Wednesday 31 December 2014

Some end of year thanks

The last day of the year seems like a good time to say thank you. Over the course of 2014 the number of visitors to this blog has risen rapidly, mostly because of people coming via Twitter, and I've made the acquaintance of many wonderful new readers. I want to end the year by thanking you all for reading, commenting, sharing and contributing here, and I want to explain a little why that means so much to me.

I hope you can tell from this blog that I love my work. I love research, and I love medieval literature, and I love teaching it and thinking about it and I'm never happier than when I'm absorbed in it. Nonetheless, academia is not always a happy place to work. I'm a very junior academic, and to people in my position a career in academia offers a daunting future: a life of short-term contracts and little security, with very limited ability to plan ahead. You can probably imagine the psychological effects of this, and the impact it can have on one's confidence and sense of self-worth; if not, this article explains very well what it's like to be in this situation. Most of my friends are also early career academics, in a similar position, and when I look at them I see talented young people consumed with anxiety and fear about the future, constantly doubting their value as scholars, and consequently as human beings. The system feeds, almost encourages, such anxiety. I remember that just after I started my current job we were learning about the training sessions on offer for junior academics, and were told that their most well-attended session ever had been about 'coping with a fear of failure'. Everyone kind of laughed and looked unsurprised, but this fact stuck with me, and it's sad, when you think about it. By no rational definition could any of the people attending such a session be considered failures: these are graduate students and young academics studying and working at Oxford, which proudly calls itself one of the best universities in the world. You can't get where they are without being talented and dedicated, incredibly hard-working and motivated, excelling again and again at exams and job applications and all the things one is supposed to succeed at in order to find a place in the world. It's hard not to feel that they've done everything right, but nonetheless they - we - can't feel secure. I'm in that position myself, and I too feel like a failure. I don't think I am, yet (am I? don't tell me, if you think I am) but I feel like one, every day.

The precarious nature of academic jobs is an endemic problem, perhaps not something individuals can do much about, but academics often don't help this pervading mood of anxiety by just not being very nice to each other. As an academic you are confronted all the time by scepticism, criticism, doubt, and to an extent, that's fine - that's how academia operates, its bread and butter, and constructive criticism can be a real gift. But a lot of the time you're dealing with criticism which feels unnecessarily vindictive, actually designed to torpedo your sense of self-worth. Criticism is all you ever hear, because it's no one's job to encourage you or tell you what's good about your work - only how it can be improved. Senior academics in positions of power who use that power to be generous and supportive towards younger scholars are absolutely worth their weight in gold, and I've been fortunate enough to be helped by several, but they often seem to be in the minority. Part of the fear of failure is feeling almost desperately dependent on the goodwill of more powerful people, without any control over the fate of your own work; reviewers and academic publishers, for instance, have a huge amount of power over my future, and I have no influence on them whatsoever. I have to get my work published if I ever want to get another job, so they're free to treat me however they want and I have to do as they ask, lest they decide to say 'actually, we won't publish this after all'. That's a frightening situation to be in.

This is where blogging helps. It might seem like nothing to you, but with blogging I'm in control of what I write and post; it might be badly written or contain errors or someone just might not like it, but at least I don't have to get anyone's approval to write it, or apply for permission, or dread the prospect of an anonymous critical attack. That sense of freedom has been very good for my scholarship, in ways I might discuss in another post, but it's also been good for me personally. In response to my blog I receive a constant stream of positive feedback, and I can't tell you what a boost that is to me amid my daily anxieties. Perhaps that makes it sound like the benefits of blogging are chiefly selfish, but what I love is not people saying nice things about me, but recognising the value of the texts I write about. 'That poem is amazing!' is my favourite type of comment; it means, I hope, that I helped someone see how and why a text they wouldn't otherwise have encountered can indeed be amazing. The tone is just so different: there's enthusiasm and interest and passion of a kind you rarely hear expressed within academia. People who aren't used to blogs worry about getting negative feedback through blogging, and of course you do get the occasional troll, especially on Twitter - but in six years of blogging I've never received a comment anywhere near as maliciously crushing as anonymous academic peer review can be. The overwhelming majority of my readers are friendly and eager to learn and ready to contribute knowledge of their own; if they have criticisms, they express them politely. It turns out that out there, outside academia, a lot of people are just really nice. And living and working as I do, inside my own head, it's a lovely surprise to find that out.

