Sunday, 28 June 2009

Magdalen College Ball 2009

These are some photographs of the Magdalen College ball I attended on Friday night, courtesy of Brett Tully.

You'll have to just believe me that there was a harpist playing at the champagne reception, where the 1800 (or so) guests first assembled.

At the back of the College is a deer park with benign trees and soft grass scattered with pieces of tree and ivy, reminiscent of an Enid Blyton story. The deers had been replaced for the evening by dodgem (bumper) cars and a big top circus. There were also white food stalls (lamb and cous cous, roast pork and apple sauce rolls, Indian curry, doughnuts with cinnamon and chocolate sauce and an ice cream stand). Young couples sipped their drinks in between the buttress roots. Many of the women (or at least the ones I noticed) were wearing quasi-regency, quasi-Greco-Roman dresses, with empire lines, fine detailing, multiple layers, in white, pale golds and creams, their hair long and flowing and barely pinned back. The men were in white tie.

Then, just in front of the park, the New Building lawn housed a more modern scene: igloo-style cocktail and oyster bars, chocolate fountains, and a large orchestra (which went on to accompany the fireworks that erupted once the pink sky turned dark grey).

In obscured corners of the College buildings, there were massage parlours, hairdressers, old-fashioned performers and large vases of orchids.

When I sauntered through to the Cloisters for the first time that evening, I found myself suddenly caught up in an eerie, purple light and the honey-coloured stone. Then, through the medieval tipped windows, I caught the first glimpses of the most heavenly scene and I squealed, 'Eeeee'. From a poll in the middle of the quadrangle, strings of fairy lights gently reached each corner. Once it was dark, the Cloisters seemed more Hollywood glamour than celestial. The dance floor was a checkerboard, the singer was suitably husky, and there was a whiskey and champagne bar and an olives and cheeses tent at two of the corners.

In large marquee in a parallel quadrangle, a load of English bands rocked it from 9pm, including The Epstein, The Feeder and The Pipettes. (The last were like The Wiggles for adults, but in the 1960s. I was hooked.) Then, from around 3am, the survivors happily exchanged sweat and shapes at the silent disco as the sun quietly rose.

Yes, it was ridiculous in hindsight, and even during it, there were a few people getting a little intoxicated on their own splendour. But, it was essentially playful and truly beautiful, and, given the scale, the sort of thing I will probably only experience once.

Having quickly read my description though, it's clear that my tone is far more formal, possibly even reverent, and far less humourous than it is by nature. (That third photo is asking for something, whereas I just left it there.) Maybe the whole thing's gotten to me. That's it. The old me is finished. Lavish only from now on. LAVISH!

Friday, 26 June 2009

RIP Michael Jackson

I have woken up to the confirmed news that the King of Pop is dead. I spotted a Facebook status update just before bed that read 'RIP Michael Jackson music genius' and quickly clicked on a newspaper website on my toolbar. I felt a couple of seconds of tense hope, the same as when I had heard Heath Ledger and Steve Irwin had died but had not yet read about it. Alas, it had yet to be confirmed, but it wasn't looking good and now it's no good at all. There's something shoddy and disconcerting about hearing of someone's death over the Internet, even compared to say radio or TV news or in the newspaper, as was the case, for me, with the deaths of Freddie Mercury, Princess Diana, Kurt Cobain and Michael Hutchence. I don't like it.

I feel sad for Jacko's family and loved ones - death is banal - and a little regretful that he didn't have his massive come-back. That said, I have to say that I did lose the thread with him somewhat. He was such a huge part of my childhood lounge room dance competitions and adolescent parties and conversations, but as an 'adult', coinciding with his increasingly evident mental and physical sickness, I have felt more vague frustration, confusion and pity towards him, than any active loyalty. Kate found this more recent video, which reminded me once more of MJ's awesome talent and brilliance. I am sure I will get the tunes out this weekend and feel more and more grateful towards him. It's hard for me to feel that while reading online articles. Maybe that's just me.

