Monday, 28 February 2011

Teaching patterns

Yet another reflection evoked by Philip's daily accounts is the differences in teaching patterns in Scandinavia, the USA and the UK. In Massachusetts, I taught one class three times a week, 50-minute sessions, and I remember I thought it very strange because the session ends just as you have come into a good discussion. I enjoyed the luxury of discussing a book for a whole week or more rather than five books in a two-hour session as I was used to from Sweden. But I have never understood the idea of assigning Chapters 1-7 for the first session and Chapters 8-15 for the next one. I cannot discuss books in chunks. If I have three sessions to spend on a book, I'd rather discuss three different aspects of the book at each class.

I taught another class on Tuesday evenings, because half of the time I showed movies, and the sessions were flexible depending on the movie or the novel. I didn't know then that this Monday-Wednesday-Friday and Tuesday-Thursday business was universal in the USA. I took me some time to recognise the pattern when I was planning my teaching in San Diego. I didn't realise that choosing the days of the week also determined the length of your sessions. American students and professors must take it for granted and never question it, but it is a strange pattern. I wonder when and why it started.

In Sweden and Finland, sessions are normally two hours, occasionally three. I have always hated three-hour sessions, because you cannot do substantially more in three hours than in two, and you lose your precious classroom time. You can teach any day of the week and any time of the day. You can even teach on Tuesday one week and on Wednesday the next, and the world will not explode. As long as I expressed my wishes well in advance I could always have classes whichever days of the week that suited me. In Sweden, most courses are in modules of five weeks. Students take one course at a time, so there can be no conflicts in schedule. In Finland, I repeatedly taught intensive courses of twice two hours a day, five days running. I was very tired by Friday afternoon, and so were the students.

Here in Cambridge we teach part-time students on Wednesdays. You just could not offer a course to part-timers on any other day of the week. I am sure there is a very good reason for it. If we have both full-time and part-time students in the same course, one session a week has to be on a Wednesday. Unless they are PhD students, because then it's Tuesday.

Our masters sessions are two hours, but the undergraduate sessions are 75 minutes. Apparently, undergrad's attention span is judged to be shorter.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Virtual teaching

Nobody is impressed by virtual teaching and learning nowadays, but I was early, teaching my first online course in 1999. I was in California, my students in Finland. The platform was primitive, but back then I was versed in html-writing and invented all the links and jumps that modern platforms do for you. What I realised soon, long before I started attending workshops, was that an online course must be as interactive as possible, that you must anticipate students' reactions, lead them into discussions you'd otherwise have in a classroom. Because if they just read texts on screen instead of in a book, there is not much point in it. Anyone who teaches online knows it, but I had no models to follow.

Very soon I started using Blackboard for my classroom courses, uploading materials, links, surveys, giving and grading quizzes, offering students to compensate for missed classes by writing a short response. Blackboard had a variety of quizzes, and I learned from a workshop that there must be variation in quizzes: multiple choice, True/False, matching. I learned a lot from workshops, elementary things such as setting goals, asking for self-evaluations, and other things that we do automatically in the classroom, but that have to be emulated in a virtual course. I also learned, from a very fruitful collaboration with a librarian, that you should not offer students web links, but ask them to search and evaluate. Sounds elementary, but at the beginning I was too eager to fill my course site with links.

What I learned from experience rather than workshops is how certain students benefit from online learning. Those students who sit in the back of the classroom and never open their mouth, but in a virtual classroom they have to talk, and they do. I've heard many happy comments on that.

I designed two courses in Finland and taught each of them twice before I handed them over to my PhD students. As far as I know they are still running, hopefully updated and modified. I also taught a hybrid course, “The Origins of Harry Potter”, with ten online sessions and an intensive week in the end.

I designed a course in Sweden and taught it several times. I've lost count of all platforms I have used. This is a big problem in online teaching. You spend weeks designing a course, using all the fancy features the platform has, compiling glossaries and indices and elaborate self-tests, and next term the university has changed the platform, and it is absolutely impossible to transfer your materials to the new one. Because each platform, or even each version of a platform, has its own features, and since the platforms compete, the features are incompatible. People who have never taught online think that you simply upload your course notes. It's a bit more sophisticated than that.

The masters course I taught last year at the Autonomous University of Barcelona used a platform that lacked some of the features I find helpful, and it was a bit clumsy to build, but it worked fine for teaching. When I agreed to teach the course again, it was my understanding that I had it all ready, but see, they have changed the platform. The new one is much more intricate, but I am not investing too much energy in it, since I am not sure I will teach it again, and if I will, that they will not change once more.

