Tuesday, July 25, 2006

My radio adventure

A few weeks ago I received an email and a phone call from the producer of Philip Adams' Late Night Live programme on national public radio. Would I be available to be interviewed about my new essay collection, Medievalism and the Gothic in Australian Culture? This was a chance to put to the test some of the issues raised by the Breaking the News conference on the humanities held in Canberra in May. How good are humanities academics at explaining themselves to a general audience? Of course I agreed, and then tormented myself with nerves for the week or so to come. They had also approached Adina Hamilton, one of the contributors to the collection, so at least I would have company. Adina and I agreed to meet for a drink beforehand; the programme is live to air, and we were scheduled to appear about 10.30 p.m.

I had done a little radio work before, but it has mostly involved reading from scripts. This was different. I have great respect for Adams, but don't often listen to his programme. Sadly, I'm usually working away at my computer between 9.30 and 11.30 most nights.

I had tried to prepare a little for the interview, re-reading my own introduction to the book, and trying to come up with a few reasonably simple formulations. It's not all that easy, when the book is arguing that 'medievalism' and 'the gothic' are fluid, contested and variable terms in Australian culture. Adams began the interview by asking about modern Australia, so all the book's interest in C18 and C19 Australia culture just fell away. It took me a while to get into stride, but I don't think it was too bad.

He is a pretty aggressive interviewer, though. Like many such, he had clear idea of what he thought the main issues were, although he, or his producers, had read the book, or bits of it, pretty carefully, and he asked some good leading questions about my own co-written essay on the survival of medieval rituals in Australian parliaments.

If anything, Adina was given an even harder time. As a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, she is a practitioner of medievalism, but she is also a hard-nosed analyst of the movement, and gave back, pretty much, as good as she got.

Adams then returned to me and asked if I too engaged in such recreation. And here I delivered my one good line: some liked to do; I liked to watch.

When the interview was over, Adina and I burst out in laughter at the oddness of the whole thing.

A few days later, I finally plucked up courage to listen to the broadcast, which was available on the web for a few weeks. I heard Adams, at the beginning of the programme, anticipate our interview with much hilarity, so it was clear that we were being set up as light comic relief. Like a coward, I didn't listen to any more. And I am only posting this blog now that it is too late for anyone to download the broadcast from the ABC site. Family and friends who listened were very kind about it, but I felt an inevitable sense of anti-climax. It's an imperfect experience, being interviewed, but I'm also glad I did it. There's no doubt; one reaches a very different kind of audience.

Tomorrow, though, it is back to my own 'real' audience. I'm off to the New Chaucer Society Congress in New York. This is the community of scholars I mostly have in mind when I write. I'll be away for a week, and will report back then. The conference dinner is being held on a yacht that circles Manhattan. The medievalists are already dubbing it "the ship of fools"....

Thursday, July 20, 2006

How to build your track record and write a great application: it'll only take about three years...

Yesterday I attended a lunchtime seminar run by Pat Grimshaw (the Faculty Grant shepherd), Vera Mackie (a member of the ARC College of Experts), and Ken Gelder (an Assessor for the ARC and the other grant shepherd in the department). Their talks are available on the MRO site and the Faculty website, so I'll offer just a few reflections. Some of the advice was very specifically directed to the ARC application process; some was relevant to anyone starting to establish an academic career.

Vera stressed that the grant applicant's track record, which counts for 40% of the overall score, is assessed "relative to opportunity". We know that a recent PhD can't be judged by the same standard as an established lecturer, and we also know it's impossible to say what is a reasonable or good track record (how many articles is enough? it's a bit like undergraduate students asking how many critical references is enough) but we also know that it is very hard to give a high score in this category if there is not much in the way of a track record. Some PhD students (probably the ones on full scholarships and the ones without children or sick parents) are able to publish articles as they go; but it's often quite hard to do this. Vera suggested one article a year would be good; add a book contract, and you are starting to look competitive as a post-doctoral applicant. These are not golden rules, but they are an indication of the kind of track record that some people are able to compile, against which you may be measured.

Vera stressed the cycle by which publications are produced. First the idea, that leads to the conference paper, that leads to the article, that leads to the report about the article. This is an "outcome" in grant speak. Vera thought it important to develop this cycle, so that in your application when you are asked about your contribution, you can show this process of conversion. And the golden rules of documenting your c.v.? 1) Update it constantly: 2) Keep everything. Positive comments from students, referees' reports, teaching scores, reviews. The more you have, the more you can select from it.

What became clear all over again in listening to this seminar was the complexity and contradictory nature of the imperatives before us all, not just postgraduates. We are to be consistently innovative (the ARC buzzword) and consistently productive. It is not a system that allows for the long gestation of a project on the back burner, unless you also have another project throwing out spectacular flames on the charcoal grill at the same time. We are to publish in high-status international journals; and we are to communicate our findings in ways that are meaningful to the Australian community. When Ken Gelder spoke about planning the research project, the same contradictions were played out, between writing into the perceived gap in your field, and writing for the 'national benefit'.

But this shouldn't be too discouraging. OK, so it's a little contradictory. That just gives you the chance to work with and around these rules, to set them against each other, to play up different aspects of your research at different parts of the application. I think of it as an elaborate genre-game: how can I get past the guardians to get the funding to do the research I really want to do.

