Friday, September 29, 2017

Pink lego and baby hijabs

Mina Ghabel Lunde, a knowledgeable and angry woman, is writing about the trend (in Norwegian) to permit very young girls to wear a hijab in schools in Norway, and the acceptance of this practice. I am really happy she does, even if I am one of the women she is attacking. I am one of those who don't think there should be a separate girls' lego, but that the traditional designs should have more colours - including pink - and more designs, not to mention more girl options in the existing designs.

This is, compared to the issue of tiny girls being considered sexualised individuals, who men can not look at without being tempted to sin, a pretty innocent problem. It might look like a problem for those who have no real problems. That doesn't mean I have never thought about the fact that young girls wear hijabs.

The hijab is a hypersexualising piece of clothing. This may sound weird, as it is not revealing, like a bikini or a cropped shorts leaving half a tiny butt hanging out, but its purpose is to point out that the person wearing it is a woman, a sexual being, a temptress who can unmake men's resolve if they get but a glimpse of her body. It holds immense promise, even more than the revealed body, because it states a power so strong that it needs to be controlled severely, or it will unmake the men who face its raw nakedness. If you can see the least lock of hair, men can lose their minds, the hijab claims.

So why have I not written about it before? It's not like I haven't thought it. Lovely, modern-dressed mothers with their tiny daughters, in matching hijabs and sparkling nails. Large, covered and veiled women with young girls I can only guess the age of through their size. And to address the fact that the need to cover their bodies keeps these girls from learning to swim: families on the beaches around Copenhagen, the women veiled in the shadow, preparing picnics and looking after the little ones, while the men lounge in shorts or jump in the water. Oh yes, I can see them.

But faced with this, I also have to face my lack of knowledge about the better options. What can I offer a girl in a veil? If I complain about her being on the beach without swimming, I may not help her remove the veil, I may take away from her the right to be on the beach. If I question the wisdom of putting a hijab on a 10-year old, I may not help her to feel the wind in her hair, but take away her opportunity to walk freely with her mother on the street. When I complain about the extreme pinkness of girl clothing, I know there are other and better options available, which will not restrict the girls further. I know the consequences of having a wider colour range available for girls and boys, and it is not isolation, restriction and alienation. I don't know the consequence for the girl in the hijab.

That is why it is so important that women who do know the consequences, who know the communities, the families, the cultures and the rules, speak up for their sisters, and help us, who would like to speak but who fear to do it wrong, to learn how we can speak of this correctly and not restrictively. So thank you, Mina Ghabel Lunde, for speaking up and pointing out the problem. I will still speak up when I think Lego behaves stupidly. I will not start speaking against little girls in hijabs, because I still fear I will say something stupid, and make things worse. But I am very happy to help signal boost your arguments, and look for ways to help, because yes, I do think it is a problem to sexualise little girls and little boys, no matter how it happens. Let them just be children, with all the options open, for a while yet.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Beaches of research

This isn't a metaphor for how knowledge accumulates like sand to create the volume of knowledge which we can traverse - although that might actually have worked. Instead it is about real beaches and the process of writing.

First time I heard about the idea of writing on a beach was way back in the late eighties, as my fellow student told me she had written her master's thesis on the beach. I was green with envy, but also quite incredulous. It was a great thesis, but I didn't believe in the kind of work that could be done without a huge stack of books, a hard chair and the musty air of a library or reading-room.

Then I started to have to get academic work done, no matter what. I spent a too-hot week in New York not in the city, but in lovely Greenport, because there was a cheap hotel by a pebbly little beach on the North Shore, just the place to be while the city was melting.

That worked, so when I had a chance to go to Italy for some weeks, I brought the computer to Urbino and ultimately to Pesaro, which has a spectacular beach. I won't recommend trying to work there in the season though, it's crowded and hot and noisy - but in September October it's quiet and lovely. 

Then follows a list of beautiful Italian experiences. Alghero, with or without beach, is definitely a place where it is possible to work, but Bosa became a special place. The lovely town with its spectacular beach was where I went with two colleagues for the first serious academic bootcamp - a concentrated period of lovely surroundings, great food and intense work. 

In between this I moved to Denmark, and for a while had an office which was unbearably hot during the hours with direct summer sunlight. Since that's not all that common (perhaps 5-6 days a year), it was acceptable to work elsewhere during those hours, and I started taking my work to the nearby beach. I read, reviewed and commented on endless papers, articles, exams, books, during those beach hours. There is a certain amount of guilt to it, I guess. If I am to have such a lovely time, I had rather work, to prove that I am not just there on vacation. Daughter of a deeply protestant work-ethic as I am, having a too good time is not good at all, but if I can be productive, it makes up for it. 

