Sunday, November 28, 2021

The 2014 five-year plan revisited

In the summer of 2014, I created my first ever five-year plan. That was not my idea, but an assignment in the online course PostdocTraining. It involved a great deal of effort. Before I embarked on creating it, I carried out a few exercises. They aimed to clarify who I was, where I wanted to go and what I needed to do to get there. One of these exercises involved estimating how good I was at some 40 academic tasks and the extent to which I enjoyed doing them. Another involved visualizing my ideal workday twenty years from now. From when I woke up to when I went to bed. 

They may not sound like particularly difficult exercises. But I was mentally exhausted. I wasn’t used to thinking about my life in these timescales. During my time as a PhD student, I did my best to avoid thinking about the time after I graduated. Four years felt like oceans of time. And if I only did my very best, things would probably work themselves out. After all, that had been the case so far. 

The result, as you know, was that I ended up in the basement at LUX. A humbling experience. So, I decided to carry out the exercises diligently and without any preconceived notions. My motto was try first, judge later. After a couple of weeks, I had created a five-year plan. It was obviously full of uncertain variables. But I was actually quite clear about which situation I wanted to find myself in by 2019. I wanted to be internationalized, to have secured funding for a research project in a new subject area and, by extension, to be employable. 

I looked upon internationalization as something absolutely crucial if I wanted to work as a historian. In my professional context, I noticed that those who wrote in English, regularly traveled to international conferences and became visiting scholars were rewarded with grants and positions. I had yet to do any of this. This was something I needed to change, and this is also something I have done. I now have many publications in English under my belt, I am used to international conferences and I have a rather substantial international network. With small children, it hasn’t been possible to engage in any longer visiting fellowships. In empirical terms, I have also for all intents and purposes continued to have a Swedish focus. But, on the whole, I’m quite satisfied with how I’ve worked on this. A lot has happened in five years. 

The second item has also gone according to plan. A couple of years into my time as a postdoc, I discovered the private investor blogosphere. At first, my reading was based on aimless curiosity and a fascination with an unfamiliar cultural phenomenon. Over time, I realized that this could probably be studied from a historical perspective. The key was when I started reading economic historian Orsi Husz’s articles on the financialization of everyday life. They were incredibly inspiring and served as a portal into this field. At the national history conference in Sundsvall, I approached her. The following year, we invited her to the history of knowledge seminar series in Lund. We then got her involved in an edited volume project, and next year we will work together within a module of the large research program headed by Jenny Andersson. This item on the list could certainly not have worked out any better! 

The third objective was to become employable. This is a point I’ve not really reached. I have yet to become a contender for a permanent faculty position. I hope that the second book, once finished, will enable me to be in contention. However, this obviously depends on who I am facing and what the external reviewers value. Contrary to sports based on concrete results, such as soccer or track and field, history is a sport based on receiving scores from judges. There are a lot of things I’m unable to influence. 

So, what would me in 2014 think of the years that have passed? Would he have been satisfied with the outcome? Yes, I’m absolutely certain that he would. My postdoc years have been my best time in academia. Each year, my work has become more interesting and the stage bigger. I think that the five-year plan I drafted in the summer of 2014 has something to do with this. Long-term planning makes dreams and ambitions more concrete. It offers tools for prioritizing and having the courage to do things that seem scary. In a few weeks’ time, the time has thus come to create my second five-year plan.

Further reading: The Basement

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Sunday, November 21, 2021

Chaper 6 and 7

During the last few weeks, I have sort of gotten started on writing the sixth chapter in my second book. It’s about how an organized Swedish environmental movement started to emerge during the years around 1970. My point of entry into this theme is the youth organization Nature and Youth Sweden (Fältbiologerna), which I wrote about together with Anna Kaijser. Our article serves as a point of departure for the chapter, albeit supplemented by press material and other studies. 