There's still debate within academia about blogging, and a considerable proportion of academics who don't understand why anyone would bother to do it. When people ask me about my blog (I never bring it up myself, because I worry what people I know in real life will think of it) they often do so with an air of puzzlement: why would you want to do that? Why would you write if you're not getting anything out of it? And it's true I'm not really getting anything tangible out of blogging, and career-wise it may do me more harm than good; I sometimes imagine sceptical 'real academics' stumbling across my blog, silently judging me, and going away again, and you never know how that might come back to hurt me. To many of the people who have power over my career, blogging doesn't count as a worthwhile activity, even as a form of outreach or impact. But the intangible benefits are immense, and it's been more rewarding than almost anything I've ever done. To be able to write about texts I care about, which I feel are interesting and important and should be better known, and then find a willing and appreciative audience who want to hear about them, is a daily joy. That's because of you, my generous and open-minded readers. I write about texts I like and want to share, and most of the things I choose to post about I could never publish in another forum, so it's particularly encouraging that many of my most popular posts this year have been about some of the most obscure texts: the Old English Menologium, Anglo-Saxon sermons, very minor Middle English lyrics, a little-studied Norse saga. These posts have each attracted hundreds of readers within a few days of posting, and have been received with an enthusiasm which amazes me. Perhaps the element of novelty is a draw - these texts are not the kind of thing anyone would encounter unless they had been studying medieval literature for a few years, and so they are unfamiliar and surprising, maybe. I think that many people who've never studied medieval literature (especially Old English), and even some who have, don't know just how much they don't know; they think the corpus is small and predictable, and so react with astonishment and delight to something unexpected, like Christ III. But still, if you had to pick anything - anything! - you thought a non-specialist audience would be interested in, Ælfric's sermons would be way down the list, let alone the Menologium or the Christ poems of the Exeter Book. Sometimes people comment on my posts (meaning to be kind) 'you should write a book about this!' which, although a well-intentioned comment, is a little painful to hear, because at the moment no one would publish a book by someone as junior as me about texts as obscure as the ones I write about. Who would want to read that? Well, my blog readers, thank goodness.

So, if you've read this far, thank you. Thank you for reading, commenting on, sharing my posts. Thank you for being enthusiastic and generous in your responses, for sharing my enthusiasm. If you're a non-specialist, as the majority of you are, thank you for being open-minded, willing to engage with texts which even within academia are seen as hopelessly esoteric, too obscure for undergraduates and the kind of thing no non-specialist would ever care about. And if you are a specialist, a 'real academic', thank you for being generous enough to read the blog of someone much junior to you, who values your approval more than you can imagine. And all of you, thank you for being kind.


Cornflower said...

I am a non-specialist but I find so much of interest in your posts, and admire the way in which you present your subject to that wider readership - long may you continue to do so and to derive pleasure from it yourself.
All the best to you!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for blogging about these texts and studying them.

Anonymous said...

I am new to your blog. I don't even remember what chain of other blogs brought me to your writing.
But I am glad to have found it, and am becoming a faithful reader.
Thank you!
Blessings, Laurel

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thank you all, and happy new year!

Joshua Grasso said...

Thanks for this extremely honest yet inspiring post. I'm an (youngish) English professor in the States, and your blog has been a wonderful resource for my classes as well as for my own diversion. Trust me, blogging has an immense importance in the modern world, much more so than a few obscure (if important) academic journals which only a few of our peers read--and then, sadly, largely to fault-find. I've turned to my own blog more and more to express interests outside my immediate field, which I cannot publish in, but which I want to pursue and write about (but as you lament, cannot write a book about). But rest assured that you are reaching a great audience, and many of my students, too, now follow your blog and have discovered new works because of it. A true scholar has to be humble enough to learn something new every day, and your blog is imbued with this very spirit of knowledge and discovery. Thank you for taking time out of your busy research to share your insights, and I wish you well on your journey toward a permanent position--any university or college would be lucky to have you! In the meantime, there are many out here who are already your faithful students.

Itinérante said...

