Sunday, April 11, 2021

What academics can learn from players

For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed playing games. I have definitely spent the most amount of time on the strategy card game Magic: The Gathering. I discovered this game in the mid-1990s at the age of twelve and I have never really stopped playing. The most intense period of playing occurred during my undergraduate years and in my first years as a PhD student. At that time, I was sufficiently good to travel around the world and compete in so-called Pro Tours. These days, my game is so-so. In this post, I’m going to discuss some concepts and attitudes that these types of games help people develop.

Magic is a game requiring skill but where chance also plays a significant role. Games are played between two players. The better player often wins, but far from always. This distinguishes Magic from games such as chess, which don’t include any element of chance. This also sets Magic apart from games of pure chance, such as many children’s games where the only thing that matters is being lucky when rolling a dice, drawing a card or the like. 

The best Magic players in the world win 65–70 percent of their games. Even if they do everything right. Players talk about this in terms of variance. This means that the outcomes vary. In the short term, variance may strike hard. Luck can be more decisive than skill. In the long term, the opposite is true. In order to be successful in playing Magic, it’s necessary to learn how to manage this. 

The key is to focus on playing well. That is, making decisions that offer you the best chances of winning. If a given move gives you a 60 percent chance of winning while the alternative gives you 40 percent, the choice is simple. Regardless, the outcome will frequently not favor you even when you play correctly. Most players find it difficult to handle this. People easily become result-oriented and evaluate their games based on the outcome – rather than on whether or not they made the right decisions. 

Successful players adopt a different perspective. They focus on their own decision-making process and their own actions. The goal is to play as well as possible. In this perspective, the outcomes don’t matter. The player knows that short-term results are influenced by variance, while they are due to skill in the long term. Paradoxically, someone who really cares about achieving certain results should not concern him- or herself with these. It is better to focus on the process. In time, results will also materialize. 

This approach is applicable far beyond Magic. For academics, perhaps the clearest example concerns different forms of applications. In such cases, it’s extremely easy to just focus on the outcome. When things go well, it is easy to believe that this is the result of your own efforts. When things don’t go so well, it’s more common to talk about these things in terms of a lottery. As far as I’m concerned, I look upon these things more like Magic. Skill matters, but the level of variance is great. Hence, it’s important not to focus on the outcome but to focus your efforts on what you are able to influence. 

You can control when you start working on your applications. You can control how much time you spend on writing and revising them. You can control how many colleagues you ask to read your drafts and to what extent you take their comments into account. You can control how many funding bodies and foundations you submit applications to. You can control how well you read the instructions and then adapt your texts to these. 

A seasoned player pays attention to all of the above. But he or she is more indifferent when it comes to the outcome. The player is aware that the result depends on his or her own efforts but also on many other factors. You take responsibility and strive to improve the things you are able to influence. You ignore the rest. 

Who, then, tend to adopt this approach? Well, here is one last twist. It is clear that those who become strong players are typically extremely competitive. Since they care so much about winning, and if they really want to reach the top, however, they have to learn to evaluate their efforts based on parameters other than their immediate results. This is difficult. But focusing on what you can influence and accepting the element of variance is incredibly powerful, not least in academia.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Model texts

Academic writing is not one thing but many. It consists of a plethora of genres and subgenres, from papers and written exams during the early years as a student to writing major program applications and expert opinions. Few, if any, master all these genres. Hence, active writers need to get the tools – and the self-confidence – to repeatedly do what they have not done before. 

My own way of managing this is to look for model texts. In other words, before I start writing in a genre with which I’m unfamiliar, I study what others have done. When reading these texts, however, I don’t focus on the contents. What I’m trying to achieve is to get an idea of how a specific type of text may be structured. What does a functioning skeleton look like? 

My experience is that this approach is more helpful the more specific you are. In other words, I mainly study subgenres. As far as journal articles are concerned, I commonly try to find a text about the same time period that uses a similar source material. The text should also originate from the journal to which I intend to submit my manuscript. This enables me to ensure that my text is not completely out of place in terms of genre and subject matter. 

