Curie contact about the final report (which is, in one of the many gratuitous hurdles of grant management that necessitated the meeting in the first place, not the final report as we know it).

Going back to places that have, in one way or another, become part of one, always results in a state of heightened sensitivity. Distance and closeness at once draw change away from the abstract. Memories are everywhere. It’s like standing in front of a door that is open and shut at the same time.

But it’s only twelve days since I left … I was not expecting it to be that tangible that soon. Perhaps the efficiency with which one is consigned to the institutional archive had something to do with it – one’s name had disappeared from the library collection slip, from the pigeonhole, from the office door, just as the previous occupant had been written away before I turned up. This is not something I take personally – but that is, if you think about it, the point. Whether it’s the end of teaching cover, an externally funded research grant, a REF submission post – the institutional apparatus, with a few notable exceptions, seems to find studied indifference the easiest attitude to take.

It does not have to be that way. The fun conversation about the ins and outs of the bureaucratic end-game showed me that … the expressions ‘caring’ and ‘taking an interest’ come to mind … it is possible. And out of it came the fact that I left seeing the report not as a pain but as an opportunity.

It is a chance to draw a line under it all – to be unabashed about what I have done in these two years, but also to say some of the things for which there is not usually a space. That thinking and understanding need time and stability, that learning is not a commodity. Perhaps, even, that funding agencies could themselves, for once, embrace the rhetoric of innovation and develop new, sustainable frameworks that stop perpetuating the harm that is being done.

‘Let’s go home’

The other day, leaves fell in Odense. It was not quite cold enough, but the greyness was back. I’d left an office that looked as though it had not been occupied for very long, and the campus bus was filled with students as term began. Outside, here and there, were signs of rain.

My bag was packed. I should have been going to the station to pick up the train to Kastrup and a wicked game of aerial ping-pong across the North Sea and the length of England. There would be the metro, and one last train – not even fifteen minutes, if one was lucky. At some point on that journey, it would be dark, and there would be the sensation of air at the end of it all, the walk down the hill then up the hill, through the wood perhaps; and there would be our damp house on Gilesgate with Isabel waiting.

I missed that time. Part of me wanted to return to those months when Marie Curie felt like a new beginning, an opportunity. When the future was not quite such an immediate concern and the grounding in the north-east of England meant there was not the knowing self-delusion of setting up a new home in Denmark.

But the other part of me, sad in a different way, saw no point in that. There are things I would do differently – there always are – but I doubt that the end result would be anything other than what it is now. Besides, the mise-en-abyme image of Alastair sitting on the bus with the last books from the office, wishing he could go back and relive the beginning of the Fellowship, is too much for me to get my head around.

The hard fact is that, unless ‘other factors’ come into play, one’s use as an employee in a programme such as this ends along with the grant one has got to pay for one’s own job. It is not a particularly pleasant awareness to have on one’s way to work each morning, and being free of it is a large part of why I am so happy now.

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Behind that is a complex mix of relief, most of all, and other, often contradictory emotions. There is the sense of something being over, and of finding a way back to what matters. Home, in some meaning of the word. Hence the title of this blog entry as way of closing the circle: as chance would have it, when I dropped by for an event in 2015 before the start of the Fellowship, Danish TV was showing a documentary about John Ford in the hotel … a little puzzle, if you don’t recognize the allusion!

Re-opening the mind

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in St Olaf’s Church, Tallinn

Walking through the Baltic where it is so smooth and shallow that progress is quicker in the water than it would be in the reeds and boulders on the shore. Latching onto Russian, German, Estonian, and English one after the other and all at once in the old town of Tallinn. Finishing the book about the Northern Crusades. Carting many more books out from the office to pile up in temporary stacks all over the little house opposite the Andersen museum. Translating a paragraph from the Old Norse reader at dusk in the yard with – at last! – something approaching fluidity.

Such are the things that stick in my mind from the past fortnight. Quite a mix, but they have at least one thing in common, and that is the fact that they have brought an understanding of how little fulfilment academia has come to give.

With the clarity of the landscape, and the historical intensity of Tallinn, the Estonian holiday evoked the old desire to understand things again. I realized just how much it had been worn away, just how much curiosity, discovery, and learning had been displaced by the pragmatic circumstances and consequences of year upon year in insecure positions.

I knew this already on some level, but it took the change of scene to make me grasp it properly. And, when I came back, something was different as a result: there was no longer any mental disjunction between clearing out the office and entering the world of history, language, and literature that the books open up. In fact, it suddenly seemed accessible again.

Why is this so? What has got in the way?