The structure of the chapter is quite clear. I start by highlighting how a couple of hundred members gathered at Sergels Torg in Stockholm in March 1969 to protest against the expansion of hydro electric power in northern Sweden. This demonstration aroused a fair amount of media attention at the time. These young people were “no ordinary demonstrators.” The organization was associated with bird watching and outdoor life – not political manifestations. However, this would change in the years around 1970. Nature and Youth Sweden became an active and highly visible part of the new environmental movement. 

In order to show the effects of this transformation, I carry out a chronological review of the history of Nature and Youth Sweden from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. At the beginning of this period, the association is firmly rooted in an older tradition of nature conservation. The key aspects here include experiencing, studying and preserving wild nature. When a member of Nature and Youth Sweden talks about “environmental degradation” in 1961, it means that esthetic values are under threat. They are concerned that a highly productive cultural landscape with cultivated fields and pine and spruce trees will expand at the expense of the untouched expanses. 

A couple of years later, in the wake of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), they start to discuss toxic substances and birds dying. But there is hardly any talk of a global environmental crisis threatening the survival of humankind. However, this theme will become important in the late 1960s. That is to say, after environmental issues have achieved their major breakthrough in Sweden in the fall of 1967. Initially, this is an incipient environmental movement taking shape. By the beginning of the 1970s, a radicalization has occurred. Nature and Youth Sweden makes a name for itself in the form of demonstrations and direct actions. A particular target is the environmental policy establishment in the form of the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency. 

I expect the above to result in about 15 pages of text. That’s not enough for a chapter. That is why I plan to spend another 5 to 7 pages on, based on other research, adopting a broader approach to the emerging environmental movement. This includes Carl Holmberg’s study of the Centre Party’s Youth Organization, Jonas Anshelm’s analyses of the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation and Per Lundin’s unpublished study on the activist scientist Björn Gillberg and the establishment of Miljöcentrum (Environmental Center). I have also collected some press material that may supplement my presentation. 

The end of the chapter is to focus on the media controversies surrounding Björn Gillberg. This serves as somewhat of a bridge to the seventh and final empirical chapter in my book, which will concern open conflicts and conflicting claims of knowledge. This is something characterizing how environmental knowledge and knowledge regarding the future circulated in Swedish society in the early 1970s. During the breakthrough phase in 1967–1968, there was a strong consensus regarding the gravity of environmental issues, and Hans Palmstierna served as somewhat of a unifying figure in this regard. In 1971, when this knowledge had started to be translated into politics and law, it was no longer the case that everyone agreed with each other. In 1971, for example, Hans Palmstierna ended up in an open conflict with representatives of the industrial sector. In the spring of 1972, a polarized debate on the future raged between two professors, the “prophet of doom” Gösta Ehrensvärd and the “techno-scientific optimist” Tor Ragnar Gerholm. 

However, actually writing chapter 7 will be a task for 2020. Before I can start working on that, there is a lot more I need to finish. To begin with, writing chapter 6 has turned out to be more difficult than I anticipated. I’m not really sure why. It’s not that it has completely ground to a halt, but writing two pages a day is certainly not doable. Perhaps this is due to the lack of sunlight in November? Perhaps I have too many things going at the same time? Or perhaps it’s simply due to a long book project and a long semester starting to take their toll.

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Sunday, November 14, 2021

What academics can learn from Andre Agassi

One of the books that has made the greatest impression on me this year is Andre Agassi’s autobiography Open (2010). Among a plethora of other things, it is about Agassi hating – and basically always having hated – playing tennis. The choice to seek to become an international top player was never his own. It was his father’s. From the time he was able to hold a racket, he was drilled in playing tennis. Tennis was never fun. It was never an interest. It was something Agassi was good at, thus becoming his job. 

In this regard, the life of Agassi resembles that of many others. There are lots of people working with something because, for one reason or another, they have to do it. Many people spend their days on things they are good at because someone else pays them a lot of money to do so. Being able to turn your interest into a livelihood is hardly a human right. 

Nevertheless, one of the most common pieces of career and life advice is: Do what you love! Follow your passion! It’s only when you truly enjoy something that you can get really good at it. Only those who love playing tennis can become the number one player in the world. But is this really the case? Do you have to be passionate about something to get really good at it? What really happens when people find a job they love? 

