Saturday, 27 July 2013

Dream come true

I got a very flattering comment from a student on my previous blog post, pointing out that I had toned down my major role in the creation and development of the Children's Literature Centre. I take it as an encouragement to brag a bit, but also reflect on why it has been such an important endeavour for me.

Children's literature centres throughout the world are diverse. Some are independent foundations, others are affiliated with a university or a national library. Some primarily serve professionals and academics, others also have activities for children. Some conduct research, some don't. Some also run courses. The Swedish Institute for Children's Books is a most amazing institution. It has every single children's book published in Sweden since 1592; it has all Swedish children's books translated and published in other countries; it has a reference collection of 10,000 volumes in every imaginable language and a current subcsription to over a hundred professional journals. A paradise for a children's literature scholar. However, they don't do research. They publish a scholarly journal and a book series, but research itself is done in universities.

When I applied for a Chair in children's literature in Stockholm, many years ago, I had two visions in my personal statement: a masters programme and a research centre. I don't know what the other candidate's visions were, but apparently their arguments for not having a masters course and a research centre were stronger than mine. Some year later, when I was teaching at San Diego State, the idea of a centre surfaced again. My argument was that the children's literature team was already doing most of the things a centre is supposed to do, so it was a matter of consolidation. And hiring me as Director (I was already a Full Professor by then which would be an added value). The university development officer said, as admin people say: “I'll see what I can do”. But he didn't. The SDSU centre came to being some years after I had left and is doing great things.

When I came to Cambridge five years ago, a centre was high on my agenda, but I didn't mention it in my personal statement or job interview. I bid my time, looking around for support. Again, the wonderful child lit team was already doing all kinds of fabulous things, including a masters course; there were two excellent libraries; and there was a world-wide reputation. All that remained was a name and a logo. We ran a logo competition. There was one submission that, rather unexpectedly, won. The winner was also appointed the webmaster for our webpage. We inaugurated the centre with a guest talk by Jack Zipes. It got good press coverage.

Since then we have had more research students and more guest scholars. I don't know whether it depends on the existence of the centre or is a natural process of growth. We continued doing what we had been doing. We ran a couple of international conferences. We applied and were approved as a nominating body for the prestigeous Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. We established our own award (regrettably, not of the same magnitude) for the best masters thesis. We collaborate with other centres in the UK and elsewhere. Our research students run a blog. We have a minimal budget, but it covers our immediate needs. One day a Cambridge alumnus will donate us ten million pounds. Until then we'll have to manage. People's dedication takes us a long way. On my wish list, doctoral studentships have highest priority. I would like to offer funding to guest scholars. So far, we can offer them desk space, IT services, library access, some free lunches and a fantastic scholarly community. In the coming year, we may be able to offer inexpensive accomodation. I am working slowly, but surely, step by step.
So yes, I guess I have achieved something that had been my dream for many years; but the best thing is that when I am gone, which will be soon, I will be leaving the Centre in good hands. 

Friday, 26 July 2013

Five-year report

In a couple of weeks we will have lived in Cambridge for five years. Five years is longer than you imagine. Time for reflections?

I still haven't got over it. Every now and then I stop to ask myself: What am I doing here? How did I get here? It can't be real. Why do people speak English all the time, it's unnatural. Yet I am here, and most of the time I like it.

What I have definitely learned is that my subject will always be a stepchild. In Literary Studies, I was bullied because children's literature is education. Here, in Education, I am bullied because children's literature is not education. In my old life, I had to justify my existence by researching “real” literature, and it was the only way to advance in my career. I don't need to advance any more so I am not going to publish on quantitative methods or autoethnography. After all, I was hired to do what I am doing so apparently it was judged to be good enough.

This is the first time in my career that I have a leader post, and I have learned to put my team's interest before my own. It was easy because I have always put students' interest before my own. I have learned to raise my voice. It is easier when you speak for other people, not just for yourself. But I have been repeatedly reminded that women are still not counted half as good as men. In my role, I frequently find myself the only woman in a room full of men. They try to pretend I am not there. I point out that I am. It's a silly game.

But women are also silly. I've heard a female professor tell students that academic career is incompatible with family. I pity her.

Most of my colleagues are wonderful, and some have become very close friends. I find Cambridge much, much more friendly and informal than any academic community I have experienced, possibly with the exception of Finland. Social life is tightly interwoven with academic life, for students as well as professors. It's a clever way of running things.

Students are the source of most joy and make it all worth while. They keep up my faith in humanity when everything else fails.

After five years I think I have understood the intricate tensions between colleges and departments, but it's pointless to explain it here. I think I have learned the jargon, but every now and then encounter words that have a specific meaning in Cambridge. You have to have been here for thirty years to become an insider, so it's too late.