You may ask why I bother to teach online at all, as if I have nothing else to keep me busy. I like it because it's similar to guest lectures: you get new and unexpected reactions from students. Last year I had students from Spain, Argentina and Venezuela. I promise they had a different view of children's literature as compared to Swedish, Finnish or British students. And I feel rewarded when I hear from a virtual student, whom I may never meet in real life: “I never dare to speak in the classroom. This course gave me a chance to speak up”.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

What professors do: Conclusion

Day Six, Saturday

Since I am, unlike Philip, not a workaholic, I am not working on Saturdays. I mean, I did last Saturday, but normally I don't. If I can help it. Philip is young. When I was young, I used to work twelve hours a day seven days a week. I cannot do it anymore. From the five accounts I see that I've worked about fifty hours this week, which should be considered enough, although I cannot beat Phil's sixty-two (but I have only worked five days, not seven like he did). So I'll keep the Sabbath, and tend my garden.

Which does not prevent me from reading and replying to email, reading FB, paying a conference fee, reading page proofs, replying to a journalist's questions (“How can you as a scholar affect the position of children's literature in society?”), and so on. I am so happy when a gang of friends knocks on the door!

What I have learned from this five-day log is how many things we professors do without even noticing. I have a list of urgent things to do which I update regularly and delete finished tasks with delight. On average, it has fifteen to twenty items for the next six months, but these are big items, like writing an article or a chapter, or reviewing a paper, or submitting a conference abstract, or preparing a grant bid. If I were to add all the small things I've done this week it would take me an extra day just to write them down. But all these reports, recommendations, endorsements, meeting papers that we do in passing – they all add up to a huge amount of time and effort.

I have always known that I spend at least two hours every day reading and responding to emails, and I have always wondered what I did with these hours before email. I spend at least an hour a day reading Facebook, and I have only been on Facebook a year and a half, so what did I do with those hours before? That's seven hours a week, almost a whole working day.

During this week, I haven't been able to work on the project which I have taken study leave to do. I haven't worked on it for three weeks, and won't be able to work on it for the coming two weeks because I have other urgent things to attend to.

If I had not been on study leave, I would have, in addition to all this, had at least four hours of teaching (and preparation for these; I have a variable amount of teaching from week to week), at least four hours of face-to-face masters supervision (and many hours of unaccountable draft reading), at least two committee meetings, a project team meeting, a pile of references to write and three more business lunches.

In summary: perhaps we professors are not that idle after all.

Friday, 25 February 2011

What professors do: Day Five

Day Five, Friday

One of the days when you don't want to get up, when you know form start that it will be awful. I cannot grasp it's Friday already; this week has just vanished.

Still, I have to live through the day.

8:30 At computer, check private email, FB. Read Phil's blog. What strikes me when I read it is how different daily routines are for an American and a British professor. I remember that weird rhythm: you either teach Monday-Wednesday-Friday, 50-minutes sessions or Tuesday-Thursday, 75-minute sessions. The session is over before you have got into the topic. And all those quizzes. But I can write a separate blog on this.
9 Open work email. The chapter author – bless her! - has sent the references. Read through quickly, send both chapters to co-editor. The author wants to read another chapter to make connections – excellent! Email the other author to ask permission. A message from a journalist who interviewed me a couple of weeks ago, with some additional questions. Wish strongly to ask him to go to Hartford, Hereford and Hampshire, but refrain from it and simply ask how urgent it is. A message from a student who has heard about the Matter and wonders whether they can do anything. New paper from Morag. More frantic correspondence.
10 Mid-morning coffee on the patio
10:15 More correspondence on the Matter
10:20 Back to where I was interrupted two days ago. Cannot do anything creative in my state of mind. Start building my online masters course Aesthetic approaches to children's literature for the Autonomous University of Barcelona. I thought it would be easy and quickly done, because I have all the materials from last time, but they have changed the platform, so I sit with a Spanish-English dictionary trying to figure out the various buttons. Let me tell you that a dictionary does not provide correct computer terms. Already last time I had to do a lot of guessing, but regrettably, I haven't saved my own glossary. Search online for a demo. Demo doesn't match the real platform. Cannot find “Delete” button after uploading tons of test files. Get desperate.
12:10 finally start coming to terms with the &$%!!££%!?? course platform
12:15 check email. Apart from more desperate correspondence about the Matter, a message from co-editor with the most recent version of Introduction. Quick read through, to realise that in this final draft we have not complied with our own guidelines (spacing, double blanks, single and double quotes, font size for indented quotes, punctuation inside quotes). This is of course the consequence of our coming from different disciplines. The publisher's house style is equally alien to both of us. Volunteer to fix it.
12:30 lunch
12:45 pay a bill after Staffan's reminder
12:50 resume work with Introduction
13 send Introduction to co-editor. Resume building the virtual course (but have by now forgotten how to do it). I have used many platforms before: Blackboard, Mondo, more than I can remember. As soon as you have learned one, they switch to another. This one is Moodle, which I have used before, but it doesn't help much because they keep developing it and adding new features. Once I have figured out how to do it, it goes relatively quickly, except that I need to check every feature to see whether it works. When I agreed to run this course again I assumed it would be the same platform, otherwise I would have said no. The whole point of a virtual course is that you only have to prepare it once!
2:15 take a short break.
3:15 check email. Page proofs, as usual, urgently. Yet another draft of the Matter paper. Resume work on course. (I realise that I have never blogged about my experience of online teaching. Will do!)
5:50 Have build the core of the course (weekly materials, forums, a few other features) and will call it a day. Check email. A request from a journal to review mathematical picturebooks. Just what I need!
6 Check private email and FB.
6:30 switch off computer and not switch it on until Monday?