The latter question is at the center of Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You (2016), another of my 2019 reading highlights. This book is a rejection of the above standard advice. Newport argues that people rarely become happy simply by following their dreams. Many crash and burn on the way. Truly wanting something won’t take you very far when you are facing the Swedish Idol panel of judges or applying for an assistant professor position. 

Hence, Newport advises his readers to skip the “what do I really want to do with my life” phase. He thinks it’s a better idea to strive to be really good at something valued by others. If you do, you will be in a good position to create the career and the life you want. In addition, many people who are really good at something learn to appreciate it. The hatred is rarely as deep-seated as that of Agassi. 

All of this may seem alien to people working in the scholarly community. In the humanities in particular, there is plenty of deeprooted idealism. A lot of us ending up here have, against our better judgment, followed our interests and let these guide us. Those who in their early twenties thought about their future careers, mortgages and family vacations in Thailand obviously studied completely different subjects. 

At the same time, I believe there are many students in the humanities who continued much further than they initially planned precisely because they turned out to be good at it. They were good at studying for exams, analyzing texts and writing essays. A few words of encouragement from a teacher in a thematic course or an undergraduate seminar had major consequences. Perhaps you even turned out to be particularly talented in a research area you weren’t interested in whatsoever? According to Newport, this would not be particularly surprising – quite the opposite. Frequently, he argues, skill comes first followed by a deeper interest. 

But what can we learn from Agassi’s story? Well, one thing is that it’s clearly possible to be very good at something you truly despise. This lesson may be useful to keep in mind for those who find it difficult getting themselves to write grant applications, speak to a large audience or network at a conference. Tough luck. Not everything is fun. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of doing your job and getting good at it. Maybe even so good that they can’t ignore you.

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Sunday, November 7, 2021

Writing about teaching and learning

In the fall of 2016, I was asked by professor Klas-Göran Karlsson to be part of an edited volume project on teaching history at university level. He had an idea that I could write something about thematic and chronological aspects of teaching history. These were issues I had to some extent wrestled with when writing my thesis. It sounded like an exciting and difficult challenge and it didn’t take me long to accept. 

All in all, we were around a dozen people in my department who met for over a year to discuss ideas, experiences and chapter drafts. There was a wide range of people in the group. There were newly graduated PhDs with limited teaching experience and professors with decades of teaching under their belt. Some approached the pedagogical theme from perspectives based on theory and the philosophy of history. Others started off in concrete teaching situations and practical choices. 

Myself, I had a hard time starting to write. I didn’t feel that my own thoughts and experiences were sufficient. So, I set aside time to read and follow leads. In some way, I needed to find something worth building upon. A few years later, I can no longer accurately recreate this reading process. But I definitely recall when I found my way. The key text was Lendol Calder’s “Uncoverage: Toward a New Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey” (2006). I found it deeply inspiring. It was concrete without being boring. Theoretically sophisticated without being abstract and fussy. In addition, it was written in a sharp and smart fashion. 

For me, this text served as a portal. I read everything from Calder I could get my hands on. Through the footnotes, I followed the leads backward. Via Google Scholar, I checked out the ones who had cited him. During a few weeks, I made intellectual discoveries one after the other. If I were to choose the one thing in my profession I like the most, this is it. When new worlds open up and my reading, so to speak, cascades. 

In relation to this, I was asked by Henrik Rosengren, at that time editor of Scandia, whether I wanted to write a “Scandia introduces” piece. Some six months earlier, I had proposed a different subject, but the scholarship of teaching and learning track now seemed more attractive. As a result, I pitched the idea of writing about Lendol Calder’s pedagogical ideas. The result was the text “Avtäckningsmodellen: En undervisningsform med framtiden för sig?” (2017). It was later expanded into the longer book chapter “Kan vi göra på något annat sätt? Utblickar och tankar kring färdighetsorienterad historieundervisning” included in the edited volume Att undervisa i historia på universitetet (2018). 

