Saturday, June 30, 2007

And the Award for Most Backhanded Compliment in the School Report Goes to...

... the woodwork teacher at Joel's school, who comments: "He has made excellent progress with a number of hand and machine tools with varying degrees of accuracy." Fantastic!!

Almost topped, though, by the radio commentator calling the Melbourne-Essendon game last night, which Essendon stole from the beleaguered Demons in the last few moments: "the Melbourne demons have crawled out of the grave they've dug for themselves only to fall back in." Zombie football! Where's Buffy when you need her?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

For Melbourne Medievalists

A treat for Melbourne medievalists: Friday, 29th June at 4.00 pm...

Professor Stephen Knight

“Marvellous Merlin: Knowledge and Power, from Cumbria to Baghdad”


This paper will look at the meanings, and the changes of meanings, focused by the figure of Merlin. Originally a British Celtic sage known as Myrddin, he set out on a long journey of signification. Renamed as Merlin, he was an adviser to medieval monarchs, then a figure of the renaissance mage, then a symbol of poetic inspiration then, poor fellow, an educator to the modern lordly, whether kings or individuals. Merlin has always represented the type of knowledge that is most valued by the dominant power, but there is also a recurrent tension that causes difficulties for Merlin, as power seeks to appropriate but not be controlled by knowledge. Professor Merlin has a lot to tell us today.


Stephen Knight is Research Professor in English Literature at Cardiff University, Wales. Formerly he worked at Sydney University and the ANU and was Professor in English at Melbourne 1987-92. He has written widely on medieval and modern literature, specialising on Chaucer, Robin Hood, Crime Fiction and Welsh fiction, and is currently working on the politics of the myth of Merlin (and Myrddin). He is the author of Continent of Mystery: A Thematic History of Australian Crime Fiction (University of Melbourne Press, 1977), and his most recent books are Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Cornell University Press, 2003) and A Hundred Years of Fiction: Writing Wales in English (University of Wales Press, 2004).


Friday 29 June 2007, 4.00-5.00 pm
216B, Large Seminar Room
West Tower, John Medley Building


This seminar is free of charge and open to all staff, students and members of the public.


http://www.english.unimelb.edu.au/research/public_lectures.html
School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Two Slightly Distorted Guitars: An Exercise in Time Travel

What was it that led me, this afternoon, as I dusted and swept and vacuumed up the builders' dust, to play Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells at top volume? I'd bought this CD a few months ago, in the middle of the summer of radiotherapy, as part of Joel's musical education, and I remember then lying on the couch in nostalgic rapture at its melodrama. Even though I knew it was coming, I was still blown away by Vivian Stanshall's sonorous voice as the Master of Ceremonies announcing the instruments, from the proud "Mandolin" to the enigmatic "Two Slightly Distorted Guitars" and then finally the triumphant "Tubular Bells". At the time I was struck by the music's affinities with things like Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Ravel's Bolero, or even Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf; as the instruments each made their distinctive entrance.

Today, though, this music has done different work for me, of a slightly odd kind. I had actually been planning to blog, today, about the winter solstice just gone. It has been the year's midnight, though not St Lucie's day, and after several days of low-lying cloud, today dawned crisp and blue. The birds along the creek this morning (blue wrens, willy wagtails, bellbirds, honey-eaters, cormorants, ducks of various kinds, and also the bright blue kingfisher I saw yesterday) have been making as if it were spring, and I was going to blog about the odd seasonal effect of seeing baby cormorants — small, pink, and grey, but with that distinctive head movement back and forwards — in the middle of winter. Whose day is it, if not Lucy's? Philip hasn't updated his journal so I can't tell yet, and that's the nicest way I know to find out, so I'm not going to google it...*

But instead of thinking about the seasons, I'm thinking about the years; and in particular, 1973, the year Mike Oldfield cut this first version of Tubular Bells, to become Virgin Records' first production. At this time I was living in London with my family, attending Barking Abbey Comprehensive School, studying for my O-levels. Yes folks, an Essex girl at heart (thanks to DW for this reference!). I remember being intrigued every time I entered one of my friends' houses and stepped into their tiny kitchens (small by our luxurious Australian standards): there was always chocolate or sweets lying around. To my shame, I can also remember taking a long time to realise that the people who lived in small council flats weren't just living there temporarily... It was the era of speckled, textured wallpaper; coarse shetland wool jumpers; the heyday of Steeleye Span and Genesis; and we were given the day off school to watch Princess Anne's wedding. Because I was exotically Australian, I got to hang out with some of the older A-level students (did we call them the lower 6th? quite possibly), and I remember being invited to someone's flat to listen to Tubular Bells when it first came out. I bought my own copy and played and played it.

