Thursday, 15 December 2016

Call me a "young old" scholar: notes on the AHRC ECR conference "Past Matters, Research Futures" (12-13 December 2016, Royal Society, London)

(conference booklet)

I’m an early career researcher who is about to become a “normal” researcher (whatever that means) in exactly 10 months’ time. This makes me a “young old” scholar of sorts (sigh). Over the past four months I started to feel uneasy about being a young old scholar. It didn’t bother me much during the summer, when I still thought of myself as kind of young young. But, after spending Term 1 trying to juggle a heavy teaching load with the urgent, but ultimately impossible, task of finishing my pending AHRC ECR grant application, it suddenly hit me that – shock horror – I was getting young old, and that this was my last chance to take advantage of the ring fenced money kept aside for UK-based ECRs’ researchers, young and old alike.

Tick. Tick. Tick. I hear it distinctly when I’m in bed at night.

So I was very glad to find out that the organisers of the conference “Past Matters, Research Futures” not only accepted the panel proposal on “Consuming Authenticities: Time, Place and the Past in ‘Authentic’ foods and drinks” that my lovely group of colleagues Deborah, Emma-Jayne, Anna and I put together, but also made a point of dedicating a significant amount of conference time to this and other matters that are so much in the minds and hearts of young young, young old, and old young (explanation below) researchers.

(panel discussion on "Consuming Authenticities")

The event was a joint endeavour between the AHRC and the Cluster of Excellence LABEX, and it brought together UK and French scholars as well as non-academic partners to address issues that are of common interest to both the Care for the Future theme and the LABEX Pasts in Present: History, Heritage, Memory. The conference, organised mainly by ECRs, focused not only on research issues but also on two aspects that are often neglected in conference discussions: the particular challenges of both early career research and partnership working.

Yes, partnership working. Tick. Tick. Tick.

I confess I do not (yet) master the art of fruitful, joyful, happily-ever-after partnerships with non-academic people. I have been rejected a few times. I mean, my proposals have been rejected a few times. The first time it happened I wanted to close down my inbox and run away to Dartmoor. The second time it happened, I decided to say thank you and move on to the next institution on my list. The third time it happened I took a step back and thought of proposing a counter offer. I am still thinking, and, hey, who knows, maybe it will bear fruits, or not.

(Keep reading my blog to find out.)

Anyway, one thing I wanted to write here is that attending this conference has given me the courage and inspiration to really think harder about creative ways of nurturing the contacts that I have been lucky enough to gather as a young young researcher, as they may assist me in my young old short life. I listened in complete awe to the presentation of Katharina Zinn, an Egyptologist from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, Lampeter, who told us – with a smile –about the advantages of not having funding in the initial stages of your project. She started a cooperative project with a local Museum, after discovering a number of Egyptian artefacts hidden away in the basement of the Museum (one was a headless statue, one was a wooden beard, another was the tiniest plate). Her small huge discoveries led her to bring these objects back to life via exhibitions, story-telling and even a “Museum of Lies”! Who wouldn’t be inspired by this stuff?

(coffee break)

I was also intrigued by the presentation of a film artwork, The Ten Commandments, which was commissioned by the AHRC-funded project “Re-configuring Ruins: Materialities, Processes and Mediations,” in conjunction with the Museum of London Archaeology and NewBridge Project Newcastle. My notes of this panel read:

“What turns a ruin into a ruin? Guadalupe and the American flag. (Look, the Portuguese flag too! Religious processions with the Portuguese flag in the streets of Guadalupe, cool!) The Ten Commandments, ruins of a movie, montage of images and sound. There are echoes and double images. Splitting the screen into three breaks down the linearity of the story into three viewpoints that sometimes overlap and unite. Generative remembrance: during the process of recollection, remembering not what happened but something else. (Not sure what this means.) Ruina: social downfall and ruination. Duality of the ruin. Social relationships in the real world. Embodied action. Structured narrative, gaps and silences and black screens in the movie. Absences. Creative destruction of capitalism. Curated heritage ruins. Surface and depth. Surface: small town America, the sand dunes, four-by-four sand driving, driving the sand like surfers; Depth: religion, the immigrants. Memories, legacies meshed together in the everyday. Co-creation. There was an open call for artists (commission process): the artist had to create a piece on a given topic and would have freedom. There were no questionnaires as they wanted to avoid using art: they wanted art to speak for itself and give full freedom to the artists. (not convinced by the group’s premise that not wanting to “use” art was something inherently positive.)”

The conference booklet detailed an ambitious and innovative list of potential outputs and resources. The venue included a nice BREAK/OUT room, which provided delegates with a quiet space for calling home, unwinding, or writing and filming responses, ideas and resources for future gatherings. I also enjoyed the way in which day one ended: with a “Question Time” – style panel discussion on current priorities in research and the world of heritage. Some of the questions that were thrown at the panellists were:
1.    How can the study of heritage relate to or inform global challenges and sustainable development goals?
2.    What advice would you give to ECRs working within the heritage sector wanting to maintain a research profile?
3.    What do you suggest is done with heritage assets that we must let go of?

