Monday, 31 January 2011

Self discipline

People often ask me and Staffan how we manage to work when we are both at home. "Don't you waste a lot of time talking?" No, we don't. We have always had a study each, but I am sure that even if we were sitting in the same room we'd not waste any time. Even when I eventually got an office in Stockholm I was so used to working from home that I never went to work unless I had a class or a meeting. I know some people can only work away from home, in the office if they are lucky to have one, or in a library. I couldn't work in a library. I can read and take notes in a library if I absolutely have to, but I wouldn't be able to write. When I had a scholarship at the International Youth Library in Munich and had to go there every day, all my actual writing (which resulted in a book) was done in teh evenings in my tiny rented room without even a proper desk.  

But Staffan and I have never had problems working from home. When the children were small, one of us would take them to school, the other having an early start. We'd meet for mid-morning coffee and talk about what we had done during the morning, then we would go back to our desks. We still do.We meet for lunch, and we always have a proper hot lunch so preparing it is part of the break. Then we go on working until it's time for dinner. I used to work in the evenings too, but I don't any more.

"Don't you get distracted?" people ask. No, I don't. If I see that the bathroom mirror is dirty I will clean it, and if I remember I will water the plants. But it is also just a necessary short break. Moreover, I forget to get up and walk or do some exercise. So I try to think of some distractions. But no more than five minutes.

I don't open my private email or Facebook, and I check my work email a couple of times in case there is something urgent. If I need to look up something on the internet I do it quickly and don't browse more than necessary. Well, I just don't browse, I look up.

I set tasks for myself and frequently keep to them. If I have a boring task, which is inevitable, I do it first. But I also give myself rewards. If I have worked intensely and achieved a lot - which doesn't have to be a certain number of words - I allow myself to finish early and weed the garden or play with my dollhouses. I can take a whole day off if I wish, and I will catch up another day or during the weekend.

It sounds like a terribly boring existence, but it has taken me where I am.

PS I am writing this post because I need a break. And rewarding myself for a productive day.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Reflections on age

Tomorrow is my oldest son's birthday. When he was born I could not imagine myself being as old as he is now. Everything beyond thirty was senility.

Somebody mentioned on Facebook today that their students were in elementary school when the first Harry Potter book came, as an example of ageing anxiety. I am not impressed. When I started teaching, most of my students were older than I was. Then they were my age. Then they were my children's age. Now they are just slightly older than my grandchildren.

"When Mozart was my age he had been dead for more than twenty years" (after Tom Lehrer).
I am older now than my granny was when I was a child. I remember her as very old.
I don't mind, but it just feels odd.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Do plants have souls?

I have re-potted all my plants, which should have been done long ago. Most of these, I brought from the Old Country two and a half years ago. Two I adopted from our temporary home at Water Street, and two poinsettias I bought over a year ago before Christmas with a guarantee that they would last three weeks. Of the plants from the Old Country, I planted one outside, and I am afraid this cold winter has killed it.

If I had known that we would have a big house here I wouldn't have given away most of my plants. I only brought my very special favourites. I hope the ones I left behind are happy with their new families.

I know I am ridiculous about plants. I have recently read some books and watched these amazing BBC documentaries about the life of trees and plants (I now know that banana is not a tree, but grass). For them, there is just as much meaning of life as for people, or more because they are not distracted by trivialities. I don't play Mozart to my plants - although they are free to listen with me if they want to - and they don't have names, but I do talk to them. In terms of "That's a new shoot, well done". And I am upset when they don't feel well. One of them almost died some months ago, and I was about to throw it away, but I gave it another chance, and it's now grown big and strong.

During re-potting, I realised that I had profoundly neglected one of the adopted plants. I am not fond of it, but I have taken on the responsibility, and it's unfair not to treat it like everyone else. I am going to be particularly nice to it. It blooms nicely every now and then.

My barrel cactus is growing an offshoot. Since it typically takes years I am not sure I'll live long enough to see the result.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Narnia revisited

I have just reread The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Believe me or not, it has nothing to do with the movie. I didn't even know about the movie, and I am not going to see it. There is a reason why I needed to reread it, but it doesn't matter.

I haven't reread The Voyage as often and as carefully as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which I have taught and written about extensively, or The Magician's Nephew which is my favourite. But I remember the sense of awe when I read it for the first time, many years ago, but when I was grownup, because it wasn't available when I was a child. It was disturbing in the best sense of the word. The idea of a flat world - round as a table, not as a ball - and the risk of falling over the edge; salt water turning sweet, and someone just walking away into the unknown. My battered copy of The Voyage (bought for a small fortune in a second-hand bookstore in Moscow) says that this book is "more adventurous and less mysterious" than the other volumes, and I think it is precisely the other way round. It is a slow book - somebody has told me that in the movie they have added an action plot, and I am not surprised. Nothing much happens, and they just sail and sail and sail. Except for Eustace's metamorphosis of course, and that's what everyone remembers from the book. They also eat a lot, as in all Narnia books.

