Monday, 22 April 2013

A quarter of a century

Twenty-five years ago this day I defended my PhD thesis. I have several times described a Scandinavian PhD defence, but I can add some details. Swedish PhD theses are published as books. So there was a book that by the time of defence had been sent out to media. I was interviewed in major newspapers, I believe because fantasy was a hot topic, and it makes a good interview and a good book review as well. There were newspaper reports from the defence itself. I was terribly nervous (surprise!) and used a bad word when we were getting in the car to go to the university. I mean, a really bad word; I don't think I ever used it before or since. I still feel ashamed.

Somebody had told me to be prepared for the chock of the whole thing ending very fast. It was a good warning, because it did. I have no memory of the examiner's questions or comments, but I do have two photos of the event, one of which has a chalk figure on the blackboard, representing a Closed Secondary World. The other photo does not have this figure, so there must have been some time in between. I was wearing black, my examiner white, which was duly reported in the press and ascribed a significance.

After it was over the examiner and the examination board went into their meeting, while the closest circle of friends, about thirty people, had sparkling wine in the Department coffee room. My oldest son, then fifteen, was angry with the examiner for being nasty to me (she was incredibly nice) and anxious to know whether I had “defended”. When the exam board came in to announce and congratulate, I asked what took them so long. “Oh, it was such an interesting thesis, they said. We couldn't stop discussing it”. I am trying to remember who was on that committee. There would typically be one from the department, one from another department and one external. I frankly don't remember.

The doctoral dinner was in the wing of the Army Museum, with brick vaults. Some of  my friends had prepared a fabulous feast. There was a chocolate cake with a marzipane book on top. Again, from the photos I guess there were speeches, possibly singing, but I have no memory of it.

I don't think my thesis has changed the world, but it sold steadily for twenty years, and it is still used as required reading in some places.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Progress report

It's a fact. My study leave is over. Tomorrow, I am back in the wheel. Meetings, supervisions - all these wonderful things I have missed so much. So it's a good point to reflect on what I have done with my time. Two years ago, I wasted my study leave on conference travel, but I was clever this time. I only went to one doctoral defence. I didn't take on any new tasks. Or did I?

I am looking at my task organiser from January 1 onwards. I have obviously finished the book which was the main, the biggest task. I have actually worked hard, every day, almost seven days a week.

In addition, I have read and reviewed several book manuscripts and proposals, read endless drafts of my PhD students (they are not affected by study leaves, fair enough), written a couple of abstracts for conferences I won't attend, written zillions of recommendation letters, written an article that I had promised to write and forgotten, revised another article, arranged two symposia, written a symposium paper - wow, have I done all this in three months? I must have worked very, very hard. No wonder I feel so tired. Going back to work will be such a relief.

iPad, uPad

I have a new paddy. No, there is nothing wrong with my old paddy, and I still love it as much as the first day we met. But it has a friend now. It's a work pad. A uPad (=university pad).

You may wonder (and people have wondered) why I would want another one, but I like to keep work and personal tools apart. I have a laptop at home, and there are lots of things I do on it that I would not do on my office machine. So when my boss consulted me - as the most technology-savvy at the Faculty :-) - whether people who already use pads should still get new ones from the Faculty, I said yes, of course. What I use in my spare time is my own concern.

When we signed up for colours, I chose bright green, to make it different from my home paddy.

We had an instruction session when we collected our new toys where we set up five thousand passwords half of which didn't work.

I had had some serious thoughts about exactly how much I wanted to keep things apart. I want different accounts for home and work, but I want to sync calendars and other useful stuff. So far, I haven't managed. But I won't disturb our IT people yet because I am sure there are people having more trouble than I. People who don't even know what an App store is. (Mind, I didn't know until recently. I feel soooo advanced in comparison).

The uPad had some good apps that I'd like to have on my home pad. I haven't figured out yet whether I can do it.

Now, most people will of course say: I wish I had your problems...

Friday, 12 April 2013


Imagine that you are a composer and have been commissioned a violin concerto. You take it very seriously. You want to make your work pleasurable for your audience, but you also want to create something original. You want to inspire the listeners and you want to respect their previous knowledge. You want them to recognise your personal themes and tunes, but you also want them to hear how you have developed them. You put all your life experience into this concerto, your knowledge of music history, the various instruments, harmony and counterpoint and all the technicalities. But you also use your imagination, your insight and your dedication to your listeners. When you have finished, you feel that this is the highlight of your professional career.

