Monday, 31 December 2012

Annual report 2012

Facebook has identified twenty highlights of my 2012. But Facebook doesn't know about all of my highlights (neither about my downs) because I don't share them on Facebook. It has picked up the fact that there was something going on in the middle of May, and it has noted that I had a Cornwall holiday. But it doesn't understand that the photo album dedicated to Miso wasn't exactly a highlight.

My sixtieth birthday was doubtless a highlight, but apart from that it wasn't a happy year. But it is almost over, and I have a lucky memory that only stores good things.

Facebook hasn't picked up that I have totally changed my attitude toward clothes and learned thirty-nine ways of tying a scarf. If possible, this was a more important highlight than my birthday, or at least it has left more impact. I will never ever wear black again unless it is dictated by the dress code. Speaking of which, I graduated last summer and have now a MA from Cambridge. Not that I know what to do with it.

Work has been good, and I have won some important battles that will make the coming years better still. My first Cambridge PhD student has successfully completed. My other students are making progress, publishing articles, attending conferences, actually hosting a conference! They are all so brilliant and a pleasure to work with. (And I have wonderful colleagues too).

I have finished a book that will hopefully appear next year, and a co-edited book came out in September. Also a couple of articles and chapters that I am happy with.

I have cut down on travel and, apart from Sweden for my birthday, have only been to Germany, Norway and Spain, all for work. And in Scotland if you count it as a separate country. Our children have visited regularly. In February we had an invasion of four grandchildren. Julia and Pontus visited several times, as did Anton, and Lisa with two boys was here recently. And our dear friend Norton Juster stayed with us for some days in May.

I am now a proud owner and user of a smartphone (thanks to the kids) and an iPad (my own venture). I cannot imagine how I survived before. 

I have already shared some of the best books I read this year.  The best movie I saw this year was Hugo. The best theatre show I saw this year was Matilda. The best concert was Murray Perahia. The best exhibition was Literary Landscapes at the British Library.

This past summer, my garden started looking the way I want it. Still a lot to be done, but I didn't have to plant annuals to fill the gaps. The strawberries were watery because of too much rain, but we had three harvests of raspberries. I planted some new roses. We bought an electric lawnmower. We built a new fence. 

I have made some new room boxes, added to the existing dollhouses and started a dollhouse blog

And of course our precious Miranda came to us this year. 

 Photo credit: Pontus Walck

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Best books of 2012

Another seasonal post. As usual, not necessarily books published in 2012, but the ones I read in 2012.


Best novel: Possession, by A S Byatt

Best classic: Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Best re-read: Black Cloud, by Fred Hoyle

Best humour: Dodger, by Terry Pratchett

Best young adult novel: The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

Best children's book: Four Children and It, by Jacqueline Wilson

Best picturebook: The Heart and the Bottle, by Oliver Jeffers

Best nonfiction: Watching the English, by Kate Fox

Best literary criticism: Why we read fiction by Liza Sunshine

Best on children's literature: Freud in Oz, by Kenneth Kidd

Best book I have contributed to: The History of Childhood in the Western World, edited by Paula Fass

Best unexpected: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

Promises kept

I started writing a post about the year that has been and decided to look at what I wrote at this time a year ago. Here were my New Year promises and this is how I have kept them:
  • work less Hmmm...
  • replace broken glass in the greenhouse Yes
  • get a smartphone (maybe) Yes! And I love it! I also got an iPad, which I couldn't even imagine a year ago.
  • start driving to Stansted on my own No. No way. Cross out.
  • work less See above
  • re-join the fitness club Go and stand in the corner! On the other hand, I have walked 150 kilometres since August. I can prove it because I am using RunKeeper.
  • put up the second tool panel in the utility room No! Completely got off my radar. Must do tomorrow, before the year ends.
  • visit Cornwall Yes! I had forgotten I had planned it. I thought it was a spontaneous idea. It was a serendipity that we ended up in Cornwall
  • work less See above
  • paint the window sills Well, I didn't precisely paint them, but it's done
  • resists temptations of conferences, festivals, juries, and editorial boards Been quite good at it. Declined some invitations, offered virtual lectures instead; declined most of reviews. But did a lot of other things that I cannot say no to.
  • drink less coffee No. Why did I decide that?
  • update my profile page Yes. It probably needs updating again.
  • work less See above. A good illustration: it's Saturday, and I have been at my desk for ten hours
  • reconcile with the fact that I will be sixty this year Yes. It was a wonderful birthday, and it's been and gone, so I guess I have reconciled with it.


Friday, 21 December 2012

Reading networks

I must have some gene from my librarian great-aunt in me, because ever since I was a child I loved cataloguing books. This aunt gave me real index cards, and we indexed all my books - she writing in pretty "library handwriting", me, awkwardly, but proudly, in purple ink. This first index catalogue disappeared at some point, but in my early twenties I started cataloguing again, both books I owned, books I had read and books I planned to read. I had my own system of signs to indicate books that I liked or disliked, books that I read for work or for pleasure, fiction and non-fiction. I noted when I had finished each book, and I kept track of how many books in each category I read every year. In other words, I did, manually, what book and reading sites allow you to do today.

This catalogue was lost when I moved to Sweden, and I started a new one, but life caught up with me. I still kept track of all books I read, but on a modest scale.

A couple of years ago my clever children suggested Shelfari. What I wanted was simply convenient software to record my current and past reading. I didn't necessarily want to share it with anyone. It took some time to build up my shelf, and I am still adding to it when I remember books I read long ago. At the moment I have 2,251 books on my shelf, but I haven't even started adding the numerous Scandinavian YA novels. Since I joined, I have recorded every single book I have read. Shelfari helpfully provides me with statistics. It even tells me that I am behind my pace this year as compared to last yar. It does not differentiate between a picturebook and a 800-page novel.

I have 442 tags for my shelf, and I tag every book carefully with at least 4-5 tags. My top tags are Children's Literature, Classic, Fantasy, Picturebooks and I Have Written About It. I have a top-ten category and top-hundred category and children's top-hundred and picturebooks top-ten. Sometimes I write very short reviews. I don't supply ridiculously short synopses or character descriptions. I don't note where I bought the book and which edition I have and whether it is signed by the author and all other stuff Shelfari allows you to enter.

Building up the shelf retrospectively is illuminating. It made me realise that some books that I value exceptionally high I hadn't actually re-read for quite a while. So I re-read them, and most of them were still great. It made me remember books I had no memory of. It made me aware of books that I had read and still had no memory of. In short, it was a very interesting exercise.

I have some Shelfari friends, but it's nothing like Goodreads. I have a shelf on Goodreads, and I keep adding to it, but I don't really have time to maintain two sites. What is fascinating about Goodreads is that it automatically adds all my Facebook friends, so suddenly I know what my colleagues and students are reading and how they rate the books. (And they know what I am reading and how I rate). Something I view as brilliant gets one star. Something I think is garbage gets five stars. I wish I had time to have a discussion with all these friends and ask: what did you like about this horrible book? How could you give one star to this masterpiece? And: oh, I am so glad that we like the same book. But the greatest surprise is that so many colleagues are reading and have read books I have never heard of. Now, if I look at the most popular books on Shelfari and state that I haven't heard of any of them, I am not upset, because I seldom read commonly popular books. I don't read crime or romance or autofiction. But when I see a colleague's shelf with author upon author I haven't heard of, then I must hade missed something. As colleagues in the same field I would expect us to have more in common.

I also know how colleagues have rated books that I have written.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Incentives

In three weeks I am going on study leave. You may wonder whether it makes any difference since we are almost on the verge of holidays, but it's the "almost" that makes it problematic, On the last day of term, masters students turned in their first essays, and first-year PhD stuents turned in their first chapters. Since we double-mark all student work, I have twice as many essays to mark than I supervise. Twelve, to be precise. That's twelve times 6,500 words, each of which needs substantial written feedback. It takes at least two hours to read and comment on an essay, often considerably longer. If I mark on average three essays a day, it will take me four days, which takes me to the end of this week.

On top of this, I have three-score postdoc applications which I also need to read and rank before I can breathe out. Let's say, optimistically, that it takes me half an hour to read an application. That means that in a normal 8-hour working  day, I can do sixteen applications. So if I start on Boxing Day, I may just about have time to cook lobster thermidore for the New Year dinner.