One of Vera's other points was the idea of thinking in a three to five year cycle. At first blush, this makes more sense for people employed for at least three years, but it is in the nature of the grant cycle to have to think far ahead anyway. According to the Arts Faculty's new guidelines, we should ideally have a first draft by September 30 2006 for an application in the February 2007 for funding that would begin in 2008. This is perhaps hard for PhD students, to think their way forward into a world where they might have different projects on the go, at different stages. But many experienced grant applicants are effectively doing this: working on the next application while they are still being funded for the previous. It's pretty rare for an application to get funding that has been first thought of in the six weeks before the application is due. By the same token, the most successful applications are often those that draw on something already done: a pilot study or an article. This is a common finding in the humanities, that it's only once we start writing that we know what we think.

But this is another reason why for first- or second- time applicants, in particular, it might be a good idea to start writing the application early (that is, now!), as this gives you a few months to refine and distill your ideas, and to find the key phrases that will best sum up your project.

If you are starting to put an application together for next February, it's a good idea to check the application guidelines and start organising your project around the central headings now, not forgetting the "National Benefit" section. If you go to the Department of English grants page you'll see the first skeletal outline of my own application, put together in this way. I'll try and post another version of this by mid-August.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Protocols for this Blog

Liz Conor's generosity in posting the first outline of her ARC application (in her comment to my first post) raises some tricky questions for this blog: issues about intellectual property, formatting, and readership.

When I was thinking about setting up this blog, I wrote to my collaborators on the ARC application that is currently under assessment, asking how they'd feel if I made available our final application, the assessors' reports and our rejoinder. No one minded in principle: the general feeling was that these are such public documents anyway that there was no cause for embarrassment here. But one member of the team raised the spectre of intellectual property theft, having been burnt by this in the past. So I guess this is an issue to think about (and I've yet to decide how much of this application to make public, while it is still being assessed).

The 'comments' section on the blog probably isn't appropriate for long drafts, so if we were to share our drafts we'd need to use the English department web page, but this is completely open to all to read, and I could understand people being unwilling to make their drafts so accessible. I am determined to do this with my own application, though; and perhaps the publicity of the blog and, ok, the smallness of the field - medieval popular culture - will be my protection. You can find this draft by clicking on the first link in the side column.

Who will read the blog? I've sent the URL to the department of English, as well as a few colleagues and friends in Australia and the US, and it's the nature of blogging to develop links with other blogs. If I were really concerned about privacy and confidentiality, I wouldn't have started a blog! This one aims to be useful, in particular, to people who are new(ish) to the ARC process. Ultimately, I am happy for people outside my department, and outside my university, to read and to reflect on this process. And again, my main concern would be to strengthen the applications, nationally, for literary and cultural studies, rather than simply my own department's success rate. What do people think?

The other issue of interest to this blog is the relation between academic and general culture in Australia. On this topic, check out Fugitive Phenomenon's comment on the Patrick White scam (see link in side column, and wait patiently while I work out how to put links in the body of the post).

And in this general spirit of openness, a few comments on Liz's outline...

The first point to make is on structure and scope. If this is an 'intercolonial' project, I'd be wondering about the scope and range of the colonies to be examined, and whether there wasn't some possibility of collaboration or linkage with people or institutions outside Australia. The colonialism-childhood nexus seems to me really original and powerful, and I bet there is heaps of powerful material; your task now is to decide about the relationship between Australian and other contexts, and the extent to which you privilege the local. I imagine there's enough material for a 3-4 year study of Australian stuff; making it truly comparative would be an enormous project, and one calling out for a collaborative team application.

More specifically, you don't mention literary fiction, as such? And I'd also be thinking about the limits of the historical period you're going to range over. Are you going to include current issues? And finally, I think you'll need to decide pretty soon about the role of the Piccaninny material in the much broader issues you raise. This is a very catching, captivating image which will help give the application a powerful identity, but how will you move into the bigger issues from the question of representation?

These are exactly the kind of big questions that make it such a good idea to get started now, rather than later in the process. Other readers may also want to post comments on Liz's proposal.

For people in Melbourne, don't forget the workshop at 1.00 this Wednesday, "How to… Write a Competitive Application and Enhance Your Track Record”, Commerce Theatre 2, Ground Floor, Economics and Commerce Building. I'll try and get there and post some responses on this blog.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Humanities Researcher

This blog is designed as a space for reflection on research in the humanities in Australia.

Its first and most practical point of orientation is the process of applying for research funding, especially through the Australian Research Council. The prime audience for the blog will be researchers in my own department of English, and perhaps also the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne. The application process is time-consuming and not a little arduous, so I thought it might be useful to chart the process of my own application in the next round, and my experience as one of the department's grant shepherds. I welcome comments and questions; indeed, I hope that posting questions and answers on the blog will help others who are putting applications together.

The second area the blog will focus on is more theoretical: the question of how researchers in the humanities can make their work available and accessible to communities of readers outside the academy. This topic has attracted a certain amount of interest over the last year or so, in various projects supported by individual universities or indeed the ARC itself, in the Humanities Writing Project, for example. I am experiencing a brief taste of this myself at the moment, as an essay collection on Australian medievalism is attracting a little publicity. But again, I welcome comments and reflections from others.

It is the nature of a blog is to be personal. I'm not sure yet how official or personal my voice will be... Or whether anyone commenting on this blog will write under their own name or a pseudonym... Watch this space!