Thursday, 24 February 2011

What professors do: Day Four

Day Four, Thursday

I can say from start that this is not a typical day. It's a very sad day. An ominous day. Frustrating, annihilating, when you wonder whether anything is worth the effort. It is a day when no words can describe the amount of energy required. So every hour should count as three.

8 At computer checking email for discussions on yesterday's matter. Read through the revised paper on the Matter before the meeting. I am deliberately elusive about the Matter or even the nature of the Matter, but it's serious enough to make many people devastated. Serious enough to affect my and many other people's professional lives for all the future.
8:30 Drive to work, turning the arguments for the meeting in my mind. No relaxing meditation today.
9 Discuss the Matter with Morag.
10 Meeting, two to one, with emotions ranging from fury to tears.
11:30 Wind down with Morag over a cup of coffee, but getting still more agitated. Discuss further strategies. Share with a colleague.
12 Drive home, quick lunch, do not discuss the Matter with Staffan.
12:30 Check and respond to email.
1 Download the chapters for the edited volume with co-editor's comments. Read papers, correct format, fonts, line spacing, indents, double blanks (why on earth do people use double blanks?), quotes, italics, subheadings, punctuation and all those things everyone has done wrong. Yes, even those who have corrected and sent in a corrected version. There is simply no end to it.
2:55 go out on the patio to look at my daffodils. It's a beautiful warm, sunny day, but I am too depressed to feel any joy.
3 Tea with co-editor, discussing the chapter and dividing further tasks. Cannot avoid discussing the Matter. Envy the co-editor because she is retired and no longer part of it.
4:30 Check email, read another paper on the Matter, send back some more considerations. Feel I have forgotten something essential. Feel like quitting.
5 Another go at chapters, converting Harvard-style references to Oxford-style, as has been specified in the guidelines. My co-editor and I have agreed that we would rather do it ourselves than send it back to contributors, wait another month and get a new draft with new errors. I have volunteered to do it because she is doing more substantial editing. Maybe I am a masochist.
7 Dinner, but I am sorry to admit, I don't enjoy it.
7:30 Resume work
8 Talk on Skype to my youngest son.
8:30 Resume work. It takes three hours to convert 35 in-text references into 35 footnotes. Just so that you know. Put fullstops and commas inside quotation marks. Mark the missing references (I'll have to send it back to the author after all). All in all over three hours spent on one chapter that I could have used for something more creative if the contributor had followed the instructions. Go and tell me it's my own fault; I should have sent it back. Do it next time you edit a volume. I will never ever do it again.
9 send the edited chapter to author with references queries. Edit another chapter which needs much less editing.Wow!
9:15 Open private email and FB. Happy that a friend will be in Cambridge this weekend and will come by. Read a passage from The Velveteen Rabbit that Julia has sent me and that she wants me to read at her wedding. Burst into tears.
9:30 (estimated) Go to bed to read The Water Babies.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

What professors do: Day Three

Day Three: Wednesday

9 At computer. Late start today because Staffan and I talked Libya, New Zealand and other things over coffee. Check private mail, FB, work email, respond. Post a CFP on the PhD electronic site.
9:45 Write support for a PhD application
10:25  Learn that a colleague is in Christchurch on holiday, bruised, but alive. Shock.
10:30 Drive to work. Note: I am on study leave. This is the second time I go to work this week. 
11 check and respond to email
11:30 PhD supervision (PhD supervisions are not affected by study leaves). Crisis, intensive correspondence with Higher Degree Office
12:25 Go to the railway station to pick up Perry Nodelman who is our guest speaker tonight.
12:45 Fancy lunch with Perry and Morag. THIS IS WORK!
3 Back to Faculty. Perry in Morag's class. Check email. Two more chapters for the edited volume have arrived, one of which in 18 separate scanned pages that cannot be assembled or edited. I am sure this has been done with the best intention. Intensive email correspondence on the matter. Receive chapter in normal format, but with all possible deviations from guidelines. Edit. Email to myself as attachment to continue from home. Reply to more emails.
4:15 Perry back from Morag's class. Morag in shock because of a very discouraging email from our Head of Faculty. There will be a crisis meeting tomorrow.
4:30 Over to the other building with Perry, trying to keep calm. Set up the slide show. Chat. Introduce students and colleagues as they arrive.
5 Perry's brilliant lecture. Try to concentrate on the lecture and not on tomorrow's meeting.
6:30 Refreshments, informal chat.
7:15 Back to office with Perry.
7:30 Take Perry to the station.
8 Back home. Take a strong drink. Swear. Have dinner.
8:30 Read Morag's correspondence with Head of Faculty, write suggestions for strategy for tomorrow's meeting.
9:30 Check email. Forward edited chapters to co-editor. Explain why I won't be able to edit more before our meeting tomorrow. Check private email, FB, write this blog.
10:10 Collapse.