Anyway (mind quickly moves to other things), it's raining outside. I have to finish off some work today (I am nearly there!), before a weekend of squishing thesis work around a College ball, garden party and pancake breakfast. Obnoxious. Most Oxford students I know get far more work done out of term time than in. Term officially ended last week, but there's always frivolity week after term ends (and another the week before it resumes). Not my fault. Oxford traditions. I hope you have a lovely weekend, including some time to bust out an MJ classic.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Writing Muppetry

photo by: Yogma

I have spent the past couple of days blindly creating and destroying lead-in material for an article. I set up the problem and background, and then slowly find myself in the thick of the main body. I then review the lead-in material and find I can cut it out or at least pair it down. Next I construct some more of the body, then realise that this is not really the body, but actually perfect lead-in material for a more interesting set of arguments so I then cut some of the earlier lead-in down and write more. The result is that the more I write, the more lead-in material crumbles away as if it can't keep up with the meaty bits. I realise this is, in part, inevitable and even very healthy or it may simply be the product of a devastatingly weak outline, but, in any case, it feels idiotic.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Calling on All Academics

Fellow academics and friends, I need your help.

Late last week, I was out at dinner when someone, who shall only be known as 'businessman', asked me the question I have been asked since the first few months of starting my thesis, 'What are you going to do next?' I tried to explain my academic plans, pointing out that it was hard for me to be as concrete as I would like because I am not entirely sure myself and that, given the nature of the work, the next years may well be spent in different positions and at different universities, but that all depended on whether I wanted to focus on teaching or research. I also tried to make it light-hearted, saying with as warm a smile as I could muster: 'You will definitely be one of the first people who knows all this when I know.'

But the conversation became very tense. Businessman made these sorts of comments (acccompanied by irritated facial expressions): 'If I were you, I would just change careers'; 'Academics have to spend so long applying for jobs when you are already so qualified, and then you have to beg for research grants and write articles for free'; 'I am used to people being paid well for what they do'; and 'I say all this because I am just wondering how you are going to pay for food and a roof over your head.' There were many other little chestnuts, which I am sure you can substitute with your own versions.

Unfortunately, at the time, I was already feeling bothered by the stupidly-generous supply of chilli in my pasta, heavy red wine, and the muggy, overcrowded Italian restaurant. I had also felt my day's takings (or word count) had been pretty lame. In short, I had taken a small amount of emotional baggage to dinner (just carry-on, nothing too fancy). Hot cheeked and troubled, a much as I wanted to, this all meant I simply couldn't articulate a grand defence of the academic enterprise.

Plus, so many themes filled my mind at once: the nature and role of a liberal education; the joys, and, indeed, necessities of intellectual freedom; the connection between thought and action in human history; the teaching and research functions of a university - universities teach doctors and support scientists (if not medieval history, then surely the health argument would work!); academics and businesspeople are driven by different motivations and interests, but both tend to value autonomy and solving problems; the prevalence of scientific, policy-based research at universities etc; universities and the private sector work more and more in partnerships anyway - the distinction was no longer as rigid (not without some negative consequences); universities have had a vocational function longer than a liberal education one.

There was just so much going on at once, including a great need to burp. These were points serve slightly different arguments and use various units of analysis and I didn't know where to begin. Some of the arguments felt hackneyed, others too intensely passionate with a basket of garlic bread in between us. On top of this, I didn't really know whether I should start saying anything to someone who never enjoyed school in the same way I have. Then I was worried I was going to be unfair, to take some of my frustrations and uncertainties about my thesis and future out on him in some twisted adaptation of the Stockholm syndrome. I was also aware that I might say something spectacularly snarky and sound like one of those obnoxious 10 year old whizz kids who shut down adults by pointing out how narrow their vocabularies are compared to theirs. I hate little kids like that. I want to remind them that they are still scared of the dark. I didn't want to leave and realise that rather than have a conversation, I had just been a little snob and, more than likely, somewhat insincere since, as much as I enjoy and appreciate what I do, I don't feel completely starry-eyed about the academic life (almost...but not quite!). I think I blurted (or burped) out something about how terribly stunted and boring the world would be if everyone wanted to be a businessperson. But I still didn't actually say much about academia itself.

To be fair to myself, it's also incredibly difficult to find the space to make careful arguments with someone who is scowling at you like you're a wastrel, and it's not always impressive, let alone useful, to rely on academic debates (such as the liberal versus vocational versus overlap debate) to someone who doesn't care for them. When someone tells you, essentially, that what you do is nonsensical, rather than cheerfully helping them understand it, it's actually very hard not to start acting like a childish patriot: all emotion, all defensiveness, all indignation. I think I sounded (or at least felt) a bit like one of those painfully dull people in the queue who you overhear telling someone how their home country is better than another.