A concrete example is my first peer-reviewed article “Framtidskunskap i cirkulation” (2015). It concerns how questions related to the environment and the future were discussed in the Swedish press and radio/television in the early 1970s. My model text for this was Marie Cronqvist’s article “Utrymning i folkhemmet” (2008) on Swedish civil defense culture in the early 1960s. What these two articles have in common is that they seek to shed light on a larger theme by looking at a more specific historical example. They concern very short periods of time and are mainly based on press material. 

My study of Marie’s text was carried out at the same time as I collected source material, read research literature and started prewriting. Assisted by the model text, I created a rough synopsis indicating the number of pages for the different parts of the article. This synopsis then guided my continued gathering of material, reading and processing. By having a model text upon which to base my work, I got a better understanding of what was expected of me. I could thus set limits on how much source material and previous research were meaningful for me to go through. This reading was thus a key and integral part of the research and writing process. 

This type of work can be done with both high and low intensity. During this semester, for instance, I have carefully studied successful applications to the Swedish Research Council, blog posts and external examiners’ thesis reviews. But the low-intensity part is just as important. This means that in my continuous reading of various texts, I make sure to remember the ones I find really good. At the time of reading, there is not always time to analyze why I find it so good or how the writer has succeeded in this. But collecting good model texts is always a good idea. They tend to become useful sooner or later.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

The basement

In January 2013, I defended my thesis, which received some public and scholarly attention at the time. My department gave me the opportunity to teach full-time for the remainder of the year. In April of that year, I became a father for the first time. I was an editorial secretary for the scholarly journal Scandia. A leading professor invited me to participate in larger applications. On the scale between hubris and self-contempt, I was closer to hubris. An indication of this was that I decided to apply only for multi-year research funding. I didn’t want to work based on small grants or stipends. I was too good for that. 

A year later, I was more humble. None of my applications had been close to being accepted. There were no prospects of further teaching assignments. In the summer of 2014, furthermore, the Department of History moved to new premises. In the old building, where I had been both an undergraduate and PhD student, the staff was mixed. The offices of professors and PhD students could be next to each other. At LUX, things looked different. There was one floor for people with permanent positions and another for PhD students and postdocs. In addition, there was a room in the basement for newly minted PhDs without research funding. 

So, when I returned from my parental leave in 2014, I wasn’t just grounded. I was literally below ground. There was a small window offering some sunlight. The terms of my employment expired within one month. I realized there and then that my back was up against the wall. The basement was not a long-term solution. It was either up or out. 

At this time, postdocs at Lund University were offered the opportunity to attend something called PostdocTraining. It was a digital course aimed at postdocs in all disciplines. I’m quite certain the self-confident me in 2013 would not have attended this program. But the slightly more humble me in 2014 did so. I listened to e-classes and conscientiously carried out the various assignments. I started to realize that the time had come for me to take control of my career and create a long-term plan. If I wanted to work as a historian, I needed to get into the game. 

Another eye-opener for me at this time was Karen Kelsky’s blog, subsequently book, The Professor Is In (2015). It is a brutally honest book on how the academic labor market operates. It is written on the basis of an American context by someone who was awarded tenure, but who subsequently chose to leave the academy. For those wanting to learn the rules of the game in academia, there is no better place to start. For those wanting to retain their illusions and romantic ideals of higher education, it represents dangerous reading. 

One thing I realized when reading The Professor Is In was that my failures in 2013 were not particularly difficult to explain. Taking a look at my CV and list of publications was quite sufficient. These documents clearly showed that I had not understood anything about the academic labor market in the 2010s. I had not written any peer-reviewed journal articles. I had not been published in English. I had not received any grants. I had not presented my research at international conferences. I had not been a visiting PhD student. 

Simply put, there was no real foundation for my ambitions to have an academic career. If I had any qualities, I didn’t communicate these all that well. In the basement, I could no longer turn a blind eye to reality. If I were to make something of myself, I needed to study the rule book and roll up my sleeves. This was the beginning of a personal professionalization process. It’s still ongoing

Sunday, March 21, 2021

First things first (synopsis part 2)

The second chapter of my book is one of the most important chapters. It is about the fall of 1967 – the point in time when I believe that the major breakthrough of environmental issues occurred in Sweden. Since this is one of my main points in the book, I have decided to put the chapter on the fall of 1967 immediately after the introduction. My aim is that even a reader quickly browsing through the book shouldn’t be able to miss this. 