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There are the practical things – exploitation, cynicism, cronyism, insecurity, and all the rest of that. There is the intellectual frame, which seems to be becoming increasingly fragmented into narrowing specialisms and particular lines of enquiry that are identified as ‘the future’ in any particular context. There are, finally, the changing principles that define the spaces in which research and teaching happen – such as what I perceive as a tendency to embrace the rhetoric, if not the agenda, of utilitarian approaches to university ‘education’.

All of these things – to an extent, at least, they feed off one another – have become more and more noticeable to me since I started out. How much of this is really new, may be a harder question to answer … I have come across too many cases of scholarly rivalry in earlier centuries to idealize the academic past. I think, though, that one can safely say that the consequences are the more pressing in a climate such as the present one where long-term opportunities are so very rare.

What has saddened me most is none of this as such, but more the apparent inability of the profession to confront the inequities that result from it. Take for instance the job market. Anyone who has been in this game for any length of time knows that things happen that are not fair in any reasonable sense of the word – but how often is this discussed frankly and inclusively in public?

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It’s not that I’ve had enough once and for all. One of the nice things about this fellowship is that it has left me knowing very clearly what I would like to do with my research in future, without too many lose ends to carry over, and with a relatively clear intellectual framework for how I would do it.

But that would require – as I wrote a few days ago to a truly generous colleague who offered to keep an eye open for teaching cover needs – a position with a meaningful future. Further tilting at windmills trying to create it by proving the ‘value’ of what one does – is simply not an option.

 

Back to the books!

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One thing has changed, and that is the fact that I am reading again. I’ve got through the history of Denmark that we picked up on the visit to Jelling, and learnt about the geology of the Baltic in a guide to Funen that I chanced upon as a freebie in the SDU library. On the plane to Berlin last week, I finally started the book about the northern crusades.

It’s a curious irony that I am now reading books that one might have expected me to have read two years ago, at the start of what is, after all, a fellowship about the medieval North.

Why did I not? I was booked-out back then due to dealing with the end of my second monograph. I was also already conscious of having set goals (deliverables, as the grant-speak puts it) that had to be, well, delivered. That creates a pressure that is not conducive to the reading and thinking one needs to understand anything properly. Should one not be producing instead?

I suspect, too, that from an early stage I sensed how fragile it all was, that the long-term lines of enquiry that this kind of reading could support – probably would not be followable anyway in an academic context.

It can’t be a coincidence that, once one puts an end to such mind-games, the interest in the books returns. Not there the jabber of innovation and mobility. Just the imagination of a medieval landscape as northeast Germany runs past the window of seat 4A: glance up, out, and then down, back to the Wends.

An afternoon by the Little Belt

One of my projects during these years in Odense has been to get, very roughly speaking, round the four points of the compass on Funen. Svendborg and Kerteminde have been visited, and on Saturday afternoon we added Middelfart to the list. If you don’t know about this place – it does not figure in the Lonely Planet guide at all as far as I can see – it’s on the north-western edge of Funen, where the Little Belt strait narrows opposite the Jutland peninsula.

It is not big (or perhaps it is in the Danish scheme of things?). It has the usual selection of chain stores – Fakta, Kvickly, Tiger, and the like. It has the obligatory streets with small, picturesque, and somewhat twee houses. It did not, on this July afternoon in the Danish holiday season, seem particularly well populated.

However: it has the sea. Go north, and you are heading to the Kattegat and thence to the North Sea. Look south, and it’s the Baltic.

It should not have been a surprise. Yet one tends to forget just how close the sea is pretty much everywhere in Denmark. That includes Odense. Even though it has its very own fjord, it has often felt something of a bubble for me, an indeterminate place anchored in the world by the rail line that goes east to Copenhagen and west to Vejle and the Billund bus. It’s as though I never quite arrived…

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Den gamle Lillebæltsbro, photo by Isabel

By the Little Belt, I realized again why I had come. It was all there for us as we sat at the old harbour and walked along the headland under the old bridge. The aesthetic quality of landscape and seascape. The historical resonance of an old crossing point. The passage between the Festland of Europe and the chain of islands leading east and north.

How far-off those interests have become as motivation fades and prospects disappear. And yet: the enthusiasm and imagination and curiosity have not quite vanished. I know it because they materialize again in places like this at times like this, when one’s sense of the routine and everyday is suspended.

Coming at this particular point in time, this was all rather sad. But it must also mean that the old self is, despite the frustration and disillusionment, still there. And as if to affirm it – there, moored at the old harbour in Middelfart, was a three-master built in Gosport in 1887 that now plies the Baltic with Germans who are young, and young at heart, each summer. It is a good memory with which to start breaking the bubble.

