Scotland in May

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The Cairngorms … being reliant to public transport can make walking in from Aviemore a necessity. Although there may be mutterings to the contrary when one is banging out the final stretch with minutes to spare before the last train south, this long approach does have something to commend it as an alternative to motoring up the ski centre road. It is not a landscape to be rushed. It is too big, too subtle, for that, and one might, I thought, as well adapt to its rhythm from the outset.

Understanding it is a different proposition. The pass carried a wind out of nowhere. On the eastern flank, a crack-thump could only be the shattering of rock, the land re-creating itself, and in the lower shade that same process seemed to be caught in the scattering of boulderfields, the seepage and moss, the crumbly snow, the watercourses in turns absorbed and released by the ground.

When the southward view came with nightfall, it was not beautiful: too bulky, too stark, yet I felt a symmetry and an order was behind it, at once present and beyond. So too the next afternoon on the high plateau patchwork of dusty rubble, soft vegetation, boulders, springs half-covered in snow, gravel formed into waves like sand on a beach and at the edge of it all a chain of cliff-arcs cut out of air.

It was somehow not quite of this world. This unsettled me, for all the splendour: I have tramped these hills often, slept on them in summer and winter, but never had that sensation before. Why? What had I not seen? Having finally written up this post, I realize that it might, in an almost paradoxical way, have been a mark of how familiar the place has become.

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The route: through the Lairig Ghru to a bivy site a little downstream from and above the refuge in the Garbh Choire, then up Cairn Toul and down to the Glen Einich between the northern corries of Braeriach. It deserves (or needs, depending on fitness) a night out to be savoured; a start at Coylumbridge lends itself better to this round than the standard approach from the Cairngorm road, and by far repays the extra distance involved.

The joys of getting out

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P1100892On Tuesday, I filled an empty day in the rhythm of editing work by heading off to the hill country again. It must be almost exactly two years since I last visited that particular corner of the Highlands. We were still based in the north-east of England then, and I had taken the train up to this same station for a raid before heading back to Denmark … those were the bittersweet months when it was becoming apparent where the Marie Curie Fellowship was heading but I still wanted to believe it might be otherwise.

Things change. The hills are much closer to my doorstep now; and I have put an end to the self-delusion and -harm of directing my working life at academia. In fact, by another coincidence of timing, it was also two weeks to the day since one last permanent job interview – at which the panel showed no interest in my field or engaging with my contribution to it, and concentrated instead on ascertaining what should have been obvious long before shortlisting: that my research doesn’t belong in the small world of Theory to which German Studies appears to have been reduced in that place. Confirmation bias, perhaps … but the long march in, when spring seemed very close and the air was palpably mild, gave ample time to reflect on such things.

The marginalization of philological, wide-ranging scholarship, the back-stabbing and cronyism, the cynicism and the breakdown of trust … it is not worth the energy of anger any more, but it does sadden. And the way it changed how I was, particularly toward the end, parting me from the good things and feeding a downward spiral in how I behaved. I suppose it has to remain an open question whether I would have ended up that way if, just once in the course of a decade of jobs, there had been a sincere institutional interest in my future. At any rate, it evidently still hurts.

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Higher up, winter remained and the wandering mind was refocused. What would in the summer be just a long walk with a pleasing sense of remoteness, turned into a miniature adventure. Navigating without the cop-out of a GPS, wending through beetling crags, making steps down and up truly pleasurable snow-slopes in a world of total whiteness: it was all, despite the vile conditions, hugely enjoyable, hour after hour after hour; and about as far apart as I can imagine from the horizons that end with what one already thinks one knows.

 

Close-reading casualization

Financial security and, as one striker put it, ‘a viable future’. Wouldn’t it be nice if the discovery that these things are worth fighting for led to an improvement in the lot of precariously employed academics? They could certainly do with a bit of both here and now, not just a few years or decades down the line.

Judging by a part-time, fixed-term position that has just been advertised in my field, one should not get one’s hopes up. I have already sounded off about it on Twitter, but in this case, coming as it does from my old undergraduate college, and at a time of so much idealism in the USS strike, I wanted to give it a bit more attention than an emphemeral rant. So, what I propose to do in this post is to take apart what exactly is going on here – to show how casualization becomes institutionalized in the very language of appointments – with a close reading of the job ad and further particulars.

The facts: it’s a ‘five-hour Stipendiary Lecturer in German, for four years’, with a stipend on a scale ‘currently starting at £16,040 per annum’.

