Thursday, September 28, 2006

World-Building

Just back, yesterday, after another whirlwind trip to the US, this time to St Louis for the meeting of the New Chaucer Society programming committee. We are planning the next Congress, to be held in beautiful Swansea, in July, 2008. I hear conflicting reports of whether it will be possible to surf or swim without a wetsuit there at that time of year. (Those of us accustomed to swimming in the more southerly oceans of the southern hemisphere might be more hardy, and the more likely, but I make no promises!) Our several meetings, more and less formal, went swimmingly (sorry), and although there is much work ahead, I'm confident that we have a great committee, full of ideas and energy. I found it quite luxurious, really, to be gathering with the job of shaping this next meeting that is so important to so many of us, especially with the prospect of making a pilgrimage to the National Library of Wales to visit the Hengwrt manuscript of the Canterbury Tales.

Not so luxurious, the long flights, of course. I managed to get a standby seat on an earlier flight from LAX to St Louis, and avoid the 8 hour wait there (as someone commented to me, that's an awful lot of sudoku). I had to fly back through Sydney, though, as Melbourne, this weekend, is host to the AFL grand final, and all the flights, as the Qantas person said to me, were "chockers". (Does anyone need a translation?) It was great to be back in St Louis, where I spent such a happy and productive sabbatical last year. I made various little pilgrimages to visit my landlady, my son's girlfriends (twins!), Kaldi's coffee shop for a vanilla granita and a farmer's market salad with "craisins" and almond brittle (though they have had to substitute other greens for the spinach because of the e-coli scare); and various other favourite haunts. Just lovely to meet up with old friends, too; and finally visit the Botanical Gardens there, decked out with wonderful Chihuly glass sculptures.

It was completely weird, though, to flip through the on-flight television channels and find myself utterly mesmerised by a Wiggles special filmed at Australia Zoo with Steve and Terri and Bindi Irwin, dancing cockatoo dances and laughing like kookaburras. I have not always said kind things about Irwin's propensity for provoking wild creatures into aggressive behaviour while saying "look, but don't touch" but I have come to a grudging admiration of the completeness — I can find no other word — of his personhood. Another weird moment was watching Richard E. Grant's Wah Wah, the autobiographical film of his life as a child in colonial Swaziland, just prior to independence. As Princess Margaret comes to preside over the hand-over, the white community decides to put on a performance of ... Camelot (complete with African gardener singing Lancelot in white make-up). As the colonial era fades away, with the Grant character taking on the role of Malory at the end, being sent off to write the story, they sing of the glories of Camelot and its "one brief shining moment". Medievalism meets colonialism.

Today I was right back into the throes of university politics, with an all-day planning meeting for our new amalgamating school (english, cultural studies, creative writing, publishing, media, communications, art history, cinema studies, arts management, theatre studies and more problematically, because temporarily, some parts of the soon-to-be-disbanded school of creative arts). Various working-groups presented their reports and recommendations on governance, research clusters, workload formulas and so on. Generally, the mood was great: another positive day of building something, though it is much easier for those of us whose future in the new school is assured. It is much harder for those academic staff whose areas may not find a place in the new school after a few transitional years, and even harder again for those administrative, or professional staff who may face redeployment or retrenchment. Their anxiety, in the face of some less than clear directives from powers beyond the school, was palpable and completely comprehensible.

My family narrative, living with the globalism-theorising, community-building partner and the fantasy-writing, warhammer-painting, lego-animating son, is usually that the males in my family are world-builders, while I have always seen myself rather as the close reader, the textual analyst, the one who is better at seeing the trees, rather than the forest. These last few days, though, with their possibilities of seeing much larger pictures, and being part of teams that are building big and new things, were surprisingly pleasant. Perhaps I am getting the bug, after all this time.

Right now, I had better get on with my grant. Tomorrow is the deadline for submitting a draft of our research applications (not due till February) to the Faculty so as to be assigned a mentor outside the department. I made a commitment that I would make my drafts available online and try and keep to this Faculty timetable, pour encourager les autres. It has been incredibly difficult, and as I worked sporadically on my draft in various airport lounges and the hotel in St Louis over the last week, I wasn't always sure if I was making it better or worse. But I did, at least, make it somewhat longer, and so I hope to have about six pages to forward to Faculty tomorrow. I'll work on it for a few hours now (get thee behind me, jetlag!), and send it to the departmental web person tomorrow to upload. If anyone in the department should be working on theirs tonight and would like to see where I have got so far, do please email me.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Deadlines and Submissions

It is sometimes hard to tell who reads this blog, but here are two messages for two possible groups of readers.