This has brought me to where I am today. I am currently on sabbatical in Australia, visiting at the RMIT. However, they have winter here at the moment. (Insert Scandinavian rant about insulation, architecture, windows and temperatures indoors.) While I love my friends in Melbourne, the city has some of the best food to be found anywhere (gluten free dumplings, and spectacular ones!) and RMIT is a very interesting University, winter in Melbourne is a definite meh. After 10 days were lost to the flu, and I spent most of my working days wrapped up for below zero when it was around +10, and still freezing, I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself, and go north to find some warmth. And here I am:


I even took a picture of the work I am doing, just to prove that I do work, but it was showing too much of the text of a fellow researcher for random publication. in the three days I have been here I have finished reading and graded two 100+ page final dissertations, finished up editing an article after review, send off another article for peer review, and reviewed the work of said colleague. All this while listening to the surf, and applying sunscreen. And in between writing this blog post, I have been working to administrate the reviewing of a journal issue. Guilt. It's a powerful thing, and right now I feel guilty for not sticking with the winter. But I guess I will get enough of that when I return to Denmark in October. 

Friday, August 18, 2017

In favour of better jokes.

Some days ago we learned that the Norwegian minister of knowledge (education, I guess) delivered what he thought was a funny joke about white power. He immediately after had to do what it took Pewdiepie months to do - renounce stupid nazi jokes. Which proves that if nothing else, he is quicker in the uptake than at least one well-paid streaming star. The apology is however not going over well with - why am I not surprised - white men with some education. They claim it is another example of the supression of free speech. (And I am not directly quoting here because no way am I pointing the shamers and trolls of the world at individuals who are not elected officials or Youtube millioneers.) (If you don't think you said anything like that, I am not talking about you.)

Anyway - I suspect the problem with not acknowledging the danger of these casual jokes and what they symbolise isn't that Norwegian educated men any moment now will be donning the SS-shirts hanging in their closets. (Note: I do not believe all white educated men are secret nazi's. Was this a bad joke? Perhaps, if so I apologize. Irony is hard. It's based on stating what we all know is impossible or unreasonable. It stops working if the other party doesn't know what you said is impossible.) Our lack of acceptance that "race" is important is rather the opposite of the problem with America: where they reject the existence of class, we reject the possibility of ethnicity and race as dividers of the population.

Scandinavian social democracy, whether we have a red, green, blue or darkblue government, has a set of basic ideals, and one of those is the value of honest work. There is no shame in what your work is, as long as you work. Of course, like with all ideals, this isn't perfect. There is still a shadow of class arrogance between neighbourhoods. There is a center/periphery divide with a definite class flavour to it. Classic markers like language, taste in music, reading habits, artistic ability, education, etc etc - they still influence us. They make it easier to get jobs, gain influence, find the right kind of friends. We are however aware of them, know how to navigate the class issue and how to either counter or take advantage of it in different situations. Through the acknowledgement of the existence of a class-based society, we can work on making the effects of it less obvious and painful.

Gender is also getting there, although it takes a bit longer. This is among other things because the fight for class equality for a long time overshadowed the issue of gender equality. I apologize for not translating the following quote, but it is mainly here to demonstrate that I am not taking the socialist movement resistance to gender equality from my own imagination:
Fagorganisering av kvinnelige arbeidere foregikk i siste halvdel av 1800-tallet, men gikk tregt. Kvinnene var oftest ufaglærte, og de fleste var unge og så på lønnsarbeidet som midlertidig. Noen var gift og hadde både arbeid ute og mann og barn hjemme. Dette kunne gjøre organisering av kvinner vanskelig. Det hjalp ikke at menn i arbeiderklassen ofte var svært negative til å få kvinner inn i sine organisasjoner. 
Mange var mot at kvinner i det hele tatt arbeidet i industri og håndverk, blant annet fordi de hadde lavere lønn, og dermed kunne konkurrere med menn om arbeidsplasser. Samtidig mente mange menn, og som regel også kvinner, at det var langt bedre om kvinnene var hjemme og tok seg av familien.
So, yeah, minimising class difference is better explored and the tools better developed than for minimising  gender difference. On this background, it makes sense that we still have difficulties dealing with a more ethnically diverse society. After all, while the first labour movements started to bloom, and the first socialists started to talk about votes for all, we still had a paragraph in our constitution that denied jews access to the country. It was removed in 1851, and one of the most active builders of the image of Norway, the poet Henrik Wergeland, was a vital agent in opposing it, so we got on with it reasonably quickly, but it wasn't at the top of our agenda.

The tragedies that followed in the second world war, and the time it took for Norwegians to understand what was really happening, not even the heroics of the border guides and shetland boats could totally wipe away. Norway's past, when it comes to ethnic diversity, is blotted with attempts to eradicate the culture and language of the Sami and the Norwegian travellers, "taterne". But it is coming together, slowly, as the basic value of equality means that there is a positive trend in Norwegian society. Lately, however, the societal changes have just been too rapid for this slow assimilation. And so it is hard to understand why a bunch of white men can't, in a private party, joke about "white power", if black men can use racial epithets about themselves.