What I had forgotten is how much more intrusive the narrative voice is, even compared with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which is bad enough. This omniscient "I" that nevertheless pretends that he doesn't know everything, "because he is not a magician". Who refers to Lucy as his source, but can also tell us what happens to King Caspian. And who says "This is what I learned in my school".

It started me thinking. This narrator is as intrusive as in Middlemarch (which is another reread right now), but I am not half as irritated reading Middlemarch. Am I oversensitive because it is a chidlren's book? Or am I just hopelessly stuck in prejudice?

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Editor's laments

One aspect of getting published that I had forgotten, but was reminded of yesterday is edited books. Every time I have done it I swear solemnly that I will never do it again, but here I am, right in the process.Moreover, co-editing, which has it advantages and disadvantages.

My first edited volume was in Swedish and originated from a seminar series on children's literature and literary theory. It was used for many years in children's literature courses, but before that, it gave me a lot of trouble. No matter how detailed instructions you give to your contributors about footnotes, bibliography, indented quotes, subheadings and double-spacing, they will all do it wrong in different manners. As an editor, you have two options. You can send the chapter back to your contributor and ask for corrections. This will probably delay your already delayed production schedule by a month, so the second option most editors take is to correct everything themselves: it least, it will be wrong consistently when you submit it to the publisher. Likewise, you prefer to do all proof-reading yourself - you need to do it anyway - rather than sending out and wait for another month. There is always one contributor who is more busy than evebody else.

It gets still more complicated when you edit an international volume, and at least one of your contributors does not use email or has antedeluvial software or is on study leave in the faraway rainforests. Some will go beyond all deadlines, and you have two options. You may send a nasty email saying that if you don't get the typescript right now, the chapter will not be included. This is not the option you choose, because it will collapse the neat structure of the volume, and it is often the contribution you want most. The second option - no, you cannot write it yourself, although you would. The second option is to wait and to passify your other contributors with promises you know you can't keep.

If you co-edit a volume, you can be sure that your co-editor will have a wedding, a sick relative, a prolonged business trip and thousands of other reasons to postpone the submission. You have three options. You can wait until your co-editor does her share of work. Meanwhile, the contributors will bombard you with questions about the progress. The other option is doing everything yourself. The third is withdrawing from the project, but that can be fatal as you jeopardise your professional relationships not only with your co-editor but all contributors as well.

To crown it all, edited volumes are rated low in academic reports, bring no royalties, are seldom reviewed, do not sell and do not get quoted, so you do it all for the love fo the subject.

To be honest, I must admit that I have contributed to lots of edited volumes, and although I am usually prompt with deadlines, I have withdrawn a couple of times, I have messed up with bibliography and double-spacing, excellent guidelines notwithstanding, I have forgotten to read proofs, and I have been a nuisance bombarding editors with silly questions.

There are at least two sides to everything.

Monday, 17 January 2011

So what else is new?

I am examiming a PhD. So what else is new? The new is that for the first time I am examining a PhD in the UK, and it is different from Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish, Australian and South African PhDs that I have examined. The most recent examination I did was in Norway, and the three examiners worked closely to write a joint recommendation and also discuss the most satisfying structure of the public defense. Now I have been given instructions not to consult the other examiner under any circumstances, write my independent report and discuss the viva at lunch prior to the exercise. Viva is British for oral examinarion and happens behind closed doors with the candidate and the two examiners. If I were to do it - as a candidate - I'd probably collapse. So I must remember to be nice.

I am sure all systems have advantages and disadvantages, so I am descriptive, not evaluative. I just keep wondering how each country and culture has elaborated it own method of academic torture.

In March I am examining a PhD in Sweden. I will have to learn all over again.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

To everything there is a time and a season

When I took my daily walk in the park yesterday (still keeeping to New Year resolutions) I reflected on some day walking clockwise and another day counterclockwise, just for a change. It struck me that the words "clockwise" and "counterclockwise" must feel very strange for today's children because they don't know how to read the old-fashioned, non-digital clocks. Once upon a time, a mother would ask another mother: "Can your child read the clock yet?" Reading the clock was part of pre-school development tests. There were dozens of educational books, boring and exiting, involving clocks. But the other day our middle son told everybody on Facebook that his four-year-old boy woke him up saying: "It's 8.23, time to get up". I am proud of this clever grandchild, but I am a bit melancholy too. I have always disliked digital clocks, because you can clearly see time disappearing forever. In an analogue clock it comes back every twelve hours (yes, yes, I know...)

