Friday, 25 October 2013

How a passion is born

People come to children's literature from all kinds of pursuits: some from education, others from librarianship, Medieval or Victorian studies, folklore, history of childhood. I have recently been trying to remember when my interest for children's literature first appeared, and it seems to have always been there. I have a book, or used to have a book, published in Moscow in 1965, titled Anthology of English Children's Literature, with nursery rhymes, folktales, excerpts from novels, and extensive introductions and footnotes. From today's vantage point, I cannot really see who the intended audience was, since children's literature was only taught at schools of librarianship, and the students there probably didn't read English. But the book was compiled by a devoted scholar of English children's literature, and for many years it was the most reliable source I had.

I remember buying this book, which means it wasn't a gift, and it was relatively expensive, while I didn't receive any pocket money (a non-existent concept in my home country). It means that I had to ask my parents for money to buy the book and took the trouble to go to the only bookstore in Moscow that sold books of this kind. It means that, as a thirteen-year-old, I already knew that children's literature was part of my future profession, worth an investment.

About the same time, my grandfather was granted the privilege to travel to England and Ireland, which was very unusual, even for his high academic position. He asked me what I wanted him to buy for me. Most of my classmates would certainly have asked for pretty clothes (there wasn't much choice of these in Russia at the time), pencils, souvernirs. I asked for two books: Winnie-the-Pooh and Peter Pan. My grandfather didn't know about paperbacks and was horrified by the prices of hardbacks, but he did buy the books for me (I still have them).

When, age fourteen, I finished middle school, I seriously contemplated going to a vocational library college, because they taught children's literature there. I didn't, but the very idea, as I see now, indicated the depth of my interest. When it was time for university I didn't choose librarianship because it wasn't what I wanted to do, so I studied English as the closest alternative, and since there was practically no research in children's literature I was planning a career as a translator.

So how did it start? When did the love of children's books as reading matter turn into love of children's books as a study object?

Friday, 18 October 2013

What professors do apart from teaching

At a social event, a student made a comment on my recent circulation of conference information: “I have now finally realised how much more professors do than just teach”. This was a generous acknowledgement, as people, especially outside academia, tend to believe that professors are those lucky, lazy people who pop into classrooms every now and then, deliver a lecture and then go out for a beer. And have long summer holidays. Even people within academia, who know that instructors also have to prepare for their lectures, supervise written coursework, grade exams and papers, and console students who fail the course; even these people can hardly imagine how much work is done in between these obvious activities. In addition to my previous descriptions of a typical day or week, here is what I do, whether it is a part of my job description or not.

As the head of an academic group (or research team leader), I regularly meet up with my team members for informal conversations. These can happen over lunch or coffee, which does not mean that they are relaxed and necessarily pleasurable. Some of them take place in my office, with a box of tissues within reach. I also need to do formal staff reviews at regular intervals. I hold three business meetings and an awayday every year, preparing agendas and checking minutes. I represent my group's interest in various committees and I report back from these committees. For this, I need to write papers, often running them through colleagues for comments and approval. I have limited financial responsibilities within the group. I have 0.2 secretarial support, which means that I can ask my secretary to book meeting rooms and catering, keep accounts, produce flyers and posters, collect information for the monthly newsletter, circulate papers and take minutes. Yet it is still me who needs to tell them what to do. I take care of visiting scholars and make sure they feel welcome. Some are more demanding than others. Sometimes I have to remind them gently that I am not their supervisor. I also assess all applications from prospective visitors before I reject them, pass them on to a colleague or explain in message after message what I need from them. There is a secretary who takes care of visitors, but I need to compile files for her to process.

The past few years I have been working hard on the national university assessment (known by its most recent euphemism REF, Research Excellence Framework). The amount of time and effort put into this pointless game is unimaginable. It could have been spent on research. Not to menion all trees cut down to produce the mountains of paper.

As a member of several committees, one of which I chair, I attend meetings, read documentation, prepare arguments, take actions, exchange emails and occasionally talk to colleagues face to face. During term time, there is at least one scheduled meeting every week and innumerable urgent meetings of all kinds and shapes. I am also on College Council and several College committees, which sometimes clash with Faculty committees, and I need to decide which to prioritise and to remember which hat I am wearing. For some reason, I have not been asked to be on any University committee. Not that I am eager to, but when I was new in Cambridge, a female professorial colleague warned me: “You will be in huge demand as a female professor”. (Only 6% of Cambridge professors are women). Apparently something is wrong with me, but I let sleeping dogs lie.

As a member of the children's literature teaching team, I attend planning meetings and evaluation meetings, write course descriptions for the webpage and maintain the education platform. As an internal masters examiner, I attend two exam board meeting per year – these are the occasions when you need to produce your own death certificate to be excused. There are also Masters Management Group meetings and Quality Assessment meetings, to which I this year managed to send a younger colleague, bless her; and Doctoral Management Group for which I have put myself forward because I feel it is important. This term I am replacing a colleague as a course co-ordinator, which implies checking that all students have actually arrived, allocating supervisors, re-allocating supervisors, disentangling the tangled allocations, seeing students with additional questions, making sure that the register is in place, and, the other day, fetching the key to open the lecture room. Later on I will have to allocate assessors. There is an array of admin support for all these activities, and I need to keep track of who is doing what. Sometimes I have to apologise in my email: “This may not be your responsibility, in which case...”