The thing is of course that you cannot read sixteen applications a day because it will be unfair toward the last five since you will be tired and furious and rank them low. You cannot even read three essays a day without losing the attention these essays deserve. Therefore you need breaks in between and do something else. And no, I cannot take a break from essays and read applications, nor the other way round. The breaks need to be focused on something unrelated. So I tell myself. Like, let me see... for each essay I am allowed to write a blog post. Or better still, for each essay I am allowed to make one object for my dollhouses. (In summer I would of course negotiate with myself that for each essay I can do an hour of gardening).

This is why I give myself a margin of an additional week. Besides, I have all other small tasks that need to be done by the beginning of January. For each recommendation letter, a miniature object. For each reader review, a miniature. For each PhD examination... two miniatures. Maybe three.

When I am finished with all this, estimated three weeks from now, I am going on study leave. No classes, no supervisions, no marking, no meetings, no admissions, no examinations, no recommendation letters. Too good to be true. I will be writing a book. Full time. 24/7. For three months. It will be 100,000 words, which.means slightly over 1,000 words a day, including weekends. For every 500 words, I will be allowed to make a miniature. 

Monday, 10 December 2012

Go virtual

I have been teaching online since 1999, but today I gave my first live virtual lecture. I don't quite believe that it's an adequate way of teaching, but as I always say about online teaching: it's a good alternative. In this particular case I was invited to do a lecture in Germany, and I just couldn't travel there for a whole number of reasons. Then my hosts asked whether I would be prepared to do a video lecture, and since I am always foolishly eager to try new things I agreed. It was some time ago, and I didn't contemplate how it would turn out. Last week we ran a trial, and after I had tried every single button it finally worked, so I was pretty confident it would work today. I had agreed to "meet" the technical assistant at a quarter to, and I started getting nervous, sitting there and staring at the dead screen. There is not much you can do. Then suddenly I saw a big lecture hall with a handful of students and wondered why there were so few - did they think it was a waste of time listening to someone who wasn't even there? (It turned out that they employ "academic quarter", that is, the lecture is announced at 4, but actually starts at 4.15. I was used to it when I taught in Finland).

I could see them, but not hear them, and they could neither see nor hear me, and I stared at myself on the screen and wondered whether I really look so hideous or was it just the camera. Eventually they could see and hear me, and I could hear them, but not see them, and by that time I just didn't dare push any more buttons in case I would ruin it all together. So I talked for an hour watching myself on the screen, without any contact with the audience, which felt a bit like talking into outer space. I like to see people's faces when I talk; I often adjust my talk according to the audience response - I guess we all do. But I just talked and talked, and sometimes I smiled, and sometimes I made a side comment which I'd normally expect the audience to react to. In fact, I wasn't even sure whether they were listening. But apparently they were, for they asked intelligent questions afterwards which they wouldnä'f have been able to ask if they hadn't heard me. It wasn't meant to be like that, but it worked for me, and I feel I can do it and would do it again.

Requests considered on first come first served basis.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Change of perspective

I know I am expected to blog about it, so here it is. Yesterday I had the first experience as a supervisor at a British viva. I was a co-supervisor to a British student some years ago, and I wasn't even invited to the viva, which at the time felt an insult, but I now know wasn't. The supervisor's role seems to be finished when the thesis is submitted, not when it is approved.

Anyway, my first Cambridge PhD student submitted her thesis this term, and yesterday she had her viva. For a British viva, there is an internal and an external examiner. (I have been an internal, and I am going to be an external soon, so I am getting it). They are supposed to write their reports independently and are not alowed to confer before the pre-viva, which is half an hour before the viva. Needless to say, the supervisor is not allowed to confer with any of the examiners. So the past two months, although I met the internal daily, I pretended that I hadn't even heard of any student or any thesis or anything even remotedly resembling picturebooks.

The external is a very good old friend of mine - that's why I chose her as an external, although it certainly helped that she is an expert on the topic of the thesis and is affiliated with a university approved by Cambridge (arrrrgghh!). She only came over for a day and two nights, but I wanted to see her as a friend, so I did invite her for dinner, although I think it was against the protocol. I believe that I can keep friendship and business apart. She could have declined if she thought it was inappropiate.

The day before, I had a mock viva with the student. A mock viva means that you pretend to be an examiner and ask awkward questions. The point is to give the student an idea of what kind of questions the perverted mind of an examiner can think of. Having been an examiner makes the exercise easy, although it takes some effort to pretend that you haven't actually approved of every single semi-colon in the d-d text and therefore believe it immaculate.

On the morning of the viva I had very deliberately decided to sit down and write an article long overdue (very unlike me!), but of course it didn't work. I went to the office and moved around some books on the shelves, telling myself I needed to tidy up the office since I am going on study leave soon. Then I joined the two examiners for lunch, and we chirped happily on unrelated matters until I left them to do their dirty business and re-shuffled some more books.

Then I went to see the student, and we went through all the possible questions again, and chirped on unrelated matters, gradually joined by a support club including her husband. I don't quite know what the student felt, but I felt sick. However, I am very good at pretending, so I don't think she noticed. Finally, she was called in, and I felt like a husband whose wife is taken in for a ceasarian, and he is not allowed to follow into the op room. We went on chirping, and I was watching the clock and trying not to think about all those dumb questions they were sure to ask, and when the student's husband wondered whether vivas could go on longer than an hour I said cheerfully that yes of course they could, they could go on for ever, and they did. Then we saw her coming down the stairs, waving, and I knew that she felt good, so I tried to feel good too, although the worst was still to come. And I promise that next time I am examining a thesis I will not make the student wait for twenty-five minutes before she is called back to be told that she has passed. I was too angry to feel good, but I am very good at pretending. No seriously, I did feel good. It also felt unreal and surreal and everything I had told the student it would feel for her.

The Faculty doctoral manager brought in a bottle of sparkling and plastic flutes. She poured out and sipped a bit of hers and left, ordering me to take the remains of the bottle to the office. I told her we would finish it ourselves. What good would a half bottle of sparkling do in the Higher Degrees office after office hours on a Friday? 

I wanted to go home and go to bed. I was almost relieved when the taxi company said it would take half an hour to get a taxi. I was texting the student to say I wasn't coming when the taxi finally arrived. Then of course we had a wonderful dinner and a lovely time together, the new Doctor, the examiners and the support club.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Things that matter

Every now and then I reflect on how much more intensive my life is now as compared to my previous life. I know I worked a lot then as well, but I had less regulated work. I went in to teach, and I had office hours and supervisions by appointment, and there were some meetings that I dutifully attended and that didn't make any difference at all. The rest of my time I was at home writing my books and articles, or travelling around the world to conferences and guest talks.

I cannot say that all meetings of my current life are exciting, but they surely make a difference, sometimes substantial. Sometimes for the better, oftentimes for the worse. At least I know that I can try to make a difference. I may succeed if I try hard enough. As in any job, there are problems and disappointments. But there are so many more reasons to be glad or even proud. So many more things that matter. Things that make life interesting.

Next week my first Cambridge Phd student has her viva. Another student will finish next year, then yet another batch. I watch them grow, become independent, attend conferences, publish, get invited to events – watch them transit from students to colleagues. It matters.

A new bunch of masters students have just submitted their first assignments. They are anxious. One said to me: “Thank you for making things clearer”. It matters.

The new electives we designed last summer have, as far as I can tell, been successful. The new sessions I did for doctoral research training this term attracted students from other disciplines, who have posed a whole set of new questions to me. We have a lovely group of visiting scholars this term.

I have won some battles that nobody might even know about. There are tiny indicators that the rest of the Faculty are reluctantly acknowledging that children's literature is a legitimate subject, that it brings in students, and that it won't go away.


Sunday, 25 November 2012

Reference frames

I should perhaps write a post about our bilateral English-French symposium on children's literature last Friday - which by the way grew quickly from bilateral to multilateral as our visiting scholars from Australia, Brazil, Spain and Greece joined (and our group itself is international enough). However, I am sure that the students will cover it in their blog. Instead, I have some reflections on how different children's literature scholarship is in different countries. We may have the illusion that we are all doing more or less similar thing, that there is some kind of consensus, that we have the same points of departure; but in fact we all sit on our different islands and rarely know what is going on elsewhere. In natural sciences, if a major discovery is made it will be published in a journal within weeks, and the scholar will get the Nobel prize. In our area, we can be happily ignorant of groundbreaking work if it is done outside of our immediate sphere.