This adds up to twelve hours of very intensive and stressful work. Tomorrow was supposed to be a calm, relaxing day.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Book of the week

It has been a while since I read a Swedish young adult novel. It's hard to keep pace with Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, British, American, Australian, picturebooks, chapter books, YA books, so once again, I am dependent on friends' and colleagues' recommendations. Or, as it happened two weeks ago, on meeting an author. A real, flesh-and-blood author (not one of those implied authors whom I meet all the time). An author who can also talk about his books and read from them so that you really feel that this is one book you cannot miss. This happened when I listened to Stefan Casta in Stavanger. I know Stefan well, we have worked in the ALMA jury together. I have read some of his books, and they are excellent. I got very curious about his new book that he talked about at the conference, and now I have read it. Den gröna cirkeln. The green circle.

I am hard to please. I am hard to move. I have read dozens of YA dystopias. I was suspicious the moment I realised it was a dystopia. "Not another one!" And then I couldn't put it aside. And I don't care that it is a mix of dystopia, mystery, horror and teen romance, and if you say you've read that, and that you've read first-person crossvocalised narratives with interspersed film script, and you've read metafiction, and you've read books with eco-messages, and it all has been done thousands of times - yes, but I don't care. I didn't read this book, as I often read YA books, to write a review or include in my research. I read it as an average reader, if there is such a thing. Therefore I cannot explain its magic. I just cannot explain why this book is brilliant when dozens of other books, with similar plots and characters and themes and style, are not. This is not like me, but I have run out of words. Thank you, Stefan!

What professors do: Day Two

Continued from yesterday.

Day Two: Tuesday

Up at 8. At computer 8:30. Private email and FB. New instalment of Philip's blog. A prominent child lit person in Sweden has passed away.
9 Work email. Not much yet, but some need substantial responses.
9:25 Prepare a 10-min presentation from a 30-min paper. This is for the symposium Narration as Transmedial Phenomenon” in Sweden in March. Since it has been at least a week I last worked on it, I takes half an hour to get back into mood. This is the curse of our profession: we get distracted from our research by day-to-day work, and it takes hours to get back. Killing darlings left and right.
10 Watch news in television: earthquake in New Zealand.
10:05 Resume work. Prepare slide show for the presentation.
10:40 Mid-morning coffee. I am not sure whether it counts as work. Staffan and I always discuss what we have done in the morning, what we have read in newspapers and on FB, so in a way it is work.
11 Check and reply to email. Resume work. Time presentation. Cut five more minutes. Save on university server.
11:45 Read draft chapters for the edited volume. State for the umpteenth time that people do not read guidelines: font, spelling, line spacing, right-hand justification, indents, single or double quotes, punctuation, not to mention reference format which you have emphasised in bold. Not one of the four chapters has followed the instructions, to a various degree of deviation - yes, folks, I know you are reading this! My options as an editor: a) send the drafts back to contributors and ask them to revise. This will inevitably delay submission to publisher by several weeks b) make all corrections myself, which will take days of my precious time c) submit as they are and take the risk of reviewers getting furious (which I would be as a reviewer). By the fourth paper, I am completely frustrated. I also know that the authors will be devastated if I point this out for them as they are hundred percent sure that have done everything correct (been there myself). Email my co-editor for advice. Swear once again that I will never edit another volume.
1 Lunch under which I try to complain to Staffan about my contributors, and he reminds me that I have sworn never to edit another volume.
1:25 Back to work. Check email. Nothing urgent, can be saved for later.
1:30 Switch language (mentally and on keyboard). Read through my PhD defence in Sweden in two weeks Since I last worked with it, the book has been printed, and I have to transfer my highlights and Post-its from page proofs to book. Make final amendments. Copy to memory stick and upload on server.Throw away the page proofs.
2:45 Must take a break. Walk in the park. I don't run, hate running, but I walk quickly which is almost as good. You may argue that walking is not work-related, but it is. I have been asked to endorse a children's filmclub campaign with a quote about a film that has changed my life. It has been hovering over me for a while, but during this walk I have it ready. So -
3:30 back to work, switch language, type the quote, send off. Don't know when it will be up, so visit often.
3:45 Is it worth trying to do more work today? I have only worked seven hours minus coffee and lunch. OK, another effort. What's next on my list of urgent things to do? Let's read a paper for review. Quite a radical change of hats from editing a volume, with reviewers in mind. When I review a paper (just as when I comment on student work) I make a separate file and type in comments using Track Changes tool. I highlight bits and colour code them according to a principle I cannot explain. Not all of my comments will go into my final report. I must admit that I always start as being hostile toward the paper I am going to read, and it works well, but this is another story (or another blog post).
4:30 Take a break and check mail. Filmclub is happy with my quote, but would like to have one more. So I'll have to go for another walk.
4:35 Resume work
5:30 Realise that I've been working for almost an hour. Have finished reading and taking notes, have started writing my report... Maybe it's time to stop?

