Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Getting developed

I stayed away from a children's literature reading group today where this wonderful book was to be discussed, because I was hoping to finish a chapter I had so fruitfully worked on during the weekend. Instead, I received a reminder to turn in my homework for a workshop on professional development next Monday.

In my last year in Stockholm, we were all ordered to take a professional development course for PhD supervisors. I didn't know it was my last year in Stockholm, so I had to attend, and then I never finished it and remained undeveloped. (I hope my PhD students haven't noticed).

Now I have been told that I need to take a professional development course in professional development. Every now and then I have to conduct a professional development review with people in my research group, and every now and then I have to be developed by someone else. Anyone in academia will recognise the process. Actually, I think it is quite useful if done properly, but mostly it is just another of those pointless academic routines that take a lot of time and energy and don't lead anywhere. At the last Faculty Board, a brave colleague mentioned that he had been developed twice during his long professonal career and hadn't been better or worse for it, so was it really necessary?

But now it's not just be being developed or me developing someone else, it's me developing my skills of developing others. They promised the homework would take no more than an hour. Maybe you can do it in an hour, but I found myself getting quite absorbed in it, trying to evaluate myself. It took at least three hours of my precious time when I could have been professionally developing (that is, writing my book). Yet I couldn't help it. Am I a good manager? What makes me think I am a good manager? What are my strong sides? What do I need to - well, develop? One of the questions I had to consider was: What do you do if your reviewee bursts into tears? Good question, it has happened to me. Have a tissue ready.

If you take this seriously, I have no training in leadership or management or whatever, and I probably really need to develop my skills. I used to attend workshops on web-based teaching and always learned something useful. So perhaps I will develop on Monday. Unless I am hopessly beyond developmentability.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011


If you are anywhere near the academia you are at regular intervals required to submit a report of your recent publications and other relevant activities. You are normally asked to do it annually, but every now and then there is a Big Huge Humongous report that determines everybody's life and, frankly, is highly disruptive. All my UK colleagues have lived in its shadow for a couple of years now; it is discussed at every meeting and generates tons of paperwork, and I am sure it costs National Health Service fortunes in antidepressants and counselling. This time round it is called REF, Research Excellence Framework. Last time it was called something else, but it was before I came to the UK, and in Sweden they haven't yet invented this elaborate torture, but wait, they will soon.

For the uninitiated, you are asked to submit at least four publications since the last Whatever-It-Was-Called that meet the vague and subjective criteria of research quality of international standard. It is said that the journal or publisher makes no difference as long as your publication is of high quality, but who decides what is quality? How can you measure quality of research? Because measuring it what it is all about. There is a ranking list of journals, and if you have a rotten, derivative and boring article in an A* journal (and who gave them the A* if I may ask?) you are better off than if you have a brilliant article in a journal that according to somebody is not of similarly high prestige.

To make it worse, in humanities we tend to write books and chapters in books, and these are not worth anything in such reports. Books and chapters do not feature in databases; they are not measurable in terms of "most downloaded", and there is no software to trace who has quoted whom and how much. No matter how often my vanity is satisfied by seeing my name in somebody's bibliography, it's all just vanity. A couple of years ago I searched myself in the most prestigeous database Web of Science and was very upset, because of all of my 400+ publications, I only found a couple of book reviews in a journal ranked as C (I won't name the journal not to hurt their feelings). From the point of view of this database I have never published anything other than a handful of book reviews that haven't been cited in any other publications. So much for international reputation.

Well, that time I could $£&%!!*&$ Web of Science and submit my impressive list of publications in the old-fashioned way. Not anymore. This year we are required to submit our report electronically, through software that - yes, you've guessed it! - searches Web of Science and picks up all your precious publications. You just need to click and confirm that you are the author. I must say that I firmly denied the authorship of my book reviews, especially since they were published long before the current REF period. 