The difference is: the white power groups were very busy eradicating all the others, and not enough time has passed to let the ideology pass into history. While armed protesters still march to insist on white supremacy, racist jokes are bad. Perhaps wait a few generations after the last nazi is gone before you start, like with the white knights. If it is hard to understand, think about Isis. I suspect it would be time for some apologies if a muslim politician joked about fighting for Isis in a private party, that is, if the terror police didn't get him first. And that is not even a joke. A muslim politician being overheard as speaking in favour of Isis could end really badly, no matter how funny he thought his ironic comment was.

That is my point though: we haven't learned how to be a multicultural society yet. We want to be, and we want to not feel guilty when we do the wrong things, and we want to be funny when we crack jokes, and we want everybody to understand that we are working hard on being a society with strong values on the side of democracy and equality. But we have to give ourselves time to learn. Learning is painful, not only for the teacher, but also for the student, and right now, we Scandinavians are students of how to live in a heterogenous society. We will do stupid things. We should apologize. We should rethink. And then do smarter and more universally funny things. Because a joke only you like isn't really a joke worth retelling. Let's all aim for better jokes all around.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Free speech, right?

One of the arguments that keep popping up in Twitter and Facebook feeds is a discussion around free speech, and how the feminist agenda is limiting it. Of course, occasionally other agendas are killing free speech, such as those who fight for ethnic equality, economic equality or just plain human rights. With the claim that the feminist (or other equality based) agenda is accused of limiting free speech, there tends to be one think they all have in common. The threatened speech can be seen as supporting discrimination.

The most recent discussion is concerned with the engineer who circulated a memo at Google. In this document he argued for why male characteristics are better for engineers than female, and why that discussion should be permitted. Going through and arguing with the entire document is a time-consuming and painful thing to do, but luckily it has already been done pretty well. Suzanne Sadedin over at Quora has a pretty well articulated walk-through of the arguments concernine biological differences between men and women, for instance. Cynthia Lee ladysplains the computer science side of the argument over at Vox. I am not even going to go into the discussion as to whether Google had the right to fire an engineer who went against their diversity policy, because of course they do. That is actually how a free market, which libertarians love, works.

So what am I going to talk about?

I want to talk about the idea that all free speech should be without consequence. Because that is what is argued in the case of the Google engineer. He has, after all, not been refused his right to speak, quite the opposite, he has been asked to speak quite a lot since he was fired. What he wants is to speak without any negative consequences to himself. When he then claims it is a free speech matter, he commits a logical fallacy. Dissent of a woman made a pretty good list of logical fallacies concerning free speech back in 2012, long before this, and at least one is directly relevant:

4) An edict that states that an employer, school or club cannot form or enforce policies on speech that happens within its own environment and boundaries. 
Citizen G: You’re a stupid bitch! 
The boss: You’re fired. 
Citizen G (to the lawyer he or she hopes to hire): That stupid bitch violated my right to free speech. 
Clarifying the fallacy: The lawyer will not be taking Citizen G’s case because employee discipline is not legal censorship. Citizen G’s right to curse about his or her boss is protected, but will not receive safeguards from anything except arrest or government assassination. Firing Citizen G did not nullify his or her ability to call his or her boss a stupid bitch.

Google is huge, and if Google really does practice censorship of free speech, we'd be in trouble. I would probably be in trouble personally, since Google owns this blog platform. Now there are ways in which Google regulates speech, and while I don't think it's with malicious intent, it's really annoying to borderline problematic. For instance: if you're a scholar and use Google scholar, you really should make sure to do your searches while you are abroad on conferences as well as from home. The algorithm that makes sure that your search for "same day car repairs", or "pizza takeaway" gives you the local hits high up on your list, apparently messes with Google scholar hits. After a year of travels and writing from different countries, it has become pretty obvious - articles which are not frequently used in local searches and libraries come far down the list. This kind of censorship causes a bias in academic writing and publishing which makes it almost impossible for dissenting voices from remote locations to be heard, as it strengthens the centrally positioned scholars' tendency to only cite each other, making it less and less likely that others will be heard.

But even this isn't a violation of free speech. That would be if Google stopped displaying hits outside of our geographic area, suppressing them in specific searches, and is exactly the kind of censorship that comes into play in the Google vs China discussion:

Google vs. China 
Google has had a rocky relationship with the Chinese authorities since January 2010, when the company said it might shut down Chinese operations due to a "sophisticated and targeted" cyber attack. Google said at the time that it was no longer willing to censor its Chinese search engine. The forced blockage of Google's service and Google's subsequent threat to pull out highlight concerns of cyberspace security within China. While Jiang Yu, a spokesperson of the China's Foreign Ministry, promoted the Chinese government's "development of the internet", Wang Chen of China's State Council Information Office defended online censorship: "Maintaining the safe operation of the Internet and the secure flow of information is a fundamental requirement for guaranteeing state security and people's fundamental interests, promoting economic development and cultural prosperity and maintaining a harmonious and stable society."[56] In 2014, in response to a series of terrorist attacks, China made all Google services almost unusable by tightening its Internet censorship, often called the "Great Firewall of China". In 2009, one-third of all searches in China were on Google. As of 2013 the US company has only 1.7% market share.
Now, this is actual censorship in action, and this is a threat to free speech. What we are looking at here is how Google controls what I guess we can all agree is an asset to freedom of speech, and they refuse to adjust it to facilitate the kind of censorship practiced in mainland China.