To begin with: in fairness, it is at least possible that these terms might be a bit more favourable than they sound. There could be a slightly higher salary (perhaps – the omission of the upper range of the scale can be interpreted in more than one way…). It is also conceiveable that fewer than five contact hours could be involved in practice (it is not clarified whether the stint is in ‘weighted hours’, in which case group sizes can lead to fewer hours actually being taught). And the right to some meals in college can also be helpful when one is struggling to make ends meet. Time to read on…

On ‘teaching needs’

We are initially told that ‘this appointment is to fulfill teaching needs arising from the reduction in teaching hours’ for the current full-time staff member. Reading on, however, we discover that the post is not just about teaching cover but also involves playing

a full role in the running of Modern Languages and its joint schools in the two Colleges, including arranging tuition, participating in admissions processes if requested, setting and marking college examinations, submitting timely teaching records and reports each term, attending Freshers’ Week meetings and report readings at the ends of term if required, assisting with the pastoral care of undergraduates, acting as personal tutor and graduate advisor, and contributing to the Colleges’ Open Days.

Quite a substantial workload. We then find that the job also involves covering central University/Faculty teaching over and above the five college hours on the basis of which the stipend has been calculated. The successful candidate

will be expected to contribute eight lectures each year to the lecturing programme of the Sub-Faculty, to supervise Masters students (as appropriate), and to assist with examining and other Faculty activities.

Now – again, in fairness – at least some of these other responsibilites will be renumerated: examining, admissions interviewing, and (I assume!) central teaching, for example. All that, however, is likely to be paid on a piece-by-piece basis: per script, per hour, etc. To make what that means in practice a bit more tangible: when I last gave an eight-lecture course in Oxford, in 2015, the fee was £50 per lecture, so a total of £400 (pre-tax). I can but hope that the figure has since increased; at any event, it should be obvious that the amount of additional income generated if extra duties are paid on top of the stipend in this manner, is not going to be terribly substantial in proportion to the labour put in.

What about research?

Given that the employer on its homepage promises students ‘tutorial teaching from first-class academics’, it is no surprise to find that research is part of the selection criteria. Candidates should ‘should be able to demonstrate a research record or potential at the highest level’ and provide ‘brief account of their research interests’ with their application.

How curious, then, that research is not included in the responsibilities of the successful candidate. One wonders quite what the point is of hiring somebody on the basis of their research potential unless they are going to realize it at some point in the next four years. One might also wonder why a seasoned researcher would be appointed on the basis of their record and then be expected to abandon it. It is very hard – particularly if we know, as we all do, that those in fixed-term jobs need to publish to advance their career – to conclude anything other than that unpaid research labour is being sanctioned.

Making ends meet

Indeed, the further particulars obliquely acknowledge that the deal being offered might well need supplementing with other sources of income:

It is fully expected that there will be further German literature and language teaching available at other Oxford colleges which it would be possible to combine or formally link with this post, entirely at the discretion of the successful candidate. Additional teaching would be paid separately, either at an hourly rate, or in the form of a further stipendiary lectureship.

Note, though, that the possibility of ‘a further stipendiary lectureship’ remains vague: we must conclude that it is for the candidate to obtain one, if they are lucky – and we should not forget that such posts tend not to have a research component, so the issue of unpaid research remains even then. The opportunity to do additional, hourly paid teaching is also something of a red herring: it is entirely different, in terms of renumeration and benefits, from having a formal position – being able to rely on a monthly salary rather than waiting until the end of each term to be paid, is just one of those differences that tend to matter when one is not earning that much in the first place.

So, who could actually do the job then?

We have seen here how the – in itself not unreasonable – need for teaching cover in a part-time position becomes something akin to a front for a job that involves – and I think I am entitled from experience to say this – a great deal more: undergraduate pastoral care, graduate supervision and advising, administration, faculty service, examining, central university lecturing, all paid, if at all, at an hourly rate or similar.

This is particularly problematic because of the duration of this post. It is not just a term or two, as these things often are, but a four-year commitment. Applying and carrying out the role means making a life decision, not merely taking the chance to get some experience and fill a short-term gap after handing in a thesis.

It has, therefore, to be asked: who could actually take up a job such as this? We can be reasonably confident that relocation costs will not be covered. Together with the low salary and the need for connections in order to get the extra teaching, this means that the terms are weighted toward someone established in Oxford already. This effect is reinforced by the fact that the income-to-working hours ratio will be more favourable to somebody who has taught in Oxford before than to somebody who has to prepare everything from scratch. The position is, finally, inherently biased toward a scholar who already has financial security from other sources, and it envisages a candidate who does not need to prioritize research in their future career – or is willing to do it for free.