When I created an account on academia.edu (a strictly academic network I warmly recommend), it did a search for me and picked up most of the books, including those in Swedish and other languages, and about fifty papers, of which just a couple were inaccurate. The software asked me, very politely, whether I was the author of the publications, which I admitted, in a couple of cases reluctantly. The rest I added manually. The platform updates my stuff and adds buttons where direct links or downloads are available. (It does many other great things, but that's another story). I get about 400 hits a month - I have no idea how it compares with colleagues, but it's definitely more than Web of Science will ever acknowledge.

The bottom line is that my REF report is terribly depressing. For the past four years - and actually for my whole professional career - I haven't published anything worth including in a respected database. How did they give me a chair in Cambridge? Certainly not for my beautiful blue eyes.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Book of the month: A Tale Dark and Grimm

Aren't I lucky to have a great advisor for newly published children's books? What would I do without the fabulous Marilyn Brocklehurst at Norfolk Children's Book Centre? I have praised her several times in this blog, and if you don't know her bookshop, you should! It is impossible these days to keep track of books, and frankly, I don't trust award shortlists, but I do trust Marilyn. So when I found A Tale of Dark and Grimm in my mail the other day, I pushed aside all books piled by my bed and started reading. I would never ever have chosen this book myself, certainly not with this cover.There is another cover which I might have chosen:

I have read a lot of fractured fairy tales and novels based on fairy tales. In fact, one of Marilyn's earlier recommendations was Tender Morsels. And I have just read proofs of my essay on The Witch's Boy that will appear in the next issue of Marvels & Tales (goodness, I have plenty of links today!). I wish I had read Dark and Grimm when I was writing on The Witch Boy, but of course it wasn't published yet. Both The Witch's Boy and Tender Morsels are elegantly crafted in playing games with readers and challenging them to recognise fairy tales they may or may not know. Dark and Grimm is no worse and perhaps better. It has a wonderful metafictional voice. Yet he admits that he hadn't read the "real" Grimms until he was gownup.

Last week I was discussing fairy tales in my undergrad class, and as usual I tried hard to shock them with some versions that they didn't know. This week, I will read to them the beginning of Dark and Grimm. So that they really wake up.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Book of the week: The Willoughbys

The day before yesterday I finished George Elliot's Daniel Deronda which I had never read before. One of those slow reads that I have been enjoying the past few years, savouring every word; although I must admit that until the last fifty pages I wasn't certain who is getting whom, who will die and who will inherit a fortune. It is a much more complex story than Middlemarch and Mill on the Floss, that I also re-read recently. It also has the extra dimension of Judaism. Among the books stored on my Kindle I have Adam Bede and The Return of the Native, so we'll see what I choose next. With Kindle, you cannot choose the book by the cover.

Slow reading contributes to the accumulation of "real", printed books on my shelf, many of which are quick reads, and yesterday evening I read one and enjoyed it immensely. I would probably not have read it if it hadn't been chosen for our reading group. The Willoughbys, by Lois Lowry. If you are tired of dystopias, vampires, drugs, incest and other pleasures of today's children's literature, this is a book for you. Lowry had written dystopias herself, including The Giver and Gathering Blue, so I wouldn't have expected her to have written a brilliant parody on almost everything, every imaginable convention of children's literature with a glossary in the end, explaining words such as auspicious, ignominous, irascible and obsequious (just to irritate educationalists who claim that young readers hate adjectives), and a bibliography of classical books about orphans. If this isn't an example of the "both" of the eternal dilemma of children's literature - entertainment or education - nothing is. There isn't a sentence, a scene, a character in this book that isn't magnificent.