For some, this chronological point may seem trivial and plain. I don’t think so. Ask someone when modern environmentalism took off and I can basically guarantee that if you receive an answer at all, it will be one of the following: 1) At the beginning of the 1960s when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring or 2) in the 1970s with the Green Wave. Perhaps someone will mention the photograph of Earth from space on Christmas Eve 1968, the celebration of Earth Day in 1970 or perhaps the Stockholm Conference in 1972. I would argue that all these answers – as far as Sweden is concerned – are wrong. The major breakthrough took place in the fall of 1967 and the most important actors were Swedish scientists addressing the public and warning of a global disaster. Chemist Hans Palmstierna was the most influential, but he was far from alone. 

It’s obviously possible to critically discuss my finding. Perhaps in five to ten years’ time, someone will be able to prove to me wrong. I don’t mind that. The purpose of my research is not to establish exactly what occurred once and for all. My ambition is to make a contribution, support it as well as I can and then see what happens. 

So, my book has been structured on the basis of the principle that what I find the most important result should come first. This means that I’m departing from a more conventional structure used in the field of history. That is to say, an introductory chapter, followed by a background chapter and then the actual study. 

I have instead chosen to put my most important empirical chapter before the background chapter. This means that the book does not have a linear chronological structure. Chapter two focuses on the fall of 1967. Chapter three starts off in the late 1940s and ends in the summer of 1967. The point of this structure is to shift the focus toward what I want my readers to take to heart. In other words: “DLH argues that the breakthrough occurred in the fall of 1967. Then, X, Y and Z took place. This differs from the previous time period due to A, B and C.” 

When I started working on my synopsis, I hadn’t yet arrived at this structure. At that time, I had a more conventional chronological structure in mind. I am sure that such a structure could also have worked out fine. But that would have resulted in my own research and results ending up in a more obscure location in the book. 

But the second book I’m writing is mine. It is based on the research I have performed and seeks to show what I have concluded. It will be my contribution and it is hardly my job to apologize for this. That is why I have chosen a structure placing my main point at center stage.

This is the second part in the synopsis-series. Read the first one here

Sunday, March 14, 2021

The role of writing applications in the research process

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an application to the Swedish Research Council. I wasn’t the only one doing so. This time of year, there are many PhDs writing applications. Around 10–15 percent of these will be successful. This usually means 3 years of research at 75 percent of a full-time salary. For people at an early stage in their career without a permanent position – such as me – these funds are often crucial with regard to whether or not they have a job. But even for people with a permanent position, receiving funding may be crucial. In fact, senior lecturers without external funding rarely have time to engage in as much research as they would like. 

Against this background, voices are raised every year that the system represents a huge waste of resources. Why should all academics write applications in January, February and March? Wouldn’t it be more beneficial if they instead spent all this time doing research? Imagine the amount of research we could benefit from! 

I understand these thoughts. But I don’t really agree. I consider writing applications an important and rewarding part of the research process. In fact, I consider writing applications as stage three of a total of six stages. My line of thinking goes something like this. 

The first stage of the research process is the curiosity phase. In this phase, you for some reason become interested in something and realize that you want to know more about it. Perhaps even research it. Curiosity may be aroused by experiences, conversations, reading, teaching or just about anything. If it persists for a while, it may be worthwhile moving forward. 

The second phase is the orientation phase. Here, you review what others have written about the phenomenon, locate and visit archives, find possible source materials and discuss your vague ideas with others. The curiosity and orientation phases may last for years before you proceed. My interest in what I’m currently applying for was aroused in 2016. Research takes time. 

The third stage, the application phase, concerns transforming curiosity and orientation into one or more projects. My approach is typically to start by applying for smaller funds to carry out pilot studies and prepare larger applications. Swedish historians are privileged in this regard. There are many Swedish foundations from which you may apply for small and medium-sized funding. This is not at all the case in, for example, Denmark and Norway. 

In Sweden, there are roughly two windows, one at the beginning of the spring semester and one at the beginning of the fall semester. Here, you may apply for amounts that may secure your salary for three or four months. Decisions are usually communicated at the end of the same semester as the application is submitted. For me, these smaller funds have been absolutely crucial. Without these, I would have been out of the system and probably back in school. The thing is that at the Swedish Research Council, the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation and the other large funding bodies, my applications have yet to be successful. 

