Sunday, March 13, 2022

From me to us


At the beginning of the 2019 fall semester, Johan Östling, Anna Nilsson Hammar and I went to a spa and conference center called The Lodge. It is located at Romeleåsen between the cities of Malmö and Lund. The food is good and the view is absolutely stunning. Perhaps not quite as nice as the view of Lake Vättern at Vista Kulle. But pretty close for Scania!

What we did at The Lodge was to spend a day jointly broadening our perspective. What did we want to do together in the future? How were we to build on what we had accomplished? Which challenges and opportunities faced the history of knowledge environment in Lund? Which initiatives were the most important and when should they occur?

At the time, there were many uncertain variables. Neither Anna nor I knew with certainty what our research future would look like. This was in the hands of funding bodies and external experts. Regardless, we wanted to have a plan. Because the research environment we have built together was important for all three of us. It was something we wanted to focus on regardless of our working conditions. We wanted to make it bigger, better, more important.

The day began with us looking back. What had we actually accomplished in the last five years? How had we done that? What did we learn from this? Why did we place such a high value on what we had? This was an extremely enjoyable conversation. Johan described this as “from me to us.” He pointed out that writing a thesis had in many ways been “one single major ego project.” Anna and I recognized ourselves in this description. Because even though we have been part of strong and collegial PhD student communities, the PhD years in many respects concerned realizing an individual dream.

The history of knowledge project was different in nature right from the outset. It was an attempt to introduce and further develop an international field of research no one in Lund had heard of. Initially, it was difficult to impress the people around us. Intellectually, there were many objections – then as now. However, I have learned that research is not just – or perhaps even primarily – an intellectual activity. It’s a social and collective process.

We started in 2014 by building from below. We read and discussed texts and spent time with each other. From an early stage, we also started trying to write together. I remember that after one of our first meetings, Anna and I came to a realization. We were there when it happened! We were not condemned to be new cultural historians three decades after the breakthrough of new cultural history. Instead, we could be the first historians of knowledge. The international research front was still far off in the distance – but we could start to make out its outlines.

I didn’t understand exactly what we did in 2014–2019 while we were doing it. Today, however, I would say that what we jointly created were the conditions for a field to develop and expand. This field consists of a number of interlinked scholarly conversations but has also turned into a local culture at the Department of History in Lund. Many of our colleagues, new and old, have been integrated into this culture. From the outside, I realize that we have been engaged in some form of academic entrepreneurship. I could never have imagined myself doing this.

Now that the time has come to end this blog and this book, I realize that this actually also applies to this project as well. My aim has been, or at least turned into, to try to advance a cultural change within the academy. I want us to talk more about what is difficult and sensitive. I want us to help each other better manage our joint existence as academics. And I want to highlight the human aspects of research and ensure that they are taken into account. My hope is that academic culture will become more generous and less bitter. Obviously, this is not going to magically materialize as a result of a blog or a book. It requires concrete action. But I believe – perhaps naively – in the power of examples and in the importance of individual choices in life. The essentialist way.

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Listen, don't listen


Academics operate in a world where the rules of the game are not fully known to the players. In addition, they are in a state of constant change. This is because the rule book is what academics in temporary positions of power choose to do with it. Do they choose to reward monographs in Swedish or international peer-reviewed journal articles? Do they count the number of publications or do they read them and try to form their own opinion? Do publication channels play a role or not? Do co-written texts make you more or less competitive?

As if that wasn’t enough, the playing field and the players are constantly changing. In the 1990s, when the Swedish higher education sector was expanded, some historians went straight from receiving their PhD to having a permanent position as senior lecturer. This is completely unthinkable today. In the 1980s, it was unusual for academics to apply for positions at universities other than the one where they received their PhD. Today, academics from elite American universities may apply for a position as associate professor in Kristiansand in Norway. At Swedish universities, foreign leading academics are still rare in the competition. However, the Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History at the University of Oslo has experienced a rapid and dramatic shift in the 2010s. Here, local applicants have not even bothered applying. For the first time in history, a whole generation of Oslo historians have not had a real chance of being employed at their home department.