This music has been sampled over and over, for the Exorcist, for Janet Jackson's Velvet Rope and some other track recently I can't recall. Oldfield didn't seem able to leave it alone, either. If you look it up on the iTunes library, it's worse than trying to sort out the manuscripts and versions of Piers Plowman.

As I listened today I thought about those small apartments as I cleaned up our comfortable house. I thought about Liz at Spinning Tumor who has just had to sell her house to pay for cancer treatment, and the difference that a half-way reasonable national health care system makes.

It's been a weekend where I haven't worked much, in line with my new resolution. So I read (pace P's Cat) one of the stories in Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver's new MUP Anthology of Colonial Australian Gothic Fiction, drawn to William Hay's "An Australian Rip Van Winkle" (after Carolyn Dinshaw's paper on the original story and medieval temporalities at NCS last year) and thought about the gothic haunting of the Australian landscape, and the relation between the medieval and the gothic, and the various translations of time and space that structure both those modes, in this hemisphere, and the other.

This afternoon it clouded over again, but we headed off on our bikes to ride along the Merri and then the Yarra, past ghostly river gums and steep cliffs, down to Dights Falls, where I remembered that last summer, about the time I bought my CD, a girl had been killed and left by this junction of the two rivers, not far from where Joel was playing cricket with the under 12s. There were still a few flowers and memorials left at the spot, and all I could think of was Raymond Carver's "So Much Water", Jindabyne, and Paul Kelly's "Everything's Turning to White" - another example of cultural translatio from the US to Australia? We then rode past the "Protectorate Station" where William Thomas in 1843 used to distribute rations and teach school and religious classes to Aboriginal people. For a brief history of this park and some old photographs, go here.

The last thread in this network of music and time was the episode of the British TV drama "Life on Mars" we watched. We missed the first few, but the premise seems to be that a policeman is injured and falls into a coma, but in his mind he is transported back to Manchester in 1973. In this episode, a man who worked as a caretaker in the newspaper building had taken the journalists hostage: a quick search of his small council flat showed he had medievalist delusions of heroism and chivalry: like a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, someone said.

Is this what happens when I give myself the day off from the computer? that threads and allusions, times and seasons come out to play like this?

Where were you in 1973? Or, for the young paduans who don't go back this far, what music *does* take you back like this?

*Update: June 21 was St Aloysius's day. Not that I expect the Christian year to map onto the seasonal one; in fact it's interesting to see how it doesn't, particularly. Or at least, not in this hemisphere.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Reports are In

It took all day yesterday, till about 6.00 p.m., for the traffic on the ARC's website to lighten up enough to let me on. All round the nation, eager scholars were trying to log on in order to start the torturous process of second-guessing the fate of their applications, remembering that these reports are only half the picture. As we did last year, we received four reports on our team project: three are strong, with only one or two little quibbles; the fourth seems to be written from a different disciplinary perspective...

I find I'm being rather coy about the content here: don't want to boast about the good things the reviewers say about the project, and don't want to tempt fate by criticising the fourth report. (Anyone in Arts at Melbourne who's interested, and who is going through this process, is welcome to contact me and I'll share reports and the rejoinder, when it's drafted.) Seems to me that the reports are substantially stronger, on balance, than last year, and IF this translates into higher scores, and IF we write a good rejoinder and IF the college of experts can see that (a) the application is stronger than last year and (b) the assessors overall agree that it is (one of them, who read it last year as well, even says so, which is fantastically helpful), then we are in with a good chance, given that we came so close last year.

But... there will be hundreds of applications all with similar claims, all clustered around the cut-off point, whatever it is. And stories are legion of people with good reports not getting grants, and people with mixed and even very critical reports being successful. We know that there is a high degree of uncertainty about this process, given that the written reports we see are really just advice to the College of Experts. It's just that the lead time is so very long. According to some schedules, you should start in July to write the application you submit in February and find out about in November, to start the research in the following January. That's a lead time of about eighteen months. For post-doctoral applications, this is pretty unrealistic.