Whose future?

A piece appeared on the THE blog recently setting out proposals to secure the future of Modern Languages at UK universities: ‘Modern languages: four reforms to reclaim the future of our discipline’. It’s a shortened version of something published earlier under a slightly different title on a University of Manchester website: ‘Modern Linguists must craft their own reforms to reclaim the future of their discipline’.

The change in publication forum is not insignificant. It moves the piece out of a particular institutional context and onto a prominent platform for information and debate in the sector as a whole. The THE version has, indeed, been circulating quite widely on Twitter. That is how I came across it, and partly why I was concerned when I read it. I want to explain why in this blogpost.

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If you haven’t done so, I would suggest reading not only the version published by THE but also the original text. It is readily, if obliquely, apparent from the opening sentence of the latter that the piece was written against the background of threatened cuts to Modern Languages at the University of Manchester. This has been anonymised into ‘a number of UK universities’ in the THE blog version, so it is perhaps worth reminding oneself of this context – and pointing it out to, say, international readers who may not be so familiar with recent developments at a particular UK university.

The subtext of appealing against them would certainly explain the management-speak in references to ‘reform’, ‘a globalised world’, and ‘economies on staff resource’, as well as the aspiration to ‘an alignment of modern languages curricula’ with those of fields concerned with ‘diversity management and global outreach’.

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Whether our response to the current threats should be to slip into the discourse of the administrative apparatus behind them, to accept that we need to legitimize ourselves with reference to matters such as ‘planning’ and ‘population health’ – is a question on which it is worth reflecting.

Here, however, I want to focus on a different problem that results from the loss of context in the THE version: the one-sided image of Modern Languages as a discipline without a historical dimension, and the way this contrasts with the richness, diversity, and value of the field in its current form.

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Specifically, a lay reader would be unaware that medieval and early modern literature have any place in Modern Languages now or in the future. As a medievalist and comparative philologist, this impression worries me, and I want to address it in what follows.

I focus on the two ‘reforms’ where specific ideas for the future are mentioned. I discuss their selective nature, and in the process point out some of the ways in which medievalists could contribute to the future of Modern Languages under such a model.

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‘Any reform should begin with a rejection of the prevailing compartmentalised, nation-state based approach to the organisation of modern languages units and curricula. This could be addressed by strengthening offerings in Chinese, Arabic and Japanese, and introducing the likes of Urdu/Hindi, Punjabi or Polish’.

Moving away from a system anchored in national philologies and national languages sounds great. Certainly, one way of doing this is to focus on languages outside Europe, as the examples suggest – with a rather obvious nod toward current trends relating to comparative and world literature.

But there are other ways of thinking outside the nation-state paradigm too. One of them is to ‘strengthen’ (which, let’s face it, means create jobs and hire in) scholarship on periods when nation states did not yet exist. The more ‘traditional’ European languages, moreover, could then get a mention as well, together with the questions scholars in them have been asking. What does it mean to think of a European literary space without national borders? How do nations turn to the Middle Ages in constructing roots for their identity and their literary traditions? And such like.

What’s more, adopting this long view makes it possible to build new connections that embrace world literature as well. I am thinking here of the work that has been done recently comparing Latin and the European vernaculars with Sanskrit and other Asian languages, for example. In other words: including premodern periods would allow us to achieve this ‘reform’ without treating languages from certain areas as more worthy of mention and support than others.

‘Thirdly, much can be gained from working across the boundaries of individual language disciplines to create modules with a strong comparative or transnational dimension.’

Again, this is great!  However: although it is acknowledged that the possibilities are ‘almost infinite’ in principle, the examples given are clustered very close to one end – the contemporary end – of the time span covered by our discipline. As examples of such modules, the THE text mentions ‘New Media and Political Protest in Authoritarian Societies’ and ‘Remembering Communism in Eastern Europe’; alongside them, the Manchester website version also cites ‘The Films and Cinematic Legacy of Luis Buñuel’ and ‘The 19th Century Romantic Novel’, plus a token early example that would appear to have more to do with a different discipline: ‘Renaissance Art’.

There isn’t scope here to go into transnationalism, but I hope we can agree that comparativity at least is possible where premodern literature is concerned. And the potential there is enormous. Think of comparing language boundaries and zones of cultural and literary transition in the ‘British Isles’, Jutland, and eastern Europe. Or comparing the forms in which the past was represented and identity created around the shores of the Baltic. Those are just two examples. They’re not random ones but drawn from my day-to-day work and conversations with colleagues – and it is no accident that they have an obvious relevance when it comes to thinking about more immediately contemporary issues as well.

