Saturday, October 14, 2006

How to put bad grant news into perspective

Regular readers of this blog (bless them!) will know that three days ago the results of the Australian Research Council Discovery grants for next year were announced, and that I had submitted a collaborative group application. It was for a wonderful project on Medievalism and Colonialism in Australia, with a dream-team of researchers. And you could have told from the absence of a jubilant bloggy response on the day that no, the grant did not get funded. Perhaps not entirely unpredictably. We had mixed assessors' reports, and even though these can frequently be over-ridden (for better or worse) by the panel that makes the final decision, in an increasingly competitive environment, it's obviously better if you can convince everyone of the excellence of every aspect of your project. And it seems we didn't do that. In our case we had a kind of circular problem of saying we wanted resources to identify and analyse the traces and symptoms of medievalism in Australian colonial and post-colonial culture. Because we hadn't had the grant, and hadn't been able to comb through the archives yet, some of the assessors weren't convinced there was *enough* medievalism. There are other things, too, that I think we can address when we do it again over the next few months (sigh), but it does point to the difficulties in applying to study something that does seem a bit counter-intuitive.

I think this decision might be tougher on my collaborators, though, than on myself; since over the last week I've had final confirmation of a diagnosis of early breast cancer. I go into surgery next Thursday, and will know a few days after that about the next round or rounds of treatment, and how many months it will take. It's a blow, obviously, but I am finding it very helpful to talk about it openly. And I count my blessings and my good fortune daily. I seem to be in the hands of a quite extraordinary medical team in a city that has the reputation as a major research centre for the treatment of this disease; I'm fully employed by a university that is proving compassionate and generous in its responses, both institutionally and individually; I'm surrounded by family and friends; I'm in excellent health otherwise; and also seem blessed with the kind of attitude that hasn't gone into shock or debilitating fear. Yes of course there will be hard times ahead, but I already feel the force of the idea of cancer as a journey that can change your life. And honestly, that's fine. I'm curious; a little anxious for myself; and worried about my immediate and extended family, but reassured that the prognosis, on the whole, is pretty promising.

It's early days yet, but at the moment, I feel I would like to keep posting on the blog. I am very curious to think and write about what happens to a person whose career seems to be heading in one direction and who is then faced with a major disease and difficult treatment. I would love to have had some such blog to read twenty or more years ago, when I was still establishing myself, and working out what it meant to be an academic. So perhaps I'm writing for that version of myself? I'm always fascinated by what's in people's heads, and how we can't always judge from the outside. And I'm always fascinated to hear about other academics, other medievalists, and how they balance, or don't balance, the personal and the professional.

Somehow a disappointing grant result is suddenly put back into the right perspective, then! In the humanities, where it is much rarer that our jobs depend on them, grants are what we apply for and are sometimes lucky with. The research, the ideas, the writing and the teaching, are much more important. As are our friends and families and loved ones, and other issues. I'm thinking, now, of the many, many women who will not be getting anything like the medical care and the loving support I'll be receiving over the next months: hmm, there may be something to be done here.

For the moment, then, two brief comments on things that have really struck me.

Vocabulary: I've learnt two new words. "Spiculated" describes the characteristic shape of a carcinoma on an ultrasound or x-ray. A benign cyst, filled with fluid, is round; a carcinoma has little needle-like threads that spread out (they look like delicate little parts of sea-creatures). One of the radiologists went off and looked up the derivation for me (see what I mean about the care I'm getting?), and said it was Latin for "needle", though my dictionary says spiculum is a point, or dart; and spica is an ear of corn. OK, I'm a medievalist with some Latin; obviously not enough!

The other word is at the other end of the spectrum of linguistic beauty: "lumpectomy". It took me quite a while to realise that this was not really any different from partial mastectomy; or local excision. It's an example of the powerful semantic connotations of words to realise that these phrases name the same process: a long cut, and then the extraction of the diseased tissue.

Secondly, I woke in the middle of the night two nights ago, and felt a kind of odd, additional presence in the room. It took a while before I realised what it was. It was very clearly grief, or loss, or proleptic mourning, or melancholia for the poor breast that is about to go on its own adventure. It was very forceful, and I felt sure I'd not be able to go back to sleep again, but in fact I did. I'm still not sure why. Was it the same kind of dysfunctional faint Stephen Knight used to talk about when Arthur would swoon at the loss of a knight? when the emotion is so forceful it's unsustainable in normal consciousness? Or was it consoling to me to have named and identified the emotion? I thought of Aranye Fradenburg's wonderful essay on loss and melancholia in Chaucer and the Book of the Duchess, and having placed and identified the feeling, and put myself into a textual tradition, I put myself back to sleep. Whatever happened, I'm not entirely sure, but it was a very powerful and enabling moment.

Well, I expect I won't always be quite so cheery and curious over the next few months; and probably not so graphic, once the reality of the surgery has hit! But I'll try and clock in occasionally. My apologies to those friends and colleagues to whom this news comes as a shock. It's very recent, and it's been hard to let everyone know in a timely and courteous fashion.

5 comments:

Alexandra P said...

Stephanie, I had been wondering about whether you were successful or not with the grant application! I was told by a friend that you were in hospital, but she didn't know why - I'm so sorry to hear about the cancer (bizarrely, I was at a Girls' Night In thingo, raising money for breast cancer, just last week). It's great that you've got a good team on the case, and that you've caught it early too. I really do hope that you are able to keep posting, both about the medieval stuff and your experiences with treatment etc, because I think these are both incredibly value things for other people to read about. Of course, if you can't, we'll cope!

Best of luck with it all
alex

KLG said...

Stephanie, my dear, this is a heroic bit of writing. For you to respond to this development with such well-directed curiosity and interest and analytical thoughtfulness is a triumph of the intellect in a time and place where we see, daily, the intellect being deliberately and perversely devalued and unused. Of course there's also a place for emotional and instinctual responses to such things, but it's amazing, and more heartening for your friends than I can say, to see you bringing all your knowledge and training into play like this, and gaining strength and clarity from that as you so obviously are. I salute you and send my love.

Zoe said...

What a shitty week, and what an astonishing piece of writing.

It sounds stupid to say it, but thank you for sharing these things. I hope everything turns to the good for you.

J J Cohen said...

"Astonishing piece of writing" indeed.

Best of luck with all that is ahead, and all good thoughts to you. And please keep up the blog!

Eileen Joy said...

Thank you for your very brave [and frankly, beautifully written] post. It speaks eloquently to so many things I think humanist scholars are grappling with right now--the place of the emotions in the humanities [not only in our teaching but also in our scholarly work and professionalization]; the connections between bodies and minds [and all the questions that revolve around the so-called "limits" of bodies and minds and the tangled relations between two entities that might really be "one"]; the difficulty of seeking and receiving support for humanistic research projects whose "final objectives" or "projected research results" are not always so easy to define with absolute precision; the tenuous and, perhaps, false divisions we navigate daily between the personal and the professional. For your journey, health, and work, best wishes.