But is the application phase really to be seen as research? Yes, I would definitely argue that this is the case. It requires you to get a firmer grip on your thoughts, arguments and to get your research design down on paper. Research questions and objectives need to be formulated and specified. All this requires a closer reading of existing research in your chosen field. In addition, you need to get a firmer grip on the source material you’re planning to use. If you perform this work well, the following phases will be considerably easier. In certain environments other than academia, this is called frontloading. I find it very similar to prewriting. So yes, the application phase consists of substantial, difficult and valuable work. The fact that academics repeatedly need to engage in this does not represent a waste of resources. 

The fourth phase is a more intense research phase. This is characterized by a more focused pursuit of knowledge and actively working with source materials, but also an even closer reading of the research literature. One may also include seminar feedback, conference presentations and organizing workshops in this phase. Personally, I would argue that the fifth phase, the writing phase, is carried out in a symbiotic relationship with the fourth phase. At any rate, I don’t “carry out research” for a year and then write during the next year. Individual months may be devoted to one of the two activities, but the vast majority of time contains both. 

Finally, I would like to point out that there is a sixth phase in the research process that is sometimes forgotten. We may refer to this as the follow-up phase. The premise here is that it’s easier to be published than to be read. Yes, it actually takes a lot of work and quite some luck to get people to become seriously interested in what you have written. Research doesn’t simply circulate because it exists. No, if it really is to be part of a larger scholarly and/or public conversation – rather than a single cry in the desert – you need to put in both time and effort.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Co-writing: Part 1

One of the best learning experiences you can have as an academic is to write together with others. This is a good way of getting a concrete insight into how you may work and write in ways other than yours. I started co-writing in earnest in the spring of 2016. That semester, I was working on three simultaneous projects with three different colleagues: Isak Hammar, Anna Kaijser and Johan Östling. These projects came to cross-fertilize each other and ended up being a crash course for me on researching and writing together. In a three-part series of blog posts, I will thus discuss these collaborations and what I learned from them.

The first project was carried out together with Isak. We knew each other very well. Between 2008 and 2013, we were both PhD students. We took the same courses and shared offices. We then taught together and were even on parental leave at the same time. Our basic views of historical scholarship and our attitude toward the academy were similar, even though our empirical research interests differed.

Isak wrote his thesis on antiquity, while I focused on the period from 1600 up until the present. After receiving his PhD, Isak became interested in classical reception studies (i.e., how people have used and related to classical antiquity throughout history). I, on the other hand, studied the breakthrough of environmental issues in Sweden in the 1960s. There were no obvious shared interests between us. Sometimes, however, you discover unexpected things.

One of the actors I was interested in was diplomat Rolf Edberg, who published his environmental classic Spillran av ett moln back in 1966. This book is characterized by an ecologically holistic perspective that was uncommon at this time. When reading the book, I noticed that Edberg drew a significant number of parallels between the environmental crisis of his time and the fall of the classical civilizations. I pointed this out to Isak and had him read a few selected passages. After that, our project was up and running.

The first step in the writing process was to prepare a brief application for research funding. In relation to this, we acquainted ourselves with international journals focusing on so-called classical reception studies. Many of these were to a great extent characterized by literary studies, but in one of them – International Journal of the Classical Tradition – we found a couple of articles we could somewhat relate to. We wrote in the application that we were going to submit an article to this journal. After having waited for six months, we received a positive reply from the Helge Ax:son Johnson Foundation.

But the step from writing applications to focused research time was steep. It took almost a year before we could both free up enough time. During this period, we both did totally different things. I remember that in the late fall, we started to worry about whether we could get something done. Did we really have enough material? Would any of the journals be interested?

Nevertheless, we finally decided to schedule a few weeks where we could fully focus on the project. We returned to our application and re-read Edberg’s book. Somewhere around this time, we realized that we had somehow already made quite a bit of progress. The application felt like a manual. We just had to do the things we had included there.