I too recently discovered your blog and ever since I am addicted to it!
I am very grateful for all the work you offer here!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your honest, but sad, post - I am not an academic, but live in a University town and have worked in the University in various capacities and done my PhD research there. I have seen with great sadness the atmosphere you describe growing greater as pressure for jobs increases (and as my father was a University lecturer, my knowledge of the changing pressures in academia goes back a long way). Your blog is a constant delight to me, reminding me of things I cared about studying as an undergraduate, and extending that delight into texts that, as you say, are never studied at that level. Your knowledge and enthusiasm not only within the fields of Old and Middle English and Old Norse texts, but also for Tolkien, Lewis, Victorian literature, churches, cathedrals, saints and all manner of other things, brighten my days and must make you an inspired and inspiring teacher and researcher. Oxford are lucky to have you, and if they don't say so then we (your fortunate blog audience) do.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thank you - I'll treasure these comments. There are so many things worth studying and writing about which don't fit within the traditional academic paradigms, and blogging provides the perfect space for those explorations. I'm particularly fond of how in blogging it's OK to admit openly that you're still learning about something - you don't have to present everything you say as the definitive answer! That's really helped me preserve my own pleasure in learning, and delight in exercising the 'spirit of knowledge and discovery' (to use your phrase, Joshua!). I like to think that for an academic blog modelling that delight in learning is almost as important as presenting your ideas - it's part of opening up the often hidden world of academia to students and the general public alike. When I think about the academics who've most inspired me, their willingness to talk about their own developing learning and their pleasure in what they study has had an immensely positive influence.

I always try and remember Chaucer's Clerk of Oxford - 'gladly would he learn and gladly teach...'

Zue said...

Keep going!
You are amazing!
Your blog is really helpful and an inspirational!

South Oxfordshire
Happy New Year:)

Anonymous said...

I've just read your end of year piece and like other commentators I recognise the environment you describe. Although I never worked in academia I encountered academics through my work as a trade union official. Over many years I represented workers mainly in the public sector, at all levels and by a margin senior academics were the most difficult to assist due for the most part to their towering arrogance.
Poisonous, is the word which springs to my mind to describe the atmosphere I often encountered.
So I was saddened but not surprised to read of your experiences.
I so much enjoy your blogs, introducing me as they do to subjects far beyond my ken; I have no knowledge of any of the old languages in your posts save for a threadbare remnant of Latin from long distant schooldays but your posts written with clarity and elegance allow me a glimpse into worlds previously unknown and completely fascinating.
Thank you and a very happy new year to you.

jpg said...

Thanks for these words and for your blog, Eleanor. My scholarly interests coincide quite closely with yours, although I'm led in slightly different directions. Nevertheless, I've learnt much from your blog, and always enjoy it immensely.

One thing I've noticed in the world of academic scholarship is that there's now considerably less joy in talking informally about making, having and developing ideas than I ever imagined. My experience is that academics who work alongside one another in the non-collaborative humanities often don't converse *at all* about their shared enthusiasms. Although there may always have been anxieties attached to sharing ideas that have not been published, I suspect this situation is partly the result of a new, profoundly anti-intellectual tendency, in which the audit of academic research in the UK has begun to redefine ideas and scholarship in starkly utilitarian terms, as 'product'.

What's rewarding about your blog is quite simply that it overflows with little insights and connections, and your evident enjoyment of what you do. We should all be tilling the soil on the edge of the wilderness: but these days a blog like yours can seem more like a well in the badlands.

Stephanie A. Mann said...

Thank you for all the thoughtful work and effort on this blog. Believe me, I know what it takes! Happy Christmas and New Year!

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thank you all! JPG, I recognise exactly what you're describing and I suspect you are right about the causes of it. It's a great shame and can only have a negative impact on all our scholarship, I think.

Erica Laine said...

Excellent piece, sad to feel undervalued and scorned, it is mainly about territory I think, people guard their worlds very carefully like a dragon and gold and knowledge is the gold. Academics do this very skilfully! But your blog has been a wonderful piece of writing and I have enjoyed it, I showed a piece to a friend ( we are both in our 70s and we both said we wished we were younger and could explore all the things you are working on. So inspirational for different age groups.

JeanneDeMontbaston said...

I'm late to this (I must have missed it), but I've just been sent the link to it on twitter. I agree with you, so much! I find your blog incredibly useful - and I know some of my students read it. It really helped me to read some of your posts this last term, while I was just getting to grips with a new teaching course (and I credited you, obviously, which is something I think academics who're un-keen on blogging don't realize you should do!).

I think there's a really strong medievalist/history community blogging, and it's so good to read a post celebrating that.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Yes, the medievalist community in blogs and on Twitter is amazing! So supportive, and really helpful in making academia seem like a more open, welcoming place than traditional academic exchanges often do.

Thanks, Erica - I agree there's too much guarding of territory and hoarding knowledge! It should be possible to strike a balance between hoarding and 'spending' knowledge freely, I think...