But why fight for the right of women, coloured or low-income individuals to speak, and not the right of all, specifically educated, well situated white men? Aren't they allowed to start discussions about their working conditions?

Of course they are. But here's the thing with freedom of speech - for it to work, we all need to agree that all are equal first. Otherwise it won't be free speech, it will be a mutual silencing attempt. And this is where supremacy-groups come in. Whether it's gender supremacy (all directions), ethnic, colour, educational, or based on weight or muscle strength, supremacy groups that try to silence others because they for some reason "do not fit" have already waived their right to free speech. If you claim that being somehow "better" gives you the right to shut others up, you have to accept that others, who might be "better" than you, have the right to shut you up. And since in cases like this right = might, we are not looking at a society with free speech any more, and you can't use the argument. This is also where I have a problem with some of the more extreme aspects of identity politics - silencing the opposition is never OK. However, most advocates of identity politics don't try to silence the opposition. They just want them to be polite.

So, what does this have to do with the poor engineer, who just wanted the right to not having to be so sensitive all the time? Well, he has the right to be insensitive. However, he can't force others to like him for it. Or to return to the list of things free speech is not at Dissent of a woman:

1) A guarantee that in any particular interaction between individuals, people will like you, respect your opinion or even listen to you. 
Illustrative dramatization:
Citizen A: We shouldn’t be arguing about gender equality and pay when women don’t belong in the workforce in the first place. Working women are ruining families everywhere.
Citizen B: Citizen A, you are an idiot and I do not deem your supposition as worthy of a response.
Citizen C: I agree with Citizen B.
Citizen D: What the fuck, Citizen A? I want no piece of this protosexist fundamentalist nightmare. Take that shit elsewhere.
Citizen A: I have the right to express my opinion without all you fascists ganging up on me and trying to shut me up. Freedom of speech, bitches. 
Clarifying the fallacy: Actually, Citizens B-D have the right to call Citizen A names, as well as contradict and devalue Citizen A’s stupid opinion for the exact same reason that Citizen A is free to express a stupid opinion. Both the stupid opinion and the entirely appropriate return volley of criticism are protected by the first amendment.
I sympathize with the people who are angry that they can't speak their minds and still be popular for it, I really do. But getting feedback to what we say is how we learn.


And that engineer? He is now planning to sue Google, although it's not really yet clear on which grounds. (Also, he doesn't have a Ph. D., Businessinsider, even if his linkedin page said so for a while.) If he wins, it will probably be seen as a victory for people everywhere to speak up against company regulations. And in some cases, such as with particularly stupid dress codes, perhaps that's a good thing.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Living in the future

We live in the future. Not only the actual future if seen from yesterday, but in the future of dreams. We can travel around the world in a matter of hours, rather than months, we can speak across vast distances, wirelessly on our personal phones, we have huge amounts of knowledge available at our fingertips on small easily carried devices, and we can carry all our books in a purse. (And that last link is to the Spanish Wikipedia, which I hope gives justice to the then 54 year old inventor of the first electronic book, a Spanish schoolteacher named Ángela Ruiz Robles.)

Image found here.
But has this change actually been that huge? When I was a kid, I used to think about the changes my parents and grandparents saw. My grandfather on my father's side was a sami farmer in a world that went from horses and sail to cars and motor boats. My grandfather on my mother's side was an itinerant worker, a mason, who built railroads and bridges, cutting and working stone by hand and careful use of dynamite. Both my parents experienced farming with a horse and farming with a tractor, they would grow their own food, forage, hunt and fish as easily - or more - as they read the newspaper. The technology they adopted seems simple to us, but to them it was lifechanging - they got washing machines, chainsaws, television. In their lifetimes travel became a mundane thing, to the point that when their daughters grew up jumping on a train to go through Europe was not only doable, but popular.

And then the digital age hit us.

Was this when the future arrived?

Personally, I don't think so. We are just skimming the cream of all those firsts that are so much older than us. Before this blog comes the printing press, the type-writer, the moving image, the screen, the radio, the telephone, wired and wireless transmission, the Colossus computer, all inventions from the lifetime of both my grandparents and parents. What I use is all of this, put together, and used in different manners. Our inventions are bricolages, mixtures of what was already there.

