Friday, 30 July 2010

Why are we doing this?

As I am waiting for my angel Jamie to take me to the airport I cannot help reflecting over the past week. Why am I doing this? I have travelled across the globe in packed planes, getting up ridiculously early in the morning, changing planes under extreme stress, slept six nights in a strange bed, eaten casual and irregular meals, missed my family, my garden and my cat. What's the reward?

In the beginning of my career I went to all the conferences I could go to, applied for all possible grants (and frequently got them), guest-lectured, travelled more than can possibly be healthy. It was exciting, but it was also necessary to build up a CV. I don't need more merits. Why am I doing this?

A student actually asked me a good question the other day: "What do you like most about being a professor?" (Now, note that a professor in the US is any university teacher). I had to think a few seconds before I answered: "Students".

I am doing it because I like meeting students. This is also why I like guest-lecturing better than conferences. I certainly like meeting colleagues, old and new, but there is no greater joy than meeting students and hoping that maybe, somehow, I will plant a little seed. Leave an academic footprint.

Maybe some student that I met during this week decides that academic career is after all worth the trouble. Or the other way round. Maybe some student's career will take a new turn, without any of us being aware of it. Maybe ten years from now I will meet one of the Hollins students at a huge international conference, giving a keynote address. Maybe one of the papers I have judged will develop into a fantastic piece of scholarship.

This is the reward. This is why we are doing it.

Sorry for getting sentimental.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010


Yesterday I sat in a class on creative writing. It has been ages since I was creative, although many years ago, when I lived in Amherst, I attended Jane Yolen's critique group and another, less famous one in which I even presented my own piece.

I have always been slightly skeptical toward creative writing as an academic subject since I cannot see how it can be judged by the same criteria, but it has been done all over the world, and you can get your PhD in creative writing nowadays. You can even be a professor or chair of creative writing.

(Can writing be uncreative? I'd like to take a course in uncreative writing. Presumably, academic writing is uncreative. I'd say that 95% of published children's books are uncreative.)

The class I went to yesterday was on writing chapter books. From my uncreative academic point of view, chapter books is an unnecessary concept, but I know it's useful for marketing. And it was fascinating to listen to students critiquing each other's chapters paying attention to the implied audience. Can you use the word "stipulation" if you are employing a first-person child narrator? I am used to analyse published work, but the questions are the same: does the voice sound right? Is it consistent? Is the setting explicit? Is characterisation effective? It's just that I do it from outside rather than inside.

At least one text was really stunning.

The class brings back memories of a short time when I was at crossroads. I had published my first novel for children and was encouraged to submit another. There were no academic positions in sight. I was seriously considering quitting academia and embarking on full-time writing, creative or not. Where would I have been now?

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

A matter of habit

It is amazing how quickly you forget things that once were self-evident. In American universities, classes are taught either on Monday-Wednesday-Friday or Tuesday-Thursday. Everybody knows this. If I hadn't known, or rather hadn't retrieved it from the deepest corners of my memory, I would have problems decoding the casual referenses here. I used to prefer Tuesday-Thursday because the Monday-Wednesday-Thursday sessions are too short for a reasonable discussion. But in fact it is no more and no less strange that in Cambridge, we always teach part-time students on Wednesday afternoons. Everybody know this!

I keep saying "in Cambridge, we..." about things that two years ago felt weird. Team-teaching is the most natural thing to do now. How can it be otherwise? How can students take several classes at a time? How can possibly an instructor mark her own students' work?

I recalled yesterday, in a conversation with a colleague, the expression "freedom of the classroom".

And no, I am not saying that one is better than another. It's just that you get used to something and then you forget. Just as you forget Fahreheit if you don't practice.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Dream job

I am in Roanoke, Virginia, because it is the home of Hollins University which is the home of the famous Children's Literature Program that I have heard so much about and have finally been invited to, which is a great honour. Moreover, I am not invited to teach on the program, but just be around in case some student wants to talk to me. I gave a talk yesterday at a student-run conference, and this morning I met some of the students - incredibly, ten o'clock on a Sunday morning. Their dedication to children's literature is beyond imagination: it's three in the afternoon now, and I have just come home.

Home is Barbie house - sorry, Barbee House, and I have a suite with two bedrooms and a lounge, a little pentry and access to a larger pentry on the ground floor. This morning I did something I had never done before: boiled an egg in a microwave. Apparently, Hollins' guests are not expected to be cooks. There is a micro and a coffee machine and a toaster, but no cooker. Yesterday when I was taken to get groceries I was reminded of the American proportions: you cannot get a pint of orange juice, it has to be a gallon. I am not sure I will consume a gallon of juice in a week. I did find a pint of milk. Everything in the store was lite and low fat and no fat. Nothing for us LCHF people. But then I have been stuffing myself with bagels the past five days.

It is not the first time I live on an American campus without a car. When I was in Amherst it took me three days to realise that I didn't want to be dependent on a colleague's wife to take me shopping, so I bought a car. The year before we lived in San Diego, I went there for a short visit and stayed in a campus guest house. At least they had a convenience store nearby, but the guest room had no desk.

This apartment here has no desk either. Presumably, I am supposed to work in the office. I have an office and a pigeonhole! I feel important.

It's unbearably hot, and much as I would like to go for a walk I don't think I am going to. So I'll make use of this privilege of being left to myself and perhaps catch up with my blog.

I love New York

I love New York. I know it is not particularly original, but I do. My first encounter with New York, twenty-five years ago, was a surprise. I grew up with the image of NY as "stone jungle", as a city full of crime and avarice. Four years after I had moved to Sweden I still carried this image. And then I fell in love at first sight.

For those who have been to NY I don't have to describe it. For those who have only seen it in numerous movies - use your imagination. Before I came to NY I thought its extreme verticality would be oppressive. I hadn't known about the open vistas.

I've "done" NY several times, last time ten years ago with Anton and Julia, when it rained all week. I have a picture of them on top of WTC.

This time I am in NY en route to Roanoke, Virginia. Anton is in NY en route home from San Diego. I don't remember now whose idea it was that we should get together in New York.

I really and truly cannot understand why I love New York, when I otherwise love nature and hate crowds. Anton says that he is on holiday and doesn't want to make plans. We wander around without plans. We go to MOMA, and I make a discovery. I am sure I have seen it before, "One and three chairs". We go to the Museum of Natural History and realise that we had been there, but forgotten. It comes back vividly in the space center. We go to the WTC site and the little memorial museum. We stand in line at TKTS and go to see a show. We walk down High Line, a most fabulous urban solution I can imagine. I would have never discovered it on my own, but I have such a clever son, who also knows what fascinates me.

In the mornings, when he is still asleep, I go to the nearest Starbucks for my coffee and bagel with cream cheese, watching new yorkers hurry past the window. New York! Will I ever see you again?