If we get this grant, it would be just wonderful, and will give me and my collaborators the opportunity to do some really exciting work together, and with our international partner, and with the PhD students whose stipends we've applied for. If we don't, we'll have to face up to submitting it for the third time. And I will then have to decide whether I also press ahead with my individual application on public and popular culture in a manuscript era, whereas the only research I really want to focus on between now and over the summer to come is my Garter book.

It's just so important that we keep getting these grants, though, as funding for our Schools and Faculties increasingly depends on how many dollars we are able to raise for our research. On the latest proposal, the formula would be 50% on higher degree completions; 40% on research income; and 10% on publications. Sigh. I must admit it does seem as if Australian academics really do struggle under this system. We are well resourced in many ways (well, especially at the older and wealthier universities like mine), but it is sometimes hard not to look on with envy at colleagues in the US who don't have to put themselves through this annual mill.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Waiting for the Reports

This blog began in part to keep track of a grant application to the Australian Research Council. In the end, I didn't work on that application after I became ill, but in February I did re-submit a collaborative application that had come close to success the previous year. It is often said that one's best chance of ensuring success is any given year is to re-submit; we made quite a few changes to our scope and method, sharpened the application generally, and updated our track records, of course.

Today, the reports are supposed to be available on line. Actually, they were supposed to be on the ARC site last Friday, but a delay was announced; and at 1.30 this morning (according to the collaborative team member with by far the youngest children), they were still uploading them. And this morning it is so jammed I can't log on to the site at all.

Last year we had four reports (you can get up to six, or as few as none, if you are incredibly unlucky). Two were strong, but brief; two were more mixed but longer, so the rejoinder was difficult to write. Still, we made it into the top 10% of unfunded grants.

The system is a bit odd. We apply in March to one of several panels; the applications are then farmed out to both Ozreaders and "International" assessors. The former are paid ($30 per application!), and read up to 20 applications in their own area, or fields adjacent to their own; the latter aren't paid, and read fewer in their own specialist area. Most of them are Australians, too. The panel, or the "College of Experts" then divide them up and each has about a hundred to read and rank. The reports go to the applicants in June, but we don't get to see the percentage scores or rankings given to the various parts of the application, just the comments. We then write a "rejoinder" rebutting any criticism, offering further information and quoting the best parts of the best reports back to the panel (which is why it's nice if the good reports are long); and then the panel member may or may not adjust his or her ranking according to the reports and rejoinders. The panel then integrates its rankings, and then goes down the list adjusting the budget requested. In the end, these "Discovery" grants have about a 25% success rate.

So my day today, in between reading Hobsbawm and Ranger, The Invention of Tradition, and marking an honours thesis on Chekhov and Woolf, will be a series of attempts to log on to the ARC site and download the reports.

I'll also be thinking of the family of the courageous Brendan Keilar, who was shot and killed on the streets of Melbourne yesterday after going to the aid of a woman attacked by a bikie. And of a new aquaintance I've met so far only on email through my article in the Age, who's just last week learned that the tumour was cancerous, and who this week has just learned that there are shadows on the bone, too. A reminder that some reports are more devastating than others.

Monday, June 11, 2007

My Blog Goes Broadsheet

What an odd thing to open up the Sunday Age and find myself in it yesterday! Not that it was a surprise, of course, but it did still feel odd.

Amanda had asked me to write something about having breast cancer, and I decided to write about the Humanities Researcher blog. I can link to the online text here but unfortunately this is a garbled version. Several paragraphs and parts of paragraphs in the middle have been jumbled around, and various parts are in roman type that should be in italics. I'll see what I can do about getting this sorted out, or arranging some other kind of e-print access over the next few days.

Once I had written the essay, it was then time for the hilarious one-hour session with the photographer on Wednesday. I said come to the house, thinking a garden shot would be the thing, but he spent most of the time in my study (because that's where a blogger writes, of course), trying to balance the interior and exterior light on a Melbourne winter's day. In the end, they have used one of the very first shots he took, while I thought he was still taking light readings, and before we thought about rolling out the rug that is rolled up to protect it from the dust and grit of the building going on in the roof (note the scaffolding outside the window). In the paper the photograph has a rather nice sepia effect, but it still looks a bit odd to me. Oh well. I can count on the fingers of one hand the photographs of myself I like.