Then your piece goes to a committee to be evaluated. They say that the violin should be replaced by a tuba. That your woodwinds should be cut down by half. That your percussions should be eliminated and more trumpets added. That you should have written an opera instead. That you are far too original for the unsophisticated audience you were supposed to have in mind, but you also are too simplistic in your treatment of sharps and flats. That there are far too many notes per bar. That the high C you use in the second movement is too demanding on the ear. That your largo is too large and your diminuendo too diminutive. That your allusions to whatever you are alluding to will not be picked up by an average listener because they, the committee, haven't picked them up. That you need to add some explanation on what all those black dots mean. And have an appendix with every note you have used with exact reference to everyone who has ever used them before.

If you wonder what I am talking about, I am revising a manuscript according to reviewers' comments.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Book of the week: A boy and a bear in a boat

I am in a period of strong aversion toward any kind of writing: printed, digital, fiction, non-fiction, for work and for pleasure. This is the result of very intensive work with words and sentences and paragraphs, my own as well as other people's. I have tried to heal myself through reading completely unrelated literature, including Jane Austen's Lady Susan, a little gem that I had never read before, and Wilkie Collins's The Queen of Hearts, which is just as slow-paced as my mind can cope with. But even so, there have been days when I turned off the light without reading a line, which is very unlike me. In the middle of this mental bog, as I was moving piles of perused academic books from home to my office, I uncovered, with pangs of remorse, a book that a colleague gave me to read before I went on study leave - more than three months ago. She said it was a good book, and I took it out of politeness, because people always tell me about books they think are good, but I am frankly so fed up with average books that I can't stand another one. Some time ago when I happened to be in the office she asked whether she could have her book back because she needed it for her book club, and I felt so horribly bad, but I didn't want to go to the office again just to return the book.

Well, in a couple of weeks I am going back to work, and then I must return the effing book, so I thought I would read a couple of pages just to see what it was like. I have become adamant: I give a book a chance of twenty pages, and if I don't get hooked I won't read it unless I get paid. I get paid for reading books occsionally, so it is not just a figure of speech.

So I opened the book, without any expectations. I am glad I had this copy rather than the one with a "child-friendly" cover because I wouldn't have opened that one even with the best recommendations. Yes, sorry to admit, I do judge books by the cover, and some covers put me off completely. I hope some publisher is reading this.

Anyway, I opened the book, and I could not close it until I finished it, three hours later, well beyond my lights-off time. I wanted to know how it goes, because it is completely unpredictable, but I also enjoyed every word in this weird book. I found myself suppresing my professional desire to classify and dissect it, to find symbols and profound messages, telling myself: Stop doing this and have fun.

If you have been following my blog, you know that I don't normally use superlatives unless I really mean them. But let me tell you: put everything aside and read this book. If you only have time to read one book this year, this should be it. And don't ask me: Is it a children's book? I don't care.

Sadly, it only made my aversion toward reading worse. I cannot be so lucky twice.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Why I will never ever ever write another book

Believe it or not, but I have finished my book. The book that I started exactly three months ago, on January 2. If you don't believe me and say that nobody can write a book in three months, let me remind you that “writing” as in putting words on screen is just the top of the iceberg. In fact it has taken me four years. True, I have done other things in between (another book, for instance), but from the first note to the finished manuscript today – about four years of reading and thinking and more reading and more thinking and more thinking...

Now that I've done it, I am confident that I will never again want to write another book. To begin with, I don't have to. The imminent university assessment will be the last in my professional career. If I never write another line, nobody will notice. I don't need more books for my merits; I think my vanity is satisfied... No, seriously, I think I have written enough for a lifetime, and there are so many brilliant young scholars around.

Writing this book, I have noticed how difficult writing has become. It used to be easy, painless, joyful. Well, of course there were moments when it felt horrible and hopeless, but on the whole it was a pleasurable pastime. Now my mind is wandering away; I lose track of my own thoughts; I get tired quickly. Go on, tell me the truth: you are old! Yes, thank you, I know. And when you are old you don't run marathons, you don't climb Everests, you don't cross deserts – you adjust your aspirations to your age. So I won't write more books. I may write an article some time in the future. But only if I can think of something really important to share.

So you may ask, am I retiring? Am I withdrawing from academic life altogether? Not at all. I am looking forward to spending the rest of my professional life doing something I like best of all: walking in the groves of academe, surrounded by my disciples.