The one, drastically new thing, that permits this culture of remixing the past, is the micro chip. Those who were at a "folk college" at Skjeberg in 1980-81, may remember a more than usually confused radio segment about the micro chip and how it would revolutionize the future. We knew it would happen, but at the time we had no idea how, and we particularly had no idea that what we tried to talk about was actually called an integrated circuit, had been developed since the fifties, and would thoroughly revolutionize the way we communicated.

Something as simple as remix culture isn't new, but remixing wouldn't want to be. Because what would Duchamp's L. H. O. O. Q be without art history? Remixing is possible and has meaning because of the past, not in spite of it. And in the spirit, and hopefully with the sense of humour of Duchamp, I find it fascinating and delightful that the most revolutionary invention of this age quite possibly is a better way to utilize what is already there.


Monday, August 07, 2017

The Social Media Diet

Wonderful fellow researcher Lone writes about how she does bring her phone with her on vacation, and she argues well for why, as she describes the phone as a vital part of how she experiences and shares her life. At the same time current media are packed with warnings and "social media diets". The article that triggered this blog post is from yesterday's Daily Mail, but if you google the term, you'll see that this pops up every year, in different media. It is clearly one of those topics, that like bikini bodies and barbeque accidents return regularly to our attention. So let's look at it a bit.

First, the issue of "social media diets" tend to pop up when parents have to spend time with their kids, and discover what they are actually doing. In this case, it's summer, they go on vacation, the phones may not be as easily charged or the roaming costs go through the roof, and not only do the kids rebel, but the parents can't use their own phones as a distraction, and so it's clear that there has been a change of behaviour. Social media have become extremely important in our lives, from an early age on.

Lone Koefoed Hansen connects to the tradition of the cyborg body, envisioned among other places in Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto, where she describes humanity as a hybrid between flesh and machine. The machine, in this understanding, is not a monstrous alienating force, but an extension of our bodies. As long as this extension is relatively simple and recognisable, perhaps even traditional, an axe, for instance, or a needle, we don't really question whether it ruins society as we know it. It is when this extension becomes unfamiliar that we, as a society, question its value. Do we really need to be able to fly, or will it end horribly if we try? Are souls captured by photography? Is a sun-centric model of the universe heretic? Can women play games? Change is always scary, and change in how our children act, think, speak, and in the choices they make, is perhaps the scariest of all. Hence, the reassuring, calming, idea of the healthy and controlled media diet.

Most media diets offer time restrictions. I am rather in favour of those. Kids need to do a variety of things - run, climb, be cold and warm, fall down and get back up, be stung by a wasp and get wet in a puddle - they need all of the experiences, and they need to do quite a few of them on their own, outside. This takes time. Same does reading, drawing, playing an instrument, helping with cooking, having a conversation with a friend or an adult, doing chores and playing a board-game with the family. If kids are glued to the screens, they won't get any of this very important stuff done. However. And this is where I disagree with the strict restrictions. However, by making the social media time something which is not part of all the rest, they don't need to control it, use it and take advantage of it. 

Social media today isn't something you do in isolation, it is part of everything. It's sending a snap to a friend when you're hanging upside down from a tree. It's asking when you can meet while you're stuck in your parents' car and really want to make sure you can see your friend that night. It's demonstrating your instrument skills to a proud grandma on Skype. It's the picture of the one successful cupcake, the joke shared among friends that makes you laugh while you should be doing homework, it's the reminder from your sister that you need to plan a present, it's the argument you got into that escalated when you used the wrong emoticon because you were walking to the bus while typing. 

This can't be quantified. It has to be learned in order for our kids to understand the restrictions and the possibilities. And we are the ones who need to support that learning, just like we need to support our kids as they learn how to get to school, how to choose a boyfriend, how to drink responsibly, how to have safe sex, how to go for a hike, how to drive a car, how to travel the world. And, since we are talking of diets, yes, we also need to teach our kids how to eat healthy and well. And we know very well that this isn't only about quantity. Food is both good and bad for you. So are social media. Teach your kids to be sceptical, critical and a little cautious, just like they should be about modern, processed food. Because good use of social media is as hard as smart food choices. And it's can't all be cupcakes, even if they sometimes are just what you need.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Dreams

My dreams are exceptionally mundane. They are silly funny things, like walking out the door of the apartment in Denmark and finding myself here in Bologna, or annoying, like fear of oversleeping making me wake up once an hour, if I have set the time early to make sure I manage to get up. But once upon a time I used to have nightmares.

They lasted well into my adult age, horrible terrors, where I was chased through a maze that was my childhood home, new doors opening in strange places, while the things chasing me - animals of some kind - came ever closer, until I woke up terrified, sometimes screaming.

The last time I had this dream, our little, orange kitten came into the dream. While I was trying to hide, she grew to the size of a lion, then she got between me and the thing chasing me, and ROARED.