The conference ended with many what nexts. I agree with Prof Andrew Thompson, who stressed that the role of early-career researchers is changing, that it is an ambiguous place to inhabit, not only if you are young old like me, but also if you are old young (if you had a previous life outside academia and are trying to balance the two worlds in your life). And yes, the ivory tower image does not seem to apply any longer, at least not to most people participating in this conference, and certainly not to most ECRs out there.


Except, there’s something about the ivory tower metaphor that I want to preserve as a small personal intangible heritage for the future of my own. Something about blue skies and utopian meanderings that come with and around the word “tower,” which are far from impacts and statistics and goal-oriented thinking, and far too from simple writing and clear sentences. Closer, much closer to ascending stairs and the lightest, deepest free fall. I don’t want to let go of that just yet. Call me young old.

"The complexity of things - the things within things - just seems to be endless. I mean nothing is easy, nothing is simple" (Alice Munro)


Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Thoughts about Brexit and political correctness - Exeter Stands Together Event II

Since Brexit, there has been an increase in racist attacks, violence, intimidation and calls of “Go Home”directed at minorities in the UK. But surely what we call an “increase” in this case is not really an increase, but the eruption of something that was already there to begin with. Brexit has allowed some of us to abandon polite exchange or just plain silence and to replace it with the repressed: abuse, hatred, racism, sexism, and fear of the other. This wasn’t something new developing overnight as the votes were being counted. It was already there, lodged in them, in us.

Brexit has made me consider political correctness as a form of tacit control that does not necessarily allow us to overcome racism, sexism and hatred, because it does not lead to the kind of open, shame-free dialogue that enables unheard voices to rise up in protest and provocation, and for actual learning to take place. Political correctness, or what the Marxist theorist and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek calls “enforced niceties,” but which could also be called a protective shield, works very much like a disappearing act: what disappears and retrenches is white privilege, racism and sexism. Brexit has made me consider the possibility that the liberal tolerance that is the result of our world of enforced niceties may not be the best or most productive way of ending discrimination and violence. On the contrary, liberal tolerance can sometimes in fact lead to, and reinforce, zero tolerance of the other, because what we want from the other is that he or she abides by the enforced niceties or pretences created and patrolled by us. In other words, we want the other to be by our side, but only if he or she is deprived of his or her “otherness.” The banning of all problematic language, problematic clothing, controversial jokes, satire around certain topics at home, in the media, at the university, in political debates, in events such as this one, usually results in the enforcement of love, respect and empathy for the other. Whether or not this enforcement actually brings us closer together through dialogue and debate is something I’m not sure about.

  • How can we take responsibility for the divisiness of politics that we are witnessing?
  • Should we be sacrificing everything that sounds racist and sexist?
  • And doesn’t this sacrifice betray a retreat from disturbing the actual causes of racism and sexism? Doesn’t this betray a refusal to go the bottom of the question?
  • Are appeals to democracy a way of avoiding conflict?
  • Are we too afraid to risk divisiveness?
  • What do we really mean by inclusion?

Thoughts about Brexit and privilege - Exeter Stand Together Event I

I am a Portuguese migrant.
But to say this is not enough. Let me try again. I am a Portuguese migrant who lives in a pretty comfortable situation in the UK. I am not a jobless migrant. I have a stable job that can’t be performed by someone who does not speak Portuguese, which means that I am not seen as a direct threat either to England’s self-defined identity or to most jobless British people. I have never been a victim of explicit racial abuse, mainly because I am white enough, wealthy and healthy enough, heterosexual enough, young enough, and I don’t stand out too much from the crowd, or speak too differently. People don’t stop me in the street to ask if they can touch my hair or where I come from, and whenever I search for a new place to rent, I am looked upon favourably by the landlord simply because of my university email account.

To say that I am a Portuguese migrant is, therefore, not enough to explain my situation of privilege. As a trilingual, highly educated white woman, working, playing and paying her taxes in this country, I am what some call a “wanted migrant.” My body is not entirely out of place. This needs to be said, because a migrant is rarely thought of as white, and white people tend not to be seen as migrants. They can be expatriates, guests, tourists, or professionals who fancied a change of scenery, but not migrants. Migrants are defined by skin colour, discrimination, and, to be sure,

I did not die or drown at the border, trying to get in.