I have in many contexts emphasised that children's literature is a stepdaughter that takes refuge with whoever lets her in. In my old-old country, it was only possible to study children's literature within library and information science, and it's still the case in many places. Education is an obvious shelter, but some institutions are far too anchored in empirical research, which is fully legitimate but a bit limiting if you are interested in texts rather than readers. I remember when in the 1980s children's literature here and there in the world started moving from Education to English and Comparative Literature - and sometimes to cultural studies, childhood studies, gender studies, modern languages, folklore, media and communication, translation studies. In contrast, in some places it emerged within traditional philology and was therefore focused on historical approaches and canonical texts. Some places focus on national literature, some are more international or transnational. Someone in the department of Dutch in Norway may for some reason decide to do a PhD on Dutch children's literature and never discover that in the next corridor there is a whole bunch of children's literature scholars doing something else. People go to international conferences and meet people from that next corridor - that's a positive scenario, because some people don't go to conferences. A lot of very interesting research goes on in different countries that remains unknown because the scholars never go to international conferences or publish in international journals. When people do meet they discover that they lack reference frames; that thay call the same phenomenon by different names, or use the same term for completely different things.

Our field is growing exponentially so perhaps this is inevitable. yet I find it frustrating that so often when we meet we need to start with the same old basic question: What exactly do we mean by children's literature?

Friday, 16 November 2012

This time of year

"You haven't blogged in two weeks", Staffan says. I know. I have been too busy living my life.

I know that it sounds hopelessly trivial, but I can't remember when I was so busy. I am on study leave next term which means that I have all my teaching this term. Foolishly enough, I have developed a new strand through doctoral research training, and now I have to teach it - this term. I have also developed a new masters elective and have to teach a session, and I have volunteered to do a half session for another elective - just because it interests me. And because I am involved in these electives they are taught this term. I am also teaching everything else I normally teach throughout the year this term. This term is the most stressful for masters students because they have to submit their first assigments on the last day of the term. I have a feeling that they haven't really realised that the term ends in two weeks, but when they realise it on Monday I will be drowned in drafts. I am also drowned in PhD drafts although they are not seasonal. Part-time students' essays are seasonal, although out of sync with the full-time students. Some students get extensions for their essays and get totally out of sync. 

A bunch of over-ambitious students have asked me to do a crash course on Bakhtin. I couldn't say no to it, could I, and I enjoyed it. Then they asked to do Lacan, and when we finished they asked to do Eco. It is developing into a special seminar. I really, really enjoy it, but it has to be squeezed in between everything else.

I have three upgrades this term. An upgrade is a rite of passage that, for the assessor, involves reading and evaluating a registration document. A registration document is a 20,000-word project description that allows a probationary PhD student to continue. I cannot fail the student just because I feel grumpy. But I actually need to read their blessed upgrades and say something helpful. Something formative. Something they will remember for the redt of their life ("That grumpy old assessor...")

I also have a viva coming. A viva is the oral examination of a PhD thesis. I have no role in it. I am not even allowed into the room. I will sit outside and feel anxious until teh student tumbles out.

I also have on my desk a PhD thesis that I am examining in another university- no date yet. I am also examining a PhD in Norway - no date yet.

On top of all that I have the regular and irregular meetings, in Faculty and College. I don't even want to think of it, but in a couple of weeks I will have to read applications for post-doc positions in College. There are typically about 300 of those, although some will be in microbiology and chemistry, and I don't have to read them. Meanwhile, I am reading applications for masters and PhD. All applications are electronic these days, and it works well when it does, but if you have typed in comments which then disappear it is highly frustrating.I cannot be grumpy and reject a student just because the electronic site is uncooperative.

In a moment of weakness I also promised to give a paper at a student symposium.

Now you understand why this blog post is so brief.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Between me and my conscience

I will be on study leave next term (can't wait!), therefore I have arranged to do all my teaching this term. Since we all teach very specific sessions, few of us are interchangeable.

For many colleagues outside Cambridge my workload may seem ridiculous, but then I have massive admin responsibilities plus tons of masters and doctoral supervisions. Having squeezed my classroom teaching into our short, eight-week term means that for the remaining weeks I have a schedule that I find terrifying. I teach two sessions on our third-year undergraduate course in children's literature, one on picturebooks and the other on fairy tales. This will be the fifth time I teach them, and I should have updated them a bit, but I tell myself that the new bunch of students have not heard me do it before, so it's a matter between me and my conscience. I never do exactly the same session twice anyway.

I do three sessions on our child lit  masters course, all three on picturebooks. This year, I split one of my old sessions in two, focusing one wholly on the picturebook as a material object, including some picturebook apps. The remaining two sessions will be the same as before. The students have not heard me... I teach two sessions on writing for children, and they are the same as last year, although they will be different because of the very nature of the subject. I also teach two completely new elective sessions in tandem with two colleagues. It's risky as it is, teaching something you haven't taught before, but twice as risky when you have no idea what the colleague will be doing. Fortunately, I go second in both sessions, so I can pick up on the first part and say: "As you have just heard", hoping that what they have just heard is not the opposite of what I am gong to say. My strategy in such cases is: "You are privileged to have heard different opinions so that you can decide for yourselves".

I also give a lecture to first-year undergrads, and it will be just like the previous years. Although I use a slide show and talk to it, so it won't be exactly the same. I could have updated the show, but I honestly have no time. They won't have heard me before. I teach three elective sessions within grad research training. They are open to all students, but usually only our child lit students opt for them. It means that I can count on their having some knowledge of literary theory, but not enough to perceive my sessions as superfluous. They have not heard me before. Well, they have heard me in the child lit sessions. Anyway, I really have no time to update. Since these are very small groups, hardly over eight students, most of them will be discussions. I will just throw some big questions at them and hope that we don't go too far off track. Finally, I teach a new masters session that I recklessly offered last summer, on "Methodologies of non-empirical research". I wrote a session summary then, but now it's imminent, and I am not quite sure what I thought I was going to do. But this will be a challenge, and I cannot compromise with my conscience. I will actually have to prepare it.

I had a colleague who boasted of having taught the same course for twenty-five years. I would be bored to death.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

More conference madness

It is complete madness to attend two conferences in two consecutive weeks, not only because all the everyday work suffers, but your body and mind become confused. Even though I only went to Glasgow this time it was just as stressful. The day before I went, our daugher Lisa came to visit, with two grandchildren. They knew that I would be away, but I was a bit upset; I'd like to spend some time with them. However: the flight was 9am from Stansted, and Staffan had - long before Lisa declared her arrival - agreed to take me and Morag. We collected Morag at 7am, which means that we left home a quarter to seven which means that we had to get up... The flight was uneventful, and we took taxi to Modag's favourite shop. It was my third time in Glasgow, and the third time I visited this shop that makes me wish I was three sizes bigger. Our transport to the conference venue was not until mid-afternoon, so we could shop as much as we had energy for.

Now, if you have followed my blog, you know that I hate shopping. If you haven't, you can read about some of my shopping adventures here and here. I need some winter outfits, and I never have time to shop, so a couple of hours in Glasgow were godsent. I had looked up the shops where I made most of my purchases with my Personal Shopper, and the shopping centre was quite close to Morag's shop, so I ran there arranging to come back for lunch. To my utter disappointment, there wasn't anything even remotely in agreement with my new fashion style. Most of it was black and grey. Before my Great Makeover, I'd happily buy another pair of black trousers (I have at least three already), a grey jacket and perhaps a grey top. But I have promised my Personal Shopper that I would never ever wear black, grey or off-white which had always been my safe colours. So I turned to go back, but a shop window caught my attention, and, checking the average age of the browsing customers (I don't want to err into a teenage shop), I went in. I saw at once two sets of possibles, but it was too late to try anything on. I ran back to Morag who had chosen some things, but wanted my advice. We had lunch, returned to her shop, she tried this and that, while I walked around, once again wishing there was something my size among those gorgeous garments. Then I saw it. I put it on. Morag and the shop assistant applauded. Morag tried on a few more things, and finally we were fimished. I didn't want to drag Morag to my store, but proxy shopping is almost as much fun (for me, much more fun), so I couldn't deny her the pleasure. We walked to the shopping centre, pulling our luggage and carrying a big plastic bag each, mine slightly smaller. I quickly tried on the skirt and jacket, trousers and jacket, mixing and matching. Probably for the first time in my life I not only felt confident, but also comfortable. A shop assistant was summoned, who approved, tried to make me buy some more tops which I resisted, and in less than half an hour I had spent as much money as Morag did in the previous three hours. I am a quick learner. Then we took a taxi to our friend, who, even knowing Morag well, had begun to be worried about us. We had a cup of tea and started on our journey to Ross Priory which was our goal for the day. It was too dark to admire the scenery, and I was quite tired, but there were all the dear friends, warm greetings, preprandials, fabulous dinner.