It's been fantastic, yesterday and today, to hear from people in the comments box and by email and by phone. Lovely voices from the past; colleagues and students; other cancer patients and carers.

We've also had a fairly sociable Queen's birthday weekend, which has meant talking about blogging with people who don't normally read or write them. At one point Geoff and I were discussing the difference between blogging and diaries. I like Maria's explanation ('like a journal... but public... on the internet...no, not a person! etc), but what an odd space a blog occupies, somewhere in between private and public. Writing about blogging in a newspaper, and quoting from the blog, was something else again, and represents yet another shift of space. I feel very protective of the blog entries that I quoted as part of the article (and perhaps this is one reason why it disturbs me that the typographic distinction between blog entry and essay isn't always clear in the online version). And now that I have blogged about publishing about blogging, have I closed the self-referential loop, or just started a spiral?

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Big Sickness, Little Sickness

As of this month, I am now officially back at work full-time. In one sense, this is pretty arbitrary, as academics work odd hours and cycles over weekends and "holidays" at the best of times; and over the last few months I've submitted a grant application, given two conference papers, eight lectures and done bits and pieces of other writing. But given that returning to regular work filled me with terror and anxiety just a few weeks ago, this week has been much less traumatic than I feared. On the other hand, I did come down with a head cold, so I only spent my first day back in the office today.

In line with my post-illness resolutions about looking after myself and not pushing myself beyond reasonable limits, I stayed home on Monday night instead of going to the Medieval Round Table, but I'm pleased to report that it didn't develop into a full cold. I think my new regime of a daily walk, more fruit and vegetables, less meat and pretty much only the one glass of red wine a day, plus a goodly amount of crystallised ginger as a "treat" must be doing good things to my immune system. And the evening primrose-oil-plus-fish-oil capsules that are supposed to help with the hot and cold flushes. Hmm, it's probably the fish oil, actually.

It was clear to me that I was back at work today for a whole day, rather than a flying visit, as I treated myself to lentil soup from the lebanese food stall in the union, and as I determined to re-arrange the furniture in my office. I'd always had the desk facing the windows, or at right-angles to them, but for the first time in my life I'm now going to sit behind the desk and face people as they come into the room, with the desk at right angles to the door in the opposite corner. I'd always thought it was more friendly to students not to sit behind a desk, but Claire, who helped me move my very rickety desk, says it's better feng shui this way, and that it's awkward for other people to come into the room, or walk past it, and see my back (I often have the door open when I'm in). It feels very grown-up to sit behind the desk. But from my new position, I can still look out the window and see the big plane trees. This also means I no longer look out on the university's enormous promotional banner "The Evolution Starts Here" strung across the bridge between the two towers of my building. This is a Good Thing.

When I'm in next week, I'm going to take in a plant or two; and perhaps buy a little carpet. Anyway, something to mark a difference between the old life at work and the new.

Right now, I have to finish my conference paper on Brian Helgeland and Bryce Courtenay, which is late because I've been writing a little piece on cancer and this very blog for The Sunday Age. Melbourne readers, you have been warned...

But how do other people sit in their offices? Behind the desk? Or with their back facing the door? Or with the desk at right angles to the door?

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Mother Lode of Emotion

Bet I wasn't the only woman sobbing in distress on hearing the news of the autistic teenager who'd gone missing at the Victoria market on Friday night. Sitting having breakfast with my partner and son, safe in the warmth of our domestic happiness and health, I was unable to choke back the sobs as I heard the mother plea for assistance in finding her son. A minute later, the news broke that the boy had been found, and my sobs turned to gasps of relief. My emotional responses were instant and dramatic, but the boy and the man in the room, while sympathetic, were silent. But I know I was not alone, because an hour later I heard an interview with the woman who found him. He had walked all the way out to Balwyn, I think it was, and she saw him in the street as she was helping her own child to get dressed. He asked if she knew his mother, and she said she would help him find her, but then broke up in her own tears as she told the story. I knew exactly how she felt.

Is this the heightened emotion of my chemically-induced menopause? or is it the generalised burden of womanhood? or just a mother thing?