When I made it home, I turned to my oracle, the magical interweb, to see what had been written about this and whether I could pull out something to send him. I have already read a lot on 'What is a University?' for a course I did, but this literature is written for an academic audience and will not do. I searched everything from 'What is the value or academics'/'academia', 'In defence of academia', 'Academia's role in society' to 'Why business people hate academics' and various combinations. But I have yet to find anything suitable. The closest thing I have found is a list of advantages and disadvantages of an academic career. Some of the items of this list are useful: rewarding and meaningful work, flexibility, being able to write, working with and meeting interesting people etc., but I am still not sure how to explain these things to someone who may not see these things as inherently true, let alone valuable and, of course, there are a whole lot of other things that have to be accounted for: time delays, increasing managerialism, prevalence of 'nutjobs' (as they are called in the lists above) and the prospect of slaving over an article that then has a mere 24 month shelf life. Morever, some of these are more about being an academic, rather than the broader value of academia.

I imagine because I am from a family where going to university was a taken for granted assumption and where the value of academia is tacit, I haven't ever had to master the answer to the question of why I value academia from someone who regards the endeavour as pointless or at least inefficient, indulgent and possibly a little intimidating. Plus, I am not sure how to account for the fact that I rely on the products of non-academic entrepreneurialism (presuming it can ever be fully separated) all the time. How much integrity do I need to make the arguments for academia? Also, do I need to take the high moral ground? Is academia going the same way as other professions where we simply shoo away tricky questions like these with the answer: 'It's just a job like anything else'? Whoops. I digress. These questions relate to bigger issues. For now, please let me know how you would respond to a routine encounter with businessman or any outsider for that matter being aggressively critical about what academics are and what they do.

The rules are:
  1. You have no more than 2 minutes time before outsider will change the subject or wave you off.
  2. You can't say something too harsh or arrogant as it will affect other relationships and make you feel bad.
  3. You have to see outsider again.
  4. Internal, esoteric arguments are more or less meaningless to outsider.
  5. Outsider's criticisms are not especially well-constructed and may move and remould elsewhere as you proceed. Outsider does not argue in the same way you do.
  6. You have tried humour or simply ignoring these comments many times before and would prefer a different approach (but would be willing to try it again if the only option, just need more material or motivation).
Also, if you have any come across or written any pieces of writing on this, please do send me the links.

Thank you and good night.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

The Good, the Bad and the Funny

photos by: Kate

The Good:

Surprise mail at any time is good. Surprise goody bag mail to "cheer up dreary thesis-plodding" is the best. Check out what Kate (of love you big) sent me! The rainbow tape that was binding the handmade packaging was very exciting for me, so imagine my inner squeals when I discovered inside an old-fashioned popcorn bag filled with super cute, crafty treats. Thanks Kate! Check out the rest of her goodies, get amongst her free giveaway, and do think about sending one of your friends a pack of colour sometime. It helps. The return of sunny weather, regular exercise, summertime energy and patient loved-ones also help.

The Bad:

Dealing with my thesis, other publications, and 'What Next' questions at the same time; inner siren going off at second email this week informing me that I 'must be almost finished' (I assure you, I will let you know); trying to come to terms with the situation in Iran; and a non-blog-friendly dull sadness about something personal.

The Funny:

The other night, two ginger friends (who don't know each other particularly well) were sitting around a table at The Turf with a bunch of non-gingers (including me). They start to size up each other's gingerness. Ginger boy has to show he is a real ginger by revealing his arm hair. Ginger girl tells us how when she walks past another gingette (my term) there is an implicit understanding between them, as well as a quick scan to see whether the other is wearing the right shade of pink, for instance, given their limitations (and opportunities, I would say. Greens, browns, ruby red and electric blue are winners!). Ginger boy declares that society is intolerant of ginger couples, that if we see two dark-haired people cuddling or walking hand-in-hand, it's not an issue, not even noticed, but if they are two gingers, we see it as wrong (as if gingerness should only ever be an outcome of a freaky throw-back) or highly suspicious and uncomfortable. Ginger girl replies that she learnt early on in high school that having a ginger boyfriend would be no easy choice.

For some more funny, check out this song from Aussie rednut, Tim Minchin. Hope you're having a positive week!