The reason I went to this conference, or rather workshop, is that it is very small, papers pre-circulated and plenty of time for discussion, including breakfast and lunch. I am still not sure that travelling that far for a few hours of inspirational talk with friends is worth while, but I enjoyed it once I was there. When I booked my flights I thought for some reason that we would finish at five, and I booked a late flight to avoid rush. As it was, we finished at three, and it turned out that I was the only one who needed to get to the airport. I prepared for five hours in an uncomfortable airport chair, but a colleague invited me to use a comfortable chair in her sitting room instead. We even went for a little walk. Then I took a taxi. The taxi driver said something in the wonderfully incomprehensible local dialect which turned out to be an offer of fixed price. It was still too early for check-in. Then I had to pay for extra luggage. The kind lady at check-in advised me, in her incomprehensible dialect, to put my backpack into my bag and take it as hand luggage, but I knew it woundn't go with all my purchases. It was a miracle I managed to pack them at all. I had anticipated I would have to pay extra. The check-in lady was disappointed - she had apparently expected this customer to make a scene.

The flight was uneventful, and Staffan picked me up at Stansted. I tried to remember what the conference was about, to tell him, but I couldn't. I just remembered that it was very fruitful. And I told myself, for umpteenth time, that I must never go to another conference, because any day one of them would kill me.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Yet another conference

So I've done it again. There is no logic at all. First I cancel all conferences and guest lectures, then I accept another invitation. My motivation for cancelling old commitments or declining new ones is that travel is becoming too demanding. In which case, why did I accept an invitation to a day-and-a-half conference, sandwiched between two days of extremely long and stressful travel?

An obvious reason: I expected it to be a very interesting event, because it is a workshop rather than conference, with seven speakers, pre-circulated papers, discussants and plenty of time for general discussion. Expectations confirmed. It was a very interesting and gratifying event, in which I learned a lot, shared a lot, and received great feedback on my own work from colleagues who don't know me nor my work, who all come from different disciplines, and who had no prejudices against children's literature since they didn't know anything about it. But I have a feeling that they got interested, made the necessary connections with their own research, and definitely will consider reading a least one young adult novel.

A less obvious reason: one of the speakers is extensively referred to in my current research. He spoke about something completely different (and highly engaging), but his questions and comments on my paper showed that he at the very least understood what I was talking about. Actually, since the papers were pre-circulated, I didn't even talk from the paper, but set it into a wider context. All professional gatherings should be like that.

Reminder to myself: yes, it is increasinly more difficult to travel, unless it is a direct flight from Stansted of no longer than two hours. I had investigated all travel options, and I couldn't have won anything through flying from Stansted since the other end would have been awful. It was awful enough. You may think that 12.40 is a very civilised flight that does not require getting up before dawn. But see, it takes me almost three hours to get to Heathrow plus you must be there at least an hour in advance, preferably earlier for security check. Then a relatively short flight to Madrid, four hours until next flight, which was only 45 minutes. A good angel in the form of a shuttle-service driver. It was by then well over nine, and I was fully determined to go to bed right away, but when the host spotted me in the hotel reception and invited me to join the other participants for dinner (those late Spanish dinners!) of course I could not resist.

Then a day-and-a-half of exceptionally stimulating scholarly exchange, interrupted by long and plentiful meals. Then yesterday, a quick walk to the old city centre, mostly to be able to say: Yes. I have been to Pamplona. An expected bonus was an exhibit in the Cathedral. By then, however, it was plus four and raining, and I knew that I would have to make an early start in the morning. So rather than accepting (as I surely would have done ten years ago) the fellow participant idea of a cup of tea or a glass of wine, I withdrew and actually went to bed early. Really early if you consider the changing of the clock. It took me some time – and a few consultations on Facebook – to figure out the correct setting for my two alarms (phone and paddy), and to be on the safe side I also ordered a wake-up call. 4.30 in the morning is not a civilised time to travel, but I really had no choice. The worst thing was that I had no time to get coffee before I was on the second flight. Everything was pretty uneventful until I got to King's Cross. I had looked up the train timetable on my phone while I was heading East on Picadilly line, but there was something profoundly wrong with it because it kept telling me that the itinerary King's Cross to Cambridge was not available. I ascibed it to my tiredness and gave up after five attempts. But when I emerged from the Tube at King's Cross, my itinerary was unavailable. Which is not funny when you have been travelling since very early morning. I stared at the display trying to figure out a reasonable solution when I happened to realise that I had Information right behind my back  With some good advice, I took a train as far as it would take me, and then there was a replacement bus. (A definition by a friend: "A bus that pretends to be a train"). It only delayed me with an hour, and I saw some pretty countryside.

Summary: is it worthwhile.. etc? Professionally, yes, and if I were sure that all events I go to would be so fruitful, perhaps I should start travelling more again. Yet the travel itself is exhausting. Maybe if I learn Apparition.

Footnote: paddy has proved indispensable. I had all the papers on it, including my own, and I had several Kindle books. It is, I must underline, more pleasurable to read on Kindle than on paddy; the latter has a shiny screen and reflections. For checking email and social sites, paddy was perfect, but if I had wished to write something (such as a blog post), the keyboard is too small. But perhaps I will learn. For short travel, paddy easily replaces the combination of Kindle and laptop. So at least as the proof of the pudding, the experience was useful.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Me and my paddy

I have finally succumbed and got an iPad. I will mostly use it for lectures, meetings and conferences: reading from screen rather than print out (a self-deceit of being green). I have been doing it for a long time noe with a laptop, but coming to a meeting with  laptop is almost like bringing a runic stone. Anyway, I am a happy owner of a paddy, and just as with my recent smartphone I am discovering things that I didn't know I wanted. I don't like calendar on the phone because it is too small and it takes me ages to type in a simple note, but I can imagine that next year will be the first since I was fifteen that I won't get a printed diary. I have a couple of months to discover whether paddy covers my needs.

One thing I did know I wanted was testing picturebook apps that one of my students has been studying for her thesis ever since the first iPad was launched. I remember her coming to supervision almost in tears saying: What shall I do? This changes everything. I can just as well throw away my thesis. To which the clever supervisor said: On the contrary, seize the day! Be the first to investigare picturebook apps in your thesis. Which she did.

The first picturebook app, that came free with the first iPad, was Dr Seuss' The Cat in the Hat. What my student and I agreed at once was that the app destroys the paratexts: cover, endpapers, title page - those element of the picturebook that sometimes are essential (if you want to know more, read my book How Picturebooks Work). What we tried to figure out was whether apps add something new or at least compensate fior what they have lost. The Cat in the Hat has been updated since then (one feature you can't do with a printed book, for better and for worse: you'll have to buy a new printed edition, while an app update writes over the previous version. No way you can compare covers). It is a good way to start a discussion of apps as compared with printed books. I put it on my syllabus before I got my paddy. But I will need more examples for this particular class.

I then bought Oliver Jeffers' The Heart and the Bottle, made by a celebrated picturebook author specifically as app. I suppose that you need to think slightly differently if you are doing an app from scratch, rather than transferring an existing picturebook into an app. If you are a clever picturebook creator you will think about how to make the most of the medium. I will need to play with it a bit more, but it is interesting, and it works. 