My favourite of my own books is From Mythic to Linear which is about the development of children's literature from archaic concept of time as recurrent, reversible, eternal - kairos, as in "a time and a season", the time of the Returning God; toward the linear, one-directional, irreversible time, chronos, leading to growing up, ageing and dying. Although I know that time is irreversible, classic clocks provide a sense of security. It is ten o'clock right now, and it will be ten o'clock tomorrow morning again.

I will not think about belonging to the last generation of non-digitnal clocks. I'll go and take a walk in the park. Counterclockwise.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Further reflections on getting published

My very first publication was a book review. Book reviews can be very helpful at the beginning of your academic career. I reviewed for a weird semi-academic journal that only had reviews of foreign books, and I was their Scandinavian reviewer. That's how I learned to read Norwegian and Danish, that I have actually never studied. The journal was bi-monthly, and I contributed to every issue, only it was against the rules to have more than one review in the same issue so all reviewers had lots of pseudonyms. I would, for instance, use my father's or my grandfather's first names as pseudonyms. Once a year, there was a special issue on children's literature, and I always reviewed several books for those. I reviewed Tove Jansson's Moominvalley in November when it first came out. Now mind, this was behind the Iron Curtain, and reviewing was the only way for me to get hold of books. And of course I wasn't allowed to keep them, they went to the library.

Occasionally, I reviewed something for the journal on children's literature. I am quite proud of having reviewed the first Russian translation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Some years after I had come to Sweden, a new journal in children's literature started, Opsis Kalopsis, and I happened to sit next to the editor-in-chief at a reception, just as she was looking for reviewers. I wrote for this journal for many years (and was allowed to keep books). I mostly specialised in fantasy and had “my” authors, including Lloyd Alexander, Diana Wynne Jones and Philip Pullman. Many reviews fed into my academic writing.

For a while I reviewed books for the cultural journal of the Swedish church. I did it because these were not children's books, and I thought it might be useful to add to my cv. I reviewed such authors as Harold Bloom and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I have written reviews for Scandinavica, and occasional reviews here and there. I don't review on a regular basis any more, but every now and I am asked to review a professional publication. I only do it if I am really interested, which I most often am (I guess that why they ask me).

Looking back, I think that reviewing was an extremely helpful writing practice. Staying within word count and keeping deadlines is always good training. Following an author for several years was stimulating and resulted in author portraits and other publications. And in many cases, the journals I reviewed for would eventually take my own article.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Do we love what we are doing?

I have received a very interesting comment on my previous post and rather than replying to it I am writing another post. It is seldom that I am asked the question whether I love what I am doing, but I have on many occasions said that I feel privileged because for my whole life I have mostly been doing things that I love and been able to support myself on that.

To be fair, I must admit that I had a very good start. I grew up in a family of academics and artists. My grandfather was a professor and a vice-chancellor of Moscow Conservatory, my father was a professor in the same conservaroty, my mother was an art historian, her cousin was a professor of philosophy, and so on. With such background, you just cannot imagine yourself outside of academia, so I never even considered the option. During my chiuldhood and youth I clearly saw the gratification: books published, works performed, students winning competitions and getting famous. So I knew all the time that it would be worth while. But of course it is only worth while if you are really passionate about what you are doing. I am passionate about children's literature, and I want my students and colleagues to be just as passionate. But surely I have seen people who earned their higher degrees without enjoying it. I remember once in Stockholm a very weak PhD dissertation was passed, and in a private conversation afterwards, when I commented on the poor quality, a colleague said cynically: "Well, it's not worse than yours or mine". To which I could only say: "Don't know about yours, but mine is in fact thousand times better". This colleague wasn't passionate about his work. He was just doing what he was good at.

Doing a PhD is a huge investment, not only in terms of time and energy, but emotionally. If you do a PhD because you have to for your career and after that start thinking about what you want to do with your life and whether it was worth while, then perhaps it's too late. No, it's never too late! But if you only do a PhD as a duty, then I don't think it can be good. (Of course, there are weak theses written by people who are passionate about them).

I have done a lot of work that I wasn't passionate about, mostly at the beginning of my career, at the time when beggars are no choosers, when you take any task because you think it will be helpful. But I have always tried to become passionate about any task I had. As a senior academic, you have to do a lot of work you do not enjoy, such as recommendation letters and committee meetings, but that's the price, and I am trying to tell myself that something good may come out of these too.

I guess I am extremely lucky. In an ideal world, everybody should be passionate about what they do.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Word count

I often see my Facebook friends mention how many words they have written on a particular day. These are mostly creative writing friends, but this morning an academic friend wondered how many words per day or week should be considered adequate for good research. This started me thinking, and following up my yesterday's post, here is some further sharing of experience.