On alternative careers

None of the above is particularly new, nor is it unique to any particular institution – we might recall, for example, the Institute of Historical Research advertising a 12-month Fellowship with a stipend less than last year’s mean annual salary for street cleaners in the UK. It should not really need to be explained why all of this is so questionable, but the fact is that there is an ongoing collective unwillingness to talk about it. That is largely why this post has spent so much time stating the obvious.

In that vein, if it’s not clear enough already: the alternative. It would be to offer an up-front salary that acknowledges the true amount of work being done – rather than taking the cheap combination of this stipend with hourly pay for the additional duties. It would also be to value the research of the successful candidate – in both senses of the word. Even if still a part-time position, the result might then at least aspire to supporting a reasonable standard of living in a city as expensive as Oxford.

As it is, however, one cannot help noticing that, next to this job, the position of Gardener is also being advertised – at a salary ranging from £17,062.50 to £21,196.50. The money, at any rate, would appear to be there.

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Looking north from the narrows of the Øresund. Helsingør felt like an opening out.

These days we’ve spent travelling have, together with memories of the sporadic excursions over the past few years, reminded me of how rich Denmark is. Not in the monetary sense, but in the variety of the landscape, the ever-changing relationship with the sea, the changing sound of the language from west to east, the history behind it all. This not only makes for a happier and more fulfilling depth of experience with which to leave than the laments about darkness and rain that have been so frequent in Odense. It also got me thinking, again, about the discourse of mobility that brought me here in the first place.

Being mobile must be one of the big ideas behind the Marie Curie programme. So it is all the more surprising, and disappointing, that it figures so little in the practicalities when one has actually got the grant. There seems to be no recognition in the framework for the experience of coming to a new country and discovering new surroundings, a new language, a new culture. This strikes me as part of a depersonalization that’s also reflected in the studied ignorance of the personal costs of peripatetic, insecure research careers.

Maybe I am more sensitive to this because of the field in which I work. This was not, for me, just about coming to do some research in an office on a relatively generic corridor in a relatively generic out-of-town campus. It was, beyond personal values such as curiosity or reaching out by learning the language I hear around me, about doing a project that was grounded in a sense of place. In Denmark. The personal enrichment that comes out of that is not tangible and it is not quantifiable, but it ought to be respected in any humane, kind funding programme. As it is, the final communication from the H2020 team was, like the final departmental remark about the Marie Curie programme, about money.

Does it need to be that way? No. At the start of my previous postdoctoral fellowship, I received a parcel from the Humboldt Foundation with a Baedecker guide and a dictionary. During the fellowship, there were several events that allowed us to explore the country we had made our temporary home. And at its end, there came a gift – a biography of the international scholar after whom the programme was named. If that is possible for a German funding agency on a German scale, why not for a European funding agency on a European scale?

 

 

Read every country

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A hard frost had formed unexpectedly overnight when I got hold of The Living Mountain at Braemar Mountain Sports before we left on 22 December. I had no other motivation than, finally, to read this puzzling, beautiful document of intimacy with ‘the mountain’ to which I had returned over the preceding days, sleeping in snow, tramping straight into the winter sun, becoming absorbed into the form of the land … It wasn’t until later that I realized that the book could also be the beginning of a project whose seed was sown in a conversation I had with my friend Steffen Hope last year. That project is to read a book from every country in the world.

The idea is not a new one, but there is so much to think about when actually doing it that anyone can make it their own. That is one reason why I am in two minds in categorizing this post as ‘academic’. Yes, it does relate to professional interests such as World Literature; but I also want it to cover a diversity of texts rather than just following trampled thematic paths such as globalization, colonialism, and what not. Similarly, I am not approaching the undertaking with a predefined frame of reference as one might expect in a scholarly context. I reckon that prose writing will be the most common, followed by poetry and then, perhaps, drama – but I might surprise myself.

There is also the thorny question of how one understands ‘country’ (raised, you will note, already by this very first book). Do places such as Catalonia and Tibet merit their own read? Does Ancient Greece get separate treatment from modern Greece? What does one do with Native American literature(s)? Rather than try to fix answers to such questions from the outset, I am going to see how the project evolves – what gets my attention, whether a pattern starts to develop – and come back as and when to ponder ‘country’ or whatever alternative term might present itself.

The only fixed criterion is that each book must be one I have not read before. There is no need for them to be classics, though they can be. Perhaps I will go through phases of focusing on particular areas; perhaps I will also pinball back and forth across the globe. I may well take the opportunity to read some works that I have long wanted to; but I will also pick up ones that have been on shelves and in boxes for too long; and I will let myself be surprised by chance as well, as with this beginning.