First, and most urgent, the New Chaucer Society program committee for the next conference in Swansea in July 2008 will be meeting in St Louis at the end of this week to consider initial proposals for panels and threads. There is no specific theme, but we are keen to receive suggestions. Check out the call for proposals here. The deadline given there is September 18, but I'll still be collating materials over the next few days before I get on the plane on Thursday, and Friday morning, US time, will be the last possible chance to be considered in this round. While you're browsing the Society's site, you might also be interested to read the responses to the 2006 New York conference from Nicholas Watson and Jennifer Summit here.

Second, and almost as urgent, for Melbourne folk who want to take advantage of the Arts Faculty Mentoring scheme for ARC grants (due in February), the deadline of September 29 for submission of a draft of the Section E of the proposal is creeping up quickly. I have been overly optimistic about my own chances of meeting this deadline, and of posting successive drafts of my own application on my departmental web page, and this trip to St Louis is without doubt going to slow me down. I am still going to try and get my draft to at least one more stage of development before I leave, and would definitely encourage any prospective applicants to put at least a partial draft together (using the ARC guidelines and headings) so as to be in the running in this round for a mentor who will help you keep your application intelligible to non-specialists. Experts in your own department and discipline can help you fine-tune your bibliography and specialist methodology later, but I have found that having non-medievalist readers has been crucial in the past, as a good corrective to the disciplinary myopia to which we are all subject. Getting in early and meeting this Faculty deadline may also enhance your chances of getting a mentor who is reasonably keen and experienced. Check out the Faculty webpage here.

Last week I went to a panel discussing mentoring, and it was stressed again that a good application asks and answers some very simple questions: what are you going to do? and why? It's hard to keep the simplicity of this approach in mind when we write grant applications. It's all too easy to drift into the temptation of writing for the specialist, assuming all are interested in the minutiae of the critical debates in our own field, but this is only a small aspect of the application.

The forum also included some discussion of the timing of the announcements of this year's grants, and I had the unpleasant jolt of remembering that if the collaborative application I submitted earlier this year is unsuccessful (and the mathematical chances are that it will be), then I will have to go through the whole process of revising that application as well as getting this new one together. Oh well; I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Friday blog poetry blog

Lots of literary blogs make a point, most Fridays, of including a special poetry blog. But perhaps this is not an especially auspicious beginning.

It's not really a haiku; rather a three-line automatically generated snapshot of my most recent posting. But it is strangely appropriate, as local folk will recognise, in what our vice-chancellor has dubbed "the year of detail":

Haiku2 for stephanietrigg
of my colleagues for
every little thing for
every little
@
Created by Grahame

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Three Simple Recipes for Happiness

Amidst the quotidian chaos of this week, three lovely things. First, the little frog who appeared in our back garden a few weeks ago, and who seemed to have been captured by heaven knows what ghastly fate, reappeared last night. I like to think he had made a quick trip down to the creek to tell his friends what a lovely place he had found to live. But whatever his reasons, I can hear him croaking as I type. This simple thing — a frog has chosen our garden and our water trough — has an extraordinary capacity to lift the spirit: I was quite brought down by the thought he might have moved on, or met a sticky end; and then, reflexively, somewhat disturbed to think my happiness might depend on the presence of a frog. But since they are excellent indicators of environmental health, perhaps our happiness IS indeed linked to these simple things.

The second thing to happen, two days ago, was the sudden realisation that my wrist had suddenly improved sufficiently after falling off my bike for me to approach the piano again. My favourite things to play are selected movements in Bach's English Suites. They are mostly far too difficult for me, but there are some passages I can rattle through tolerably well. This is an odd form of release, of course: same body position, same relationship between a text and a keyboard as the rest of the day. But still, it's a different world for me, a world for which I have no responsibility at all.

Third, and most complex, going to see Kathleen Fallon's play Buyback: Three Boongs in the Kitchen last night. Kathleen teaches Creative Writing and Performance in my department, and this is her own story of fostering a Torres Strait Islander boy and the difficulties of the 'natural' families, hers and his, on either side of this irresistible but difficult relationship; it is beautifully played. Lots of emotions were played out in and around the ones generated by the play itself; not least for me, perhaps, the sense of awe at the lives of my colleagues. For every little frog who appears and disappears, how many other appearances and disappearances in all our lives...