Summary: nine hours with breaks for coffee, lunch and walk. I am not sure what I will do tonight, but it won't be work-related.

Monday, 21 February 2011

What professors do: Day One

Philip Nel, whose ideas I pinch regularly, is this week blogging about What professors do all days. It is indeed a question many people wonder over. We who only have to teach a couple of hours a week and then lie in the sun and drink cocktails. Since I am on study leave, my days are not what they normally would be during term time, but all the more interesting. I have no classes, no meetings, no schedules. What do I actually do all days? I'll give it try.

Day One: Monday

Up 7:30. Shower, breakfast, coffee
8:15 Turn on computer. Check private email and Facebook. Too many private messages (mostly from my husband with links to interesting articles and new google search results for himself and me); save until later.
8:30 Close private email and Facebook. Check work email. Three draft chapters I'll have to read by Thursday, and an upgrade report I'll have to read by Wednesday (an upgrade report is a 20.000-word paper that allows a student to continue with her PhD). Reply to messages, which takes time even if it is just “Thank you, will get back asap”. Forward relevant messages to my co-editor. Reply to messages I deliberately ignored during the weekend. New messages come while I reply. Move messages that don't demand more attention to archive. Try to keep the number of active messages below 50 (it never works).
9:15 Read a PhD viva report draft, contemplate, send off to Higher Degree Office.
9:30 Read the revised book proposal that I wrote on Saturday. Make final amendments. Send off to editor. Cross it from list of urgent things to do. Reply to emails that arrived in the meantime.
10:05 Mid-morning coffee
10:25 Check email and reply to newly arrived messages. Write paper to the Faculty in support of not closing our undergraduate programme, ranked as the best in the UK
11:30 Drive to work. This might not count as working time, but I use it as quiet, private time for meditation that I seldom have otherwise and that therefore is good for my general well-being.
12:00 Check and reply to email. Print out, sign and post a book chapter contract
12:30 Fancy lunch with a visiting scholar who has been with us for six months and is leaving soon. This is doubtless part of work, just as all lunches with colleagues, especially those in my academic group, are part of work.
3 Back at home. Check email. Resist checking Facebook.
3:15 Read PhD upgrade report. Since it's about the fifteenth time I read it, there is not much to comment on, but still takes time.
4:30 Talk to my son on the phone about an urgent matter.
5 Catch up on email (I am very bad at multitasking). Resume reading PhD report
5:30 Read the final draft of a paper that a student is submitting to a journal. Email student with suggestions.
5:45 Read a PhD student's log and send to student with approval.
6 Close work email (imperative). Open Facebook. Now, I count Facebook as work even though I also read what my children's post. Facebook is for me a professional network and information source; I read colleagues' blogs, get links to articles and debates, get info about events and so on and so on. I read Facebook like journalists read newspapers: it's work, no doubt. Quite of lot of interesting stuff today. Second installment of Philip's blog. A Norwegian blog from the conference I attended last week. The executive officer for ALMA award is leaving and going over to be a publisher. Book reviews. Facebook reminders of friends' birthdays.
6:30 Read private emails. As a result search for a very obscure book on Amazon, compare editions and order.
6:40 read the first of the four chapters for the volume I am editing
7:10 dinner after which I intend to watch a movie and then go to bed and read a non-work-related book.

Summary of the day: at least ten hours including lunch. Whoever thinks business lunch is recreating, try it!

Footnote: most people don't realise it, but all the time I am working in a foreign language.

To be continued.

Friday, 18 February 2011

How to get published, continued

Ten months ago I submitted a book proposal to a publisher. I did it because I noticed a substantial gap in the publisher's list and felt that, with my qualification and interest, I could fill it. I was quite enthusiastic about the project, but there were so many other things going on that I didn't chase the acquisition editor when I didn't hear from them for a while. In August, I got an email with lots of apologies: the editor had somehow mislaid my file, but would immediately send it out to reviewers. November: one reviewer super-positive, the other lukewarm, so the proposal would go to a third reviewer. By that time, I had got engaged in a completely new project and was more or less hoping that the proposal would never go further. Actually, the other day I contemplated contacting the editor to withdraw the proposal. Yesterday, the editor got back urging me to respond to all the three reviewers' comments and send in a revised proposal by Wednesday.