I’ll put the books in here as we go…

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1. Scotland

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2. Russia (but born in Kiev!)

 

Time to move on

Over Christmas and the New Year, we were in other places. It cannot have been much more than two weeks, but it was still our longest absence from Denmark in a long while. Perhaps that is why something seemed to have changed when we returned to an Odense that seemed so very quiet and, in an indeterminate way, different – changed in me, as I listened to the language afresh and noticed again the contours in a cultural landscape to which I had slowly become accustomed. Such as the inimitable ability to make even the special brew in one of my regular café haunts into a design experience. In black, of course.

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This sensation of discovering again has remained since; in fact, it had already begun many miles before the train pulled into Odense’s railway station. Here’s how I put it in my journal after we left Flensburg:

The station names, over the loudspeaker and then matched, alarmingly on occasion, to writing on the lit platform signs, carry something of the unknown with them too, the mystery of Denmark and its tongue, by virtue of my only having travelled this line once before. And I do feel they are different from Fyn on the Copenhagen run, or northern Jutland.

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Doubtless this change in mentality, or way of perceiving one’s surroundings, was in part a consequence of the awareness that the Danish adventure is coming to an end. It is, as our landlord dropped by to make sure, ‘quite clear’ we are leaving in mid-February. But there is also something else going on.

Even after the formal end of the contract last year, I was still able to sit in cafés or on trains and use the time to write up a paper, or keep the Old Norse or Proto-Indo-European ticking over, or read further into some aspect of my research. That doesn’t work any more. It is as if the academic-professional outcome of the two Marie Curie years is being rolled back; and what is left, or apparent again, for these remaining weeks in Denmark, in Odense, on Funen, is the fascination that was part of the excitement with which it all began. It is the right time to leave.

(Photo by Isabel. We do not work for the chain in question!)

A visit to the highlands in December

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This bedtime view from the tent is one of the memories I carry from four days of tramping in the hill country north of the border last week. It had been far too long an absence; there is an intensity to this place that makes one wonder what exactly one has been doing with the rest of days. The endlessly changing light and colours, the shimmering dust of the galaxy, the pallour the moment the sun sets – it is all both heartbreakingly beautiful and the most natural thing in the world. There is an instinct that knows this and finds itself again in ways such as the ease with which the body slips into a rhythm that follows the hours of daylight. I compare this to the complaints about the long winter darkness that have been a recurrent conversation topic during the past few years, and see how a whole framework of living can be dismantled overnight.

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It is sometimes said that the hills, in winter especially, are unforgiving. I do not think it is quite so simple. If one approaches one’s surroundings with respect and humility, there are second chances, and there are opportunities to learn and grow that never really come to an end. It is, more than anything else, a landscape in which simply to be. That takes many forms, but one of the things they have in common is the state of being utterly absorbed in the here and now. I remember following a bearing through the clag across a thawing wasteland of boulders, snow, and heather, staggering in a crosswind that made movement akin to a circus act. It is not just the experience of sensory overload as the brain plays catch-up and works out that one has, after all, popped out of the cloud where one expected to end up; it is the satisfaction that comes from navigation as an art rather than a button-pushing game with the sat-nav. And it is the intimacy with the land that comes from picking a way marked by whatever rock or snowfield corner or vegetated hummock happens to be in the right direction at the limit of one’s vision, and the next, and the next, and the next.

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Soon after returning, I made the mistake of checking my emails a final  time before Christmas. One made me very angry. What was said, how it was said, and what was not said brought together a lot of the things that have made me sad and disillusioned as time has gone by in academia. I had decided some time ago that this sort of thing is no longer worth my time getting worked up about, but on this occasion the contrast with what came before set back that resolution. It did so because these places are not just a source of refuge but are a form of alternative: one does not have to live this way. To understand that, is not to think of an anthropomorphized landscape that punishes or suppresses the things from which I flee. Perhaps one could see it in those terms when it comes to things such as arrogance; but for the most part it is much more straightforward than that: there is simply no place for them here.

Philological musings

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grabenJust a quick note to record how academic Twitter did something good for me this afternoon: I discovered that the third international conference of the Sällskap för östnordisk filologi is taking place in Copenhagen at the moment.

On the one hand, I’m kicking myself for not having discovered and joined this association before … it seems so obviously relevant to the research interest in Scandinavia that I have developed that I wonder how I missed it. It was of some consolation that I could not have made a quick visit to Copenhagen even if I had known about the event because I have to be in Germany to give a talk on medieval rhyming chronicles – including, fittingly, the Erikskrönika and the Danish Rimkrønike.