We all write in different ways. I remember a writer friend was furious when I mentioned that I had finished a novel in three weeks. Obviously the reason for his rage was that no decent writing could go that fast. However, the three weeks of actual writing had been preceded by months of thinking and researching. The process of transferring words from my mind onto the computer screen was a matter of my typing skills. However, I know, or know of, writers who proudly say that they are happy if they can write a hundred words a day. Or twenty. Or ten.

Similarly, I can write a 6,000-word scholarly article in a day, but it means that I have been thinking about it for a long time and just need to write it down. I think best when I weed the garden or, as I have started doing recently, walking at fast pace in the park. After that, I rush to my desk to record all the clever things that came to my mind during the walk.I could never sit down to write a hundred words from scratch. I just don't function this way. But some people do. Some fellow scholars set goals for themselves: a thousand words per week? That adds up to six weeks for a 6,000-word essay. Sounds reasonable, but it includes thinking and researching. If you intend to publish two articles a year, what are you doing the rest of the time?

Sometimes, however, producing 6,000 words is not enough. Right now I am writing a paper on a new and difficult topic where I don't feel as secure as in my more usual fields. I wrote the first 5,000 words very quickly, but since then I have fluctuated on 5-6,000 level for quite a while, cutting and pasting, but also deleting and adding. I will present this paper to an audience that does not know me and does not know my subject. I need to be persuasive. I need to be very clear. I haven't counted the number of hours, days or weeks I have spent actually writing, but, as the story goes, "I have been learning all my life how to do it in a day".

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

How to get published

I am again picking up Philip Nel's blog post.

There are lots of blogs written by authors, established and aspiring, on how to get published. But as Philip points out, in academic life we often forget that publishing your work does not come naturally. If you are lucky, you may have a mentor who can help you in many ways. Unlike Philip, I had tons of publications before I got my degree. In fact, my first serious academic article, published in 1977, was the very beginning of my PhD, published as The Magic Code. My mentor told me that it was easier to write a longish article and cut it down. This is what I have done ever since, so it was good advice: write without thinking about word count.

Most of my early article publications fed into the thesis. Just before I was leaving Russia I was invited to contribute to a special issue of a very obscure British journal, Labrys. Since I knew I would be leaving Russia soon, I did write a piece, otherwise it would not have been possible. To publish in a foreign journal was high treason. But when I came to Sweden I already had an international publication. I haven't re-read it for a long time; I guess it was pretty horrid. But I was proud then.

My dilemma was whether I should publish in Swedish or in English. Both markets were important. I still publish in Swedish occasionally, but whatever we think about it, English is the international scholarly language, and if you want to be known, English-language publications are imperative. Sometimes I have published related papers in the two languages.

I was rejected repeatedly by Nancy Chambers at Signal which made me upset but I see now why: I sent her my thesis chapters, and these are typically unpublishable. It takes a lot of work to turn a thesis chapter into an article. But an article can be developed into a thesis chapter. I was rejected a lot, and this is just a fact you need to accept. Our successful submissions are visible in our CVs, but the rejected ones aren't. There are two ways of dealing with a rejection: submit to another journal or sit down and think what was wrong with it. With luck, you have received good feedback from reviewers.

I have frequently been invited to contribute to a special issue of a journal or a collected volume, and that comes after you have become established. But often you see calls for papers, and if you can even remotedly fit your work into the topic - submit! If you are rejected, you can send it elsewhere.

It even happens that you have been asked to write a piece, and then the reviews are negative. That really hurts, but it's also part of the game.

The best message to young colleagues is: you must start somewhere; everybody has been rejected over and over again, just go on. Ask your mentor to read your stuff - their mentors have done it for them. Ask your friends to read you stuff and read theirs. Read a lot of published stuff. Make sure you have something interesting to say. 

Monday, 10 January 2011

From undergrad to Chair, Part 6

I'd like to skip the next stage of my career but it wouldn't be fair to pretend I was always successful. The chair in children's literature at my department became vacant again, and I applied, and I didn't get it. Instead, I got a research grant which I took with me to San Diego, and I have told the story before. In San Diego I wrote several books, including two textbooks that are used in every children's literature course in Sweden. I hoped all this would count for my future career, but  Stockholm proved be a dead end. I was promoted to full professor in title, but my position was still a lecturer, with a huge teaching load and no time for research. I only had one and a half PhD students in eight years, neither in children's literature (I had several in Åbo and one in the UK). I applied for grants from Research Councils, without success. No matter how much I published or guest-lectured or won international awards, there was no way I could move forward. At one point there was a junior position in San Diego, and I was almost prepared to apply for it. I was prepared to apply for anything, anywhere. I was not prepared to be encouraged to apply for a chair in Cambridge. Yet here I am. Go to the very beginning of this blog to read how it happened.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