A brief look at the reviews reveals that the reviewers suggest that I write a completely different book, which is not uncommon. I once wrote a book, with a proper contract and a generous advance, stating explicitly that it was aimed at graduate English majors. The acquisition editor sent it out for reviews that said the book was too advanced for education undergraduates. I kept the advance and offered the book to another publisher.

Revision and detailed response by Wednesday. Hmmm. There are several options in this situation. You can say "%!$$&#@%!!", forget the project and probably get a bad reputation in the publishing world, since all editors know each other. You can say that the deadline is unreasonable and wait another ten months until the revised proposal is considered. Or you can, as I am doing, put everything else aside, work until late, work on the weekend and get the d-d thing done by Wednesday. Mind, it does not guarantee that you won't have to wait another ten months.  

Thursday, 17 February 2011


I have blogged several times about the differences in academic practices in different countries, for instance this, and this, and this. Today I had my first experience of a UK doctoral defence, aka viva. All I had heard about this arrangement felt discouraging. Here is this poor soul, having worked hard for four years, and all it ends up with is two hours locked up in a room with two people talking a lot of rubbish! No, I certainly prefer any of the Nordic models. But here I am. Received the thesis in the beginning of January. Had to write an independent report by last week. Independent, that is, of the other examiner. We happened to communicate on Facebook about something else, but avoided carefully You Know What. But how are you supposed to set up your oral examination of you aren't allowed to agree on the set up? We met at quarter past noon today and had just about two minutes to exchange a quick "So what do you think?" before we were taken out for a fancy lunch, carefully avoiding any mention of You Know What. As if it were just any fancy lunch. The supervisor was perhaps more tense than anyone. Imagine: sitting with your two dear colleagues and not being able to ask: "Are you going to pass my student?" Need I say that the student was not invited?

Then we had twenty minutes to share our independent reports - which I am sure was against the rules - discovering to our relief that we were in full agreement and had prepared very similar questions. This made the whole thing easy, but what if we were radically opposite?

(As a side note: I had decided to be ecological and not print out my questions, instead using my laptop. It went mad, and the file woudn't open so I had to print it out five minutes before the defence. So much for ecology).

We were in a rather unfriendly room with a huge round table, so my colleague and I decided we should sit in an equal triangle to avoid power tensions. The student was brought into the room like a prisoner for a trial. The two hours went very quickly. My colleague and I navigated between our unrehearsed questions. I was quite proud of us. (Now, that's power exercise: forgetting the student perspective). We sent the student to get the secretary. We signed tons of papers. Meanwhile, I guess, the student was complaining to her supervisors. We were not sure what to say when they all marched in. We decided to say: "Congratulations, Dr..." This was the right decision - you should have seen the student's smile! Then we talked for a while about matters of no consequence. We shook hands and separated.

The other examiner and the supervisor and I went to my place where I had asked Staffan to put a bottle of sparkling in the fridge. I hope the student had friends to celebrate with.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

On writing for children

Yet another celebrity has made a statement about children's literature, and nobody in the child lit community is surprised. Philip Nel has commented on it, and I haven't got much to add, except one thought. Why would anyone ask a celebrity like Amis whether he might consider writing a children's book? Why don't they ask him whether he would like to climb Mount Everest or dance Swan Lake? But writing children's books has become a practice with celebrities, so apparently this is just as trivial question as "Would you like to win the Nobel Prize".

Friday, 11 February 2011

Bo Carpelan in memoriam

For this occasion I am posting in Swedish. This is what I wrote about Bo Carpelan, the wonderful Finno-Swedish poet and children's book writer, in Finlands svenska litteraturhistoria (2000).