This happened years ago, and the kitten became a cat, aged, and died, and we missed her and grieved for her. But in my dreams she still walks in her golden lion shape, and the dreams remain silly, funny, annoying or just weird. I never tried to interpret this at any particular level, I just accepted it, but it was a gift from a kitten that would have been put to sleep if we had not adopted her, a gift I treasure every time I don't bolt out of my dreams in terror.
Watermarked pic nicked from the 'net.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The practicalities of life

When we moved to Denmark, my husband and I reduced our amount of property dramatically. Just the number of books we got rid of was overwhelming, and I still miss the almost new couch we left in Volda. One of these days I may go shopping for a new, equally comfortable one, because I am learning what comforts I really appreciate, and which are fleeting.

Another thing we wanted to leave behind was the need to constantly maintain our property. We had a large house and a difficult garden - although we let half of it return to nature - and we spent a lot more of our free time looking after all of this than we really wanted. So here I am, in a nice little city flat in Copenhagen. Two days of yard work a year, and everything else solved in the co-op, which is a common ownership structure here.

Everything, that is, except when something breaks inside the apartment. This year I have had to repair the electricity to the fridge and stove, the diswasher is broken, and lastly, the toilet is done for. I am learning about other comforts which are really important to me. My comfortable couch has suddenly moved far down on the must-have list, as I want, in falling order of importance: a toilet I can flush, a floor I am not worried about falling through, a finished book,  a modern kitchen with enough power to actually use it, and a new couch. Note how the book I am devoting most of my time to has dropped on the list of priorities? Sorry, dear co-author, but being able to flush and walk across the floor takes precedence. The book will still get more action though, as that's the only thing I can actually do something about myself, without waiting for others.

At least the toilet in the sabbatical apartment in Bologna still works. Getting back there may be even nicer than I expected.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

The slow things - 2 months, 1 day.

I am two months and one day into the sabbatical, and I have produced one article and almost two chapters. It's not a bad feat. The challenge is to keep going. I have to produce one more chapter draft, and then start massaging a large text into unity. The first part should be doable, I have almost 2 months to go for that. The second part will take months still.

There is however some kind of progress, even if it does not flow smoothly and confidently. And to celebrate that I want to share my most faithful companion with you. This little creature lives in the garden I see from my windows, comes out in the sun, and is one of life's great delights to spot it or one of its companions - because there are more than one. Here you go, the heraldic animal of the academic bootcamp.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The wonder of libraries

They are the mainstay of research, the boring resource our students tend to forget about. Students keep asking me to help them find books and articles, I send them to the libraries, and they are always shocked. One student I worked particularly much with I met up in a library in order to show her how just sitting within their magical wireless aura boosts you access - at least if you are in a University Library in most of Europe with a Eduroam access, the way our students are.

In Copenhagen, I regularly use the large libraries in the city for my reading periods. Sitting in a common reading room focuses me wonderfully, my student discipline takes over and I write or read while I am there. The space is too public and too uncomfortable, but still just sufficiently safe and familiar that I stay alert, on track, but relaxed at the same time. The soft thread of careful feet trying not to disturb is endearing in it's civilised and polite concern for the work of others, and the scent of stacks of books carries the memory of more than 30 years of study and work. This is, as much as any place in the world, home.

And so it is with a familiar delight that I settle into the library at the University of Bologna. This is one of the oldest universities in the world, and it has the libraries to prove it. My main library is at the media and music department, where the tables for reading and working are scattered among the stacks. Saturday I was introduced to another library I am definitely going to be using - although I have to book a time to get the full use of it - the Renzo Renzi library and their wonderful videogame archive. Others have pointed to fantastic libraries - some so stunning that they have closed them to tourists, and I will have to prove my need in order to access them, such as the Archiginnasio library. As a visiting scholar I can probably get in there, but as a digital media scholar it may be a somewhat better use of my energy and connections to book time at the videogame archive.

What all these libraries have in common is a wonderful opportunity for access. They are, to me, the ultimate symbol of freedom and equality. They offer to all who are willing to respect the work and curiosity of others, the opportunity to learn, be entertained, discover, study, and enjoy, a vast body of literature, art, creativity and research, that covers centuries, and in some cases, millennia.

And this is the message of today. I am one month and 17 days, one article and one book chapter into my sabattical. It's spring in the world outside of these dusty rooms, and I walk to and from my beloved libraries under the beautiful porticos, sheltered by ancient, civilised laws protecting common rights and  public spaces. If anybody ever make me choose between the bicycle lanes of Copenhagen or the porticos of Bologna, I am going to have to struggle with which to vote for, but right now it is colonnades all the way - literally.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

The exhaustion within.

When people talk about academics, it's as if they speak of something belonging to another, walled-off world. To many, that is probably kind of true. If you don't make academe your career, you visit it, live in a very particular type of bubble where you cram your head with knowledge and experiences that change you more or less fundamentally, and then you move on to a community where the changes wrought on you are more random, less planned, less visible and less controlled. In their lives, being at a college or university is a limited, enclosed experience. "When I was a student," they may say. "At the university, these were the experiences..."