From undergrad to Chair, Part 5

In the middle of my research grant I went to the USA on a Fulbright. There is a special Fulbright category called the Hildemann Award in Scandinavian Studies which rotates among US universities. I applied because I thought it would be a merit and also because I thought it would be an interesting professional experience. The first time I applied it was Michigan State, and I was the alternative candidate, but the next time was UMass, Amherst, and I got it. Teaching in an American university was totally different from Sweden and very confusing. Teaching three short sessions a week for a whole term was new. I wasn't used to students buying their books. I wasn't used to having just ten books on my course; I was used to discussing five books in each session. But I learned. I learned a lot, and I made some very good friends in Amherst, and I went to my first ChLA, which was in Fredricton, Canada, Lissa Paul was the organiser. I also went to Minneapolis as a guest lecturer and met my benefactor Jack Zipes. I finished the book while I was in Amherst, and then I returned to Sweden and my research grant. Just as I finished the project, my department had three lecturer positions opening. I applied and got it, in a highly tough competition. I was especially pleased by a clause from the assessors saying that the applicant's merits were so strong that gender quotas didn't have to be taken into consideration. The two other successful applicants were male. I also had enough merits to apply for Associate Professor, which in Sweden is a title as opposed to lecturer, which is a position.

Then I was encouraged to apply for a Chair in childhood studies in Linköping. I would not have applied if I hadn't been encouraged, because I wasn't particularly interested in childhood studies and definitely wasn't interested in moving to Linköping, which seemed to be part of the deal. I was shortlisted, invited to an interview and a lecture, but the University decided not to appoint, probably because they had a choice between an immigrant and a homosexual. No prejudices! (My competitor also eventually became a professor in Stockholm, and we were inaugurated at the same ceremony).

I had close collaboration with the department of Comparative Literature at Åbo Akademi in Finland where I did guest lectures and taught some intensive courses. The department head encouraged me to apply for adjunct professorship. It is a nominal position, but both an honour and a good practical arrangement for repeated visits. Then the chair of English started a huge doctoral training programme called “Children's Literature: Pure and Applied”. I was encouraged to apply for a Visiting Chair to be part of the project. I did, and I got it the day after. I wish all appointments were as easy to get!

For a year, I commuted from Stockholm to Finland. It sounds more horrible than it was, because I took a night ferry and slept well and even had some work done in the evenings. It was a good project and an excellent research community. Åbo is a little university town, like Amherst; everybody knows everybody else; you cannot pop into a tea room without meeting a colleague. The only problem was that it didn't last more than a year.

To be continued

Saturday, 8 January 2011

From undergrad to Chair, Part 4

Everybody knows that research grants do not grow on trees and you don't get them on a silver platter. It takes a lot of time and energy to write applications and research proposals, and you also have to be strategical and consider what a Research Council is likely to support. It is widely known that Research Councils are unlikely to support research in children's literature, and it is also widely known that appointment committees are unlikely to give a permanent post in Comparative Literature to someone whose only merits are in children's literature. I had to demonstrate that I could do other stuff and could do it well. I had by that time written a book on the reception of the Swedish writer and Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf in Russia, commissioned and published by the Lagerlöf Society. I submitted a proposal on the reception of Swedish literature in Russia and got it on the second attempt. I hoped that I would be able to do some children's literature on the side, and I did.

I also realised, as Philip Nel did, that what counted for appointment was publications. I went to conferences, invited myself as a guest lecturer (getting my own funding from different bodies), submitted, got rejected, resubmitted, got published. I wrote a book, based on a number of published articles, and offered it to a Swedish publisher who promptly rejected it as having no market in Sweden. Luckily, I saw an announcement in a journal that Jack Zipes was starting a new series for Garland, “Children's Literature and Culture”. I did not know Jack personally, but I sent him a proposal and several published articles. Some months later, I had a contract for the book that was eventually titled Children's Literature Comes of Age.

Friday, 7 January 2011

From undergrad to Chair, Part 3

When I moved to Sweden I had an option of trying to pursue my film studies or embark on a new career. My Swedish film colleagues knew enough of Soviet film studies to judge them worthless, which I reluctantly admitted. I also knew Swedish children's literature scholars, and I knew that in Sweden you could do children's literature as a literary subject, not a librarianship subject, which was the only option in Moscow. It took some time to persuade Stockholm University admissions that my degree was at least worth something, and I had to take a special oral exam in Swedish literature. Interestingly enough, I was never asked to take the correspondence to TOEFL, although I have no formal degree in Swedish.

I took two courses the first term, Children's Literature and Adolescent Literature, and wrote an essay which was to become my PhD. Comparative Literature had just introduced competitive admission to the PhD programme. I applied among sixteen candidates and was one of the four admitted. Very soon I was asked to teach. Unlike Swedish, I have a formal pedagogical certificate, but I had never taught and had never intended to teach. Yet teaching children's literature was something else than teaching English grammar, and anyway, you can't turn down a job when you are a beginner and an alien. Well before I got my degree I was teaching if not full time but at least more than was reasonable. Children's literature was an expanding area, it became mandatory in all teacher training, and we had our own undergraduate courses at different levels.