Bo Carpelan (f. 1926) vågar sig på något som få barnboksförfattare genom tiderna har vågat: lyrisk prosa för barn. Det finns förutfattade meningar om att barn inte tycker om naturskildringar och gärna hoppar över dem när de läser. Carpelan tar utmaningen och bygger sina barnromaner kring naturbeskrivningar, med samma sofistikerade symbolik och bildspråk som är kännetecknande för hans vuxenlyrik. Carpelans barnböcker påminner om Tove Janssons i sin starka nostalgiska känsla, idealiseringen av barndomen, sommaren, familjen, vänskapen. Kontrasten mellan den idylliska naturen och den grymma storstaden är ett återkommande tema i all världens barnlitteratur; hos Carpelan tillkommer, kanske på det undermedvetna planet, parallellen mellan det finlandssvenska (en sommarö i skärgården) och finska (storstaden, Helsingfors). Ö-symboliken i Anders på ön (1959) och Bågen (1968) understryker än en gång den självisolering som den finlandssvenska litteraturen har valt som överlevnadsstrategi, och staden står som kontrast, även i själva titeln, Anders i stan (1962). Men också i den andra sviten, Bågen och Paradiset (1973), finns samma motsättning. Familjebanden är lika viktiga hos Carpelan som hos Tove Jansson, och utöver föräldrarna finns det flera andra snälla och förstående vuxna, som både uppskattar och uppmuntrar barnens fantasi. Samtidigt finns det flera gemensamma drag med en del rikssvenska barnboksförfattare, framför allt Maria Gripe och Gunnel Linde, som porträtterar annorlunda, ensamma, vilsegångna barn och ungdomar. Den introspektiva berättartekniken i Anders-böckerna och jag-berättaren i Johan och Marvin-böckerna understryker att världen presenteras helt och hållet genom ett barns ögon, den traditionella allvetande och didaktiska barnboksberättaren har dragit sig tillbaka. Den utvecklingsstörde Marvin kan uppfattas som ytterligare en av den samhällsrealistiska barnlitteraturens gestalter ”med problem”, men samtidigt är han också en sinnebild för utanförskap, isolering och ensamhet.

Carpelans ganska sparsamma produktion för barn kulminerar i Julius Blom ett huvud för sig (1982) där pojken inte enbart är en udda drömmare som tycker om natur och poesi, utan är själv en diktare. Julius är besläktad med Maria Gripes inåtvända barn, särskilt Elvis Karlsson. Carpelan tillåter sin huvudperson att vara avvikande utan att behöva be om ursäkt eller bestraffas, vilket annars är det vanliga i barnböcker. Om Elvis-böckerna lämnar en med en känsla av uppgivenhet är Carpelans bok ljus och hoppfull.

Carpelans status som både barnboksförfattare och vuxenförfattare är annorlunda än för Tove Jansson eller Irmelin Sandman Lilius. Hans båda författarskap löper parallellt och går in i varandra på många sätt: tematiskt, språkligt och berättartekniskt. Barnromanerna kan också betraktas som barndomsskildringar för vuxna, inte minst Bågen och Paradiset, där gränsen mellan ungdomsbok och vuxenbok är ytterst suddig. Kanske är denna dubbelhet i tilltalet ytterligare ett viktigt kännetecken för den finlandssvenska barnlitteraturen, där ”stora” författare även känner ansvar för den unga publiken.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Conference report, continued

Here is a more professional report. It's always interesting to compare notes. During lunch today I was interrogated by a journalist who heard me yesterday and wanted to know whether I meant what I said. Is it "I say what I mean" or "I mean what I say"? I have also talked to other people who asked the same. I admitted that I was deliberately provocative, and see, they responded just the way I wanted. And, no, it is not published yet, and no, I don't share unpublished work.

Some sessions yesterday and today confirmed my belief that not all authors are as good talking about their books as writing the books. But then people who are good at talking probably cannot write.

There are too many books I would like to read, but life is too short.

Tonight there will be some film screening, including Shaun Tan's award-winning The Lost Thing.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Conference report

Everybody at this conferences sitting or standing close to me asks whether I am staying for the whole conference. Yes, why? Only one person explained: "Big stars normally fly into a conference, give their talk and fly back home". Apparently I am not a big star.

Some FB friends have asked for reports. I hadn't thought about it. I am not taking notes. It's one of those conferences where you can enjoy yourself. There won't be any quiz afterwards.

The politician who opened the conference referred to his children who are grownups now, but he still thinks children's literature is important. Why do people outside children's literature always connect it with children, preferably their own? I wouldn't give a job to an applicant who thinks being a mother qualifies for children's literature research. Some of the best children's books were written by childless authors.

Today's round table was about Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Danish and Flemish children's literature. Everybody agreed that we are still not quite sure what children's literature is. But whatever it is, it is excellent and deserves more attention.

There were Super Readers who have read picturebooks. Teenagers reading picturebooks - isn't it wonderful? I wonder how the organisers managed to persuade the kids. Well done.

There was a young Danish author who wrote her novel when she was 14 and published when she was 18. She is one of those exceptions from the rule that children's literature is written by adults who have forgotten what is was like to be a child. The Danish author's name is Fatima AlZahahra'a Altraktchi. This is Nordic children's literature today. I must read this book. I must read Den gröna cirkeln by Stefan Casta. I must read all these wonderful books that people here are talking about and that I have missed. I need a time-turner to go to the three sessions at once. This is what Stefan Casta said: "A YA writer is a burglar who breaks into a young person's mind". This alone makes it worth while to be here.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Joys of travel

I would rather not have the occasion to write this. I am at a hotel in Stavanger, Norway, and my luggage is lost. I am giving a plenary talk tomorrow morning, and I will have to it in my travel clothes. I have bought a toothbrush and toothpaste in the reception.