The third app I got was one of my favourite picturebooks, What Happened Then, by Tove Jansson. It's a wonderful book with cut-outs and lots of surprises. It is a interactive book, long before interactivity was associated with digital media. It is a sophisticated book. The app has lost it all and offers nothing instead. You tap and something pops up. Then it hides. You tap again, it pops up again. You shake, and leaves fall. Then they rise again. This app is a good argument for those against apps. It's merely a gimmick. Too bad. Too bad because parents will buy it for their kids who will never discover the real book. But that's what we have been saying about tevevision, movies and glossy Disney booklets of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame with a happy ending.


Sunday, 7 October 2012

Here we go again


I was going to write a very angry post about how I spent this beautiful autumn Sunday, but luckily I checked what I wrote on a similar topic two years ago. Now I don't have to write a new post, because it would be absolutley identical. Including all dirty words between the lines.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

It's a book!

I am reading a book. OK, you say, so what else is new? You are not getting it, are you: I am reading a book. You don't scroll it down, You cannot blog with it. It cannot tweet. It cannot text. And so on. It's a book.

It's not like I am a totally digital person, but suddenly I find myself making ridiculous comparisons. The book is five hundred pages long, and even if it is a paperback, it's heavy and hard to hold. I have to break the spine to open it properly. The paper is yellowish and not friendly to my eyes. Worst of all: I cannot zoom to make the font larger. I find myself getting irritated because the book I am reading is not delivered through a medium I have got used to and find pleasurable.

I am not sure how to react to my own reaction. Does it mean that I will avoid printed books? To be frank, I am doing it already. If a book I want to read it not yet available in e-format, I wait. Am I missing something? The book I am reading is Swedish, therefore I could not get it on my tablet. But this is a matter of time. Will I ever buy another printed book? Well, there are still some kinds of books that work better in printed form, like picturebooks. But it's a matter of time.

Is the digital immigrant getting naturalised, and if so, what are the implications? The only consolation is that I am so old I'll be dead before it goes too far.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Memorable matriculation

A matriculation dinner in Cambridge is a very special rite of passage that I have now witnessed for the fifth time. It started with a group photo in front of the college, which I didn't go to, but when I entered the Combination Room at five to seven it was crammed beyond capacity. Or perhaps I had just forgotten how many students we have. I managed to identify some of "ours" and started a conversation over a glass of wine while suddenly fire alarm went, and we were all pushed out through the two glass doors into pouring rain. It took some time. If it had been real danger some of us might have died. There we were, in our party outfits, and I didn't even have my warm and cosy gown because the instruction had been "No gowns" (some people wore them anyway). Finally, we were allowed back, and the matriculation ceremony began, the Tutor calling out names, and the students stepping forward to sign the Book. (You only matriculate once, so students who have studied at Cambridge before don't have to do it. Once you have done it, your name remains in the Book for all eternity). Around the letter P, the alarm went again. The two hundred students and professors went out through two glass doors into pouring rain. It was weird. Something really memorable for the students to look back at.

The rest of the evening was uneventful. I left half through the Ceremony of the Horn.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

First week of term

The term came over me like a tsunami. I thought I was well prepared after four years, but it all starts at once, and suddenly the buildings and the lawn are full of students, some of them confused, some very confident. Tuesday was PhD induction day, and I went to lunch, forgetting how horrible the food was. This was compensated by identifying our four new child lit PhDs, two continuing from last year's masters, two coming back after two years. We can't be doing things wrong if students want to go on and come back! Staff meeting next, full of news that sounded vaguely familiar and group discussion on to be or not to be of a new University Training School. I must admit that I didn't feel engaged. They will not want workshops for teachers on the pleasures of children's literature. It's all about synthetic phonics these days. (Imagine, four years ago I had no idea what synthetic phonics was. Has it made a difference in my life?) Then a get-together of new PhDs, current PhDs and supervisors within my academic group. When I entered the room, the students were all sitting in neat rows. I acted like the subversive teacher in a well-behaved classroom: Let's pull the tables together, and (not teacher-wise) by the way, there is wine downstairs. The new students were confused: they were prepared for another lecture. I said this was a welcome drink, and after a whole day of informatiuon, I was sure they couldn't take in any more anyway. Thay laughed. I asked everybody to introduce themselves, and when it transpired that more than half of the students were doing children's literature the rest of the group certainly started wondering whether Cambridge was the right place for them. After the semi-formal introduction, the Second Language students gathered together, apparently intimidated, but the two arts students, who also continued from masters, chatted away happily.

Yesterday was masters induction day, but before that I had a supervision, a "career development" talk, and my academic group business meeting. The latter was short, to my surprise, because we normally go over the hour, but I guess everybody was too overwhelmed by the beginning of term. We did all the business though, and my secretary was as amazing as ever in anticipating things I was going to ask her to do by having done them already. I managed to delegate two tasks to someone else. I am getting better as a leader.

While I was waiting for our child lit masters to get together, the phone rang. It was Julia. My first reaction to an unexpected phone call is always panic: what has happened? Nothing serious, she was in London and could she come for dinner. This sounds undramatic, but a) she lives in Stockholm b) the last I had heard from her, she was in New York. Dropping in for dinner is not what she does every week. However, we have told our children that they are welcome any time, and this was the time. There were some conversations back and forth about what train she would take and whether she was staying for the night. In between, I went to introduce myself to the new masters and even had a glass of juice with them, mostly talking to our second-year part-time students who were delighted to be back.

I picked up Julia at the railway station, Staffan concocted dinner. Isn't it wonderful that our daughter is prepared to go all the way from Stockholm via New York and London to have dinner with her old parents! We were really moved. This morning I dropped her off at the station by far too early for my liking, but it gave me a long morning to tidy up all the millions of accumulated small things, including recommendation letters, payment forms and other joys of academic life. Over lunch, there was a discussion on St Augustine and original sin which I was genuinely upset to leave because there was a prospective student coming to see me. I hope she applies as she said she intended to, because she sounded really good. How much time do we spend meeting and corresponding with prospective students who never turn up? Can this time be accounted for in my workload?

Supervision; the first PhD session, which I almost managed to monitor so that everybody had time to deliver their small presentations. This seminar has grown so much! I remember it all started as group supervision with three students in my office.

Tomorrow is matriculation dinner. It is also part of my work.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Creative lawn-mowing

Staffan and I have different approaches to lawn-mowing, just as we have different approaches to loading the dishwasher and to other domestic chores. We almost never make a row about such trifles, with the agreement that whoever does it is free to use their own method. Yet Staffan has firm ideas about lawn-mowing that he tries to support with evidence from websites. He likes straight lines. He would like them to go south-north, but our garden is not oriented to his liking. Neither does it have straight lines. Therefore I prefer to follow the natural soft curves of the landscape, watching the irregular island in the middle get smaller. I know this may sound ridiculous, but it is just another expression of my creativity.

 PS The dark ring in the middle of the lawn is not a token of my creativity. Or maybe it is. It was a witch ring, and I exterminated the toadstools and grew new grass.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Book of the week: Dodger

 I must admit that I haven't read every single book by Terry Prachett. I first heard about him from none the less than Lloyd Alexander who was super-enthusiastic and even gave me his copy of Reaper Man, and I was hooked. Later I read and reviewed the Diggers trilogy, and at one point I had Monstrous Regiment on my fantasy course syllabus. I absolutley love A Hatful of Sky.

I was first a bit disappointed when I realised that Dodger was not a Discworld novel, but I was immediately gripped by the book which was just as clever and ironic and improbable and you-name-it as every Pratchett book. It so happens that I have recently read quite a number of unrelated books that take place in London, and seeing yet another side of it through Pratchett's eyes was exciting. I learned lots of new words, I was tempted to check facts (all quite unncessarily explained in the afterword), I caught myself doing something I interrogate in my research: getting emotionally engaged with the character. I was truly upset when I finished the book. It's an exceptionally high grade for me.

New beginnings

The new term hasn't started properly yet, but I can definitely tell that it's close. Yesterday was one of those busy days, normal during term time. I went to the office early to print out the manuscript of my new book. I don't know why the editor wanted a hard copy – haven't submitted a hard copy for years. But: if your editor asks for a hard copy, you send a hard copy. I even could send it by internal university mail. I send her a message to warn that the ms was on the way. Got a vacation-message response, followed by a message from her saying that she was in the US and could I please send an electronic copy.