Friday, 12 June 2009

Finding the Right Pool Party Wear

So there's a couple of debates going on in my blogging community (to be generous), first about academic insecurities - particularly the tendency of academics (usually young ones) to be slaves to the pre-exisiting literature - and second about academic status and status crutches - especially, the CV.

photo by Ojo de Vidrio

I read in a book called Authoring a PhD that one of the reasons why novice researchers become bogged down in the questions, theories and tomes of more senior scholars is simply because of the structure of post-grad writing, a structure which, quite sensibly, first asks for an extensive literature review. One of the main functions of the review, Dunleavy says, is to help your supervisor get up to speed in your area. But us pups are not told this and, as one of our earliest academic memories, the review weighs heavily in our minds and on our weak shoulders. We sense that all these old timers are just waiting to hear what we have to say about 'their' field, doing warm-up stretches, cracking their knuckles, pushing their hips forward, lining up to take a potshot.

As much as we are told by our supervisors to take command of the scholarship or, as Dunleavy helpfully pointed out, to see it as context, not competition, we continue to absorb mixed messages about the extent to which we have to respond to previous debates and who our audience is. We may have or hear of experiences that don't alleviate these worries, such as someone's arguments being misrepresented and then criticised or receiving snarly feedback from blind reviewers. This often results in confused, defensive writing.

Acadamnit used a fabulous pool party metaphor for the academic publication activity and implored us newbies to turn up in appropriately revealing swimwear, reasonably open to the scrutiny of the academic clique. Addressing a newbie whose work he had to read, he said:
I know you are new to the research publication party, but don’t you want to show up dressed appropriately? It’s like a pool party and bathing suits are required. You simply cannot arrive in Arctic expedition attire. It’s uncomfortable I know. And no, an 1800s style “bathing suit” doesn’t work either. You just have to put yourself out there. You are obligated to cover the most sensitive parts, the delicate parts of your argument that would hurt most to get burned, but the rest is just going to have to be left exposed and open to scrutiny. It’s OK, it just takes some getting used to.
In a following post, he admitted that his confidence levels were relatively high (or his insecurities not especially low) in part because of his blossoming CV, one of the perhaps unfortunate, but inevitable markers of academic success.*

Then Academic Cog replied:
I'm standing here in the dressing room as a scholar just starting out, wanting to ask for help but also not wanting to come across like a complete dork or idiot from outer space --- what if I don't know which parts to cover and which to let hang out? Which are the naughty parts that you just don't expose and which are the merely risque? If you don't know that by now, I hear academics in my head saying, you don't deserve to be here...
photo by: Tom@HK

As for me, I have already submitted a couple of journal articles and had them sent back with classic comments about my bulky swimwear. I have been wearing too many floaties, dark goggles and a swimming cap and probably didn't need to hold my nose as I jumped from the diving board. In other words, I need to cut down on the lead-in material and narrow my arguments. But I have had a couple of attempts and the layers are being slowly removed. Right now, I have a chapter for a book due next week and I am definitely feeling more confident (stripping down to sensible full-piece, aiming for tasteful two-piece by thesis-submission). Admittedly, I feel more enticed to do a drop-bomb in this case because the two editors, like kind-hearted parents, are willing me in from the middle of the shallow end of the pool.

*Back to the nature of academic wins, the flipside of all this hesitation, Acadamnit's post elicited this comment from a non-believer:
You [academics] are without out exception a bunch of self-centered, narrow-minded f***s. You do not make the world a better place. Your research does not make the world a better place. You are worthless to improving society and actually make life miserable for those around you. This creates a ripple effect that makes you equal to common criminal in your influence. Get off your high horse and try to be human. I know you broke your ass to get the academic position, but please admit your mistake and find some real work to do.
Since then, there's been a lively discussion about the nature of academics and academic work: shame v grandeur, self- v student-centredness, narrow- v liberal-mindeness, neediness v autonomy, social deviance v social good etc.

Love this. Conversations in blogland are far more interesting to me than spewing bits of myself into the void. So get involved. What are your thoughts about newbie academics and academics in general (our habits, neuroses and social role)? Do you love us or not?

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Congratulations, You've Won a Free Trip to Sardinia.

I am back from my ladies' trip to Sardinia. Just in case you can't have a holiday for a while, here's what it entailed. I think you could just about pretend you were there with this information:

New Colours: Peach, purple and blue (flowers, houses, clothing, earth), a welcome variation to the green, brown and grey palette of England.

Local Food and Drink: Thin-based pizzas and fresh pastas soaked in oil and covered in salt, red wine, bright orange spritzers (mystery drink), olives, anchovies, bread, tomatoes, prosciutto and cheese, grapes, peaches, pears and apples. We were there for a short enough time to avoid bready-overload and any related symptoms.