All these transformations make it difficult to get good advice. Nevertheless, many of us are pretty quick to offer such advice. “Only peer-reviewed articles count,” “edited volumes don’t make you competitive,” “without a second book, you’re nothing,” “no one cares about premodern history.” Nevertheless. As soon as expert opinions in relation to a position are made available, you realize that the rules of the game are hardly set in stone. Above all, you realize that none of the players knows for sure how the rules will be interpreted by the referees. What is crucial for one research funding body is less important for another. A behavior praised by one professor is seen as worthless by another.

At the same time, however, not everything is entirely arbitrary. There are patterns in the noise. If we look at longer time series, this variance tends to level out. Good academics often find their place sooner or later. But out of everyone prepared to offer advice – who should you actually listen to? How does the opinion of a renowned professor hold up against that of a recent associate professor or a successful postdoc? And to what extent can and should you think strategically? Isn’t the research profession primarily based on passion? Doesn’t following your heart result in the best research?

My general principle is to listen to many people but to be careful when it comes to trusting someone blindly. I look upon being absolutely certain how the academic world works as an alarm bell. I simply don’t think anyone knows. How could you when the rules of the game, the playing field, the players and the referees are constantly being replaced?

The group I trust the most, however, are the people a few years ahead of me. Perhaps one may talk about this in terms of a “proximity principle.” Sure, a lot of changes are taking place. Yet, the academy is a slow-moving world. The dynamics of the game do not change overnight. What worked yesterday will probably work tomorrow. However, it’s not at all certain that the recipes for success in the 1990s or 2000s are still effective.

Furthermore, at least in my experience, it’s treacherous to compromise too much with your own ideals and research ambitions. Things typically do not end well when someone tries for a long time to do something purely based on strategic reasons. What brings joy and pleasure must also be included. Otherwise, the sweet taste of victory may turn into ash in your mouth. Carrying out a research project that doesn’t engage you at a deeper level is not all that much fun. On the other hand, academics who can’t imagine doing anything else than what they want to do and who hate all this talk about games, strategy and career typically don’t have all that much fun either. This is a situation where bitterness, whining and envy are close at hand. This is something I try to stay clear of as much as possible.

Hence, I advocate adopting a mixture of strategic thinking and scholarly idealism. What you need to do, as Zlatan Ibrahimović says in his autobiography, is to “listen, don’t listen.” If you are to get anywhere in academia, you must be able to take advice and make some concessions. But you also need to dare to go your own way and shut out the counsel of others. Knowing when to do one thing and when to do the other is an art. Perhaps even one of the most important academic skills.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Four-week planning


Every Friday, typically immediately after lunch, I sit down and make a four-week plan. I start by taking a blank A4 sheet of paper and putting it in front of me on my desk. I then make a horizontal line on the top half and make four vertical lines through this line. This results in 10 boxes. One for each working day during the next two-week period. I then take out my calendar and enter all the things I need to do: meetings, lunches, seminars, classes. I exclude public holidays. I then make a brief calculation. How many writing units are available during the upcoming week? (The maximum number for one day is four.)

I then start to think about my three weekly goals. These may involve things such as writing 12 units on chapter 7, making a PowerPoint for presentation X, conducting a Finish On Time workshop, spending two days in the archive. The weekly goals I emphasize the most are my writing goals. I try to use process goals (number of units), but I also tend to make an estimate of what I think this will result in. Here, I typically use generous intervals. For instance, writing 2–5 pages for chapter 7. Before I get started on a chapter, the goal may also be to find the structure for this chapter. This could even be a weekly goal. 

Once I have a pretty good handle on this week, I do the same thing for the following week. I then make a new horizontal line on the lower half of the piece of paper and make four vertical lines through this line. This results in 10 new boxes. I look upon these two weeks as “upcoming.” Hence, I don’t plan them in as much detail. But I still want to know what to expect. Approximately how many units will I have at my disposal? Are there any approaching deadlines? Here, I sometimes discover that things are about to get busy further down the line. This may give me a reason to revise my two-week plan. Perhaps I can address these problems by pushing forward a deadline for myself? You see, I hate working with tight deadlines. 

This is true with regard to both large and small things. A PowerPoint presentation may just as well be created three weeks before a lecture as one week. A conference abstract or a research application can be submitted as soon as the system becomes accessible. Once I have done these kinds of small things, I can also stop thinking about them. Out of sight, out of mind. The basic condition should be that there are not a lot of open loops. The fewer things on my mind, the better. This frees up creative energy and makes me feel better.