Saturday, September 09, 2006

How This Blog is Helping My Research

Oh the wonderful self-referential world of the blog!

Yesterday I was invited to make a response to a recent interview with linguist David Crystal, in which he commented that in its diary-like liberation from the protocols of editing, copy-editing and proofreading, blogging represented a kind of release from the grip of standard English, to the effect (I've deleted the email from the laptop I'm using at home) that we had seen nothing like this since the Middle Ages.

An odd conjunction of things, then. I was invited to comment, since I am both medievalist and blogger, and my first response was to reject the notion of the diary as any kind of medieval writing. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered whether medieval chronicles can be seen as prefiguring the blog. Linguistically, the English ones fit Crystal's criteria: they aren't edited (except in the form of self-censorship or scribal copying), and are certainly written and mediated through a range of dialectal, regional and personal filters. The process of verifying the 'news' they report, too, is variable at best; and the chronicle accounts of 1381, for example, read uncannily like much net gossip.

In my comments, though, I stressed that academic blogs like mine offer no particular linguistic freedom. I try to be as careful here with my spelling and punctuation as I am in more formal discourse; and if anything, I'm hyper-conscious of being judged by my readers, whether students, colleagues, peers, superiors, strangers, friends, etc. But let that pass. Different blogs serve different purposes, is all.

I keep returning, though, to questions about the audience of medieval chronicles. I've never done any work on these, and presumed they were written for relatively restricted monastic audiences. But there is clearly some sense of writing into a community, and perhaps a community of strangers, linked by association and monastic networks. So perhaps it would be useful, in my research into the pre-history of mass culture, to track any changes in the idea of the audience for chronicles from the Anglo-Saxon to the fifteenth century. That's a scary thought, if it means I will have to brush up my Old English.

Still, I love the thought that writing the blog led to this question, which led to this thought, which led back to this blog...

Friday, September 08, 2006

Would You Like to Share Your Work with the Whole Class?

Two days ago we held a meeting of prospective grant applicants in my department; a mix of staff and graduate, or recently graduated students. The idea was to start workshopping ideas for grants. This is incredibly difficult to do. We are all so accustomed to sharing ideas only when we have mulled them over and written them up and polished our sentences. The group, too, was amazingly diverse. Three of the topics, for example, were children's literature; new media technologies; and a triangulation of Indonesian, Malaysian and Australian cultural relations.

In contexts like this, it's sometimes hard to understand, in the first instance, where the projects come from and where they might head, but as discussion proceeded it usually became clearer what the main lines of inquiry would be, and the group, diverse as it was, was often able to throw in suggestions about the kind of application it should be; whether it would work better as a collaborative project, whether it should have an industry component, whether it was too theoretical, too narrow, insufficiently 'national' in its priorities, and so on.

It will soon be time for people to start formulating these ideas into applications, using the very tight structural framework of the ARC application process. And to this end, and to provide a kind of model, I'm posting successive versions of my own application on my department home page, though not without considerable trepidation.

There is, I guess, the potential problem of plagiarism, though I'm trusting that the relative smallness of the field, and the very fact that the drafts are so very public, and that I'm writing about it in this blog, might be strong enough guarantees against someone 'stealing' my idea.

The second problem is that of feeling so dreadfully exposed, as drafts go public. But this is a point that Ken Gelder made yesterday: writing a grant application is no time for privacy or shyness. I'm hoping to get useful feedback from colleagues on my drafts, but principally also to demonstrate that showing people your work in progress doesn't actually kill you. The idea, too, is to show how applications get built up and refined gradually. Committing myself to making successive drafts available is also my best guarantee that I will keep to the Faculty's timetable, and have the whole thing finished before Christmas, minus the final GAMS entering and any refinements to the budget. This will give me most of January free for some other writing.

A third problem is that potential assessors might read the drafts and pre-judge the project or remember it in its underwear, as it were, before it turns up in their mail with its hat, coat, gloves, boots and sunglasses on. But on reflection, this seems quite ridiculous. The only readership I can see for my drafts is the group of first- or second-time applicants who might be interested to witness the process, not potential assessors in search of unfinished applications to read before the onslaught of finished ones.

When I do get a bit paralysed about this process, it helps to recall the pleasure I took in my last application, a truly collaborative team effort: the generous give and take of ideas and constructive criticism was a model of academic co-operation. This blog, too, along with others I sometimes read, shows me that we don't have to be in competition with each other, all the time, for every little thing, for every little piece of symbolic capital.