Two supervisions, a visit from a hugely enthusiastic prospective PhD student. Professonal gossip over lunch. More professional gossip in the staff room. Puzzled response to my asnwer about my current research: "I didn't know you were doing psychology". No, I am not doing psychology, I am doing cognitive narratology. Later that afternoon, another colleague: "I have just heard you have switched over to psychology..."

Tons of mail in my pigeonhole, including a belated essay to grade. Cleaning up my email inbox. Throwing away old papers. Teaching team meeting to plan the coming term. College governing body meeting. Swearing-in of new Fellows. College dinner.

Cannot help looking back four years when all this was new and strange.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Coastal walk


On our last day I decided to take a longer walk along the coast, since I now felt confident that I could do it if I just took it easy. I asked Staffan to drop me off in a village some miles away where a trail started. It took me right down from a high cliff to a cove where I could easily imagine that I was the last human being on earth, if I hadn't seen fresh human and dog tracks in the wet sand after the tide. I sat there for some time looking at the surf. I can watch the waves for hours and never get tired of it because it's the most peaceful thing in the world. Yet I didn't allow myself to linger since I had no idea what was waiting for me. It was a very steep path up to the cliffs, but the view was worth it. I started meeting people, in pairs and groups, some with dogs. I made me feel safe. All guidebooks tell you never to walk alone, but do I have a choice? The path climbed up and down and out on rocks, and it was splendid. At one point I had to negotiate a herd of cows, and I also saw wild deer, too far away to get a good picture. I had a picnic with a magnificent view from one of the many strategically placed benches.

Then I had a choice of going inland and straight back to Pont or continuing toward Polruan, which I did, toying with the idea of maybe catching a bus or even taking a taxi, but it proved too good to be true. I had a most abominable cup of coffee at a deceptively nice-looking coffee shop in Polruan, sat for a while watching the harbour and the ferry that I had taken the day before yesterday. Then I braced myself for another mile of walk, hoping that the wild beasts would be elsewhere, which they luckily were. Without delays, it took me just thirty-five minutes. I am extremely proud of myself. I know some of my friends will ask: did you go to the famous castles? Art galleries? Gardens? My answer will be: No, I was on a holiday.





Land's End


Certain geographical points have symbolic significance. The East/West/North/Southern-most point, the highest or lowest, boundary between continents, tropic circles, zero meridian. I've been to some of these, including the highest point in Denmark (173 m above sea level), the Southern point of Africa, which against common knowledge is not the Cape of Good Hope, and the Southern point of Crimea, Death Valley and Dead Sea, and the End of the World in Norway. Somehow being in Cornwall and not going to Land's End felt wrong, although looking back I must admit that it wasn't worth much more than the symbolic value. Once again I discovered that my geography is extremely poor – or somebody had stretched out Cornwall when we weren't looking. It is a very, very long way from where we are to Land's End, and I couldn't help thinking about all the classic novels in which the characters go to Penzance for holidays, and it takes them days and days of travel, and once they are there, they stay for months.

We skipped Penzance and everything else on the way because I wanted to take another walk. Land's End visitor centre is just as tacky as guidebooks say. It should be forbidden to build vulgar theme parks on beautiful nature sites. Yet there we were, and Staffan planted himself in the bar while I went on my walk. I have huge problems with coastal walks because there is always another cove and another head beyond whatever point you have reached so the walk can never be completed. The beauty was exceptional, with bizarre rock formations and vast fields of heather. I didn't climb down to the beach because it would have taken at least another hour and I felt bad about Staffan waiting. But I could have walked for hours, because the light changes, the tide comes in, and the coastline is never the same. I took about an hour and a half, stopping at some places to meditate. I can imagine crowds during the season, but today there were very few people, some serious hikers, some slow walkers like myself. It was easy to pretend that I had the whole world for myself.

We had lunch and drove straight back. Five hours driving for an hour-and-a-half walk – I am not sure it makes sense, but at least we have been to a place of symbolic significance. As we were driving and reading road signs and maps I couldn't help recalling our summers in Brittany, many years ago. There, as here, half of the place names began with “Tre” and the other half with “Pol” or “Plou”.

Hall Walk


The National Trust guidebook presents Hall Walk as a well-hidden secret, which apprently is well-known to devoted hikers. The little footbridge right in front of our cottage is a local attraction, going back to William the Conqueror. I am not a well-trained hiker, but I have walked a hundred kilometres in two months in our country park, and after all walking was exactly what I wanted. So in the morning I put on my gym trousers (I feel more confident wearing gym trousers because then people I meet know what I am at), packed a bottle of water, a pear, three maps, binoculars, a cap, a sweater and my phone. We looked at maps and decided that I would meet Staffan in the little harbour village of Polruan, which would be halfway through my circular walk. I figured out that it would take me forty-five minutes to an hour to do this bit, and I was close in my guess, except for unexpected circumstances, to which I will return. Since our cottage and the footbridge is the middle of the walk as it is described, I was a bit anxious about finding my way, but it was exemplarily marked, and I started with a detour to the Church of Lanteglos (love all these Celtic names!) returning to the main trail with stunning views over the creek as the estuary came closer. I had to cross a short stretch of farmland with a warning sign about respecting the grazing animals and avoiding coming between mothers and young, which I thought was fine. What I wasn't prepared for was three horses blocking the path. My mind went immediately to our adventures in the Kruger Park in South Africa where, if elephants or giraffes block your way you cannot do much about it. However, in the Kruger Park, we sat safely – at least it felt so – in a car, while here I was, three huge horses blocking my way, a rock wall on the left and a precipice on the right. I crouched by the wall hoping that the beasts would move, but instead they came closer, grazing three feet from me, with only brambles between us. I waited. They grazed. Since I had my Runkeeper on, I know that I stayed there for fifteen minutes. I tried to climb the wall up to the road, but it was too high. I waited. The beasts grazed. Then they finally moved, still blocking my way, and I considered walking all the way back and taking the main road when I saw a man with a dog coming my way. I acted damsel in distress, asking him in a very humble voice to get me past the monsters. He did. His dog didn't like them either.

 After that, I soon reached my destination and saw Staffan who wasn't a bit worried about me, since he knows that I am a champion in getting lost. You have no idea what a bliss a cup of horrible instant coffee is after being trapped on a path with dangerous beasts. Then we had more coffee and eventually lunch in a pub with internet. (The only reason I needed to have internet access was that I had a submit a bid to a reseach council that I could not have done before we left. There was nothing urgent otherwise).

From Polruan I had to take a ferry across the estuary to Fowey (pronouced “Foy”; don't ask me how Polruan is pronounced). The ferry was just a tiny motor boat that took twelve passengers. There has been a ferry at this place for a thousand years. Fowey is a lively little town full of shops and pubs. I didn't stay long because I had another ferry to catch and another walk. The other ferry is a car ferry that also takes foot passengers across the Fowey river to Bodinnick, another little village, from where I walked and climbed and walked back to Pont, which means, reasonably, bridge and where we live. I don't know whether this bit of the walk is more popular or whether I did the first half too early in the morning, but there were lots of people, mostly my age and older, all happily walking and climbing. It was low water when I came down, and I felt completely and absolutely happy.

I missed my father. He would have loved this walk.



Last minute escape

It's less than two weeks until term starts, and I have finished a book. I am completely exhausted, and I have a mad term in front of me, since I will be on study leave in Lent, and all my teaching is this coming term. I know that I have no self-discipline to stop myself from working, therefore I must go away.

Staffan and I are not good at planning holidays in advance. Unless it is a desert safari or an Amazonas cruise which have to be planned in advance, we improvise. Until last weekend we weren't even sure whether we would be able to go, and when we started tentatively, we were immediately in disagreement. I suggested Lake District, while Staffan suggested France. In fact, he suggested Alsace before he figured out that it would take us three days to get there. I suggested Lake District because my idea of a holiday right now was a long walk every day, preferably in an aesthetically enjoyable environment. Staffan did a web search finding lovely places for £400 a night, and although I enjoy luxury every now and then, I prefer spending my money on more pleasurable things than just a place to sleep. By serendipity, there was a National Trust broschure lying in the hall, which I was about to throw away, but a feature on Lake District caught my attention, and I gave it Staffan without any further thought. He found a web address to NT holiday cottages and spent some hours talking to various people in the booking office, since it was too late to book online. For some reason, he started looking for places in Cornwall. I saw in my mind endless beaches, which says how poor my geography is. Everything he inquired about, based on enticing names such as Captain's Quarters, was not suprisingly, rented out, so I told him just to ask what was available, anywhere. After more lengthy phone calls we had a cottage waiting for us in a place, like in Roald Dahl'd BFG, beyond the last page of the atlas. I had no time to do my homework because I had to finish all urgent matters before we went since the description of the place said “mobile access restricted”, implying that internet access was non-existent.