I thought I was long past getting enthusiastic over a children's book; in fact, I tell myself every now and then that I will never read another children's book again because nobody can invent anything new. But see, how wrong I am. I almost prefer The Willoughbys to Daniel Deronda (which, indientally, illustrates my old observation that general novels have the protagonist's name in the title, while children's book titles feature a group). More like this, please.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Let there be light

Some years ago I gave myself a present. I had previously been satisfied with standard lamps and paper lampshades from IKEA; but as a part of my personal development toward a more liberal attitude to material possessions, I decided I wanted a new light for the dining room. It may make sense to mention that it was the first time ever we had a dining room, when all the children had moved out and what used to be first our  bedroom and then my study could be turned into something as useless in a child-dense household as a dining room. While it was my study, I had a minimalistic office lamp. Now the environment with the oak table and the pretty carved cupboard with china display called for something better. And one day I saw it in a shop window and wondered how I could have done without it. A Tiffany lamp. It was terribly expensive, and it was a whole story to put it up, but it made all the difference. Then I decided I wanted a table lamp to match, and it took ages for the shop to order a matching one, but it added to the glory of my dining room.

I brought the lamps with me, and Staffan changed the plug on the table lamp. The ceiling lamp we couldn't use in the house we rented, so it spent several months in the storage. When we moved to Old School Lane, I carefully unpacked the lamp and was about to ask Staffan to assist me in putting it up in our new dining room when we realised that the fitting was wrong. Not only plugs, but all electric fittings in the UK are different from the rest of the world.

We had enough of other concerns, such as kitchen and bathroom, heating, plumbing and gas leaks. Every now and then we would have electicians in the house to do all kinds of jobs, and we would show them the tiffany lamp and ask whether they could change the fittings. Invariably, they confirmed that it was "doable", and invariably, they never came back and did not answer their phone. Until today. Two and a half years after we have moved in, my tiffany lamp is up, smiling happily at its little cousin on the table.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

A busy week

It so happened that this week was tightly packed with academic events. It started last Saturday with the Open Day at our research centre, in which I wasn't involved in (because our brilliant students did all the work), but attended and was excited about. The purpose of a Open Day is to recruit students. When we had an Open Day last spring, I think most people came to listen to our guest speaker, Michael Rosen; although we did recruit three masters students to the current course. This time, I believe that most people came because they were interested in the course (not that the guest speaker was less attractive). There were some people who had come from as far away as Manchester and York because they were curious about the course, and I hope we'll get their applications soon. They will find out in due time that the course is not all about cupcakes.

On Sunday, my dear friend Lydia came to visit. This was an improvisation, but I couldn't help telling her that there was a children's literature symposium on Monday and she was welcome to join. This symposium grew out of two colleagues, from Sweden and Denmark, independently of each other, wishing to come to Cambridge and bring their PhD students to meet our students. I didn't mind as long as they paid for themselves (I wish I had money to be generous!). We had long deliberations about this, and finally I suggested that both groups come at the same time. I was a bit uneasy whether our students would think it was a good idea and would be prepared to have a whole-day workshop, but they did. Good students, always ready to work harder. Then it took ages to find a date that would suit everyone, which I know from experience never ever happens, so eventually the Danish colleague said: "We are coming on November 7, and whoever likes can join us". Which was the only clever solution. Then the whole thing started expanding. When I was in Glasgow last month, my friend Jean Webb told me cheerfully: "See you soon!" How soon, I wondered. Well, she was coming to my Scandinavian symposium and bringing three students. Hmmm, thanks for telling me. I also had a guest lecture planned, since half a year ago, on November 9. Unfortunately, this speaker, Elina Druker, could not come on Monday, but with Lydia and all other people it turned out impressively international anyway. The presentations were good, the discussion stimulating, and the lunch horrible - I will never use our Faculty caterers again. But then we had a party at my place, with nice food provided by Skott Bed & Breakfast, and I think everybody was happy. Lydia earned her keep at Skott B&B by helping clean the kitchen.

But it wasn't over yet. Nina, my Danish colleague, had thought that it would be a pity, once we were there, not to have another event with senior scholars, so she organised it (I just booked a room), and it was truly a most gratifying professional experience. When do we have the luxury of sitting down for two hours, talking about profound issues of our discipline! That was a joy. Then we had a quick lunch - at the Hall, so it was a huge improvement on the previous day - and the guests left, and I had two meetings, while I was obliged to ask a student to take care of our next visitor who arrived at the time of my second meeting. When I finally got out of the meeting - I was chairing it, so I couldn't leave before it was finished -  I took Elina to an exhibition by a Homerton colleague, and then to Formal Hall.