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Now: I do not doubt that the authors of these proposals are aware of the value of teaching and research across all historical periods. The aspects of the field singled out for attention are in all likelihood nothing more than a reflection of the immediate context in which the original piece was written.

But that context is no longer there on the THE blog. It is implicit for those in the know – if they read to the end and see the statement of the authors’ affiliation, maybe even clicking through to the original blogpost – but not everyone will read that far, and not all of those that do will follow the link, or have the background knowledge of recent events needed to put two and two together, or both.

What we have got instead is a text headlined as ‘reforms to reclaim the future of our discipline’. That is about as universal as it comes. The rhetoric, likewise, is that of a collective: ‘we’, the ‘modern languages community’, ‘our future’. This means that the dynamic between what is included and what is left out presents – whether it is intended or not – a certain image of the field as a whole. In this case, that image is one in which Modern Languages does not exist before the ‘contemporary’ or ‘modern’ age.

Why is this a problem? Because the more a text like this circulates via a platform such as the THE blog, the more likely it is to be read by people who may not be familiar with the true diversity of Modern Languages as a discipline: managers looking to cut supposedly irrelevant fields, journalists seeking ‘value’ for public money, and potential students thinking about which course to choose, for instance. I hope that the examples I have given above go some way to presenting such readers with a more balanced picture of what an inclusive future could look like.

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At base, this is no more than a piece of writing that has been adapted without fully taking account of its new context and readership. Would I have reacted to it so strongly half a dozen years ago? Probably not.

The trouble is that, in the current climate, any discussion of this kind is a loaded one. Singling out particular languages, particular periods, and particular themes as examples of ‘the future’ has implications – not least when it is couched in the managerial rhetoric I identified earlier. This kind of thinking is what leads new posts to be created in some languages while professorial chairs in others are left vacant. It is what leads to very narrow and specific specialisms being sought when a post is advertised. It might also, although this is merely a supposition, have something to do with the shortage of institutional support for medieval and, especially, early modern studies in my own particular language.

The fact that certain periods are passed over in a piece such as this, in other words, matters. It is still, for the next two months at least, my discipline too, and I cannot just stand by and watch its future change in the way it is being changed anymore.

Decision time

Some months ago I did a post about why I don’t want another short-term contract in academia. The logical consequence of that was to apply only for jobs with a future. With June coming to an end, there are unlikely to be more of them advertised this year than the two for which I’ve just sent applications off, and the logical consequence of that is … well, you get the idea.

It feels a bit strange to be writing about this already. One doesn’t want quite to give up hope that it might work out. One is also worried about being misunderstood. The vagaries of ECR life and the job market definitely need more time than I’ve got now to strike the right balance between the inequities that quite obviously do exist and the positive experiences, between the times I’ve not done myself justice and the cases of plain bad luck, and all the various combinations thereof.

For now, I’m just surprised by how simple this is. I am happy to be without the disillusionment and frustration. For too long, the intellectual part of me has been morphing into a construct on which to fall back in order to keep trying, a kind of compensation for all manner of external circumstances; now it becomes something more genuine, more true to its own nature.

It’s the right time. And yet, true to the academic ways, I find myself close to 11 pm worrying away at a draft article that, as far as the grant agreement is concerned, does not need to be anything more than a draft article. I get the feeling that drawing a line is going to be harder than – in a sense, at least – I’d want it to be …

Gazing up to heaven in Braunschweig

That medieval cathedrals were places of colour, is one of those facts that one learns relatively quickly but does not necessarily understand. Or perhaps one thinks one understands it, until one has been confronted with it perceptually and realizes how little one did.

Such was the minor revelation when we dropped into the cathedral in Braunschweig on Sunday morning. We’d been to a wedding the day before, an occasion that provided a much-needed sense of perspective at this particular juncture. What happened next seemed to complement that by reminding me why I became interested in the Middle Ages all those years ago.

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The whole cathedral is a treasure because it survived World War 2 practically unscathed. The paintings, including those in the photograph, are admittedly the result of several stages of restoration and reconstruction that began in the mid-nineteenth century – but the scale and atmosphere they create are nonetheless astonishing.

The sense of being immersed in images, stories, and ideas brings the architecture alive. It changes the way one perceives the space, prompting engagement and drawing one in. Think, for instance, of how the placement of the twelfth-century memorial to Henry the Lion and Mathilde of England means that the couple are ‘looking’ up to the heavenly Jerusalem painted above them …

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The ins and outs of medieval Christian art history are, like those of religious writing, not always the most accessible to the non-expert. Experiences such as this are a good reminder of why they should be. There’s an element of imagination in it all, of course: in how the paintings came to be the way they are today and in the way I, at least, responded to them. This does not have to be a bad thing. Our visiting colleague Jeff Rider is, indeed, currently working on ways of thinking about such encounters with the past, and I’ll need to ponder further how his reflection on ‘use’ and ‘happiness’ relates to my own interest in the role of imagination in them. At any event: it was with a sensation of enriched being that I went out into the sweltering heat and set off through a deserted city to collect our bags from the hotel and pick up a cab to the station.