I was, however, able to browse through the abstracts (here’s a direct link to the PDF). Reading them, I felt suddenly at home intellectually. This wasn’t just because of the details – the approaches taken or the literary and linguistic questions asked – but also because of the overall philological discourse in which they participated. It’s what studying early texts has always meant for me, and I realized how important it is to make room for that way of thinking. Being attentive to detail, being sensitive to the language of the texts, acknowledging their value as a cultural heritage – all that is central to how I see myself as a scholar of literature and it was wonderful to be reminded of that indirectly while reading the abstracts.

This standpoint might sound rather too traditional for some tastes, so it is worth reflecting on the levelling effect it has. If one’s primary goal is to understand – motivated by a ‘love of words’, even – it becomes very problematic to treat particular kinds of text, or literature from particular parts of Europe, as more valuable, more worthy of study than others. And with that, I’m back full circle to the belief that underpinned the Marie Curie project.

 

The alternative final report. Part A.

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Isabel and I had an occasion to mark the other day and went to Copenhagen for the evening. Among other places, we ended up back in the National Museum. I say ‘back’, because I was last there one December afternoon in 2015 when my parents were visiting and we had some time to kill before they set off for the airport. I remember very well saying to myself then that I would have to return – and at last, I did.

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I revisited some old favourites – the rune stones and the sun chariot – and made some new discoveries, such as this beautiful Christ figure from Åby. We found him in the medieval and renaissance section, an endearing and chaotic step back in time compared to the slick exhibition spaces on the ground floor.

Being there again made me so very sad. It was impossible not to feel again the excitement I’d had the first time – it wasn’t just about learning about a new country but the feeling of something opening up in a wider sense. A sense of hope, perhaps; or if not that, at least of the potential that was becoming apparent in the Marie Curie project as I settled in.

In reliving such emotions, one knows also all that has changed. Almost two years have gone by. To a system motivated by grant income, that time is simply a number in a box in the paperwork.

For me, it is part of my life. It is a small fortune spent relocating and commuting. It is boxes packed and unpacked, possessions consigned to containers in a warehouse. It is the mental energy spent trying to make a home somewhere that is not going to be a home. It is memories. It was trying to be part of something. It is the effort put into a project and career that I am currently in the process of mothballing.

It is very hard not to ask myself whether it was worth it — and I do not mean that in the abstract sense that this was always, to some extent, going to be a way of literally buying more time on the academic job market. I knew that might not work out.

So, was it?

When I think of the good things, I think of the friends I have made and, as this is about memories, the joyful ones — the Estonian holiday, the seas around Funen, self-harm by chocolate cake as the rain poured down in Aarhus in the dark (obviously), Proto-Indo-European on an (obviously, again) overheated nighttime express, Jelling in the spring when the wind was still cold, the happy places in Copenhagen … it is all there, a part of me and I could go on and on — but none of it has much to do with the grant agreement or my job. Perhaps that is as close as I will get to an answer.

Stay tuned for part B, a post in which I hope to write up the kind of advice that, looking back, I would give to anybody thinking of trying for a Marie Curie Fellowship.

Wie zu hemmen ein rollendes Rad?

Somewhat melodramatic, I admit – but there is a certain sense of inexorability now. The draft articles are tidied up in case the master-pursekeepers require sight of them. The final report is, contrary to expectation, proving remarkably straightforward as long as it is tackled in small doses; I even recognize in it the same mix of candour, ambition, and aversion to mumbo-jumbo that marked the original proposal way back when. Preparing for the paper I’ve been invited to give in Germany later this month, on the Kaiserchronik and the verse chronicles of medieval Scandinavia, is a joy. So it really does seem that, by the end of October, all will be done and dusted. A line drawn.

It ought to be sad that it is now, of all times, that I feel excitement and pleasure in my academic ‘work’ again. Noticing the parts of the Old Norse puzzle falling into place, or having the mental space in which properly to read and think about the medieval Baltic … there is here the beginning of something. It is the product of time and energy spent over at least the past two years – a foundation for future research, if you will. The fact that it has materialized the month after I left SDU and will in all likelihood not be returned to, says a great deal about what is wrong with the structures of ECR academia.

But dwelling on such things seems like wasted emotional energy. Instead, I simply enjoy the freedom of reading, thinking, writing unencumbered, and let my mind wander also to plotting a trip across the North Sea in November to clear out the cobwebs before whatever happens next. Perhaps the snows will have come …

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