An important consequence of this work was that Andrés Brink Pinto was inspired by my literature findings. We had each started to test some new approaches in our own teaching. These, we thought, turned out to be successful. Hence, in a low-intensity and organic fashion, a deeper collaboration emerged. In recent years, there have been conference presentations, a couple of joint texts and even a small research project together with Emma Severinsson on how students learn. 

A couple of weeks ago, we had the privilege to visit Örebro where Henric Bagerius and the other historians at the department have revised the undergraduate program on the basis of the same pedagogical ideas we were attracted to. Being able to take part in this work and discuss teaching issues with a cohesive team of teachers with real power over how teaching is to be designed was extremely stimulating. It will be very exciting to follow how their initiatives turn out! 

I could hardly have imagined that all this would follow from Klas-Göran’s invitation in the fall of 2016. But this is often the case with edited volume projects. They have side effects. Not least by facilitating new areas of cooperation. Controlling exactly what will happen, however, is quite difficult. For example, Klas-Göran himself had to address the questions of thematic and chronological teaching of history. This is often the case for research directors. To a large extent, their role is to give other academics opportunities, resources and challenges. What happens next is up to others. As economic historian Kerstin Enflo put it during a seminar this spring, managing academics is “like herding cats.” Myself, I have some history of knowledge experiences of trying to “herd.” In this context, however, I was one of the cats.

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Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Trial lecture in Lund

Today, a series of trial lectures has been organized for a position as assistant professor of history in Lund. I was one of the people who applied but not one of the people asked to give a trial lecture. Instead, I am at Häckeberga Castle, where Johan Östling, Anna Nilsson Hammar and I are organizing a two-day workshop on the future for the history of knowledge. We are surrounded by good friends, close colleagues and new acquaintances. This is without a doubt one of the highlights of the semester. Yesterday’s traditional Scanian goose dinner was top notch. 

If, however, given the choice, I would have preferred being in Lund today and lecturing on the theme “Why is historical knowledge important?” Permanent positions in history are not readily available. Positions as assistant professor are particularly desirable and notoriously difficult to get. For those who are not mobile or consider long-distance commuting an alternative, there are few chances. It may take many years before they become available. For me, this was the first time since I received my PhD in 2013 that I had a real opportunity in Lund. This window is now closed. Of course, there is a measure of sadness in this. Both in not getting the position and in not being deemed a serious contender. It hurt when the news came that I was not shortlisted. I felt rejected and as if my value was called into question. 

Neither my situation nor my feelings are unique. These things happen all the time in academia. It’s “all in the game” and exists at all levels. Sure, there are those who get accepted the first time they apply for a PhD position, receive a postdoc position or research funding directly after finishing their PhD and then land an assistant professor position or the equivalent. But these people are few and far between. Very few. And, twenty years later, they are not always the most influential or have made the greatest impact. There are many winding paths to academic success. There are also many paths, straight and winding, to professional bitterness. But those paths are not for me. That is not how I intend to roll. That is something I promised myself a long time ago. Come what may, it’s been a great journey. I’m grateful for what I have experienced and proud of what I’ve accomplished. 

The setbacks I have experienced so far have not prevented me from doing what I want. Nor will this one. I haven’t studied history, written a thesis or become an associate professor (docent) in order to get a permanent position. Of course, I want to be able to support my family. But what drives me is not – nor has it ever been – financial security. I want to grow, learn things, write, meet exciting people, read books and discover worlds. In recent years, I have also become increasingly interested in building something larger than myself. Being involved in creating a research environment with a nascent international reputation is very exciting. And none of this really has all that much to do with my employment status. Perhaps the fact that I will for the foreseeable future be a project researcher is even an advantage. There are many meetings I don’t have to attend. There are many fires I don’t need to put out. 