Off we went on Wednesday morning, and although Staffan had told me that it was 500 kilometres from Cambridge to Cornwall it somehow didn't get into my mind. We have this distorted image of “the little island”, and in the first place everything south of London is around the corner, so it is hard to imagine that Cornwall is as far away as Scotland. Or as far away as from Stockholm to Denmark.

I don't know what I had expected, but when we finally drove down what felt a narrow cow path to the little cottage by a tidal creek, I felt at once that I had come to the right place. My mobile phone had no signal. We were cut off from civilisation.

Staffan had driven all the way and was tired, but I went out for the first exploration, climbing up the steep bank of the creek. The trail was well marked, but I didn't want to walk too far without knowing where it would take me so I went back and sat on the stone steps by the creek watching a flock of ducks. In front of my eyes, the tide turned. There is nothing more peaceful than watching the tide come in, and it had been a very long time since I did it last. And I had never watched a tidal creek. I could have sat there for hours, only I had to get out pretty quickly since the tide was coming in fast. We had come at the lowest water. It was soon high. I felt incredibly happy.

The cottage had heaps of maps, guidebooks and walk descriptions. I read them all before I went to bed.


Mohun: low and high water



Thursday, 13 September 2012

Book of the week: Four children and it


I don't like sequels to famous books written by other writers. I dislike them so much that I have written a academic essay about them: sequels to Anne of Green Gables and Wind in the Willows and Winnie-the-Pooh. If course, it being an academic essay, I cannot just say that it's rubbish or wrong or morally unacceptable, but must provide solid academic argument. Which I hope I do.

If I were writing this essay today, I would use Jacqueline Wilson's sequel to Edith Nesbit's Five Children and It as an example of a hugely successful endeavour. Can it possibly be because Jacqueline Wilson is such a brilliant writer?

I won't give you any spoilers, because if you, like myself, love Five Children and It, you will start smiling already on the first page.

If you haven't read Five Children and It, you must read it first because otherwise you miss the point. So now, you have two book tips for the price of onw.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Final straight

If you have never written an academic book... but if you are an academic you may have written a thesis or an essay, and if you are not there may be some other activity you will recognise in my agony. I have almost finished a book. It was a very difficult book to write, and I am quite pleased with it - at least for the moment, which might change by tomorrow. Almost finished means that the chapters and even the Introduction and Conclusion are done, but what remains is the boring yet important details such as bibliography and punctuation. For this particular book, I have annotated bibliography at the end of each chapter, which is more work than just a straightforward list of references. Everything mentioned in chapters must also go to the general bibliography at the end of the book, in correct format. (Don't tell me that there is software for this. I have seen student bibliographies generated by software). 

I have made life hard for myself by having lots of special features in this book, such as boxes and quotes. Most quotes come naturally, but when you need just this one little quote it can take hours. I know exactly where I've put it, and I can't find it. The only reasonable solution: delete.

Deleting is inevitable at this stage, and only I will ever know what has never made it into the book. What was hiding behind the notes to myself: Develop! Expand! Explain! With the deadline threatening, I cannot afford developing, so deleting is the option. There is a life after a book.

And of course I am eating my words: how many times have I told students to do everything correct from the beginning! So why I am now sitting hour after hour moving fullstops and commas inside the quotation marks?

Friday, 7 September 2012

Visitors

Cambridge is a very attractive place for academic visitors. I get at least one inquiry a week about coming to us as a visiting scholar. Most of them are of the kind: "Dear Professor, I deeply admire your work and would like to collaborate. My subject is microbiology". Then you know that they have sent the same message to five thousand random email addresses. Some are: "Dear Professor, I am impressed by the quality of research at your institution. My subject is second-language acquisition in rural school in South Georgia". Then I know that they have possibly read the Faculty web page and seen my name as Chair. In fact, they are right in approaching me as Chair. I forward them to colleagues for whom language acquisition in South Georgia may be a matter of life and death. I leave it to them to make a decision, but as Chair, I have to approve the decision before it goes futher to Research Committee. We only can host a limited number visitors at any given time, and we want the best ones. It is, however, not always easy to know who is the best unless you know the person or their work. I once made a mistake of supporting an application from a young colleague who looked good on paper. When she arrived, her English was non-existent, but I thought she would apply herself and improve it. She didn't come to seminars or other events. Halfway through the year, I invited her to lunch to hear how she was doing. She was doing fine. She was enjoying herself. What she was working on? She hadn't come to Cambridge to work! I remember when I was a visitring professor in San Diego the Department Head had to validate my visa after six months to confirm that I was actually doing what I had claimed to be doing.

Most visitors are interesting and contribute a lot. They add their own perspective and question our ethnocentric views. One visitor, after a long animated discussion of a brilliant newly published young adult novel, suddnely said: "I have only read the first fifty pages, and I think it is a very bad book. I didn't understand anything". It was a bit embarrassing, but at least she was candid.

Some visitors are overambitious and want to sit in every class. Normally I have nothing against it, but on some occasions, when I only had a very small group, a visitor can be disruptive, and I had to say, sorry, no. Some visitors are preoccupied with their own research, and I have to chase them. We usually ask a visitor to do a seminar if they want. Some are very eager, some reluctant. Some make friends, some don't. Some bring their families. Some make the most of their time in the UK and go all over the place to conferences.

When a visitor arrives, there are a number of formalities, such as getting office keys, email account and library card. Some visitors manage all by themselves, some need assistance. Some need a lot of assistance. Not because they are stupid, but because the system is so complicated. I remember only too well how it felt four years ago when I was new.


Thursday, 6 September 2012

Parallel life

By the way, please visit my new blog.

Teacher's pride

Many years ago, in my previous life, somebody up there decided that universities needed to be managed like industry and business, and my whole department was sent to a worskhop where we learned that students were our customers and that we were delivering services. I don't think anyone was persuaded, but one question raised at that workshop was extended customer support. Did we know what happened to our students after they had taken their degree? Did we advertise our degree as having high employability? My colleagues looked at each other and at the workshop leaders and said that they had no idea. I couldn't let this just go by, so I waved my hand and said that I knew very well what happened to my students. They were all over the place: in publishing houses, research libraries, Swedish Children's Book Institute, Swedish Institute for Cultural Affairs, newspapers and cultural magazines, radio and TV, book award juries, and some had become successful children's writers. My colleagues stared at me. Apparently, we hadn't taught the same students.

I remembered this today when I saw a former student who has become a prominent figure at a major children's publisher. One of those things that make this job worth while.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

First day of school

Today is the first of September, which in my childhood was, and as far as I know still is in Russia, the first day of school. The scene of so many children's books: dramatic, full of hope and fear. Suddenly, when I think back, I realise that I missed on it. I never experienced the first day of school, except vicariously, through literature. My mother believed that school was unavoidable evil and the longer you could avoid it the better. There was a trend at the time so send kids to school as late as possible, which was fatal since you were then the oldest in your class, and that's just as good a reason to be bullied as any other. By seven, when school normally started in Russia, I could read fluently and had already self-published my Collected Works of prose, poetry and drama – in tiny booklets made of typewriter sheets that I pinched from my parents, neatly printed and illustrated. For some reason though my mother and my best friend's mother decided to keep us away from school for another year, and we came back from holiday ten days into September. It turned out that my friend's mother had changed her mind, and there was my best friend, a schoolgirl in uniform, with a school bag full of books, notebooks and pencils, and I, a nobody. Fortunately, my parents realised what a disaster it would have been and managed to get me into the same school. It wasn't easy because it was a very popular school, and there were already forty-five pupils in every class in my year (yes, you heard correctly, forty-five kids and one teacher). I can imagine that my grandfather promised the principal to donate a discarded piano from Moscow Conservatory of which he was Vice Chancellor; and I also remember that my mother gave lectures in art history to final-year pupils. That was quite normal in Russia.