Here, I also look back at last week’s four-week plan. What happened to the three goals I set at that time? Have I done what I set out to do? These days, the answer is typically yes. Alternatively, there is a good reason (sick children, something big and important got in the way). The reason why I normally achieve my weekly goals is that I have used these kinds of goals for many years by now. I have a pretty good idea as to my capacity. And I’m not overly ambitious when I set goals. I estimate my units conservatively and make sure that there is plenty of space in the schedule. Because things will happen, and on certain days my energy level is low. Then it doesn’t matter how much time is available. In such a case, it’s better to do some mechanical tasks than to bump up against an empty Word document.

So, how long does it take to make this kind of four-week plan? To some extent, it depends on your groundwork. For me, it usually takes between half an hour and an hour. But then, as you know, I make a fairly detailed plan for the semester. As a result, there are quite clear guidelines on what the four-week plan should contain. At least when it comes to big things such as writing books, articles and applications. In that regard, I know what the aim is. I know which week a chapter needs to be completed for the plan over the semester to work.

After I have done my four-week plan, I usually take a short walk. Perhaps I have a drink of water or go and say hi to a colleague. I then prefer to spend my Friday afternoon doing something fun not related to performance. Such as reading a book on academic writing for pleasure. At around 2.30 p.m., I typically go over to the university gym, Gerdahallen. I find this a perfect way of shifting from work mode to weekend mode. The planning and the physical activity result in the work mode simply evaporating.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Less but better

One of my favorite books – all categories – is Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (2011). This is a book I return to several times each semester. Sometimes, I just read the introduction and my own highlights in the book. Other times, I read a few chapters. About once a year, I read it from cover to cover. Trust me, this is a book that can withstand being reread over and over.

The essence of Essentialism is the concept of “less but better.” McKeown gets this notion from German product designer Dieter Rams, whose minimalist approach to design was groundbreaking in the 1960s. During his time at Braun, Rams is known for changing the standard of what radios and record players should look like. Before, these appliances looked more like pieces of furniture. They were large and bulky. Rams’ team stripped away all unnecessary elements and the design was a success. Within a few years, all their competitors followed suit.

However, McKeown’s book is not about designing products. It’s about how individuals design their lives. Using examples from his own life and the lives of others, he argues that people can live better lives by applying Rams’ motto “weniger aber besser.” This, however, requires you to develop an “essentialist mindset.” So, what does this mean?

First, an essentialist is characterized by a belief that the individual is able to make significant choices and priorities. Life doesn’t have to be a long list of musts. Setting up and looking upon one’s life in this way is a choice. You can choose differently. Second, an essentialist believes that certain things are much more important than others. In fact, most things are considered noise. McKeown discusses this as trying to distinguish “the vital few from the trivial many.” Third, an essentialist is fully aware of the many limitations of existence. No individual has the time, commitment and resources to do everything. That is why it’s a mistake to think “how can I manage everything?” It’s better to take a step back, reflect on what you really want to achieve and then select a few things you truly dedicate yourself to doing. The fewer the better.

Using a personal example, I can highlight how I played games between the ages of 20 and 30. Until then, I had played everything possible: board games, card games, computer games and video games. However, I stopped doing this when I discovered the Magic tournament circuit. I realized that I found Magic more fun and challenging than any other game. Why, then, should I concern myself with these other games? The only exception was online poker. It wasn’t quite as fun as Magic, but much more lucrative. In addition to this, I obviously also played other games from time to time for social reasons. But in the choice between going big or going wide, I chose the former. Less but better.

In recent years, I have applied the essentialist mindset to how I work. After returning from my first parental leave in 2014, I have consistently sought to use my time better. I have achieved this by in a disciplined manner spending more time on what really matters and less time on what does not. I have also constantly devoted a lot of time to reflecting upon what is essential. This, according to McKeown, is also something that characterizes an essentialist. Because even though you ultimately do fewer things than a “non-essentialist,” you spend more time on planning and exploring opportunities. This is the only way to get a good foundation for making difficult decisions.

Nevertheless, I’m obviously far from being an altogether successful essentialist. Several times each semester, I find myself in situations where I feel that I’m spread too thin. It feels as if I don’t have enough time to do those particular things that are “important but not urgent.” Such as research, writing and reading. When I feel like this is when I pick out my copy of Essentialism from my bookshelf. It helps me see what I did wrong and what I can do about it.