This sense of living a life apart from every other experience makes being an academic something romantic and nostalgic, even if you walk away from it with scorn. Perhaps it is even why so many walk away with scorn. In order to be able to distance yourself from a way of living which is so different, you need to start hating it a little, to convince yourself turning away was the right things. To explain why you didn't study more, or learn something else, you sneer at academic knowledge, and call it irrelevant. It might be to cover the secret desire for a Ph D and a lifetime of learning, why you left, why you failed. The reason isn't really important, the thing that is still with you is the sense of those who become academics as people who remain in the dream, who live a life apart, who do not touch reality. They are still in the ivory tower.

Sadly, there's not a lot of ivory in that tower. Most of the resources invested in Universities you have already seen. The auditoriums, the classrooms, the libraries - they are there for the students, like you were and like your children will be. The offices are crowded and the book collections you perhaps admire during supervision are collected over decades of work, one book at the time, not through some magic privilege. Imagine the money you spend on your favourite hobby (drinking and shopping counts). Then every time you spend 25€ on your hobby, you buy a book as well. That's where the books come from. Also, the students admiring those book collections will steal your books. I lose some every year to students who "forget" to give them back, believing that there must be some secret source of books where I can just go get a new one.

And that professor you just "borrowed" a book from isn't paid particularly well. It's not bad, being a tenured professor is in most places of the world one of those pretty safe middle-class jobs. But the realities of life are as real to scholars as to anybody else. So where, in all this, are the ivory towers?

Hidden in between the intense competition for work, the throat-cutting ambition that makes you mistrust old friends and new, the non-disclosure statements, the extreme work-hours and the nights of grading - somewhere in that world, there really ought to be a silver lining. The thing is - you need to be able to see it. It's not in the relaxed work hours, because any teaching scholar who also tries to research and publish will laugh until they cry at that idea. It's not in the respect and status - at the moment education and research is apparently the place where all governments agree they can spend less and cut more (and how ironic is that - the well-educated in power pulling the ladder up behind them, and the public cheering the decision, because teaching the young to question the status quo is ridiculous. After all this is currently the best of all possible worlds... OK, I will stop there, let's just say that you don't need to be a conspiracy nut to suspect that there is an agenda to the attacks on public education.)

It is something very small, a bit of wonder, a bit of desire, a bit of mystery. If you want to do well, over a long time, working long hours in a complex, often overwhelming job, you need to be intrinsically motivated. If not, the lack of funding, the constant care you need to offer students, the consistent self-examination and push for creative questions and new knowledge will break you. It happens. Scholars burn out, or decide to follow alternative tracks on a regular basis. They become administrators, advisors, consultants, or just pull back and into themselves, getting by with as little effort as possible.

And then you sit there, like I do right now, asking yourself - how did we get here? I was planning to write about the wonders of being a travelling scholar visiting the oldest University in Europe. About going from the shiny glass building of ITU to the solemn rows of colonnades connecting the buildings of the University of Bologna, but instead what I wrote about - what my fingers needed to work through - was academic over-work, loss, and exhaustion. But then there is that little bit of mystery.

It is what I am here to be reminded of. I am going away from everything that has made me feel like I have been mentally scraped clean, to rediscover the why of being a scholar. And I have come here, to the oldest well of knowledge I could reach, to recover. One month and three days in. Tomorrow I start writing a book. Today I eat "melanzane", read a new language, and walk the endless colonnades.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Sabbatical, day 14. Or 10 if we count working days.

I am going to give up counting working days vs just dates. It will get too tricky. I will however talk about where my mind goes in this period, because that's what a sabbatical is all about. I am doing this is order to let my mind go somewhere different.

First, it got all busy finishing an article on asynchronous play. Then, muddling around in that pit and fiddling with my NintendoDS, I realised that we are in the age of asynchronicity. We think we are talking about Instant communication, because it is so easily available to us. We can, if we want, be in immediate dialogue all over the planet, but we rarely use that. Instead we permit delays, from micro-delays of seconds (do I respond to that text? Do I really want to like that picture?) to delays of hours, days, months.

These delays can be used in different manners. We use them to think. What do I really mean, what might this response lead to, how is this interpreted? This is the rational use of the delays. But we live in a time of emotion, and the question is - what can these delays do to emotion?

Emotion in itself is interesting. The last decades have been spent going away from rationalism towards emotionalism. We are at a point in history where it is more important to feel right than to be right. If this sounds like I am on the side of the edgelords yelling "be rational" at the top of their all caps keystroke voices, then trust me, the self-righteous anger of the internet rationalists is no less emotional than the outraged middle-aged woman ranting about being downgraded on their flight.