Instead, I woke up one fine morning in 1986, to find out that I was already inside the barbed-wire fence. I was 6 when Portugal, without the help of a national referendum, became a EU member. This allowed me to arrive in this island by plane, and under the life-changing, eye-opening, wonderful European Erasmus Exchange Programme, back in 2000. I didn’t know it at the time, but that year spent in Manchester, funded partly by the EU, and mostly by the Bank of Mum and Dad, would change my life dramatically. Although I had studied English in Portugal for two years, I spent the first three months of my Erasmus life unable to understand a word of Mancunian, and wondering why bus drivers loved me so much, with their “Hello, luv” greetings. I came back to Portugal at the end of 2001 to finish my Coimbra degree, and I eventually found a job as a teacher. I enjoyed teaching, but I was restless and I wanted to carry on studying, so by 2004 I was back in Manchester, this time with the emotional/professional support of my supervisor and friend Hilary Owen, and the financial help of the Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia, the national funding agency under the responsibility of the Portuguese Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education, who would pay for my MA and PhD fees, accommodation and travel expenses in the next five years. The Foundation’s budget encompasses funds from the Portuguese state budget and from European structural funds, so once again I found myself living in the UK because of Portugal’s EU membership.

Although I am the embodiment of a generation of ambitious, cosmopolitan Portuguese who grew up flirting with the idea that we were all European, I do not think that the EU is perfect. Portugal exited its bailout programme in May 2014, but the country will continue to face the consequences of aggressive austerity measures imposed by Europe for years to come. Angela Merkel’s official response to the migrant crisis is for EU members to pull together and provide shelter for people fleeing war or persecution, but most members have failed to do this, building anti-immigrant fences instead.

Having said that, even Portuguese film director Miguel Gomes latest film trilogy, Arabian Nights, which was produced as a response to the austerity measures forced on Portugal by the EU, even that trilogy is a European co-production, with money supplied by France and Germany!

So, in my experience, the advantages of standing together truly exceed the disadvantages. I have benefitted tremendously from living in this country, and that is the reason why I am still here and not elsewhere. I cannot stress enough the importance of the kind of support I have received in England in terms of education and training, career advancement opportunities, and above all, emotional bonds, all of which have allowed me to grow and thrive in a foreign country.

But I also like to think that the UK has benefitted, if only modestly, from my partly Portuguese-funded, partly EU-funded immigrant life. As a university lecturer I am committed to making diversity a priority, not only in terms of the courses I offer, but also in terms of going out of my way to pass on to my mostly British students the notion that striving for inclusion and balance will lead to empowering and real changes in their lives. As a researcher, I spend an increasing number of days thinking about how to connect with the local communities, how to democratise access to knowledge, how to bring diverse voices and experiences into my research.

Brexit is not the result that universities hoped for. I am particularly concerned about what it will mean in terms of:

  •  Racial abuse: the referendum has given the minority an excuse to voice hatred and anti-immigration discontent. We have just heard of an increase in ugly incidents such as the case of Fátima Lourenço, a Portuguese migrant living in South London, who has suddenly become a target for racist attacks in the wake of Brexit  (
  • What will Brexit mean for migrants less privileged than myself? How will this impact on the number of students interested in learning languages?

 Furthermore, I am worried about what Brexit will mean:
  • In terms of free movement for students currently on, or preparing for, their year abroad, and especially those on the Erasmus programme and other educational exchange programmes

Im worried about what Brexit will mean:
  • In terms of free movement for EU colleagues and students: will EU staff and students be able to continue studying at British universities?
I am worried about issues such as:
  • EU student fees
  • the future of EU research grants

Even though we all know that nothing will change overnight, there is a lot of uncertainty and anxiety. Brexit provides a real challenge for Modern Languages in particular, since this is an area that logically benefits from a healthy and open relationship between the UK and European countries, from collaboration and the free travelling of people and ideas. Pulling out of the EU is not going to make any of this any easier.

But right now, I think it is time that we stand together, take a deep breath and get ready to start re-shaping our relationship with Europe. I want to speak out for responding well and engaging fully. Other readings are possible that resist the impulse to be hateful, ungenerous and bitter. We need to find a new language to deconstruct our privilege and start crossing borders. This referendum has given us the opportunity of a lifetime: to think of new ways of opening up to Europe, opening up to the other, and ultimately to ourselves. And what better way to prepare for this than start learning a new language?

I want to end by quoting a book that I discovered when I first moved to Manchester 16 years ago, when I first experienced the life of a migrant. The book is by Gloria Anzaldua’s book, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, about her life growing up on the Mexican-Texas border:

“The world is not a safe place to live in. We shiver in separate cells in enclosed cities,  shoulders hunched,  barely  keeping the panic  below  the  surface  of the  skin,  daily drinking shock  along with our morning coffee, fearing the torches being set to our buildings, the attacks in the streets. Shutting down. (...)

Alienated from her mother culture, ‘alien” in the dominant culture, the woman of color does not feel safe within the inner life of her Self. Petrified, she can’t respond, her face caught between los intersticios, the spaces between the different worlds she inhabits.

The ability to respond is what is meant by responsibility.”

Thank you for listening.