Sunday, September 15, 2013

A Little Change of Address

I felt like I needed a little change of pace, so I've moved! This blog will remain up, but new posts will be found at:

Doc In Boots

I'm still setting up, but please do find me there!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Want to play a game?

Above is a sneak peek of one of my recent discoveries. Can you guess what it is? I can't share it yet, but hopefully will soon!

I've been collecting illustrations of French tales as part of my research for the book I'm writing. I've already shared some details about illustrations found in advertising here on the blog. Recently, and here's a clue regarding the above peek, I've been discovering 19th century board games based on the tales. In fact, I located a rather incredible game that features a host of tales. It's called Toovergodinnenspel. Do click the link - it looks... fantastic! I have no idea what the title means as it's in Dutch and the only Dutch I know is "welterusten." (It means "good night" and I only know this because when my Dutch friend wished me good night, I thought she said "belt the rooster.") The description of the game includes a list of all the tales included on the board. The tales are French and written in French. This is my particular favourite feature of the board.

Incidentally, the Marina Warner keynote at the Melbourne Writers' Festival earlier this week was wonderful. Belinda did a great little post on it, but I'll just add that it lived up to all expectations. I was lucky enough to see her give another keynote on the Arabian Nights at a conference a few years ago and I've since read her book, Stranger Magic, so it was kind of a delight to just sit back and relate to everything she was talking about. She told one of her favourite tales, the tale of Doctor Douban, which happens to be one of mine, too. She also showed illustrations of flying beds and I've become rather interested in representations of flight in fairy tales (seriously, check out Murat's "Le Sauvage," which features a chariot made from the skull of a giant the fairy had killed. The skull was painted glossy black and drawn through the air behind a couple of mastiffs with bat wings). But I might save that for a future post!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

What the money is for

We're in the final days of an election. Without getting political - well, maybe a little! - yesterday and today there's been much discussion of ARC funding and comments about what sort of research is funded, with the Liberal party claiming that there has been waste on "ridiculous" research grants. There's a piece on it here in the Conversation.

Aside from issues about who decides which research projects should be funded, as I talked to a few people, it occurred to me that a big problem generally is that people outside the university system don't actually understand where the money goes. There have been many misleading generalities about "millions of dollars," without specifying that the grants referred to are between $150-$600,000. That still sounds like a lot. Is it?

In many cases, that money will be divided among a team of academics at different universities. Sometimes it will fund someone who doesn't have a permanent position, enabling them to have an income while they do their work and contribute to the university during the period of the grant. It will also cover the project for three years or so (so for a $150,000 grant, that's only $50,000 a year). The budget, which will have been examined closely by the ARC itself, will cover such things as travel, costs involved in running conferences or workshops, research assistance, a PhD student or two, and occasionally some teaching relief.

While academics can often access travel funding, it seldom covers all travel expenses. In fact, usually it won't even cover air fare. Yes, academics often personally foot the bill to attend conferences overseas or to do research work that can't be done in their home city. ARC funding can be very helpful in providing the financial wherewithal to undertake a particularly large project where smaller grants just won't do the trick.

There are often limited funds available to run conferences and workshops or to purchase the equipment necessary, so for a big project, it takes pressure off School budgets if there's an ARC grant ready to go. It means, basically, that smaller projects can receive funding too, projects like the fairy tale salons we run at Monash.

Likewise, postdocs and HDR students benefit from doing research assistance work - they can develop their CVs, obtain valuable income, and have an opportunity to work beside experts. Academia is in many ways an apprenticeship, but one run on scholarships and research assistant positions. Not to mention, having research assistance or teaching relief takes pressure off academics trying to juggle teaching with their research. Believe me, it's difficult to maintain research output while maintaining a quality teaching programme and research really does feed into one's teaching, too. We don't just disappear to do our research because we don't value teaching. The new material I develop in my research goes straight into my teaching. That's why we're not all still teaching just the Grimms as the originators of fairy tale. ;-)

I'm really just sketching this out quickly, but hopefully people can begin to see that those millions of dollars are really about helping to support research within the academic system. No one is getting rich and no one is squirreled away in an ivory tower researching something terribly obscure for the sake of it. Trust me, we don't get a chance to do research just for the sake of it - we have to prove the value of our work every day and the ARC comes with strict expectations of viable outcomes.