Yet a permanent position seemed beyond reach. I applied for the only chair in children's literature in Sweden, that became vacant when my own professor retired. I was shortlisted, but considered too young. I remember that in 1991, when I was elected to the Board of the International Research Society for Children's Literature, I had some doubts because I was strongly considering giving up academia and go into children's publishing. I had a registered publishing company for a while, we published one book which was a tremendous success and brought in a lot of money. I was prepared to go on, but instead I got a research grant.

To be continued

Thursday, 6 January 2011

From undergrad to Chair, Part 2

It may seem strange that you can have an academic career outside academia, but this is by far not the most bizarre feature of Soviet reality. There were hundreds of research institutes all over the country, and some did research, while most were part of the propaganda machine. If you think that Orwell's Ministry of Truth is dark science fiction – I worked there once. Film Studies Institute was a research centre for the powerful Ministry of Film. Film was in the Soviet Union, like in Nazi Germany, an important part of ideological propaganda, so it was worthwhile having a centre with a hundred researchers in Moscow alone. My department, specifically, worked with foreign press in secret departments of state libraries, searching keenly for any utterance about Soviet (or anti-Soviet) film. If a director or actor or critic said anything slightly unfavourable, they became a non-person.

I am not ashamed of having been part of this monstrous structure because that was the way it was. We all had to survive, and the only thing you could do was keep your integrity and be honest toward yourself. What choice did I have? It wouldn't have been much different in any other place.

There were sixteen research assistants in my department, and I could have easily managed all of their work (of course, today you would have simply googled. But it was Stone Age when I was young). We only had to be in the office once a week, and we had no desks or any workspace in the office anyway. It was also part of the job to watch movies. Sometimes four movies a day. Since I did what was expected of me quickly, I had plenty of time for other things: interpreting, translating, reviewing. My dream was to become a freelance translator.

Like everything else, the production of PhDs was strictly planned, so I was chosen to write a PhD on Norwegian film. Swedish film was taken by someone else. The only method allowed in research on anything, from film to nuclear physics, was Marxist. Unfortunately, Marx didn't say anything helpful about Norwegian film. I had done all coursework and submitted three chapters when my professional life took an unexpected turn.

To be continued.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

From undergrad to Chair, Part 1

So I am going to tell the story of how I came to be here. Of course, I have already told the story of how I happened to come here, to Cambridge, so I won't repeat it - just read this blog from the beginning. But I will go back to the start of my life as a diplaced hedgehog, before I got displaced.

Here, by the way, is the second part of Philip's story

I need to start with my undergrad studies because it is essential for my career. I applied to the Moscow University College of Foreign Languages rather than Moscow University, because I chickened out at the last moment. My family put extremely high demands on me, and if I failed my entrance exams they would be disappointed. I majored in English, but it was mostly grammar, Old English and conversation, not literature. After a year, I decided, not without pressure from the family, that teaching EFL was not my dream job, but changing your direction of studies was out of the question, so I changed to evening classes instead. I needed my degree for any decent job, but I took care of my education myself. To take evening classes you had to work full time, and I got a fake job as a secretary. I studied Swedish on my own and very soon got all kinds of odd jobs that I wouldn't have got with English, from interpreting to reviewing and eventually translating stories for a children's magazine and a children's radio programme. However, this was nothing you could support yourself by, so when I got the degree (which would be an MA if translated to Western system) I started looking for a job. Actually, I was accepted into a part-time PhD programme in general linguistics, on condition that I had a job.

Good jobs were scarce then as now, and in fact most of my former fulltime fellow students, who were forced to take whatever jobs the State allocated them for three years, were either sent as schoolteachers to Siberia or as custom officers to Moscow International Airport, which was arguably a waste of resources for people with an MA in English.

I was tentatively offered an adjuct teaching position at my College which I didn't really want (at that time I thought that teaching was the worst of all trades) so I wasn't upset when it fell through. Instead I went around to all places where I had freelance jobs. I had several interviews for jobs that would have been boring, like translating technical manuals, and the potential employers said openly: "I can give you the job and I am sure you'd do it well, but I know that you'd leave as soon as you found something more exciting". Yet one of the interviews was for a research assistant at the newly established Film Studies Institute, basically a sinecure for daughters of high officials, but my future boss wanted someone who could actually do some work. So after a long time of negotiations I got the job. The negotiations were long because I wasn't the daughter of a high official, and the Deputy Director who doubled as the KGB head (yes, there was one or several at every workplace) could not figure out how I got to be considered in the first place. But I was unquestionably qualified, because I knew English, German, Swedish, Norwegian and Danish, and I had a good record of published reviews.

