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.