We brought different skillsets to the project. Isak wrote fluently in English, thus significantly improving the quality of the language used in my drafts. Obviously, he also wrote the section on classical reception. He also arranged for his American colleague Dustin W. Dixon to help us with a critical reading before we submitted the article. As far as I was concerned, I had experiences from peer-review processes and could easily place Rolf Edberg’s book in an environmental history context.

We arrived jointly at the structure of the article. We had meetings where we discussed what to write, which were then followed up by individual writing. We divided our empirical ideas between us. One thing I noticed during this process was that Isak – unlike me – wrote more organically. He could not say in advance exactly what he would arrive at. This was something he discovered during the actual writing. I, on the other hand, had clearer ideas in advance and my writing was not as creative. It was very informative to see these differences appear when working on the same material!

Our manuscript was completed during the spring, after which the review process followed. Here, being two authors was definitely advantageous. The comments we received proposed quite substantial changes. Among other things, a specific empirical section (which I had written) did not appeal to the reviewers at all. But the very fact that we were two authors made it easier not to take this personally. We discussed the comments, formulated a plan for how to respond and which changes to make. This included aspects such as entirely getting rid of the above-mentioned empirical section.

Our revised version was accepted, and in the summer of 2017, the article “A Classical Tragedy in the Making: Rolf Edberg’s Use of Antiquity and the Emergence of Environmentalism in Scandinavia” was published. Whether it has made any impact on the international scholarly community is unclear, but we were probably onto something. The fact is that when Gustaf Johansson presented his thesis in Uppsala in 2018, he showed with even greater clarity that many people in the 1970s made sense of the environmental crisis by turning to classical antiquity.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

On the importance of a social and intellectual context

The best thing about finding a really good academic text is that reading it is just the beginning. This is because outstanding texts are not written in intellectual isolation – they are part of a larger conversation. Through reference lists and footnotes, windows open up toward new worlds. For those with time, curiosity and access to a good library system, you’re free to follow the tracks and see where you end up.

A recent example for me is Joli Jensen’s Write No Matter What (2017). This is without a doubt a book capable of holding its own. But it also leads to new places. Through Jensen, I discovered the fascinating anthology Working It Out (1977). This originates from the 1970s American women’s movement and consists of 23 personal stories about women’s lives and intellectual work. The contributors are writers, academics and artists in their thirties and forties. Most of them have children. Many find themselves in the shadow of a more successful husband or ex-husband.

This book is a product of its time. Not only in terms of content, but also in purely material terms. The pages in my interlibrary loan copy have turned yellow. There are no highlights or dog ears. When I google the contributors, most of them turn out to be dead. Many of them found great success in the 1980s and 1990s.

But even if the book is more than forty years old, it still feels topical and alive. The stories are straightforward, honest and full of compromises. Between the lines, we find the outlines of men living a different kind of life. Their academic careers, travels, interests and ambitions are not circumvented by obligations. They have time to think. They have time to let the days go by. They have time to worry and feel anxious. There are a lot of things they don’t have to do.

The chapter by Amélie Oksenberg Rorty is particularly interesting in this regard. It revolves around how academic couples develop and what is actually needed to write. She points out that a common pattern is that the man in the relationship receives an offer for a better position. The woman comes along. The joint plan is that she should complete her book or dissertation.

But her writing grinds to a halt. Even though she doesn’t teach. Even though she doesn’t have any administrative responsibilities. She is free. So, why is she unable to write? Doesn’t she have what it takes? The woman and the man begin to doubt her abilities.

Amélie Oksenberg Rorty believes that the obstacle here is losing a social and intellectual context. She points out that many men – once the semester is over or when they have been granted a semester on sabbatical – frequently also become paralyzed. Having time and a door you are willing to shut is not sufficient. Academic work requires social contexts. It requires colleagues, seminars, lunch conversations and coffee breaks.

But the young couple in the story comes to a different conclusion. Well, perhaps the woman is not as promising as the man after all. And isn’t it about time to start a family? This is followed by the real frustration. Because when the children arrive, there is neither time nor social context. The intellectual ambitions – which have yet to be given a chance to blossom – face increasingly steeper obstacles. Simultaneously, the man’s career is taking off…

Amélie Oksenberg Rorty’s chapter was originally written in 1969 as a lecture. It was published in The Yale Review in 1971. At the time, she was married to philosopher Richard Rorty. They got divorced in 1972.