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Sunday, February 13, 2022

Assessments and being evaluated

An element of an active academic life consists of assessing others and being assessed. It runs like a common thread from the first exam as an undergraduate to the expert opinions of the retired professor. But how does it actually work? How do you know whether something is better than something else? What is scholarly quality and what makes someone qualified to assess this?

Apart from grading students, I have in the past few years examined PhD program applications, journal articles, research applications and served as external examiner. I have not received any formal training in assessing and evaluating historical scholarship. Or perhaps I have. I have read, analyzed and evaluated scholarly texts since at least the early undergraduate level. I have participated in critical discussions around seminar tables. What’s this if not formal training in scholarly evaluation?

The seminar culture in which I was trained reached a new level when I was accepted to the PhD program. Sure, the PhD program contained much coursework. However, the higher seminar of the Department of History is where I learned the most. In this setting, you were expected to be present and say things – even though the seminar didn’t offer any credits or you were formally obligated to attend. In my PhD generation, there was a strong sense of loyalty toward the seminar. Being there was more important than sitting in front of the computer writing or in the archive digging.

Then as now, I greatly appreciated general seminar skills. I particularly appreciated those who didn’t always repeat the same thing over and over and who were also capable of giving good comments on things outside their own area of expertise. This requires both intellectual flexibility and an ability to perform empathetic readings of texts that don’t really interest you. In order to do so, you need to approach texts on their own terms and be able to distance yourself from your own worldview. Being able to think on your feet doesn’t hurt either.

These are all typical “invisible skills.” They don’t appear in publication lists, CVs or portfolios over teaching experience. They may, however, sometimes be seen between the lines in books and articles. But far from always. One is often surprised by how unremarkable renowned academics can be when operating outside their own comfort zone. On other occasions, you are amazed at how skillfully a master’s student discusses something he or she doesn’t know all that much about.

Somewhere here is my basic view on what constitutes scholarly quality. Perhaps one could specify it as a kind of intellectual elasticity and a general scholarly ability to assess and evaluate things. Over the years, I have come to realize that this is only one basic view among many. Other academics value completely different things the most: creative choices of subject matter, vast and hard-to-access archival materials, ability to write and how to engage in certain types of theoretical reasoning. Some academics value things close to what they do highly. Others adopt the opposite perspective. They expect even more from academics operating in proximity to their own field.

This insight into this kind of value pluralism has over time made me more humble with regard to my own basic view. How can I be sure that it’s all that good? And, by the way, who’s to say that all academics should be good at the same things? The field of history wouldn’t have been particularly interesting if it only consisted of masters of seminars. We also need academics digging in archives and others driven by theoretical curiosity. We need excellent writers and people who can count. Without the diversity of different types of academics, the seminar culture would quickly turn into some sort of self-referential intellectual exercise. An echo chamber.

Another way of thinking about evaluations and assessments is to actually study this phenomenon. People outside the academy might perceive this as the pinnacle of navel-gazing. But for those of us who work in the academy, this is extremely interesting. My own favorite study in this field is How Professors Think (2009) by sociologist Michèle Lamont. In this book, she carries out ethnographic studies on a number of multidisciplinary research councils distributing prestigious grants. She participates in their meetings and interviews the evaluators before and after. She is particularly interested in how professors assess each other’s efforts as evaluators. What brings respect? What makes you trust someone’s judgment? What makes you lose confidence in someone?

This post is not the place to summarize her findings. But the book is definitely worth reading in its entirety. It’s a great qualitative study offering many general insights. It also gives the reader a chance to be a fly on the wall in one of the rooms where your own applications actually end up. Because even if you only see acceptance letters, rejection letters and, sometimes, the arguments made for or against you, these decisions are obviously made by people. But they are not made individually but in groups. A bit like a seminar.

Further reading: "The role of writing applications in the research process" and "What academics can learn from players"

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Sunday, February 6, 2022

The list

In January 2019, I made a list of things I knew I wanted to blog about. This list included experiences and working methods, books and scholars. It also included a number of difficult and sensitive issues faced by young academics. Is it possible to combine the life of an academic with having a family? What are the consequences of the requirements concerning mobility and internationalization for those who are rooted in a specific location? How to address refusals, setbacks and competition? What does it take to be considered for a permanent position?