Thus my career in linguistics was replaced by a career in Film Studies.

To be continued.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

How did we all get here?

I enjoyed reading this blog post by Philip Nel. I have never been to MLA, but I have heard horror stories about this job market. I think it is a very special phenomenon in the US, because there are so many universities - there must be a feasible way of doing the interviews.

This post set me thinking about my own, very unorthodox path to where I am now. And all the advice I got on the way, for instance my old professor saying: "Don't bother writing articles, they don't count, write books". Ironically, where I am now, books don't count.

Anyway, I am going to follow Philip and share some experience of getting jobs - in five different countries. Start tomorrow. 

Monday, 3 January 2011


Looking for something completely different, I found a sub-subfolder in my computer called "Diary" which made me curious. In the folder, there were three files from three trips of ten years ago. One was a longish letter, never posted, from a week in New York with Anton and Julia in April 2000. With my fresh memories of New York, it was interesting to revisit it and compare the impressions. What I was most impressed with was how much we managed to do in a week. And I always get melancholy at the mention of WTC.

The second story was from a trip to China later the same year. I thought I had good memories of it, but of course there were lots of details I didn't remember. And of course, my notes are emotionally charged, and they record meetings and talks with people that I had forgotten. And funny small episodes. And lack of cash machines that I had promptly obliterated from my memory.

The last one is from our trip across America, from California to New England, 26 states in 23 days. Again, I remember highlights, I remember that we were at Grand Canyon and in Yellowstone, but I had forgotten the details. For instance, my 5-hour walk along the rim; if someone had asked me what we actually did at Grand Canyon I wouldn't have remembered. Or my driving around in Yellowstone on my own (Staffan had eye pain), on small mountain roads, chasing geysers and grizzlies - did I really do it? Obviously I did; I wouldn't have made it up. And the endless small museums and roadside attractions, and all the crazy motels and funny meals, including bison steak in Utah where no alcohol was served. And meeting old friends who, sadly, are no more.

This was before blogging became popular, otherwise I probably would have it all on my blog. 

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Pace of reading

My Shelfari says cheerfully: “You haven’t read any books this year. Last year you read 60 books, so you’re behind your pace”. I hope I am excused that I haven't read any books this year (I am in the middle of two, one for work and one for pleasure). Until yesterday, it kept saying: “You have read 60 books this year. Last year you read 76 books, so you’re behind your pace”. I think the average literate Western reader reads 3 books per year, so I am slightly above the average. But I remember many years ago when I had a manual book log, my annual average was 120, so I am behind my pace.

The pace of reading is determined by the kind of books you read. When I had just come out of Russia I read masses of children's novels to catch up with what hadn't been available. I probably read several books a day. I used to review a lot, so I had to read quickly. I needed to keep up with Nordic, Russian, British and American literature, preferably also Australian and Canadian. Keep up and fill the gaps. I have always read a lot of professional literature, but it's not the same kind of reading. You skim over pages, read one chapter more carefully, stop in the middle to read something else. I have always tried to read books totally unrelated to work although to be honest I cannot: I will always think about how a book is crafted, whether it's War and Peace or War and Peas.

The past few years I have been very deliberately reading long, thick, slow books without pictures or conversations. It is a counterbalance to quick-paced children's books with short chapters, page upon page of dialogue and no adjectives. I can read fifteen children's book while I am reading one slow “real” novel. Wow, I just wrote it, “real” novel. That's me, having defended children's literature for thirty years as being “real”. I know many child lit colleagues read crime novels for a change.

I guess it all boils down to the old wisdom: "Some books are to be tasted; others swallowed; some few to be chewed and digested". I have swallowed too many books, I need something to chew.

The price of freedom

I am on study leave. This is a new, unfamiliar condition. I have never had a study leave in my long professional life. I've had research grants, but I have never been paid to stay away from work and do what I want. A luxury that my Cambridge colleagues take for granted.

During my three-year postdoc research grant I felt very lonely. I didn't have an office so I worked from home. I had most of the books I needed so I didn't use the library. I suppose I attended the research seminars in the department, but these were scarce. I missed teaching. I was happy to be back when the grant was over. I got a permanent post soon after.

I had another three-year research grant that was .75. I went to my department head and asked whether it made any difference where in the world I pursued my research, and since I was at the time involved with a project in Finland he surely thought I meant to keep going to Finland and said no, it didn't matter. In that case, I said, I was going to California. His jaw dropped, but it was too late. I did some teaching in San Diego which was good in every respect (not the least getting the J1 visa), but most of all not being confined to my own writing desk. I still had to do my 25% teaching in Stockholm so after two years, when it had accumulated beyond reason, we had to go back. Still it was a very pleasant arrangement: a lot of freedom, but not in isolation.