Coastal and Inland Adventures: Long days spent clambering on sharp, granite rocks, running towards the clear water only to be stopped by the 'fresh' temperatures and then diving/falling in rather robotically to start slow laps (while the locals and Italian mainlanders stared and blinked from the sand - men in their white or dark blue speedos, legs apart, chocolate tans and haughty women in dark-coloured bikinis with gold trimmings), marching through cricket, caterpillar and bug-infested wheat fields in the singing heat to find huge, ancient olive trees that looked as if their knots could turn into faces and their branches into benevolent arms.

A Night with the Trendoids: On our last evening the three of us rocked up at Costa Smeralda hotspot, Phi Beach. We were given a textbook snub by the waiter who was utterly contemptuous of our shock at having to pay 15 euros/drink (even non-alcoholic!). We figured it was just about worth being able to lie on the white leather sun beds overlooking the moonscape, sea and sunset, but we also figured it might mean nursing each drink for a couple of hours. My friend said, 'Alone again' and we laughed, recalling that most of our nights out had meant the three of us in restaurants or back at the hotel alone and various very small, but nonetheless failed attempts at cracking the local scene. Then an hour or so later, this short, cocky Italian guy invited us to join him and his friends. We looked over to see a bunch of coolies attached to flourescent straws drawing from a communal drink. We strutted over, probably a little too keenly, but it was our last night and we didn't have the time or Euros to be aloof. It turned out that they were the owners and managers of the bar (and other bars throughout the world) and general hangers-on (rich kids who fly from hotspot to hotspot and the well-connected locals). One of the locals said that the life of a (young?) Sardinian is: Work in the morning, beach from 1-4pm, work til 7pm, then bars and night clubs from 9pm. I must admit, for various reasons, I had been a bit snobby about joining them, but they were very warm, chatty, and generous. It was a good reminder that having completely superficial fun is not the worst thing. It can actually be extremely positive and pleasant.

Some Adorable Characters: The composed, handsome concierge who became increasingly paternalistic towards us over the week and rushed out to wave at us as we left in the taxi for the airport, the 70 year old taxi driver we used a couple of times who showered us with 'bella's, the lady who made our coffees and hot chocolates in the morning who had such a wonderfully warm smile, the initially surly blacksmith who brightened up just as we were leaving and essentially trapped us in his studio to show us his craft from beginning to end (he produced the most beautiful wall pieces, hand made from a single piece of steel and then hand painted, many of which are made to sit in front of lights, creating a magical effect), the bronzed owner of the Indonesian and Thai accessories shop who proudly showed off his village to us, the lady in faded floral leggings at the church service (first mass for me in several years, the church - Stella Maris - was simply beautiful) whose full arm, right-angles cast made me laugh, taking me back to the many times in my childhood when I struggled with laughter fits in church.

A Very Long Trip Back: We scrambled out of bed for the 7:15am taxi, arrived at the airport, squinty and a little snippy with each other, to find our plane had been delayed until 3:15pm. On three hours' sleep, this was crushing. What was even more disconcerting was that once we were finally on board the Easyjet crew member on the mic informed us that the crew and pilot had to be hauled out of bed that morning so we had to be extra nice to them. I said to the passengers around me, "Right, so we're handing over our lives to tired, resentful people. Great. The pilot will probably take a short landing in spite of his boss." The presence of Geri "Ginger Spice" Halliwell on our plane (who would have thougt she used Easyjet?) made it mildly more tolerable as there were some Spice Girls jokes amongst the passengers. The American guy in the seat behind me googled her nude pics and showed them to people in the plane. This seemed funny at high altitude. Not so funny was having to join the non-Euro queue at immigration control and therefore being one of the last to make it to baggage claim to then spot a few sad suit cases remaining, none of which was mine. One of them looked like mine EXCEPT FAR SMALLER AND WITH A BRIGHT BLUE RIBBON ON IT that the owner had obviously attached as an identifier. I knew straight away that the owner had taken my bag home. I then had to deal with a super angry, lined-lipped woman at the 'baggage dramas' counter. I was anxious for her to ring the person whose bag I had before he or she got too far away, but she treated me like I was going out of my way to pester her. She finally rang the person with my bag, en route to London (she had the nerve to ask whether I could meet her in London!). My friend and I then had to wait for an hour and a half until she (bag-taker) came back to the airport for the bag exchange. The baggage counter lady told me to go and meet the "dumb woman" with my case (she had loyalty to neither one of us in the saga). Dumb woman was irritable too and she actually told me how returning to the airport had been really hard for her. There is lots of anger at airports (Love Actually lied). It was a harsh welcome home, I've got to say.