In addition, the five people giving trial lectures today are all good historians and nice people. I have known four of them for about a decade. I’m convinced that regardless of who gets the job, Lund University will have made a good recruitment. However, the one I am rooting for is my friend Martin Ericsson. I have the deepest respect for him as an academic and as a human being. He is an important part of the future of Swedish historical research and deserves a platform from which to work. Good luck, Martin! Your trial lecture will be awesome!

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Sunday, October 31, 2021

Digital minimalism

Academic work, and especially writing, requires focus and perseverance. According to Cal Newport, author of Deep Work (2017) and Digital Minimalism (2019), these are two abilities that have become increasingly rare in the 2010s. In a single decade, smartphones and social media have fundamentally changed people’s behavior. Most people spend many hours every day on their phones. Hence, according to Newport, being one of those who do not represents a great competitive advantage. The value of focus and perseverance has never been greater. 

The behaviors he opposes are not particularly difficult to explain. Several of the most highly valued companies globally now operate in the so-called “attention economy.” Their business model is that as many people as possible should spend as much time as possible on their particular platform. The more screen time, the more revenue. As a result, these products are designed to encourage and maintain specific behaviors. It’s no coincidence that feeds follow the same principle as a slot machine. Hit refresh, perhaps there’s an update? Or a like showing that someone notices you. 

I have experienced this myself every Tuesday during this year when I have advertised my weekly blog posts on Facebook and Twitter. It’s very difficult, not to say impossible, not to check how this week’s post is doing. Any likes? Any comments? How many readers this week compared to the one before? This is not a good recipe for maintaining focus and exhibiting perseverance. The good stuff is always a click away. The sense of unpredictability only makes it more attractive. Email may have the exact same function. Because who knows what’s to be found in the inbox? 

Newport’s two books offer practical strategies for managing the state we’re in full of distractions. The core of these books is “intentionalism.” In other words, we ourselves need to figure out how we want to use different digital technologies and develop a “digital philosophy” serving as our foundation. Based on this, we may then establish personal rules regarding what, when, how much and in which ways we want to use different platforms. Unless we do this, we will probably spend more time on these than we really want to. A quick glance easily turns into 15 minutes of lazy surfing. A few chips easily turn into an empty bag. 

But how do you figure out how you want to live in this regard? As a first step, Newport recommends uninstalling everything and spending 30 days offline. After that, you may make well-considered decisions on what, when, how and how much. Which platforms and features offer value and quality of life? Which do not? Is it possible to get everything I want out of Facebook by using it for 30 minutes every Wednesday night? Do I need Instagram? Is it sufficient that I only check my inbox after lunch? 

The answers to these questions are not given. They differ from individual to individual. As far as I am concerned, however, I don’t find these problems particularly difficult at work. Here, I’m pretty good at setting the timer on my phone to 40 minutes, carrying out my unit followed by a break. In the lunchroom, I rarely have a strong need to check my cellphone or send a text message. At home, however, I find this more difficult. Here, it’s much more common that I do the things I don’t want to do (email after office hours, scroll through Facebook or Twitter). Perhaps it’s time to hide the phone and have a few days offline? 

In fact, my wife and I actually tried this during the summer. We both read Digital Minimalism and decided to fully try out this concept for a certain period of time. Among other things, this includes scheduling social time. So, when the kids went to sleep at night, going to bed or reading a book was not an option for us. We should talk even if we were tired! The experiment was quite successful. We managed three weeks offline and these were three lovely weeks. In particular, we appreciated going to playgrounds and on family excursions without bringing a cellphone. We felt so free. Nothing could disturb us. We ourselves decided what we wanted our vacation to look like. This is why we also continued using this “technique” in the fall. When the whole family is going to do something together, we frequently leave our cellphones at home. I hope we will continue to do so!

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Sunday, October 24, 2021

Co-writing: Part 3

The third person with whom I co-wrote in the spring of 2016 was Johan Östling. We knew each other well, although not nearly as well as we do now. At this time, we had worked together for a couple of years to introduce and develop the history of knowledge in the Nordics. Johan was a research director. I was a postdoc and funded through his project. Hence, this writing project differed from the ones I was engaged in with Isak Hammar (part 1) and Anna Kaijser (part 2). The stakes were higher. I really didn’t want to botch this. At the same time, I experienced a great deal of safety. If there was one article I was certain would be of high quality and flow smoothly through the peer-review process, it was this one. 