The problem with being away from your department for two years is coming back. Somebody else has been doing your job, teaching your courses, supervising your grad students. You have to start your career from scratch, or almost. The freedom had its price. Apparently, I never got over it.

I am a bit apprehensive about being away for a whole term. No teaching – well, but I love teaching. If I could just have the teaching and no admin, but it doesn't work that way. Admin is the price for the fun of teaching. No teaching then, no meetings, but I can sneak into research seminars and social events. I still have my doctoral students – study leaves do not affect them. Yet somebody else will supervise my wonderful, clever masters! What if they don't want me back?

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Lost allusions

"What do we lose when we lose allusion" is the tile of an old essay by Peter Hunt. He talks about different levels of literary texts and whether it is necessary to understand every single element that writers have put into them.

In everyday life, when we lose allusions we lose a part of ourselves. Yesterday I was about to post something on Facebook when I realised that of my 250 FB friends three maybe would recognise the allusion, and those three do not log in on FB anyway. This is the price of being a displaced hedgehog. You lose your allusions, your reference frames, your context. Or rather the other way round, you still carry them with you, but there is no one to share. I think that I have gathered a fairly good set of Swedish allusions, American allusions, and these last years British allusions. It helps that I am familiar with children's literature because many people would remember quotes and characters. It is more likely that they remember a children's book quote than a Shakespeare quote. But my Swedish allusions are wasted on my British friends. And my Russian allusions are wasted on almost everybody. Even my children.

Maybe it is not spatial, but temporal. Maybe I would have lost my allusions even if I had stayed put.There are family jokes that die when the family dies. Jokes that come from somewhere and wander away. Childhood anecdotes that do not make sense any more. Poetry lines. Dialogues from old movies. It's sad. One should not start the new year on such a sad note.

The tragedy of broken toys

Our New Year Eve movie was Toy Story. Not the new one, the first one. It came between our children and our grandchildren so we never saw it then. Anton says Toy Story 3 is a wonderful movie, but it made sense to watch them in order, and it just so happened that I got the first one among my rentals two days ago.

I didn't know it was a horror movie. Child abuse is terrible, cruelty to animals is abominable, but toy abuse is unbearable. I watched it to end, under excruciating pain. This is beyond being sentimental, it must be something very deep and inexplicable in my mind because I have always been like that, since I was small. Cried over The Steadfast Tin Soldier. I don't think I want to see Toy Story 2 and 3. It's too sad. I know it's ridiculous.

This evoked a memory of another very sad story, so here is my old review:

The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban

A large number of modern children's classics have recently been reprinted, which is more than welcome. Among them, The Mouse and His Child is far from a self-evident title. This book appears sparsely on recommendation lists and in textbooks. It must be one of the most underestimated masterpieces of children's literature.

There may be many reasons for this. The best-known and constantly reprinted books by Russell Hoban are his nice, simple picturebooks about the badger girl Frances. When you see another title mentioning nice animals, you may think that this is another book in the same style. But this is not the case. It is a long, sad, not to say tragic story about toys that are exposed to the fate of all toys when they get broken. If this book had not been published and marketed as a children's book, it would have become one of the greatest works of existentialism.

The plot is reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," which I, strangely enough, have not seen any critic mention. The two toy mice have to go through many painful trials, through anxiety and sorrow, slavery and humiliation, actually through physical disintegration. They meet friends and enemies, but - as in real life, no villains are totally evil, and no friend is totally good and nice. The characters in the book are colorful and unique: the greedy slave-driver Manny, the unreliable Frog, the cunning thinker Muskrat, the self-centered poet Serpentina. The toys meet with much treachery and evil, but also loyalty and unselfish courage. During their adventures and bitter defeat the two mice sustain their longing for a home and their childish hope for a happy ending. It is not a coincidence that the mouse child is stronger in spirit than the father, and he never loses faith.

Hoban is an incredibly skillful writer. All details and events in the book are interconnected in a way that we normally associate with great mainstream novels. To let an empty can of dog food be the central symbol of the story would be daring even in an adult novel. The chapter about the Crows' Art Experimental Theater Group ought to be a universal classic.

The ending is happy in a way, at least from a young reader's viewpoint. Adult readers cannot but notice its deep tragic undertones. Nothing will ever be the same again - the toys can never become new again, just as humans cannot become young again.

The book is multidimensional and can be read at many different levels. As an exciting and moving fairy tale for the youngest. Or as a philosophical fable for teenagers and adults. It is possible that it will not be appreciated by children who believe that they have grown out of fairy tales, while they instead have not grown into them. In any case, children who will read Hoban's book perhaps need some help from adults. The book presents grateful material for discussions of essential life questions. What is beyond the last visible dog?

Opsis Kalopsis 1989:2