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Credits and sources: Photo by Isabel! — Background information on Cathedral website — Friedrich Weber and Joachim Hempel, ‘Der ikonographische Blickwinkel – oder Heinrichs des Löwen Memorialkirche’, pp. 9–11 of Harald Wolter-von dem Knesebeck and Joachim Hempel (eds), Die Wandmalereien im Braunschweiger Dom St. Blasii (free offprint from Cathedral shop).

A happy coincidence in the SDU reading room

On my first proper visit to the library at SDU, I went to hunt down ‘the reading room’ (as it was called in a recent email) to consult an interlibrary loan that could be read only under supervision. I was back there again on Wednesday doing much the same thing – ‘there’ in a manner of speaking, because the latest development in the reading room’s shifting shape involves, it transpired, moving into the home of what used to be FabLab next to the main library entrance.

This led to a certain uncertainty about where the books actually were. That was not the end of the puzzles, because when we did get to the magic cabinet, I identified my book at once by the title on its spine, yet found that it looked very different from what I was expecting.

It was one of those moments of delayed realization when the brain needs a split second to catch up with itself, to recompute ‘that’s the right name and it’s in red on a grey cover’ into ‘that’s the right name but it’s in red on a grey cover’.

Things, at this point, began to make sense. I had already been wondering why a recent and not particularly exotic publication had been confined to the library at all. Add to this the fact that the binding was starting to loosen and the text was set in Fraktur, and it was pretty obvious that this was the wrong book. Somewhere in the system, the date and place of publication that disambiguated the volume I needed from this imposter with the same title, must have been overlooked.

Just one of those things – except that there was something about the tangible fragility of this one that kept it in my hands (it definitely wanted to be handled, cradled, rather than laid on a desk). It was the product of a different age, typographically, in its language, in the kind of visual modernity with which its medieval illustrations were recast; no doubt also in its scholarship as well.

The hoops I’d gone through to get at this book were only part of the story that had brought it to me, I realized, when I found a folded printout of the interlibrary correspondence between two pages. The home library had been reluctant to release the book at all because of its condition, but someone had pressed the case on the basis that a really serious researcher wanted to see it (!). There was a little burst of joy in understanding the Danish, and an awareness of the gratitude owed to whoever was doing that for me behind the scenes, that made me continue looking and reading.

The book seemed to be an attempt to follow medieval culture through a whole calendar year, taking a different topic for each day and beginning with a monk walking into the new year on 1 January. Reading it reminded me, leaping over a conceptual gap (or was it?), of how much I had been thinking, during my time here, about different ways of writing literary history, influenced at least in part by research that questions straightforward linear teleologies in historiography.

The possibilities began to reappear again, the half-thought-out concepts – not just with time as their guiding principle – the different structures and paths from the ones we’re used to. Such approaches are arguably even more important when multiple languages are considered together. It was good to be thinking about these big questions again, during what is otherwise a period of quite detailed research on specific texts. It was also a tiny bit poignant, for this trip to consult an interlibrary loan that one could read only under supervision after hunting down the reading room was, to close as it were a frame, probably one of the last proper visits I make to the library at SDU.

Winding up

Has the gentle reader noticed a tailing away of posts here in the recent past? I have, and it has a very simple explanation. The end of a contract, the end – at least on paper – of a project, is not the best driver of motivation.

It is a curious state in which to find oneself in the context of a fellowship programme in which so much is made of developing career perspectives. That is exactly why the project blog is, I believe, the right place to talk about it.

In whose interest is it that quite substantial amounts of money are being poured into fixed-term peripatetic posts by funding bodies – rather than into positions that offer long-term perspectives and a true opportunity to produce sustainable creative thinking and generation of knowledge? The question is in part a rhetorical one … but not completely.

 

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Does anyone want to hazard a guess as to the likelihood of postdoctoral positions leading to a tenure-track job?


 

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It goes without saying (should it?) that I’ll do my very best to make the remaining few months a success: the Berlin conference, and the final article on the uneasy relationship between narrative coherence and literary historiographies of the Baltic. As for how much time and energy on top of that goes into the blog rather than what happens in September – well, we’ll see.