I think in part this also comes back to how we think about the university system and research. Not all research has immediate relevance or a social/cash benefit. Not all research is about curing dementia or finding new ways to grow crops. Those things should be funded. Does that mean other research shouldn't? I'm always torn between the desire to justify such research and the desire to point out that most advancements in thinking and action are based on research that didn't have immediate relevance, but that helped to develop learning and knowledge. The Arts, in particular, can only do so much in providing practical solutions to problems - but the Arts can help us to think about those problems and thinking is the first step to a solution. If we can understand how attitudes are formed, what issues are evolving, what history teaches us... we can start supporting practical progress. Otherwise, who is really determining what is important and what isn't? What has value and what hasn't?

As a final note, ARC grant applications involve months of really stressful work just to put together and a very small percentage of applications are successful. What is ridiculous is not the research projects, but how little funding there really is available for research. 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Why Study Fairy Tale?

A friend on Facebook recently linked a New Yorker article, "Why Teach and Study English?" I did like Adam Gopnik's observation, "The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human. That’s enough." But I had to stop myself reading the comments section. I don't think anyone is ever happy with the justification for English Lit. Sometimes reading these kinds of articles puts me in an uneasy mood for the rest of the day.

After all, we can really only speak of our own experience. Why did I study English Lit.? Why do I teach it now?

Simple. I want to find out more. There are so many books and stories out there and so much to understand about how we engage with those books, why those books have been written, who the authors were, who the publishers and binders, editors and readers were, how our relationship to literature changes and why.... well, you get the idea. I'm curious. It was, appropriately enough, "Beauty and the Beast" that ultimately hooked me into the profession.

Suddenly, all the stories of Beauty and all the beasts spread out before me and I had to know more about them.

In class, students talk about loving books and that's important too. It's always fun to teach Jasper Fforde, whose Thursday Next novels are a book addict's ultimate fantasy series. But I've heard from students who went on into publishing and teaching etc who tell me about how they've utilised what they learned about children's literature, fantasy and fairy tale and sometimes ask for more. And that's the difference. It's not just about loving books and wanting to read books - it's about wanting to know more. It's about having more questions than 'who was your favourite character?'

Why teach and study English Lit.? Because we're curious. We don't want to just READ all the books and discuss them, we want to know more about them - about where they came from, who wrote them, why they were written, how they survived the centuries, what influenced them, what they've influenced... again, you get the idea. The impact of all this curiosity can be as simple as encouraging people to read new picture books to children or as wide-reaching as challenging the cultural influence of the Grimms (okay, the latter is a personal, pet project!). After all, in the university, we're teaching the editors, the journalists, the authors, the librarians, the teachers etc of the future. We're helping to tickle their curiosity so they'll seek out new ideas, challenge old preconceptions or simply tell a friend that there's this weird old Italian story about a woman who thinks skinning herself will make her young and isn't it odd how that still resonates into today's culture of botox and chemical face peels?

One of the most entertaining aspects of my current research is realising how so many of our contemporary obsessions were obsessed about long ago in story. I still meet people who think fashion is something that has only recently evolved. So I tell them about the time the Devil married Silvia and she harassed him for new clothes every year as her old ones went out of fashion. It's a sixteenth century tale.

I'm currently researching fashion magazines and I'm learning so much about how they changed the relationships between women and the way women went about their lives. They were filled with such promise of liberating their readers... I keep wondering what happened?

Speaking of that research, it's back to the book pile with me. So much more to learn!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Fairy Tale Salon

The Monash Fairy Tale Salon now has its own blog! You can find it here. Belinda has done a terrific job putting it all together - we won't mention that photo from a past event where I appear to be wearing a mob cap! It was all very academic, I assure you.

I'm currently a little buried in a big research project and a few smaller projects. The one bright spot has been a chance to peruse 19th century women's fashion and literary magazines.

"A modern Cinderella - a princess bewitched, and as charming a piece of humanity as ever was born in palace or hall, and doomed by those cruel goddesses, the Parcae, to poverty and rags."

"Really, my fastidious son, have you found at last your ideal of beauty in a miserable fisherman's dwelling like this?"