So, hastily, I was equipped with a uniform, a school bag, pencils, pens, pen wipers (does anyone remember what pen wipers were?), and was dispatched off to school. Somebody must have taken me the first day, but I don't remember who it was, possibly the maid. And there I was, luckily with another newcomer, a boy, with whom I shared a desk at the far end of the classroom. The desk had an inkwell with horrible, diluted violet ink that tilted dangerously. Everything was slightly dangerous and unfamiliar: bells, breaks, lunch, stand up when called. My best friend sat in the front and already knew all the rules.

I don't think I was bullied more for starting late than I would have been otherwise. Throughout primary school I was kept at home once a week, ostensibly because of my poor health. You aren't popular for such things. I was also a top student, with straight As and all prizes at the end of each year. I wore glasses. I played the piano. I was bad at sports. I loved primary school because I had the most wonderful teacher in the world. In secondary, life became harder, but I emerged from it and have done quite well since then. And who knows what my life would have been if I did start school on the first of September like everybody else.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Book of the week: Possession

I have always been fascinated by books in which the reader knows more than the characters. I mean, through the end, so that the poor characters never reach the solution of the mysteries. I find it disturbing, but it is perhaps the point. The book I remember best in this respect, probably not worth remembering at all, is that old bestseller Forever Amber that we girls all read as teenagers. It is easy to forget because there is so much happening in the book, but there is a prologue from which it is clear that Amber is not a simple peasant girl but the daughter of noble parents. Not that it changes anything, but she never learns it, and nobody else knows it except the reader.

In one of the marvellous books by the contemporary Russian mystery novel genius Boris Akunin, there are parallel plots, one in the 16th century Moscow, the other in our time. The reader knows where the treasure is hidden and how to find it, but the character misses the final clue.

A S Byatt's Possession is brilliant in tons of manners that I am sure critics have written about. I cannot imagine how I have managed to neglect it until now. It keeps the reader in tension throughout: will the characters find out what the reader has been given privileged knowledge of? Yes, they do, take a deep breath – and then comes the epilogue, and everything is upside down again, and the characters are left in ignorance.

I am a Bear of Very Little Brain. I like books that leave me frustrated.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Academic footprint

Some time ago Julia sent me a link to a radio programme and said I had to listen to it. The name of the speaker didn't ring a bell, it didn't feel urgent, and the message got lost among dozens of other messages. Tonight I was sorting old emails, found it and listened. A young woman was talking about her first evening literature class, many years ago. She talked at length about the uncertainty of being in a university classroom with lots of strangers, and then she finally revealed what it was: Fantasy and Horror. I was in that classroom of her memory, in front of a horseshoe arrangement of desks she described so vividly. She was looking at her classmates, and she was looking at me. I don't remember her, but she remembers me, although she didn't mention my name. I might remember her final paper. Her writer career started that evening in my class. I must read her books.

I've had many weird experiences with former students. Someone sitting opposite me in the underground would suddenly start talking to me about this class in Young Adult Fiction. Or the young bartender, who asked Staffan to tell me, sitting at a corner table waiting for my beer, that my class in Text Analysis was the best he had ever taken. (Sadly, it didn't get him a better job).

The most gratifying episode was when I had an induction class for masters students, talking about planning a thesis and considering your topic and doing the bibliography correct from start. To flesh it out, I asked some students to share their topics. A young man said he was writing his masters thesis on Spanish female poets. After class, as he was leaving the room I couldn't help asking him how he had come up with this idea. "In my first year, he said, you did an introductory lecture on feminist criticism".

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Why I don't go to IBBY conferences

There is a huge international conference in children's literature in London these days. Once upon a time I would have been there. Once upon a time I went to anything that had to do with children's literature. Of course, in those days there were fewer choices. If you went to all children's literature conferences today you'd go twice a week all year round. There are at least two other major children's literature conferences on right now.

But all those years ago, there wasn't so much, and I went to a conference in Umeå (where I first met Aidan Chambers), and to many other events just to listen, and then to give papers, then invited to give talks. Eventually I started to notice the difference between academic and non-academic conferences and book festivals and reading-promotion events and library workshops. It was great fun to visit all of these, but you can't attend everything, and you start to focus. IBBY- type conferences are the first to dismiss if you are an academic, because they are about writers and publishers and reading. It's tremendously important, but it is something different from what I do. If I had more time... but I don't. I may have mentioned this already: people often ask me whether I go Bologna Children's Book Fair every year and get disappointed when I admit that I have never been to Bologna and have no intention to go there. Book fairs are about books. I am not particularly interested in books. (I am still less interested in children).

IBBY congress in London is about books, reading, writing, writers, illustrators, publishers, editors, translators, librarians - all wonderful people without whom my profession would not exist. But I am not directly engaged in any of their activities. I like to meet writers and listen to them every now and then, bit it is not essential for my work. These days, I am sorry to confess, I don't even have to have a physical copy of a book. I am perfectly happy to have an electronic version. I still love the touch of a real book, but it is separate from work. A simple pleasure. For work, I don't need to have met the author, the illustrator, the publisher, the translator. They have all done their job, and I am doing mine.

Maybe I am just funding lame excuses for not going in London.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Do as you teach

I have been doing two things lately: editing my own book and reading student work. I don't know which is more frustrating. With my own text at least I know what I want to say. With students' texts, I usually know what they want to say, but good pedagogy is to make them realise what they want to say and then let them say it.

I am a vicious supervisor. I learned it from my own professor many years ago. She made me shed many tears, but her editing was brilliant. I make students delete sentences that repeat the previous sentence with a slightly different wording. I make them delete all “In my opinion” (because everything not referenced is supposed to be their opinion), all “It would be interesting to consider” (because it is an empty phrase), all pairs of synonyms (“problems and issues”), all “as such”, “moreover”, “indeed” and “in fact”. Then I start editing my own text, and all these faults come over me in a deluge (except “in my opinion” - I learned to avoid it when I was a postdoc).

The best training in succinct academic writing has for me been writing for encyclopedias. If you have five hundred words for an entry you have to be economic with words. You need to squeeze tons of information in these few words, so each word must be chosen carefully. You don't want to waste your precious word count on “moreover” and “in fact”. I admit that occasionally such small words can be useful, but mostly they are garbage. It's incredible how much better a text becomes when you prune it from 735 words to 499. When you have learned that, cutting from 7,000 to 5,000 is child's play. Writing encyclopedic entries should be mandatory in doctoral training.

It is illuminating to look at your own text after having read other people's theses. Reading theses, I wear my evil assessor's eyeglasses and notice all the minuscule repetitions, inconsistencies and circular arguments. I need to be like that toward myself.

Guess how much I have pruned this post.

Monday, 20 August 2012

British places

I have finally seen this amazing exhibition.

I don't know what expectations I had, except that I have the absolutely wrong, outdated association of "library exhibition" = boring. The whole concept of museums and exhibitions has changed so radically in the past twenty years, and any exhibition is nowadays a total experience, with words, images, lighting, colours, sounds, touch - but not smell, thank you (this exhibition would smell horrid). I enjoyed listening to poets reading their poetry (when did you last listen to T S Eliot?). I very much enjoyed the way it was arranged spatially. I spent an hour and a half in this quite limited space, and I know I could have stayed longer and learned more.

For someone who does not know much about Britain and British literature, it's a great introduction. For someone who knows a lot, it's a wonderful reminder. It just so happens that I have recently re-read a vast number of British classics, from George Eliot and Thomas Hardy to John Galsworthy and D H Lawrence. Meeting their books and manuscripts, and maps of their real and fictional places was like going to a school reunion.

I missed some good friends, though. Wouldn't The Secret Garden fit nicely together with Wuthering Heights? But The Wind in the Willows was there, and Water Babies, and Susan Cooper and Alan Garner. And even Enid Blyton (but no Arthur Ransome among Lake District poets).

Afterwards I talked with my companion about whether there is indeed something special with landscape and British literature. In the short video at the exhibition, all famous people said that British literature's obsession with landscape was unique. My companion who is writing her PhD on landscape and identity in Canadian children's literature was not convinced, Neither am I. Swedish literature is obsessed with landscape. Russian literature is obsessed with landscape. American literature is obsessed with landscape. All literature is obsessed with landscape, because this is where humans exist. What makes British literary landscape unique is that it is British. That's enough for me.