What it looks like those pauses is being used for is to up the ante - to make it harder on those around us. It hardens the resolve of the persons in the conversation, adding support for their feelings, rather than allow for a cooling down period to let saner minds prevail. The delayed mind isn't necessarily saner, it is, if anything, more set in its ways.

Of course, I am not sure if this is true. Immediacy is clearly part of the emotional response, and time to think means time to chicken out. However, time to think also means time to justify, place blame, and confirm bias.

(This is as far as I got the day I wrote this. The rest is from much later. So much for frequent bloggposts.)

Another direction is followed by Norwegian Broadcasting is currently doing an intresting experiment though. Their tech-blog NRK beta has designed a little questionnaire of three questions which need to be answered correctly in order to be allowed to comment. The questions are taken from the article, and ensure that people have some understanding of it rather than just commenting based on the headline or even other comments. An important part of their experiment is to provide a "cooling off" period, to avoid a response in immediate affect.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Sabbatical, day 3

This year I am experiencing one of those periods which make others so intensely envy scholars. I have almost a year away from what most people recognize as "work" - I am not teaching and not doing administration, two of the largest and most immediate tasks of a contemporary academic. However, at ITU we are supposed to do as much research as teaching, and more teaching and research than administration, so when I, like so many other academics, ignore research or do it on our spare time, we are actually ignoring our jobs - no matter if the jokes very often are on us when we try to create some room in our calendars.
The norwegian-language link states that the use of time has not changed in 12 years.
Which leads me to this sabbatical. Much as I am looking forwards to this year, and it will take me to exotic and wonderful places, it will be a year of intense work. To give you an idea about what kind of work a sabbatical may contain, here's my schedule for this year:

February: finishing an article for an anthology, sending one panel proposal, one paper and one extended abstract off to conference. Finishing one exam.
March, April, May: writing 4 chapters for a book. Also: two exams, one abstract for a conference, organizing one seminar, possibly going to one more conference, and making a camera-ready paper out of the work in February, if it's accepted.
June: Either writing a 70 page research proposal, or a 40 page research proposal.
July: Just kidding about the proposals. If I am doing the 70 page one, this month will not be the vacation month it is supposed to be, but instead one conference, and more work on that proposal. No way I can do that in just one month.
August: Two articles, because I really need to write out some of the stuff that has been accumulating on my to-do list.
September: Finishing one of the two proposals, and editing a special issue for a journal.
October, November: Finishing the book, and all other academic work I want to have published.
December: Rounding up, and starting to plan for the spring term, when I am back.

Looking at this, I want to go back to bed. If I manage to keep my own schedule successfully, 2018 is going to be a record production year (because none of this will actually be published in 2017), and if I just manage to do half of this, I'll still be producing more than I have in years.

Looking at this, I am sitting here with a huge grin. This is why I am a scholar. I now have a chance to do the work I am already doing in week-ends and evenings, all day and without interruptions. For this one year, I am at the far right in the figure above, while I am also in the middle figure, just with an even slimmer "teaching" part. The more than 100% research is pretty much true though.

And that is day three obligatory to-do list. Day one I went out and did something totally different, because the day before I had submitted another research proposal and my arms were hurting too much to touch a keyboard. Day two I cleaned my office of six months of intense teaching/exams/proposal writing stacked to about 130%. All in all, productive so far. Just 300+ days to go.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Unflattening privilege

I am currently reading Nick Sousanis beautiful book Unflattening, and while I am not done (the assumption that it goes beyond words really bugs me, and I will soon throw some Roland Barthes on the table next to it and write a review), I think it illustrates certain concepts beautifully. A main theme for the book is the importance of shifting your point of view, having new experiences and gaining the habit of variety.

At a very different point, redditor republicannarnia posted a link to a google document about the connection male privilege/white privilege. This is a nice composition about how a young woman realized that in order to understand her own white privilege, she needed to use lessons from feminism.

Both these points reflect the strategies of research promoted by the cultural studies tradition, called methods triangulation or multiplicity. The point there is that to understand what happens in society, you need to look at it from more than one perspective. You have to be willing to move your point of view.

What Sousanis offers which is interesting though, is a connection between specialisation and limited viewpoints. I think he may be on to something. We have tended to assume that the cause of fear of academia is caused by lack of education. However, when we find people with Ph Ds in physics systematically following and bashing pretty self-evident gender research material, it's clearly not more education that is the problem. Instead, I suspect that the problem is the endless turf wars of specialization, and the fear that comes with shifting your point of view. When we have invested 20 years of education in order to reach the point we are at, and somebody tells us we STILL don't get everything right, that is pretty terrifying. After all, each of us are balancing on the sharp edge of highly specialized knowledge, and it may feel like taking a step to the side in order to get a different perspective may just push us off.

I still don't have a solution. But I am spending what time I have between application writing these days thinking about ways to use methodologies to shift my perspective and unflatten what I am looking at. In between I read Unflattening slowly, allowing myself to be both annoyed and delighted, savouring both points of view.