Are you still with me? Because I am not done yet. Yesterday we did some standard Cambridge sightseeing in the morning and early afternoon, and then Elina gave her fascinating talk on ABC books, and I did remember to bring nuts and olives for the post-sem refreshments, which I am myself amazed at, so much other stuff I had to have in mind.

And finally today I did the class moved from last week when I had my eye surgery. Believe it or not, I was terribly apprehensive about this class. I had only met them once, on the first day when the whole teaching team popped in and waved and said Hello, see you soon in class. I have blogged about my horror of the first encounter with a new class, and in this case they had already met my brilliant colleagues, and how could I ever be as good, and they just wouldn't turn up, and they wouldn't have prepared for the class, and they would think me boring... They did turn up, and they were well prepared and talkative and responsive, and I was really, really pleased with this class and only did half of what I had planned to do, which I always view as a successful class.

So here I am, Thursday evening of a very busy and hightly stimulating week, and I am trying not to think about all the zillions of things that had accumulated while I was having fun. I am going to take a day off tomorrow.

Friday, 4 November 2011


We all have our various nightmares, and something that isn't a big deal for one can be horrifying for someone else. I am mortally scared of anything coming close to my eyes and would probably do anything under threat of torture. I cannot watch a movie in which something is done to someone's eyes, and I can hardly read about it. The most terrifying scene of anything I have seen in movies is from Star Wars in which Anakin is getting his black mask on. The shot is from his point of view, and we have a full sense that the mask is being put on us, coming closer and closer to cover our face. In my mind, this scene has inexplicably - or maybe not - connected with something my father once told me. When he was three years old, he had a complicated ear surgery and had general anaesthesia. They didn't tell him what they were going to do, and when the mask came he thought they were going to suffocate him.

I had a minor surgery on my eyelid yesterday, and apart from my general anxiety it also turned out that they put a cloth over my face, with a little hole for the eye. I was Anakin with a mask on my face. Through the hole, I could see strong white light. Something came through the hole.

It took no more than ten minutes. I didn't feel anything. Except utter horror.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Close encounters with children's writers, part 5

The memories of my deported family brought forward other reminiscences. A couple of times in the early '90s I went to Russia for various children's literature events where I would meet children's writers from all over the world. At one of these gatherings I met Otfried Preussler. He used to be a special favourite, one of those whose books I and my friends read when we were quite grownup and loved: The Little Witch, The Little Ghost, The Little Water-Sprite. The Little Witch was in Russian called The Little Baba-Yaga. Thinking back, I am not sure whether it was a lucky translation. But the books were wonderful. Remember, we didn't have access to much of the Western children's literature, so the many stories about nice witches and scared ghosts were not known to us, therefore Preussler's books felt so different and fresh, and they were humorous and witty and lacked the didacticism we were fed up with. The little Baba-Yaga was a bit like Pippi Longstocking, whom we didn't know either before we were grownup. We used to read the books aloud for each other.

As a grownup, I certainly prefer The Satanic Mill, but that's another story.

Imagine how thrilled I was to meet this great writer. Children's literature gatherings are always lively social events, so there were long dinners with plenty of strong beverages, and at some point I was sitting beside Preussler who started talking Russian to me. Perfect Russian. He had learned it in a Russian POW camp. To that, I could only reply by telling the story of my German family, stating that there was presumably little difference between POW camps and labour camps for deported Germans.

After which we started singing German songs. First children's songs, crying and laughing in turns. But after another shot of vodka, we went over to dirty songs. That a nice well-behaved Russian girl resident in Sweden knew German dirty songs might have come as a surprise, but by that time nothing mattered beside our common cultural heritage.