During the year, more things were continuously added to the list. I read new books and experienced new things. The readers of the blog also communicated requests and ideas. Hence, some of the posts – which I really wanted to write for a long time – were never written. That is a bit disappointing but also sort of a good thing. The blog never became stale. There were always more ideas available.

Once I was given the opportunity to turn the blog into a book, however, things were put in a new perspective. Why not write some of those posts that were never written? Why not give the book readers something unique? As far as I am concerned, I must admit that I have missed blogging during the weeks that have passed since the blog was ended. For me, “A Year of Academic Writing” was always a project based on pleasure, which I also found deeply meaningful in every way. That is why the choice was simple. Of course, there were going to be a few more posts.

It should also be added that there was a pipeline of blog posts already from the outset. When I went live on February 1, 2019, 4–5 posts were already written and scheduled for publication. After that, I tried to write about one post a week. But things got in the way. At one point at the end of the spring semester, I had no post buffer whatsoever. That was not a good feeling. That is why I made sure to have a substantial pipeline ready for the fall semester and not start posting on the blog too early. I also promised myself to exert more self-discipline when it came to publishing extra posts. This resulted in me finishing writing the blog by the end of November 2019.

There and then, I presented the idea of contacting a publisher to the Monday Club. It didn’t take them long to offer their support. No sooner said than done. I compiled the posts, removed the hypertext links and sent out some feelers. Caroline Boussard at Studentlitteratur responded almost immediately. She was familiar with the blog and wanted to meet for lunch before Christmas. We met on December 11, all the important things were completed by the afternoon and in the evening – once the kids were asleep – I returned to my list. So, which blog posts were actually never written? I then wrote these, feeling immensely happy and proud that the blog would be turned into a book!

Here, I would like to emphasize that the posts in this section – even though they were not published on the blog – were actually written during the same year of academic writing as the others. The book may thus be seen as an “extended version” or a “director’s cut.” I hope that both regular blog readers and new readers will appreciate this. Regardless of which category you belong to, I am very happy that you’re reading this. It truly feels like a triumph for the blog that it is now turned into a book. And there is hardly any better way to celebrate this than to write a little more!

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Monday, January 31, 2022

Ending things

It’s sometimes said that a thesis is never completed – it’s abandoned. There is some truth to that expression. Many research projects end long before the academic feels that he or she is finished. The high demands sometimes originate externally, but most frequently from within. For many academics, the pursuit of perfection is one of the strongest drivers. It can even be non-negotiable. 

I have a somewhat different disposition. I primarily like to discover and learn new things. That’s why I am happy to move on to new fields of research. The next project generally attracts me more than the one I’m currently working on. At the same time, I truly dislike leaving things unfinished. I thus need to put an end to things in order to really move forward. Note, however, that it doesn’t have to be the best ending ever. “Done is better than perfect.” 

I haven’t always had this attitude. Nor does it always come naturally. That is why I use a special technique to finish things. I decide in advance how much time I will spend on them. When I agree to write a review, I schedule time for this in my calendar. What I manage to do during this time is what I submit. I use the same technique for applications. I dedicate a certain amount of time during which I do my best to write something good. 

This blog follows the same principle. I had been thinking for years about launching a research blog. To make it happen, I decided to do so for a year and to publish one post a week. Each post would be about 500 words. In my mind, this task was substantial and ambitious. But it was not limitless. There were a starting and an endpoint as well as a clear framework. I knew what to do and I knew when I was going to be done. That’s how I like to work. 

At the same time, I am obviously only human. As the blog attracted readers and some posts received a great deal of positive feedback, I started thinking about carrying on. Long into the fall of 2019, I seriously considered simply keeping going. At least until the book manuscript had been submitted. Or why not until the monograph was to be printed? Perhaps I could rename the blog “Two years of academic writing”? 

In the end, however, I came to the conclusion that the time had come to end it. I like principles and am reluctant to break promises I have made to myself. “Get a plan and stick to it” is more my thing than “Wing it.” I’m sure some people will find this approach rigid, but to me – as I have discussed in previous posts – this is ultimately a way of creating freedom and well-being. 

That is why a year of academic writing is over today. This is the result. For me, this has been an extremely fun, stimulating and meaningful journey. I can highly recommend other people thinking about starting a blog to give it a go. At some point, I will probably do this again in some form. Until then, I hope we meet in other contexts. Thank you for your attention.

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