The article we wrote concerned “circulation.” It was a theoretical, historiographical and conceptual text. It thus differed from everything I had written thus far. There was no firm empirical core. As a result, our writing efforts began with a broad reading of secondary literature, especially history of science literature. The key text was James Secord’s “Knowledge in Transit” (2004), but we moved across broad fields: early modern global history of science, history of popular science and Swiss-style history of knowledge. Much of this was new to me, and I felt that I would need a long time getting ready to write. 

However, Johan soon said that we should get started. I trusted his judgment, so we sat down, discussed our ideas and drafted a synopsis. We then divided up the parts and started writing. It went surprisingly smoothly. A coherent text started to take shape, and I felt that I learned a lot during the course of writing. I wasn’t used to working like this. I typically needed much more time to get started. 

Nevertheless, we finished our manuscript. We asked a couple of colleagues to read it, reworked it a bit and then sent it to Historisk tidskrift (HT). At the end of the semester, Johan suggested that we should translate it into English and submit it to Journal of Modern History. No sooner said than done. I felt that my research existence had moved up a gear. Was it really possible to work this quickly? 

The months passed, and one day we received the comments from HT. One reviewer was positive and one was very negative. I don’t recall the exact wording, but it started something like this: “This is an ambitious article aiming for the stars. These can be very good or very bad. This is the latter.” The editor expressed regret about the comment and said that the article could not be accepted. However, we were given the chance to cut it by half and have it published as an essay. Spontaneously, we felt that this was out of the question. We had submitted a really good, well-written article serving as a significant contribution to general history (in our view!). Surely, we couldn’t cut it in half and turn it into some lightweight essay… 

But after having looked it over with fresh eyes the following day, this was exactly what we did. Pride is to be swallowed and the tough reviewer had clearly made some good points. In addition, we were keen to get our ideas out quickly and not wait for another six months to – perhaps – publish the text in another journal. In the spring of 2017, the essay “Cirkulation – ett kunskapshistoriskt nyckelbegrepp” was thus published. 

We also encountered difficulties in Journal of Modern History. But not at all for the same reasons. We received a “revise and resubmit,” but our revision received some severe criticism (especially the parts I had been responsible for revising). However, this was not the end of the story. At the same time as all this was going on, we had initiated a Nordic edited volume project: Circulation of Knowledge (2018). This needed an introduction and there were a few things here and there that we could use from our failed article project. We wouldn’t have been able to do so had our text been “under publication” in Journal of Modern History. Failing there thus turned out to be something positive. We managed to publish the most important elements in the text in a book that was open access and which – it would turn out – ended up being read by people from all over the world. Our text ended up placing the history of knowledge environment in Lund on the world map, and Johan was invited to Washington DC, Cambridge, Sydney, Paris… 

At the same time, we were, once again, fully engaged in writing applications. Here as well, the text we had written proved useful. We were soundly rejected by a large number of funding bodies, but we did get a positive reply from the Ridderstad Foundation. In addition, Johan went on to the next stage with an ERC application, which was to a large extent based on our English circulation text. He eventually didn’t make it across the finish line, but the same text was useful when he later had the opportunity to apply to become a Wallenberg Academy Fellow. Here, he hit the bull’s eye. 

What I want to illustrate with all this is that some of the texts we write circulate in many different ways. They turn into publications, applications, successes and failures. In hindsight, things may seem obvious, but in the middle of the process, it’s impossible to know what is what. It is thus important to keep moving, trying to notice opportunities and not being too depressed when things fail. Because they will. Even when working with Johan Östling. However, and as I have pointed out in previous posts in this series, all this is much easier to handle when you’re writing together with someone else. In such a case, adversities don’t feel personal. And success is better when shared.

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