I am Graduate Admissions Co-ordinator in my academic group, which is such an ungrateful job that this year I couldn't find anyone to do it. Which means that I first do the GAC (wonderful word, isn't it) job, and then sign it off as Chair. We receive about a hundred masters applications and fifty PhD applications, and I must read them all, forms, recommendation letters and project descriptions, deciding whom to pass them on to. Then I have to rank candidates who also apply for funding. There is a jungle of funding out there, and all procedures are different. It seems that the University has recently realised it and will eventually make it more comprehensible.

As a director of the Children's Literature Centre, I plan activities, allocate bits of our tiny budget to them, invite guest speakers, approve student-run events, complile mailing lists and decide what drinks should be served at Open Days. I arrange the Jacqueline Wilson Award ceremony which includes the nice moment of notifying the winner to make sure they can attend, booking room and refreshment, printing out the diploma, issuing a cheque and taking care of the sponsor. I know I should be doing more about the Centre, but I simply cannot. This is, by the way, not included in my job description and therefore regarded as hobby.

Every now and then I take Professional Development courses, preferably online. Most of these are very helpful. I also attend in-house workshops if relevant.

I am sure I have forgotten half of it (because I really try to get it off my mind as soon as possible). And I haven't even mentioned “service to the profession” which I do more or less every day. 

No wonder I can only do my own research when I am on study leave. 

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Nothing happened...

“You haven't blogged for four weeks”, Staffan points out. He is right. I haven't. When I don't blog for a long time, it can be for two reasons. 1) nothing has happened. This doesn't happen often. 2) far too much has happened. This happens all the time. When it happens I don't know where to start and let still more time pass and more things happen.

With reference to my account of imminent events, the viva went well, but I was so worn out when I came back that I cancelled all travel until Christmas, except Stockholm where I had too many important commitments. The Stockholm trip went fine. Staffan took me to Stansted. I was picked up at Skavsta by my oldest son who “happened” to be in the vicinity (which he has now admitted implies that someone dear to his heart lives close by). He took me to the place where I was staying, which is the International Writers' Guesthouse, in the very centre of the city. It is a small, but comfortable flat with three rooms and shared bathroom and living room-cum kitchen. During the week I stayed there, I saw a glimpse of my neighbours twice.

In the morning, I went down to a cafe for breakfast. It felt weird. The guesthouse didn't have wi-fi, only a USB cable, while I had brought my paddy. But every cafe with self-respect has wi-fi these days. Some of them have “coffee” for password. Then I bought some stuff for future breakfasts and topped up my travelcard. I had a long, pleasurable lunch with a friend, ending in incredible luck in a thrift shop where I found some remarkable dollhouse miniatures and spent more money I would be prepared to spend “at home”. But I wasn't at home, I was travelling, and then you are allowed to spend more. In the evening I went to admire how the youngest and his girlfriend had re-recorated their flat and to taste her famous and fabulous onion soup. The next day was also full of children and grandchildren, and that night I got horrendous neck pain. I often get stiff neck and know how to deal with it, but this was unbearable, and eventually I gave up and went to Emergency. It transpired that I wasn't a resident. “It will be expensive”, said the receptionist. “How expensive?” I asked. She named the fee. “Do I have a choice?” I said. So much for having paid taxes in my own country for twenty-five years. I got painkillers, and my clever daughter made me buy a wheat pillow, which is a bag of wheat that you heat up in a micro and put on your neck. I have now become addicted to it. I sat with it on my neck throughout the conference.

It was a very strange feeling because normally you go away to a conference, and although technically I was away, I also was kind of at home, but not really, since I didn't stay at home, but in a hotel. In the middle of the conference I escaped to attend a family crayfish party which was marvelous and far too noisy. It was also weird to travel back to Cambridge with the students (back home) and with my friend Kin (going away together) who was to stay with me for a couple of days. On top of it, Staffan was going to Stockholm the day after, but I won't go into more detail.

Kin and I had fun together when I wasn't busy with examination boards and crisis team meetings. We did all the necessary sights in Cambridge and around, went to Formal Hall (where I was obliged to say grace, as I happened to be the most senior at table) and even watched a movie. Then the pre-term business hit me: meetings, business lunches, early supervisions, arriving visiting scholars, a row of formal dinners with details I wish I could write about, but I shouldn't. And the next week it finally starts for real: PhD induction on Tuesday, masters induction on Wednesday, academic assessment meetings and meetings about the new Head of Faculty, more supervisions (I have four new PhD students), more formal dinners, various committee meetings, College Council, research seminars – all this in addition to teaching which I, according to my job description, am supposed to do “every now and then”.