Every time it happens I tell myself that next time I will be clever and take my toothbrush and nightie and a change of underwear in my handluggage. At least I have my talk with me. In my laptop.

I once had to wear my travel clothes for three days at a conference  before I got my luggage back. I had changed planes in Chicago for Winnipeg, I was dead tired after a Transatlantic flight, the flight to Winnipeg was overbooked, I almost had to fight my way to the plane. And my luggage didn't get on board. Luckily, it came the day before the conference was over. I was travelling on in Canada afterwards. I have a T-shirt from that trip.

I also have a T-shirt from Kruger Park in South Africa. Staffan and I missed a connection in Paris, spent a long day at the airport (we were not allowed to leave the airport because our luggade was checked in), arrived in Johannesburg dead tired, and our luggage wasn't there. We were going to the Kruger Park, and we changed lodges every night. The suitcase came on the third day. Staffan also had to buy a T-shirt, and it is quite a problem in his size.

The worst story is, however, from when I was going to Worcester for my inaugural lecture. Packed my best academic clothes. Changed planes in Copenhagen. At Birmingham, no luggage. And I didn't even know where I was staying, so I had to give the university phone number. And I had to buy the whole outfit: pants, top, socks, shoes. The luggage arrived during the refreshments after my lecture.

And still I haven't learned.

More academic joys

I wrote recently about why we academics unually enjoy what we are doing. Today I am going to a conference in Stavanger, Norway. It isn't an academic conference, but a children's literature festival, with authors, illustrators, teachers, librarians and all those wonderful people who are passionate about children's books. There will even be children, called Super Readers, who have read some books and will talk about them in front of the audience. Wow! I've been to one of these recurrent events in Stavanger, and it's fun. Too much going on, but fun: exhibitions, recitals, round tables, film screenings and theatre performances. Many friends are coming, and I am looking forward to it. I am going because I am passionate about children's literature, because - let me be honest - I am flattered about being invited to do the opening talk, because I think I have something important to say, because it will be nice to meet old friends and make new.

Yet looking back I can think of many occasions when my motivations were different. That was when I was young, both in terms of age and career, and felt I needed to attend everying to build up my professional network. When I applied for scholarships and invited myself to international universities that would have me. I remember doing three or four lectures a day five days a week because my hosts wanted to make the most of my visit. I was passionate about children's literature and everything else I was doing, but I didn't have to be that ambitious. I thought it would count. It didn't, and I don't think anybody who read my reports was impressed. Rather they thought: what an idiot! Actually, my colleagues did ask me: Why do you travel so much, what are you getting out of it? Yes, what did I get out of it? Experience of other cultures, academic and otherwise; networks, professional satisfaction. I tested new ideas; my guest lectures fed into my research. I could do things that I for this or that reason couldn't do at my own institution. I also wanted to share my knowledge and my ideas.

Most of it is still valid although I don't need another conference paper or guest lecture on my cv. I am doing it because I enjoy doing it, and while I am thinking with horror about travelling to the airport, flying, changing planes, flying again, getting from the airport to the hotel, sleeping in an unfamiliar bed - I am looking forward to it. I know I'll be happy when I am there.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Happy Rabbit!

Today is the Chinese New year. In my youth we would celebrate it with pomp and circumstance. It was exciting because it was secret and private, for family and close friends. In the authorities' eyes, it was as bad as Christmas, or worse. You didn't advertise it to everyone.

My mother was an Orientalist, and it was she who introduced the Chinese calendar to us all. I don't even remember how it happened, but suddenly there was a wooden animal whom we decorated with jewelry and gave a little bowl of rice to eat and worshipped all year until it was time to switch to the next animal. Somehow we managed to find out the right date. You couldn't just look it up in an encyclopedia (and internet hadn't been conceived yet). My mother found the description and characterstics of the animals in her Japanese art books, and we translated them, typed out and shared. Getting the right animal in time was a problem as such, because you couldn't just walk into a shop and say: "Can I have a dragon please". Well ahead of time, a hunt would start, and if you happened to see suitable bulls or monkeys you bought a lot and gave to friends. As a last solution, you could draw your own. Planning twelve years in advance is weird when you are young, so I never kept the animals, except my own. In fact, I have a set of my animals, in clay, wood, silk, glass and jade, and they have followed me in all my displacements.

It isn't as exciting now, like evething that once was forbidden but isn't any more. When I was in China I considered buying a whole Zodiac, but the pretty ones were too expensive. I don't have a rabbit to decorate and feed with rice. Perhaps I can draw one.